So, referendum results are sacred? Except when they’re not

Wow! Here, courtesy of the Economist, is something I hadn’t remembered:

A second issue is the nature of British democracy, and in particular how badly equipped it is to cope with referendums. Other countries that use them, such as Switzerland or Ireland, have constitutional provisions laying down when and how to do so. But the unwritten British constitution confers total sovereignty on Parliament, as the epitome of a representative rather than a direct democracy. This sits uncomfortably with the notion of asking voters to make policy choices, as David Cameron did when putting Britain’s EU membership to a referendum in June 2016.

Despite this, Britain has in recent years made extensive use of referendums. Indeed, if one includes regional ones, in the past 20 years it has had more of them than it has had general elections. But the idea that they can settle contentious issues has been repeatedly disproved. The 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community produced a decisive two-to-one result for staying in. Yet within eight years the Labour Party promised to pull out of the EEC without even consulting voters again.

A more recent example is more embarrassing for Mrs May. This week she argued that the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum must be honoured by all, because a 1997 referendum narrowly backing the creation of a Welsh assembly had been similarly accepted. Yet this overlooked the awkward truth that, along with her Tory colleagues, she had voted against the assembly, despite the referendum. What’s more, eight years later the Tories were campaigning for a second referendum with the option of overturning the result of the first—something she has explicitly ruled out for Brexit.

The end of The End of History man?

From a scarifying review by Stephen Holmes of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment:

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

Fukuyama’s analysis, says Holmes,

is flawed in several ways. Three decades ago, he argued that the human desire for respect and recognition was the driving force behind the universal embrace of liberal democracy. Today, he depicts the human desire for respect and recognition as the driving force behind the repudiation of liberal democracy. The reader’s hope for some account, or even mention, of this extraordinary volte face goes unfulfilled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely address the impossibility of explaining recent ups and downs in the prestige of liberal democracy by invoking an eternal longing of the human soul. What’s more, he fails to consider the possibility that after 1989 the obligation for ex-Communist countries to imitate the West, which was how his End-of-History thesis was put into practice, might itself have been experienced in countries like Hungary and Poland as a source of humiliation and subordination destined to excite antiliberal resentment and an aggressive reassertion of nationalism.

Wow! Great review..

The Feynman trap

Gary Smith, writing in Wired:

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once asked his Caltech students to calculate the probability that, if he walked outside the classroom, the first car in the parking lot would have a specific license plate, say 6ZNA74. Assuming every number and letter are equally likely and determined independently, the students estimated the probability to be less than 1 in 17 million. When the students finished their calculations, Feynman revealed that the correct probability was 1: He had seen this license plate on his way into class. Something extremely unlikely is not unlikely at all if it has already happened.

The Feynman trap—ransacking data for patterns without any preconceived idea of what one is looking for—is the Achilles heel of studies based on data mining. Finding something unusual or surprising after it has already occurred is neither unusual nor surprising. Patterns are sure to be found, and are likely to be misleading, absurd, or worse.

Lots of other examples.

The moral? “Good research begins with a clear idea of what one is looking for and expects to find. Data mining just looks for patterns and inevitably finds some.”

The finer points of murder

Fascinating but grim analysis by journalist Tom Stevenson of A Study of Assassination, an anonymously authored CIA handbook for covert political murder written in 1953 and declassified in 1997. The handbook was produced as a “training file” for operation PBSUCCESS, the codename of a CIA plot launched by the Eisenhower administration to topple the Guatemalan government.

It is, says Stevenson, “not only a practical guide. It is also a thorough exploration of assassination with a scholarly, if macabre, sensibility in which the author spends nineteen pages contemplating the finer points of murder.”

The figure of the lone assassin, it turns out, is not purely a creation of fiction.

Ideally an assassin ought to act alone to reduce the chances of the plot being uncovered. Different circumstances call for different kinds of assassin. They all require courage, determination and resourcefulness, but in cases where the killer won’t be slipping away to safety a fanatic is needed.

Stevenson reports that in 2007 the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a survey of assassination attempts on national leaders since 1875. The results suggest that assassination is not a terribly efficient business, which I suppose is good news.

In 298 cases it found only fifty-nine resulted in the target being killed. Firearms and explosives were overwhelmingly the most popular methods, used in more than 85 per cent of attempts. The firearms had a success rate of just 30 per cent and explosives a dismal 7 percent. After all, the CIA analyst says, “the obviously lethal machine gun failed to kill Trotsky where an item of sporting goods [an ice-axe] succeeded”.

Macabre, but fascinating.

Crow-sourced problem-solving

We all knew that crows are intelligent and resourceful creatures, but this new research with New Caledonian crows really takes the biscuit:

The new study, published today in Scientific Reports, shows that these birds can create long-reaching tools out of short combinable parts – an astonishing mental feat. Assemblage of different components into novel functional and manoeuvrable tools has, until now, only been observed in apes, and anthropologists regard early human compound tool manufacture as a significant step in brain evolution. Children take several years before creating novel tools, probably because it requires anticipating properties of as yet unseen objects. Such anticipation, or planning, is usually interpreted as involving creative mental modelling and executive functions.

The study demonstrates that this species of crow possesses highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve complex problems involving anticipation of the properties of objects they have never seen.

The link contains some amazing (but poorly-lit) videos.

How did disaster become the default option for a mature democracy?

Sobering view from the Economist which argues that, for procedural reasons, a no-deal Brexit has become, in effect, “the default option”:

As Cathy Haddon of the Institute for Government, a think-tank, puts it, “Parliament can vote for any number of motions, resolutions and amendments to bills, but none of these on their own is enough to stop no deal.” Only three things, she says, can do that: passing an agreed Brexit deal; seeking an extension of Article 50, which needs the unanimous approval of 27 other EU governments, some of which will be reluctant; or revoking the original Article 50 letter, which can be done unilaterally up to March 29th but would be hugely embarrassing for Mrs May.

Media credulity and AI hype

This morning’s Observer column:

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a term that is now widely used (and abused), loosely defined and mostly misunderstood. Much the same might be said of, say, quantum physics. But there is one important difference, for whereas quantum phenomena are not likely to have much of a direct impact on the lives of most people, one particular manifestation of AI – machine-learning – is already having a measurable impact on most of us.

The tech giants that own and control the technology have plans to exponentially increase that impact and to that end have crafted a distinctive narrative. Crudely summarised, it goes like this: “While there may be odd glitches and the occasional regrettable downside on the way to a glorious future, on balance AI will be good for humanity. Oh – and by the way – its progress is unstoppable, so don’t worry your silly little heads fretting about it because we take ethics very seriously.”

Critical analysis of this narrative suggests that the formula for creating it involves mixing one part fact with three parts self-serving corporate cant and one part tech-fantasy emitted by geeks who regularly inhale their own exhaust…

Read on