Understanding the Iowa Caucus Cock-Up

I was a philosophy major as an undergrad. Philosophy as a college major gets a fair bit of abuse, a lot of it deserved, but as a topic or an area of interest, it's actually very valuable.

Being a philosophy major taught me two things in particular: thinking — serious, useful thinking — is a learned skill, and thinking is hard. As a significant learned skill of substance, it's too much for one story in PJ. Still, there are some useful points we can note as they come up.

Today's kerfuffle — or at least one of today's kerfuffles — comes up as the whole story of the Iowa caucus comes clearer.

So here's a little rule: if you find yourself trying to think two contradictory thoughts, and you believe them both, you're not really thinking at all.

For example, a contradictory thought I've seen a lot in the last 36 hours:

The Secret Masters of the Democrat National Committee, supervillains that they are, paid tens of thousands of dollars to build an app to transmit votes in the Iowa Caucus; the height of their perfidious scheme was spending that money on an app that could have been built by a talented twelve-year-old, and yet filled its diaper as soon as anyone tried to use it.

If you've watched many movie thrillers or Bond films, you've seen a whole lot of examples of this: the supervillain who is both super-smart, and yet comes up with an idiot plan. You see it a lot in politics as well: the notion that George W. Bush was both semi-literate and a functional moron, and a super-strategerist; or the idea that Trump is too dumb to get out of his own way but still keeps winning out over the cognoscenti.

So, let me propose a few useful heuristics, rules of thumb that will make things clearer. Oh, and I make no claim that these are in any way original. They're just useful.

Stupidity is a more likely explanation than malice.

There are several variants of this, called "Hanlon's Razor" (or "Heinlein's," noting a similarity to something in a Robert A Heinlein story "Logic of Empire.") But whatever it's called, it's a useful rule of thumb.

The truth is that like serious thought, actual malice is hard. Stupidity, however, is easy.

Given multiple hypotheses, prefer the simplest.

This is called Occam's Razor, or the Law of Parsimony, and although it's not stated exactly what William of Occam originally stated, and it's also not a law per se, it's still pretty useful.

In science in particular, when trying to find a scientific explanation for a bunch of observations, you can always add additional conditions to a hypothesis to explain why your proposal wasn't falsified by mere observation. So if you have two possible explanations for some set of observations, the one that requires the fewest assumptions is probably the best one.

The Iowa Caucus Cock-Up

The Iowa Caucus app, as I wrote recently, was not actually a very complicated project. All it needed to do was successfully identify and authenticate the precinct chair who was responsible for collecting and transferring the delegate counts for each district, along with the number of people those delegates represented. The actual rules for how the caucus proceeds are arcane and complicated, and it turns out that the way delegates are actually allocated has more complicated rules than you might think, but once it's all done, you're transmitting at most about 20 relatively small numbers, and that's all the app was supposed to do.

What actually happened was that the app was distributed to the precinct chairs, at which point it was discovered that:

  • it wasn't actually a signed and verified app that could be installed through normal channels. Instead, it had to be installed using TestFlight and TestFairy, developer tools that allow developers to get around the security restrictions on production apps. Apparently, at least a quarter of the precinct chairs were unable to install it.
  • Many of the precinct chairs who did get it installed then were unable to successfully log in through the complicated — and therefore super-secure — authentication scheme, which required entering several multi-digit random numbers, each in the right field.
  • For those happy few who managed to struggle through the escape-room security, it turned out that at the back end the data couldn't then be transferred to the actual Iowa Democrats' actual data-processing system to be correctly recorded.

The favored explanation among the conspiracy-minded is that this was all part of a Machiavellian scheme on the part of the people of Shadow LLC, their parent ACRONYM, and their major funder George Soros to conceal the real results and ensure that their favored candidate, "Anybody but Bernie," won. Or, alternately, that Mayor Pete Unspellable was behind it so he could claim victory no matter what the votes were.

Considered against these two rules, these explanations have some problems that come down to this: they demand a covert conspiracy that is both so crafty as to get control of this process so they could surreptitiously alter the delegate counts in a relatively small state to serve their malign purposes, and that they are so incompetent that their chosen approach was to build an app that's not only not as complicated as some of the toys that came in Cracker Jacks, but then fails visibly, disasterously, and hilariously.

Neither of these rules is absolute, a law of reasoning like "if p then q; p; therefore q." They're both heuristics, approaches that aren't guaranteed to be correct but that lead practically to acceptable answers most of the time.

It's always possible that some wizardly Thought Admiral is playing multi-dimensional chess with sufficient dimensions that we mere mortals can't see it. (But Hillary? Julian Castro? Buttigieg? Seriously?)

Accepting that hypothesis depends, first of all, on the assumption that there is some wizard behind it who is impossibly smarter than the rest of us. (Hillary? Julian Castro? Buttigieg? Seriously?)

And second, that the app failing visibly, disastrously, and hilariously is somehow to their advantage. (An open demonstration of incompetence and possible graft? Seriously?)

Somehow, I think stupidity much more likely.