What I Was Wrong About This Year – The New York Times

The Israeli intelligence service asked the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman for help in the 1970s, and Kahneman came back with a suggestion: Get rid of the classic intelligence report. It allows leaders to justify any conclusion they want, Kahneman said. In its place, he suggested giving the leaders estimated probabilities of events.

The intelligence service did so, and an early report concluded that one scenario would increase the chance of full-scale war with Syria by 10 percent. Seeing the number, a top official was relieved. “Ten percent increase?” he said. “That is a small difference.”

Kahneman was horrified (as Michael Lewis recounts in his book “The Undoing Project”). A 10 percent increase in the chance of catastrophic war was serious. Yet the official decided that 10 wasn’t so different from zero.

Looking back years later, Kahneman said: “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

His change of heart is good way to introduce my ritual self-criticism. There is a burgeoning tradition in which columnists devote a year-end column to the errors of our ways. The journalist Dave Weigel calls it “pundit accountability.”

I’ll start with some back story: Like the pre-1970s Israeli Army, the news business of old didn’t have much use for probabilities, outside of the weather report. These days, though, probabilities pop up all over.

At 10 p.m. on Alabama’s recent election night, The Times said that Doug Jones had roughly a 70 percent chance of winning, based on counted votes. (That scoreboard drew 13 million views.) Likewise, the financial media reports recession odds, and sports websites publish real-time win probabilities.

I’m a probability advocate. In previous jobs, I have helped create election scoreboards. Probabilities are more meaningful than safe “anything can happen” platitudes, vague “it’s likely” analyses or artificially confident guarantees.

But I’ve come to realize that I was wrong about a major aspect of probabilities.

They are inherently hard to grasp. That’s especially true for an individual event, like a war or election. People understand that if they roll a die 100 times, they will get some 1’s. But when they see a probability for one event, they tend to think: Is this going to happen or not?

They then effectively round to 0 or to 100 percent. That’s what the Israeli official did. It’s also what many Americans did when they heard Hillary Clinton had a 72 percent or 85 percent chance of winning. It’s what football fans did in the Super Bowl when the Atlanta Falcons had a 99 percent chance of victory.

And when the unlikely happens, people scream: The probabilities were wrong!

Usually, they were not wrong. The screamers were wrong.

I used to believe that the best response was explanation and context. After all, people understand that many outcomes with long odds do happen. “Just because it’s rare,” says the medical expert H. Gilbert Welch, “doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.” You draw an ace (8 percent). A random baby girl grows up to be at least 5’9” (6 percent). New York has a white Christmas (11 percent). In my computer, I’ve got a long list of these unlikely events.

But I now think explanation is doomed to fail. For an individual event, people can’t resist saying that a probability was “right” if it was above 50 percent and “wrong” if it was below 50 percent. When this happens, those of us who believe in probabilities can’t just shake our heads and mutter about white Christmases. We have to communicate more effectively.

I think part of the answer lies with Kahneman’s insight: Human beings need a story.

It’s not enough to say an event has a 10 percent probability. People need a story that forces them to visualize the unlikely event — so they don’t round 10 to zero.

Imagine that a forecast giving Candidate X a 10 percent chance included a prominent link, “How X wins.” It would explain how the polling could be off and include a winning map for X. It would all but shout: This really may happen.

Welch, a Dartmouth professor, pointed me to an online pictograph about breast-cancer risk. It shows 1,000 stick figures, of which 973 are gray (no cancer), 22 are yellow (future survivor) and five are red (die in next 10 years). You can see the most likely outcome without ignoring the others.

Yes, I understand that ideas like this won’t eliminate confusion. But even modest progress would be worthwhile.

The rise of big data means that probabilities are becoming a larger part of life. And our misunderstandings have real costs. Obama administration officials, to take one example, might have treated Russian interference more seriously if they hadn’t rounded Trump’s victory odds down to almost zero. Alas, unlike a dice roll, the election is not an event we get to try again.


Source: What I Was Wrong About This Year – The New York Times

Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Police – The New York Times


Police lined up near an armored vehicle during clashes with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.

Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Police departments will now have access to military surplus equipment typically used in warfare, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles and bayonets, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday, describing it as “lifesaving gear.”

The move rescinds limits on the Pentagon handouts that were put in place by President Barack Obama in 2015 amid a national debate over policing touched off by a spate of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of the police, including the shooting death in 2014 of 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., by a white officer. Some local residents viewed police use of military equipment during the ensuing protests as an unnecessary show of force and intimidation.

In a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Mr. Sessions said Mr. Obama had made it harder for the police to protect themselves and their neighborhoods.

“Those restrictions went too far,” Mr. Sessions said. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.”


“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville on Monday.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Mr. Sessions said that President Trump would sign an executive order on Monday fully restoring the military program, called 1033, and that the president was doing “all he can to restore law and order and support our police across America.”

Mr. Sessions has rolled back a number of Obama-era efforts toward police reform. In April, he ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide.

Mr. Obama ordered a review of the Pentagon program in late 2014 after the police responded to protests with armored vehicles, snipers and riot gear. The images of police officers with military gear squaring off against protesters around the country angered community activists who said law enforcement agencies were reacting disproportionately.

In addition to the prohibitions on certain military surplus gear, he added restrictions on transferring some weapons and devices, including explosives, battering rams, riot helmets and shields.

The Pentagon said 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets had been returned since Mr. Obama prohibited their transfer.

The program was started in the 1990s as a way for the military to transfer surplus equipment to federal, state and local police agencies fighting the drug war. More than $5 billion in surplus gear has been funneled to law enforcement agencies.

Local law enforcement officials have defended the program, saying that it is a way to acquire equipment that is useful in dangerous situations without stretching tight budgets. For example, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, the site of severe flooding in recent days, received two armored vehicles under the program. One was used for high-risk operations and the other for high-water rescues.

Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Mr. Obama, criticized Mr. Trump’s policy reversal. She said the limits were created to make sure police departments “had a guardian, not warrior, mentality.”

“Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone,” Ms. Gupta said in a statement. “It is especially troubling that some of this equipment can now again be used in schools where our children are sent to learn.”

Trump’s decision angered community activists and some Republicans. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said in a tweet: “I will oppose this move by the AG and administration. And I will continue to fight for our civil liberties and criminal justice reform.”


People were rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in an armored police vehicle in Dickinson, Tex., on Sunday.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

After learning about changes to the program, an animated Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina, said, “Are you kidding me?” Mr. Sanford recalled traveling to a small South Carolina county when he was governor and finding a sheriff taking helicopter lessons because, Mr. Sanford noted, the jurisdiction had “pulled about seven copters” thanks to the federal program.

“This makes my blood boil,” he said, from “both a taxpayer standpoint and a civil liberties standpoint.”

Administration officials defended the restoration of the program, saying the police need all the tools available to do their jobs.

In a set of talking points distributed ahead of the announcement, the Justice Department noted that a military-style helmet saved the life of an officer responding to last year’s mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., in which a gunman killed 49. Armored vehicles and military gear were also used to hunt the two terrorists who mounted an attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

The document says much of the equipment provided through the 1033 program is “entirely defensive in nature.”

But it is not clear why the police need bayonets, which the talking points did not address. Even the Pentagon has said it does not understand why the police would require them. Trump administration officials said that the police believed bayonets were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.


Source: Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Police – The New York Times

The Torture Report Must Be Saved – The New York Times

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase.

This simple but consequential action is something that President Obama can do now, and it is something that he can do unilaterally.

Why is this so important?

Many people do not realize that the roughly 500-page summary of the Senate report that was declassified and made public at the end of 2014 is only a small part of the story. The full report remains classified. It is one of the largest reports in Senate history, and it is by far the most thorough account of what happened during a dark period when waterboarding and other brutal techniques were used and given legal cover — a decision by the George W. Bush administration that President Obama wisely reversed.

While we are not allowed to discuss the contents of the full report, we can say that it contains volumes of new information — information that leads to a more complete understanding of how this program happened, and how it became so misaligned with our values as a nation. Most important, the full report contains information that is critical to ensuring that these mistakes are never made again.

However, that written history is in jeopardy.

In 2014, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, then the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, sent the full report to the Obama administration, asking relevant departments and agencies like the C.I.A., Defense Department, State Department and Department of Justice to read it, and to make use of it in their training materials. However, after Republicans took control of the Senate, the new chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, took the unusual step of trying to recall the full report that Senator Feinstein had distributed — to prevent it from ever being widely read or declassified. In this effort, Senator Burr has written to President Obama, insisting that the full report not only be returned but that it “should not be entered into any executive branch system of records.”

Since then the full report has been locked in limbo, with the Obama administration unwilling to even open the document, but also unwilling to return it to Senator Burr.

This state of limbo is likely to change in January.

Given the rhetoric of President-elect Trump, there is a grave risk that the new administration will return the Senate report to Senator Burr, after which it could be hidden indefinitely, or destroyed.

Establishing the report as a federal record would prevent this from happening.

President Obama has said that “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.” We couldn’t agree more, but to do that it is critical to know our history and to have a full accounting of how mistakes happened in the first place. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s full report on torture is that history.

Now in his final days in office, the president has an opportunity to ensure that his efforts to prevent a return to torture endure beyond his time in the White House. He has said of torture, “I will continue to use my authority as president to make sure we never resort to those methods again.” We urge him to make good on that pledge by protecting the full Senate report from those who may try to hide or destroy it.

The Torture Report Must Be Saved – The New York Times.

Source: The Torture Report Must Be Saved – The New York Times