A thought about balance in debate

A huge amount has been written on the problems associated with news reporting in terms of what the ‘sides’ of a debate say. It can present false equivalence between know truths and known falsehoods, between strongly substantiated opinions and those made up on the spot, between sincere analysis and political propaganda. It allows dishonest participants to game the way in which news in reported and has inbuilt adverse selection mechanisms . A tweet last night by Nigel Farage drew my attention to another consequence: it allows participants to frame their own motives and beliefs, and allows them to avoid analysis and scrutiny of these. 

In this tweet, Farage bemoaned yesterday’s migration statistics, specifically that they still showed net migration from outside the EU. A number of replies spotted the hypocrisy: wasn’t a large part of the case to leave the EU that membership implied preferential treatment for EU citizens over non EU citizens? Hadn’t Farage made this argument a number of times himself?

Ofcourse, on one level this event is entirely uninteresting and unsurprising. We all knew that that argument against EU membership was entirely disingenuous, not the least because Farage, and indeed many prominent Brexiteers, have spent most of their political careers stirring up hostility against migrants of any origin, and indeed have focused their hostility on non EU migrants for ethno nationalist reasons (think of Leave.eu’s ‘breaking point’ poster, or the real message behind Vote Leave’s claims about Turkey).

What is interesting is that on countless occasions, figures like Farage have been able to present the argument that free movement is unfair on non EU nationals as a sincere one. It is frequently reported as the ‘other side’ of a migration ‘debate’ on neutral outlets like the BBC.

This is more pernicious than it seems. Surely, what is most relevant about this argument is in fact not that it is a bad one that can be evaluated as such, but that it is made insincerely.  This is while it is a pretty bad argument, it is not quite as bad an argument, at least a priori, as its critics often suggest, or at least not for the reasons typically given. One could indeed hypothetically envisage a situation in which practicalities imposed an upper limit, at least politically, on migration, and where free movement within the EU implied stricter controls on non EU nationals.

Of course, this limit is nowhere near the current reality, where increased migration is hugely economically beneficial. But the difference between hypothetical and actual often gets lost in debates. What’s more, the cruel aspect of the argument- its implication for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU-  can be glossed over as something that can be dealt with humanely and seamlessly. Let’s forget that this may not be true, or that free movement is not just a migration policy but a right: what is really pernicious about this argument is that the people who will ultimately be deciding what a future regime looks like do not have the faux humanitarian concerns that the argument implies, and are instead interested in imposing gratuitously cruel and restrictive regimes, again for ethno nationalist reasons. And their ability to do so, and their political power, is determined at least in part buy how these debates play out. To some extent, then, the veracity of the argument is itself determined by the sincerity of those who are making it. Arguments about the political consequences of a policy depend in part on a view of what some aspect of fixed political reality is, when this is itself part of what is affected by the discussion. The style of reporting that simply reports the headlines of the ‘two sides’ as the arguments for and against allows dishonest political participants to misrepresent their motives, and in doing so, the ultimate effects, and indeed often truth, of their statements.

Edgar’s Algorithm

                                                Edgar’s Algorithm

Ever since Edgar’s Algorithm the chess tournament has been something of a totalitarian affair. Players are asked to supply records of all their browser history, previous whereabouts, sworn statements from friends and loved ones: the list of intrusive measures in quite an extensive one. Fortunately, the International Confederation of Traditional Chess Players (ICTCP) has begun to simplify the initial system of checks in major tournaments, making use of latest technological innovations in neural mapping. The new procedure is really quite simple: participants are shown a range of chess positions on a screen, which, to the traditional player, would mark the start of a long and drawn out thought process, but to those savants who have fully committed the algorithm to memory would immediately suggest a series of follow up moves. The differences in response to these stimuli are quite involuntary, and can easily weed out a player whose mind, in the view of the anti-algorithm traditionalist, was polluted by a crude mechanical procedure. To some this may seem quite excessive, but the algorithm’s absolute success in providing an slow, but inevitable victory for a given player first to initiate the process (assuming their opponent has not already achieved a significant material advantage by the early mid-game) it is quite unsurprising that those, dedicated to the game’s survival, would need to find means to eradicate it absolutely from practice. And, given their level of dedication, it is quite unsurprising that they would not balk at extreme measures.

At first, it was suggested that this result might be achieved by means of setting new parameters for legal moves. But, alas, any variant devised (the most plausible being Kautsky’s) proved far too complex for the game in any meaningful sense to be preserved. Kautsky-Chess does have a few players here and there, most of whom convene at the headquarters of the international society of Esparantists. Kautsky’s reforms abandoned largely abandoned, the rump of the former world of chess players who were not fluent in Edgar’s algorithm resorted to cruder measures. This group turned out to be quite large in number: in those early years after Edgar’s discovery, it became fashionable to ridicule the very idea of solving chess, and a question of pride not to seriously engage with his work. Lists were drawn up, those known or believed to be adherents of the great Edgar publicly humiliated and banned from tournaments, and for those spared of this fate, both when entering and once within the walls of the tournament an existence of continuous observation was to be expected.

The events of last week’s gathering of the ICTCP in New York , however, surprised even those well versed on the absurdities of contemporary chess. The tournament itself was quite uninteresting. A tense moment here, a dull one there, but the result was quite predictable: Peron reaffirmed her title as world champion without much difficulty. What was most interesting was the dinner that followed. The Council of the ICTCP was about to presented awards, as ever, before guests were invited to begin their starter. The hall will filled with that dim murmuring of impatient chess players that inevitably accompanied this stage of the evening. The dull grey and brown of the jumpered crowd sat awkwardly with the grand chandeliers of the art-deco hall.

I sat at a small table of journalists who had recently been permitted to attend these gatherings. Eying up the white plate of grilled asparagus, delicately arranged on salmorejo  just viscous enough to prevent its garnishes sinking into it, I began to wonder when we would begin to get the tedious ceremony over with . I was already dreading the clichés that would fill my piece for the New Yorker, rolling off all the well known anecdotes about full body searches, inquisitions, threats of ritual humiliation etc which accompanied these events. But those articles sold well, and with the collapse of the Kim Dynasty in North Korea, something had to take its place in the beloved genre of Oppression Safari.

At this point my neighbour turned to me. “Hey, you work for the New Yorker, right?”
“Yeh, that’s me.”
“I loved your last piece on the one in LA. That was what got me going to this thing in the first place.”
“Thanks. Well, you know, it was just the usual stuff.”
“Sure, but the writing was great. I’d always kinda wanted to check this place out. I was pretty good at chess in college. Still play now and then.”
“Still? But presumably you don’t… well, I guess you’re here so…” He knew what I was trying to say. Of course he hadn’t.
“Oh God, no. That thing is a goddamn nightmare…” He started to whisper. “I took a look at the original tract, Dr E’s you know what. ‘Chapter 1: use of recursive methods to reduce 1096 games to 28 ideal types. Chapter 2: The ideal types and brute force solutions. Chapter 3: Oh God. I barely understood a word of the thing in the original.”
“So how come you still play?”
“Well,” he said “put it this way. Uhm. I mean, the kids at my daughter’s elementary school. They still play checkers. The slower ones still play tic-tac-toe. Naughts and crosses? Is that what you guys call it?”
Fair point. He started to bob on his chair slightly, pushing himself back and forth with his hands. He was quite a charismatic figure. Or at least, in this dreary crowd, he was. His mannerism and confidence in speech seemed quite suited to the setting.
“See” he continued “these guys actually have it all wrong. The so called ‘algorithm’ is much more interesting than they make out. The idea of it, if not the way it’s written up. It’s actually not purely algorithmic, or at least not in the sense they mean. Knowing how to reduce any position to an ideal type, there’s an intuitive element to that. It’s based on positional analysis. Fianchettoed bishops, weak pawns, you know. None of that can be derived from a tree diagram, or at least not as far as anyone has worked out. The ontologies don’t mesh. But, once you’ve carried out the reduction, which I’m told top players could do more or less instantly, with practice, the rest is pretty mechanical. That is, until the endgame, at which point you just apply the old techniques. But by that stage your absolute material advantage is so great there’s not much left to play for.”
“I see.” His description roughly chimed with my own impressions of the subject, but I was a little taken aback by his certainty, given his own admissions. Perhaps later he’d tell me about the implications of quantum mechanics for epistemology.
“So,” he continued “it’s actually really interesting. And originally, originally, this was thought to represent a return to traditional play. Because the computers couldn’t do it. They couldn’t carry out the initial reduction. At least, not until they finally ditched the tree diagrams and applied statistical methods. Machine learning and all that. But by that point everyone but these guys here had lost interest in the game. “

All around us, people were starting to turn their attention to the stage. Members of the council, garbed in checkered robes, were making gentle swings of their arms. Each swing the arc made an arm got longer and longer, like a pendulum in reverse. At first disjointed, now in unison, the council swinging to a steady rhythm. I had seen this before, but had no knowledge of the symbolism.

At last, the head of the ICTCP got up to speak.
“You are all aware,” he began “of the extraordinary progress we have made in a short space of time. The journey towards a post-algorithmic community has not always been an easy one. At times, brute force has been necessary [a light laughter from the audience]. But it is with great pleasure that I able to introduce this year’s winner, the reigning World Champion, Augustine Peron. Peron’s play has always been exceptional, and deeply idiosyncratic. She is a shining beacon of extraordinary play, sportsmanship, and is a charismatic representative of our community. She has proven herself time and time again, and is the unbeatable champion… well, not unbeatable but..”
The hall started to murmur. Had he meant unbeaten? Almost certainly, but that it not what he had said. Why did he not simply move on with his speech? Surely his stature would prevent him from scrutiny.
“I mean, of course she isn’t unbeatable. No-one is. Uhhm.” He started to look around nervously. Members of the council, sitting at the high table, looked at one another for cues. They could sense the sudden terror in his eyes. It was at this stage, that a member of the council stood up from their seats.
“She’s a traitor. That’s what he’s trying to say. She appears unbeatable because she has polluted her mind.”
“That bitch!”
Within a few moments, the entire hall was alive. Their time had finally come. Every last humiliated player was going to have their turn, realising, one by one, that perhaps they had not lost their games after all.

It was at this moment that Peron leapt from the stage, and ran towards our table. In those precious few moments, as participants looked to one another, asking themselves what special protections were to be granted to outsiders, we moved swiftly as a group out of the hall and worked our way through the dozen or so checkpoints that guarded the building. What went on in the hall after that no one knows. We have not received another invitation to ICTCP meetings. Neither did Peron, though I doubt she much wanted one.