Allegedly Unique Events

One common response to yesterday’s post, What is the Probability of a Nuclear War?, was to claim that probability cannot be assigned to “unique” events. That’s an odd response. Do such respondents really believe that the probability of a nuclear war was not higher during the Cuban Missile Crisis than immediately afterwards when a hotline was established and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed?

Claiming that probability cannot be assigned to unique events seems more like an excuse to ignore best estimates than a credible epistemic position. Moreover, the claim that probability cannot be assigned to “unique” events is testable, as Phillip Tetlock points out in an excellent 80,000 Hours Podcast with Robert Wiblin.

I mean, you take that objection, which you hear repeatedly from extremely smart people that these events are unique and you can’t put probabilities on them, you take that objection and you say, “Okay, let’s take all the events that the smart people say are unique and let’s put them in a set and let’s call that set allegedly unique events. Now let’s see if people can make forecasts within that set of allegedly unique events and if they can, if they can make meaningful probability judgments of these allegedly unique events, maybe the allegedly unique events aren’t so unique after all, maybe there is some recurrence component.” And that is indeed the finding that when you take the set of allegedly unique events, hundreds of allegedly unique events, you find that the best forecasters make pretty well calibrated forecasts fairly reliably over time and don’t regress too much toward the mean.

In other words, since an allegedly unique event either happens or it doesn’t it is difficult to claim that any probability estimate was better than another but when we look at many forecasts each of an allegedly unique event what you find is that some people get more of them right than others. Moreover, the individuals who get more events right approach these questions using a set of techniques and tools that can be replicated and used to improve other forecasters. Here’s a summary from Mellers, Tetlock, Baker, Friedman and Zeckhauser:

In recent years, IARPA (the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity), the research wing of the U.S. Intelligence Community, has attempted to learn how to better predict the likelihoods of unique events. From 2011 to 2015, IARPA sponsored a project called ACE, comprising four massive geopolitical forecasting tournaments conducted over the span of four years. The goal of ACE was to discover the best possible ways of eliciting beliefs from crowds and optimally aggregating them. Questions ranged from pandemics and global leadership changes to international negotiations and economic shifts. An example question ,released on September 9, 2011, asked, “Who will be inaugurated as President of Russia in 2012?”…The Good Judgment Project studied over a million forecasts provided by thousands of volunteers who attached numerical probabilities to such events (Mellers, Ungar, Baron, Ramos, Gurcay, et al., 2014; Tetlock, Mellers, Rohrbaugh, & Chen, 2014).

In the ACE tournaments, IARPA defined predictive success using a metric called the Brier scoring rule (the squared deviation between forecasts and outcomes,where outcomes are 0 and 1 for the non-occurrence and occurrence of events, respectively; Brier, 1950). Consider the question, “Will Bashar al-Assad be ousted from Syria’s presidency by the end of 2016?” Outcomes were binary; Assad either stays or he is ousted. Suppose a forecaster predicts that Assad has a 60% chance of staying and a 40% chance of being ousted. If, at the end of 2016, Assad remains in power, the participant’s Brier score would be [(1-.60)^2 + (0-.40)^2] = 0.16. If Assad is ousted, the forecaster’s score is [(0 -.60)^2 + (1 -.40)^2] = 0.36. With Brier scores, lower values are better, and zero is a perfect score.

…The Good Judgment Project won the ACE tournaments by a wide margin each year by being faster than the competition at finding ways to push probabilities toward 0 for things that did not happen and toward 1 for things that did happen. Five drivers of accuracy accounted for Good Judgment’s success.They were identifying, training, teaming, and tracking good forecasters, as well as optimally aggregating predictions. (Mellers, et al., 2014; Mellers, Mellers, Stone, Atanasov, Rohrbaugh, Metz, et al., 2015a; Mellers, Stone, Murray, Minster, Rohrbaugh, et al., 2015b).

Dining out as cultural trade

By Joel Waldfogel, here is the abstract:

Perceptions of Anglo-American dominance in movie and music trade motivate restrictions on cultural trade. Yet, the market for another cultural good, food at restaurants, is roughly ten times larger than the markets for music and film. Using TripAdvisor data on restaurant cuisines, along with Euromonitor data on overall and fast food expenditure, this paper calculates implicit trade patterns in global cuisines for 52 destination countries. We obtain three major results. First, the pattern of cuisine trade resembles the “gravity” patterns in physically traded products. Second, after accounting gravity factors, the most popular cuisines are Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and American. Third, excluding fast food, the largest net exporters of their cuisines are the Italians and the Japanese, while the largest net importers are the US – with a 2017 deficit of over $130 billion – followed by Brazil, China, and the UK. With fast food included, the US deficit shrinks to $55 billion but remains the largest net importer along with China and, to a lesser extent, the UK and Brazil. Cuisine trade patterns appear to run starkly counter to the audiovisual patterns that have motivated concern about Anglo-American cultural dominance.

For the pointer I thank John Alcorn.

Housing zoning reform in Oregon

After a dramatic false start, the Oregon Senate on Sunday gave final legislative approval to a bill that would effectively eliminate single-family zoning in large Oregon cities.

House Bill 2001 passed in a 17-9 vote. It now heads to Gov. Kate Brown desk to be signed into law.

It will allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and “cottage clusters” on land previously reserved for single family houses in cities with more than 25,000 residents, as well as smaller cities in the Portland metro area. Cities with at least 10,000 residents would be required to allow duplexes in single-family zones.

Here is more by Elliott Njus, via Jan Fure and several other MR readers.  Next up perhaps is this

Monday assorted links

What is the Probability of a Nuclear War?

I agree with Tyler who wrote recently that “the risk of nuclear war remains the world’s No. 1 problem, even if that risk does not seem so pressing on any particular day.”

The probability of a nuclear war is inherently difficult to predict but what strikes me in this careful survey by Luisa Rodriguez for the Effective Altruism Forum is how much higher all the expert predictions and model forecasts are compared to what we would like them to be. Keep in mind that the following are annualized probabilities. For a child born today (say 75 year life expectancy) these probabilities (.0117) suggest that the chance of a nuclear war in their lifetime is nearly 60%, (1-(1-.0117)^75). At an annualized probability of .009 which is the probability from accident analysis it’s approximately 50%. See Rodriguez and also Shlosser’s Command and Control on the frightening number of near misses including one nuclear weapon dropped on North Carolina.

These lifetime numbers don’t strike me as crazy, just crazy high. Here is Rodriguez summarizing:

If we aggregate historical evidence, the views of experts and predictions made by forecasters, we can start to get a rough picture of how probable a nuclear war might be.[8] We shouldn’t put too much weight on these estimates, as each of the data points feeding into those estimates come with serious limitations. But based on the evidence presented above, we might think that there’s about a 1.17% chance of nuclear war each year and that the chances of a US-Russia nuclear war may be in the ballpark of 0.39% per year.

Addendum: A number of people in the comments mention that the probabilities are not independent. Of course, but that doesn’t make the total probability calculation smaller, it could be larger.

Mormon no more?

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

The church-affiliated publishing house, Deseret Book, has been phasing out or renaming titles that used the word Mormon, prompting authors to scramble to rename their books and figure out new marketing plans — ones that don’t require the use of internet search terms that are 11 syllables long.

The shift became impossible to ignore when the church’s iconic musical organization announced in October that it would no longer be known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

All of this has left adherents with a bit of whiplash, especially following the church’s 2011 “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign, in which leaders went all in by placing ads on buses and billboards in New York’s Times Square and plastering the internet with profiles of tens of thousands of Mormons.

Some members have felt relief and a new optimism about broader inclusion in American society.

Viewing this strictly as an outsider, I see a benefit in keeping American religions as relatively distinct, rather than more coordinated.  The distinctly LDS approaches to poverty and missions, might have been less likely to evolve had the Church been closer to mainstream American Protestantism in earlier times.  Here is the full NYT story.

My contrarian, eccentric take on the Democratic debates

Do read the whole thing, that is my Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt of relevance:

My biggest impression is simply how much the dominant candidates agree in terms of basic values…

I don’t regard that as entirely healthy by any means, and I suspect most Democrats, especially of the relatively intellectual stripe, just don’t notice how much this stands out.  Now to move to a specific or two:

Finally, there is Marianne Williamson. When she first began to speak, I googled her, as I suspect did many other Americans. Her eccentric manner can be distracting, but I recommend instead focusing on her values. Her performance suggests that Democrats need to take a broader, deeper set of values into account: sometimes love and New Agey spiritual values, other times historical values. Her answer about making America the finest country for a child to grow up in was perhaps the best single moment of either debate, and that too stemmed from her understanding of values.

I don’t think she has much of a chance to win. But she is the external voice that the rest of the Democrats need to shake them out of their conformity. At first I thought it was crazy that she was included in the debates. In retrospect, I now see it as brilliant.

Kamala Harris and Marianne Williamson were the most memorable candidates on the stage, and they were also the two most in tune with the importance of values. The other candidates would do well to heed this lesson.

There is much more at the link, including some observations on some of the other candidates.

*The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System*

That is the new book by Bruce Cannon Gibney, and it is one of my favorite books on the American legal system and one of my favorite books of this year.  Here is just one driblet from the work:

…only in America would an administrative law judge sue a local dry cleaner, claiming damages of $67 million for a lost pair of pants.

And this I had not known:

Worse, the legal content of any given state’s bar exam is not actually the law in that state.  The “multistate” part of the bar exam is exactly what it sounds like, but there is no such thing as “multistate” law: different states have different laws.  But even though the larger states, notably New York, California, and Texas, could create their own bar exams, almost all states use the synthetic law of a multistate exam, which is worse than useless: the right answer for the bar might not be the right answer in any state, which wastes students’ time and risks confusing them about the actual law.

I learned also that America has at least 940 legal journals.  Yet the Harvard Law Review had only 1,722 paid subscriptions for 2012, and the extremely well-known University of Virginia review had only 304 subscribers.

Between 1987 and 2017, staff available to Congress declined by about 30 percent.  The Capitol Police, however, expanded in numbers.  Congressional aides often make less than the janitors of the Senate.

OIRA, which is tasked with reviewing major regulations, typically has about 45 staffers.

The book offers up numerous anecdotes about how poorly some Supreme Court justices understand modern technology; Judge Scalia, for instance, was afraid that people could “capture” HBO signals from the airwaves.

…the entire federal judiciary costs about $7 billion, not even enough to buy 55 percent of the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier or fund federal health-care programs for fifty hours.”

Recommended, you can buy the book here.

What I’ve been reading

Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.  This book was too much a pile of facts for my taste — and facts I already know — but it is about the most important topic, namely growth and economic growth, so some of you should read it.  When you get right down to it, there are worse things than a pile of facts!

Swapan Dasgupta, Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right.  What do those people actually believe and why?  A summary and also a collection of original texts, strongly recommended for insight into one of the world’s most important nations and thus one of the world’s most important intellectual movements.

Gabriel García Marquez, The Scandal of the Century, and Other Writings.  His early journalistic pieces are a revelation, both for their connections to a Borges-Cortázar style, and for how they show the roots of his later more literary productions.  His best-known work is perhaps overrated, but his body of work as a whole is still considerably underrated, and this volume will add to your appreciation of him.

I’ve only browsed Owen Matthews, An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, but it seems to be based on a remarkable amount of original research.  I do not care so much about the history of spying, but for some of you this should be a very good book.

Sarah L. Quinn, American Bonds: How Credit Markets Shaped a Nation.  Less broad than the title suggests, this is still a clear and useful history of some parts of American securitization, starting with such (important) oddities as the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916.

Adam Minter, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale delivers exactly what readers of Adam’s previous work would and should expect.  I am a big Adam Minter fan.

Here is what Ben Casnocha has been reading.

Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God is an interesting look at Pelagianism and related free will ideas as the possible origin for classical liberal ideas.  But is free will so important?  Isn’t there a Hayekian/Calvinist/Straussian case for the limits of political power?  Do the Pelagian roots of liberalism collapse more into current progressivism?  In any case I found this book both readable and stimulating, the discussion of the early theology of Rawls was interesting too.

Saturday assorted links

People like working with their friends, but it makes them less productive

From Sangyoon Park:

Through a field experiment at a seafood-processing plant, I examine how working alongside friends affects employee productivity and how this effect is heterogeneous with respect to an employee’s personality. This paper presents two main findings. First, worker productivity declines when a friend is close enough to socialize with. Second, workers who are higher on the conscientiousness scale show smaller productivity declines when working alongside a friend. Estimates suggest that a median worker is willing to pay 4.5 percent of her wage to work next to friends.

That is from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, via Adam Ozimek.

Crypto is here to stay?

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

One reason for the rise in Bitcoin’s price may have to do with the U.S. and China and the trade war. It no longer seems that China will join the international economic order as that term might have been understood 15 years ago. Instead, there will be an ongoing cold war; China will not liberalize, and capital controls may persist. In that world, Bitcoin will continue to prove a useful way of getting funds out of China. The Chinese Communist government may or may not crack down on that practice, but outright liberalization would have ended this use of Bitcoin altogether.

For related reasons, a China that does not liberalize may influence the broader tenor of the global economy away from freedom, again giving Bitcoin additional uses around the world for evading central authorities.

A second development is that the Democratic Party in the U.S. continues to shift to the left, including on the possibility of a wealth tax. As America’s fiscal deficits grow (due often to the Republicans, I might add), there will be a long-term need to restore fiscal sanity. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, for one, advocates a 2% wealth tax (over $50 million) toward this end.

No matter what you think of this idea, it likely would boost the demand for Bitcoin and other crypto assets, as cryptocurrencies are potentially a way to store assets out of reach of many tax authorities. And the U.S. is hardly the only nation that may be looking to a wealth tax in the future to balance the books. In essence, the new and higher price of Bitcoin is telling us that fiscal solvency will be hard to come by, and the wealthy will not give up their assets without a fight.

Do read the whole thing.

Friday assorted links