Bayes and Nice People
What pundits should fear most about getting things wrong isn't the scorn and gloating that other writers will pour on them after their error has been revealed. Its the consequences. Marty Peretz of the New Republic, who was sympathetic to Barack Obama in 2008, now writes that Obama’s Middle East Is in Tatters, Utter Tatters. That is the title of his article, by the way. What follows is, if anything, more savage:
It is not actually his region. Still, with the arrogance that is so characteristic of his behavior in matters he knows little about (which is a lot of matters), he entered the region as if in a triumphal march. But it wasn’t the power and sway of America that he was representing in Turkey and in Egypt. For the fact is that he has not much respect for these representations of the United States. In the mind of President Obama, in fact, these are what have wreaked havoc with our country’s standing in the world. So what -- or, rather, who -- does he exemplify in his contacts with foreign countries and their leaders? His exultancy gives the answer away. It is he himself, lui-mème.
Which is to say Obama started all wrong, got it all wrong. Now everyone, especially Israel, will be lucky to simply get out of the impending crash in one piece. But Peretz isn't the only one who has felt the scales dropping from his eyes. There's David Brooks, who writes, "I’m a sap, a specific kind of sap. I’m an Obama Sap."
That is the first sentence of his new article. The rest amplifies the theme:
Yes, I’m a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.
But remember, I’m a sap.
Yes David, we got that the first time around. But let's move on to the distaff side, to Peggy Noonan. She writes about how the president "has made big mistakes since the beginning of his presidency and has been pounded since the beginning of his presidency." Once an admirer of Obama, she too now sees that he has not the Midas touch but the Mierdas one:
His baseline political assumptions have proved incorrect, his calculations have turned out to be erroneous, his big decisions have turned to dust. He thought they’d love him for health care, that it was a down payment on greatness. But the left sees it as a sellout, the center as a vaguely threatening mess, the right as a rallying cry. He thought the stimulus would turn the economy around. It didn’t. He thought there would be a natural bounce-back a year ago, with “Recovery Summer.” There wasn’t. He thought a toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball struggle over the debt ceiling would enhance his reputation. The public would see through to the dark heart of Republican hackery and come to recognize the higher wisdom of his approach. That didn’t happen either.
Nothing worked! And nothing’s going to work. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but he’s got the reverse Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to -- well, unsatisfying outcomes.
Peretz, Brooks, and Noonan are intelligent, well-educated people. Nobody has seriously suggested they are either perverse or evil. Now they see the truth. But once upon a time they didn't have a clue. So the disturbing question is: how did they get it wrong? Setting aside for a moment the fact that someone slipped past, the most pressing problem is to determine why the system failed. Because as someone at Andrew Klavan's blog said, "the republic can survive a Barack Obama; it is far less likely to survive the multitude of fools who made him president."
The fact they are now getting it right is a good thing. John Maynard Keynes once wrote, "when the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?" But Keynes was not not quite correct. What he should have said was that "when new information comes to light, I change my opinion about what I saw. What do you do, sir?"
The first person to rigorously understand how this process worked was Thomas Bayes.
Bayes argued that we should always revise our initial estimates of what we are up against by what we discover along the way. Militaries have done this for millenia. They send patrols out to see what they can see and depending on what they run up against they revise their estimate of the enemy order of battle.
What is less appreciated is the fact that prior knowledge can also come from collateral sources, or in the form of experience. There's a book on Bayes' theory sold on Amazon called The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy. One reviewer gives the following example of how experience can help us make a better judgment of a situation:
I observe someone climbing out a window in the middle of the night carrying a bag over the shoulder and running away. Question: is it likely that this person is a burgler? A traditional statistical analysis can give no answer, because no hypothesis can be rejected with observation of only one case. A Bayesian analysis, however, can use prior information (e.g., the prior knowledge that people rarely climb out windows in the middle of the night) to yield both a technically correct answer and one that obviously is in better, common-sense alignment with the kinds of judgments we all make.
Now in 2008 nobody had direct experience with Barack Obama. He was the man from nowhere. We had no a posteriori way of judging him. But in 2008 a very large number of people saw Barack Obama stumping on the stage. Interestingly, many saw him exactly as Peretz, Brooks, and Noonan did: a fairly competent politician who might be left of center but whose policies and likely actions would fall well within the mainstream and bounds of rational behavior. But others saw him right off as a huckster. Neither group could quite explain to the other why what they saw was the "true Obama." Why did two different sets of people see the same Obama images and come to different conclusions?
The reason I think is prior collateral information, or experience. It would be interesting to study whether the same group of people who tended to view Barack Obama unfavorably in 2008 also saw John Edwards as a sharper. There was something about Edwards' hair, the unnatural emphasis with which he delivered his messages, some oleaginous quality that hung about him that, like the burglar example in the Amazon review, stirred memories of something unpleasant in the viewer.
But these unpleasant memories were largely absent in middle class, college educated, white America. These were nice people. They didn't routinely associate with the con-men, hucksters, pawnshop brokers, and street corner grifters. To them the perfect hair, the nice suit, and the emphatic speech were simply proof of good personal grooming and culture. But to others these very same things were too clever by half. And just as the sight of a man climbing out of the window with a bag at night would arouse no suspicions in persons unfamiliar with burglars, neither would Obama's papered over resume ring any alarm bells in people prepared to think the best of everyone.
Given the paucity of investigative information on Obama, given his near absolute lack of a substantial track record, it was natural for Peretz, Brooks, and Noonan to be taken for a ride. Not because they were dumb, but because they were "quality" people.
Now the quality people can see certain kinds of truth, because they are familiar with the sort of data that now alarms them. Now that they can observe the betrayal of Israel, the lunacy of Obamanomics, and the erratic management, the full magnitude of their error becomes apparent. But they didn't see it at the outset; lurking on the edge of his expression as he campaigned, nor in the little niggling inconsistencies the media was determined to ignore. Now the problems are as big as life: upheaval in the Middle East, the bankruptcy of the country, the scandals of the administration. Now they can use the Bayesian. Perhaps a little late, but better than never. "Welcome back to the fight, Rick. This time we win."
But there's one last thing that nice people don't know. It is that hucksters aren't confined by the same boundaries they assume everyone else is contained by. They are capable not only of sucker-punching you, but of exceeding limits you never thought could be transgressed. Grifters are in some sense not part of the same civilization that Peretz, Brooks, and Noonan inhabit. Maybe they don't believe this yet. But they will. They will.