On the referendum #25: a letter to Tory MPs & donors on the Brexit shambles

Dear Tory MPs and donors

I’ve avoided writing about the substance of Brexit and the negotiations since the anniversary last year but a few of you have been in touch recently asking ‘what do you think?’ so…

Vote Leave said during the referendum that 1) promising to use the Article 50 process would be stupid and the UK should maintain the possibility of making real preparations to leave while NOT triggering Article 50 and 2) triggering Article 50 quickly without discussions with our EU friends and without a plan ‘would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger’. Following this advice would have maintained the number of positive branching histories of the future, including a friendly departure under Article 50.

The Government immediately accepted bogus legal advice and triggered Article 50 quickly without discussions with our EU friends and without a plan. This immediately closed many positive branching histories and created major problems. The joy in Brussels was palpable. Hammond and DD responded to this joy with empty sabre rattling which Brussels is now enjoying shoving down their throats.  

The government’s nominal policy, which it put in its manifesto and has repeated many times, is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

This requires preparing to be a ‘third country’ for the purposes of  EU law. It requires building all the infrastructure and facilities that are normal around the world to manage trade.

This process should have started BEFORE triggering A50 but the government has irretrievably botched this.

Having botched it, it could have partially recovered its blunder by starting to do it afterwards.

No such action has been taken.

Downing Street, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet have made no such preparations and there is no intention of starting.

The Cabinet has never asked for and never been given a briefing from responsible officials on these preparations. Some of them understand this and are happy (e.g Hammond). Most of them don’t understand this and/or prefer not to think about it. It will be trashed in the history books as the pre-1914 Cabinet has been for its failure to discuss what its military alliance with France actually meant until after it was too late.

The few ministers who try to make preparations are often told ‘it’s illegal’ and are blocked by their own Departments, the Cabinet Office and Treasury. The standard officials device of ‘legal advice’ is routinely deployed to whip cowed ministers and spads into line. But given officials now know the May/Hammond plan is surrender, it’s hardly surprising they are not preparing for a Potemkin policy. 

The Treasury argues, with a logic that is both contemptible and reasonable in the comical circumstances, that given the actual outcome of the negotiations will be abject surrender, it is pointless wasting more money to prepare for a policy that has no future and therefore even the Potemkin preparations now underway should be abandoned (NB. the Chancellor has earmarked half of the money for a ‘no deal’ for the fiscal year after we leave the EU).

Instead, Whitehall’s real preparations are for the continuation of EU law and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. The expectation is that MPs will end up accepting the terrible agreement as voting it down would be to invite chaos.

In short, the state has made no preparations to leave and plans to make no preparations to leave even after leaving.

Further, the Government promised in the December agreement to do a number of things that are logically, legally and practically incompatible including leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, avoiding ‘friction’ and changing nothing around the Irish border (as defined by the EU), and having no border in the Irish Sea.

The Government has also aided and abetted bullshit invented by Irish nationalists and Remain campaigners that the Belfast Agreement prevents reasonable customs checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Read the agreement. It does no such thing. This has fatally undermined the UK’s negotiating position and has led to the false choice of not really leaving the EU (‘the Government’s backstop’) or undermining the UK’s constitutional integrity (‘the EU’s backstop’). Barwell promised ministers in December that the text did not mean what it plainly did mean. Now he argues ‘you agreed all this in December’. Whenever you think ‘it can’t be this bad’, the internal processes are always much worse than you think.

Parliament and its Select Committees have contributed to delusions. They have made almost no serious investigation of what preparations to be a third country under EU law should be and what steps are being taken to achieve it.

A small faction of pro-Brexit MPs (which also nearly destroyed Vote Leave so they could babble about ‘Global Britain’ in TV debates) could have done one useful thing — forced the government to prepare for their official policy. Instead this faction has instead spent its time trying to persuade people that all talk of ‘preparations’ is a conspiracy of Brussels and Heywood. They were an asset to Remain in the referendum and they’ve helped sink a viable policy since. A party that treats this faction (or Dominic Grieve) as a serious authority on the law deserves everything it gets. (I don’t mean ‘the ERG’ — I mean a subset of the ERG.)

All this contributes to current delusional arguments over supposed ‘models’ (hybrid/max fac etc) that even on their own terms cannot solve the problem of multiple incompatible promises. ‘Compromise proposals’ such as that from Boles which assume the existence of ‘third country’ planning are just more delusions. It doesn’t matter which version of delusion your gangs finally agree on if none of them has a basis in reality and so long as May/Hammond continue they will have no basis in reality.

You can dance around the fundamental issues all you want but in the end ‘reality cannot be fooled’.

The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it. By not taking the basic steps any sane Government should have taken from 24 June 2016, including providing itself with world class legal advice, it’s ‘strategy’ has imploded. It now thinks its survival requires surrender, it thinks that admitting this risks its survival, it thinks that the MPs can be bullshitted by clever drafting from officials, and that once Leave MPs and donors — you guys — are ordering your champagne in the autumn for your parties on 30 March 2019 you will balk at bringing down the Government when you finally have to face that you’ve been conned. Eurosceptics are full of shit and threats they don’t deliver, they say in No10, and on this at least they have a point.

This set of problems cannot be solved by swapping ‘useless X’ for ‘competent Y’ or ‘better spin’.

This set of problems cannot be solved by listening to charlatans such as the overwhelming majority of economists and ‘trade experts’ who brand themselves pro-Brexit, live in parallel universes, and spin fantasies to you.

This set of problems derives partly from the fact that the wiring of power in Downing Street is systemically dysfunctional and, worse, those with real institutional power (Cabinet Office/HMT officials etc) have as their top priority the maintenance of this broken system and keeping Britain as closely tied to the EU as possible. There is effectively zero prospect of May’s team, totally underwater, solving these problems not least because they cannot see them — indeed, their only strategy is to ‘trust officials to be honest’, which is like trusting Bernie Madoff with your finances. Brexit cannot be done with the traditional Westminster/Whitehall system as Vote Leave  warned repeatedly before 23 June 2016.

Further, lots of what Corbyn says is more popular than what Tory think tanks say and you believe (e.g nationalising the trains and water companies that have been run by corporate looters who Hammond says ‘we must defend’). You are only at 40% in the polls because a set of UKIP voters has decided to back you until they see how Brexit turns out. You only survived the most useless campaign in modern history because Vote Leave killed UKIP. You’re now acting like you want someone to create a serious version of it.

Ask yourselves: what happens when the country sees you’ve simultaneously a) ‘handed over tens of billions for fuck all’ as they’ll say in focus groups (which the UK had no liability to pay), b) failed to do anything about unskilled immigration, c) persecuted the high skilled immigrants, such as scientists, who the public wants you to be MORE welcoming to, and d) failed to deliver on the nation’s Number One priority — funding for the NHS which is about to have a very high profile anniversary? And what happens if May staggers to 30 March 2019 and, as Barwell is floating with some of you, they then dig in to fight the 2022 campaign?

If you think that babble about ‘the complexity of the Irish border / the Union / peace’ will get you all off the hook, you must be listening to the same people who ran the 2017 campaign. It won’t. The public, when they tune back in at some point, will consider any argument based on Ireland as such obvious bullshit you must be lying. Given they already think you lie about everything, it won’t be a stretch.

Yes there are things you can do to mitigate the train wreck. For example, it requires using the period summer 2019 to autumn 2021 to change the political landscape, which is incompatible with the continuation of the May/Hammond brand of stagnation punctuated by rubbish crisis management. If you go into the 2022 campaign after five years of this and the contest is Tory promises versus Corbyn promises, you will be maximising the odds of Corbyn as PM. Since 1945, only once has a party trying to win a third term increased its number of seats. Not Thatcher. Not Blair. 1959 — after swapping Eden for Macmillan and with over ~6% growth the year before the vote. You will be starting without a majority (unlike others fighting for a third term). You won’t have half that growth — you will need something else. Shuffling some people is necessary but extremely far from sufficient. 

Of course it could have worked out differently but that is now an argument over branching histories for the history books. Yes it’s true that May, Hammond, Heywood and Robbins are Remain and have screwed it up but you’re deluded if you think you’ll be able to blame the debacle just on them. Whitehall is better at the blame game than you are, officials are completely dominant in this government, ministers have chosen to put Heywood/Robbins in charge, and YOU will get most of the blame from the public.

The sooner you internalise these facts and face reality, the better for the country and you.

Every day that you refuse to face reality increases the probability not only of a terrible deal but also of Seumas Milne shortly casting his curious and sceptical eyes over your assets and tax affairs.

It also increases the probability that others will conclude your party is incapable of coping with this situation and, unless it changes fast, drastic action will be needed including the creation of new forces to reflect public contempt for both the main parties and desire for a political force that reflects public priorities.

If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it…

Best wishes

Former campaign director of Vote Leave

Ps. This explains part of what needs to be done and as you will see it will not be done by a normal UK party operating with the existing Whitehall system –‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ and ‘how to capture the heavens’.

PPS. I should also add there are many officials who wanted to deliver government policy and MPs have let them down appallingly too. The less I say about that the better for them.

Effective action #4a: ‘Expertise’ from fighting and physics to economics, politics and government

‘We learn most when we have the most to lose.’ Michael Nielsen, author of the brilliant book Reinventing Discovery.

‘There isn’t one novel thought in all of how Berkshire [Hathaway] is run. It’s all about … exploiting unrecognized simplicities…Warren [Buffett] and I aren’t prodigies.We can’t play chess blindfolded or be concert pianists. But the results are prodigious, because we have a temperamental advantage that more than compensates for a lack of IQ points.’ Charlie Munger,Warren Buffett’s partner.

I’m going to do a series of blogs on the differences between fields dominated by real expertise (like fighting and physics) and fields dominated by bogus expertise (like macroeconomic forecasting, politics/punditry, active fund management).

Fundamental to real expertise is 1) whether the informational structure of the environment is sufficiently regular that it’s possible to make good predictions and 2) does it allow high quality feedback and therefore error-correction. Physics and fighting: Yes. Predicting recessions, forex trading and politics: not so much. I’ll look at studies comparing expert performance in different fields and the superior performance of relatively very simple models over human experts in many fields.

This is useful background to consider a question I spend a lot of time thinking about: how to integrate a) ancient insights and modern case studies about high performance with b) new technology and tools in order to improve the quality of individual, team, and institutional decision-making in politics and government.

I think that fixing the deepest problems of politics and government requires a more general and abstract approach to principles of effective action than is usually considered in political discussion and such an approach could see solutions to specific problems almost magically appear, just as you see happen in a very small number of organisations — e.g Mueller’s Apollo program (man on the moon), PARC (interactive computing), Berkshire Hathaway (most successful investors in history), all of which have delivered what seems almost magical performance because they embody a few simple, powerful, but largely unrecognised principles. There is no ‘solution’ to the fundamental human problem of decision-making amid extreme complexity and uncertainty but we know a) there are ways to do things much better and b) governments mostly ignore them, so there is extremely valuable low-hanging fruit if, but it’s a big if, we can partially overcome the huge meta-problem that governments tend to resist the institutional changes needed to become a learning system.

This blog presents some basic background ideas and examples…

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Extreme sports: fast feedback = real expertise 

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was an interesting case study in how useful new knowledge jumped from a tiny isolated group to the general population with big effects on performance in a community. Expertise in Brazilian jiu-jitsu was taken from Brazil to southern California by the Gracie family. There were many sceptics but they vanished rapidly because the Gracies were empiricists. They issued ‘the Gracie challenge’.

All sorts of tough guys, trained in all sorts of ways, were invited to come to their garage/academy in Los Angeles to fight one of the Gracies or their trainees. Very quickly it became obvious that the Gracie training system was revolutionary and they were real experts because they always won. There was very fast and clear feedback on predictions. Gracie jiujitsu quickly jumped from an LA garage to TV. At the televised UFC 1 event in 1993 Royce Gracie defeated everyone and a multi-billion dollar business was born.

People could see how training in this new skill could transform performance. Unarmed combat changed across the world. Disciplines other than jiu jitsu have had to make a choice: either isolate themselves and not compete with jiu jitsu or learn from it. If interested watch the first twenty minutes of this documentary (via professor Steve Hsu, physicist, amateur jiu jitsu practitioner, and predictive genomics expert).

Video: Jiu Jitsu comes to Southern California

Royce Gracie, UFC 1 1993 

Screenshot 2018-05-22 10.41.20

 

Flow, deep in the zone

Another field where there is clear expertise is extreme skiing and snowboarding. One of the leading pioneers, Jeremy Jones, describes how he rides ‘spines’ hurtling down the side of mountains:

‘The snow is so deep you need to use your arms and chest to swim, and your legs to ride. They also collapse underfoot, so you’re riding mini-avalanches and dodging slough slides. Spines have blind rollovers, so you can’t see below. Or to the side. Every time the midline is crossed, it’s a leap into the abyss. Plus, there’s no way to stop and every move is amplified by complicated forces. A tiny hop can easily become a twenty-foot ollie. It’s the absolute edge of chaos. But the easiest way to live in the moment is to put yourself in a situation where there’s no other choice. Spines demand that, they hurl you deep into the zone.’ Emphasis added.

Video: Snowboarder Jeremy Jones

What Jones calls ‘the zone’ is also known as ‘flow‘ — a particular mental state, triggered by environmental cues, that brings greatly enhanced performance. It is the object of study in extreme sports and by the military and intelligence services: for example DARPA is researching whether stimulating the brain can trigger ‘flow’ in snipers.

Flow — or control on ‘the edge of chaos’ where ‘every move is amplified by complicated forces’ — comes from training in which people learn from very rapid feedback between predictions and reality. In ‘flow’, brains very rapidly and accurately process environmental signals and generate hypothetical scenarios/predictions and possible solutions based on experience and training. Jones’s performance is inseparable from developing this fingertip feeling. Similarly, an expert fireman feels the glow of heat on his face in a slightly odd way and runs out of the building just before it collapses without consciously knowing why he did it: his intuition has been trained to learn from feedback and make predictions. Experts operating in ‘flow’ do not follow what is sometimes called the ‘rational model’ of decision-making in which they sequentially interrogate different options — they pattern-match solutions extremely quickly based on experience and intuition.

The video below shows extreme expertise in a state of ‘flow’ with feedback on predictions within milliseconds. This legendary ride is so famous not because of the size of the wave but its odd, and dangerous, nature. If you watch carefully you will see what a true expert in ‘flow’ can do: after committing to the wave Hamilton suddenly realises that unless he reaches back with the opposite hand to normal and drags it against the wall of water behind him, he will get sucked up the wave and might die. (This wave had killed someone a few weeks earlier.) Years of practice and feedback honed the intuition that, when faced with a very dangerous and fast moving problem, almost instantly (few seconds maximum) pattern-matched an innovative solution.

Video: surfer Laird Hamilton in one of the greatest ever rides

 

The faster the feedback cycle, the more likely you are to develop a qualitative improvement in speed that destroys an opponent’s decision-making cycle. If you can reorient yourself faster to the ever-changing environment than your opponent, then you operate inside their ‘OODA loop’ (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) and the opponent’s performance can quickly degrade and collapse.

This lesson is vital in politics. You can read it in Sun Tzu and see it with Alexander the Great. Everybody can read such lessons and most people will nod along. But it is very hard to apply because most political/government organisations are programmed by their incentives to prioritise seniority, process and prestige over high performance and this slows and degrades decisions. Most organisations don’t do it. Further, political organisations tend to make too slowly those decisions that should be fast and too quickly those decisions that should be slow — they are simultaneously both too sluggish and too impetuous, which closes off favourable branching histories of the future.

Video: Boxer Floyd Mayweather, best fighter of his generation and one of the quickest and best defensive fighters ever

The most extreme example in extreme sports is probably ‘free soloing’ — climbing mountains without ropes where one mistake means instant death. If you want to see an example of genuine expertise and the value of fast feedback then watch Alex Honnold.

Video: Alex Honnold ‘free solos’ El Sendero Luminoso (terrifying)

Music is similar to sport. There is very fast feedback, learning, and a clear hierarchy of expertise.

Video: Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations (slow version)

Our culture treats expertise/high performance in fields like sport and music very differently to maths/science education and politics/government. As Alan Kay observes, music and sport expertise is embedded in the broader culture. Millions of children spend large amounts of time practising hard skills. Attacks on them as ‘elitist’ don’t get the same damaging purchase as in other fields and the public don’t mind about elite selection for sports teams or orchestras.

‘Two ideas about this are that a) these [sport/music] are activities in which the basic act can be seen clearly from the first, and b) are already part of the larger culture. There are levels that can be seen to be inclusive starting with modest skills. I think a very large problem for the learning of both science and math is just how invisible are their processes, especially in schools.’ Kay 

When it comes to maths and science education, the powers-that-be (in America and Britain) try very hard and mostly successfully to ignore the question: where are critical thresholds for valuable skills that develop true expertise. This is even more a problem with the concept of ‘thinking rationally’, for which some basic logic, probability, and understanding of scientific reasoning is a foundation. Discussion of politics and government almost totally ignores the concept of training people to update their opinions in response to new evidence — i.e adapt to feedback. The ‘rationalist community’ — people like Scott Alexander who wrote this fantastic essay (Moloch) about why so much goes wrong, or the recent essays by Eliezer Yudkowsky — are ignored at the apex of power. I will return to the subject of how to create new education and training programmes for elite decision-makers. It is a good time for UK universities to innovate in this field, as places like Stanford are already doing. Instead of training people like Cameron and Adonis to bluff with PPE, we need courses that combine rational thinking with practical training in managing complex projects. We need people who practice really hard making predictions in ways we know work well (cf. Tetlock) then update in response to errors.

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A more general/abstract approach to reforming government

If we want to get much higher performance in government, then we need to think rigorously about: the selection of people and teams, their education and training, their tools, and the institutions (incentives and so on) that surround and shape them.

Almost all analysis of politics and government considers relatively surface phenomena. For example, the media briefly blasts headlines about Carillion’s collapse or our comical aircraft carriers but there is almost no consideration of the deep reasons for such failures and therefore nothing tends to happen — the media caravan moves on and the officials and ministers keep failing in the same ways. This is why, for example, the predicted abject failure of the traditional Westminster machinery to cope with Brexit negotiations has not led to self-examination and learning but, instead, mostly to a visible determination across both sides of the Brexit divide in SW1 to double down on long-held delusions.

Progress requires attacking the ‘system of systems’ problem at the right ‘level’. Attacking the problems directly — let’s improve policy X and Y, let’s swap ‘incompetent’ A for ‘competent’ B — cannot touch the core problems, particularly the hardest meta-problem that government systems bitterly fight improvement. Solving the explicit surface problems of politics and government is best approached by a more general focus on applying abstract principles of effective action. We need to surround relatively specific problems with a more general approach. Attack at the right level will see specific solutions automatically ‘pop out’ of the system. One of the most powerful simplicities in all conflict (almost always unrecognised) is: ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of war’. If we approach the problem of government performance at the right level of generality then we have a chance to solve specific problems ‘without fighting’ — or, rather, without fighting nearly so much and the fighting will be more fruitful.

This is not a theoretical argument. If you look carefully at ancient texts and modern case studies, you see that applying a small number of very simple, powerful, but largely unrecognised principles (that are very hard for organisations to operationalise) can produce extremely surprising results.

We have no alternative to trying. Without fundamental changes to government, we will lose our hourly game of Russian roulette with technological progress.

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable… [T]he ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life … gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ John von Neumann

As Steve Hsu says: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.


Ps. There is an interesting connection between the nature of counterfactual reasoning in the fast-moving world of extreme sports and the theoretical paper I posted yesterday on state-of-the-art AI. The human ability to interrogate stored representations of their environment with counter-factual questions is fundamental to the nature of intelligence and developing expertise in physical and mental skills. It is, for now, absent in machines.

Technology: the state-of-the-art in AI, causality, hypotheticals, and robots with free will & capacity for evil (UPDATED)

Judea Pearl is one of the most important scholars in the field of causal reasoning. His book Causality is the leading textbook in the field.

This blog has two short parts — a paper he wrote a few months ago and an interview he gave a few days ago.

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He recently wrote a very interesting (to the very limited extent I understand it) short paper about the limits of state-of-the-art AI systems using ‘deep learning’ neural networks — such as the AlphaGo system which recently conquered the game of GO and AlphaZero which blew past centuries of human knowledge of chess in 24 hours — and how these systems could be improved.

The human ability to interrogate stored representations of their environment with counter-factual questions is fundamental and, for now, absent in machines. (All bold added my me.)

‘If we examine the information that drives machine learning today, we find that it is almost entirely statistical. In other words, learning machines improve their performance by optimizing parameters over a stream of sensory inputs received from the environment. It is a slow process, analogous in many respects to the evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest process that explains how species like eagles and snakes have developed superb vision systems over millions of years. It cannot explain however the super-evolutionary process that enabled humans to build eyeglasses and telescopes over barely one thousand years. What humans possessed that other species lacked was a mental representation, a blue-print of their environment which they could manipulate at will to imagine alternative hypothetical environments for planning and learning…

‘[T]he decisive ingredient that gave our homo sapiens ancestors the ability to achieve global dominion, about 40,000 years ago, was their ability to sketch and store a representation of their environment, interrogate that representation, distort it by mental acts of imagination and finally answer “What if?” kind of questions. Examples are interventional questions: “What if I act?” and retrospective or explanatory questions: “What if I had acted differently?” No learning machine in operation today can answer such questions about actions not taken before. Moreover, most learning machines today do not utilize a representation from which such questions can be answered.

‘We postulate that the major impediment to achieving accelerated learning speeds as well as human level performance can be overcome by removing these barriers and equipping learning machines with causal reasoning tools. This postulate would have been speculative twenty years ago, prior to the mathematization of counterfactuals. Not so today. Advances in graphical and structural models have made counterfactuals computationally manageable and thus rendered meta-statistical learning worthy of serious exploration

Figure: the ladder of causation

Screenshot 2018-03-12 11.22.54

‘An extremely useful insight unveiled by the logic of causal reasoning is the existence of a sharp classification of causal information, in terms of the kind of questions that each class is capable of answering. The classification forms a 3-level hierarchy in the sense that questions at level i (i = 1, 2, 3) can only be answered if information from level j (j ≥ i) is available. [See figure]… Counterfactuals are placed at the top of the hierarchy because they subsume interventional and associational questions. If we have a model that can answer counterfactual queries, we can also answer questions about interventions and observations… The translation does not work in the opposite direction… No counterfactual question involving retrospection can be answered from purely interventional information, such as that acquired from controlled experiments; we cannot re-run an experiment on subjects who were treated with a drug and see how they behave had then not given the drug. The hierarchy is therefore directional, with the top level being the most powerful one. Counterfactuals are the building blocks of scientific thinking as well as legal and moral reasoning…

‘This hierarchy, and the formal restrictions it entails, explains why statistics-based machine learning systems are prevented from reasoning about actions, experiments and explanations. It also suggests what external information need to be provided to, or assumed by, a learning system, and in what format, in order to circumvent those restrictions

[He describes his approach to giving machines the ability to reason in more advanced ways (‘intent-specific optimization’) than standard approaches and the success of some experiments on real problems.]

[T]he value of intent-base optimization … contains … the key by which counterfactual information can be extracted out of experiments. The key is to have agents who pause, deliberate, and then act, possibly contrary to their original intent. The ability to record the discrepancy between outcomes resulting from enacting one’s intent and those resulting from acting after a deliberative pause, provides the information that renders counterfactuals estimable. It is this information that enables us to cross the barrier between layer 2 and layer 3 of the causal hierarchy… Every child undergoes experiences where he/she pauses and thinks: Can I do better? If mental records are kept of those experiences, we have experimental semantic to counterfactual thinking in the form of regret sentences “I could have done better.” The practical implications of this new semantics is worth exploring.’

The paper is here: http://web.cs.ucla.edu/~kaoru/theoretical-impediments.pdf.

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By chance this evening I came across this interview with Pearl in which he discuses some of the ideas above less formally, HERE.

‘The problems that emerged in the early 1980s were of a predictive or diagnostic nature. A doctor looks at a bunch of symptoms from a patient and wants to come up with the probability that the patient has malaria or some other disease. We wanted automatic systems, expert systems, to be able to replace the professional — whether a doctor, or an explorer for minerals, or some other kind of paid expert. So at that point I came up with the idea of doing it probabilistically.

‘Unfortunately, standard probability calculations required exponential space and exponential time. I came up with a scheme called Bayesian networks that required polynomial time and was also quite transparent.

‘[A]s soon as we developed tools that enabled machines to reason with uncertainty, I left the arena to pursue a more challenging task: reasoning with cause and effect.

‘All the machine-learning work that we see today is conducted in diagnostic mode — say, labeling objects as “cat” or “tiger.” They don’t care about intervention; they just want to recognize an object and to predict how it’s going to evolve in time.

‘I felt an apostate when I developed powerful tools for prediction and diagnosis knowing already that this is merely the tip of human intelligence. If we want machines to reason about interventions (“What if we ban cigarettes?”) and introspection (“What if I had finished high school?”), we must invoke causal models. Associations are not enough — and this is a mathematical fact, not opinion.

‘As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial.

‘I’m very impressed, because we did not expect that so many problems could be solved by pure curve fitting. It turns out they can. But I’m asking about the future — what next? Can you have a robot scientist that would plan an experiment and find new answers to pending scientific questions? That’s the next step. We also want to conduct some communication with a machine that is meaningful, and meaningful means matching our intuition.

‘If a machine does not have a model of reality, you cannot expect the machine to behave intelligently in that reality. The first step, one that will take place in maybe 10 years, is that conceptual models of reality will be programmed by humans. The next step will be that machines will postulate such models on their own and will verify and refine them based on empirical evidence. That is what happened to science; we started with a geocentric model, with circles and epicycles, and ended up with a heliocentric model with its ellipses.

We’re going to have robots with free will, absolutely. We have to understand how to program them and what we gain out of it. For some reason, evolution has found this sensation of free will to be computationally desirable… Evidently, it serves some computational function.

‘I think the first evidence will be if robots start communicating with each other counterfactually, like “You should have done better.” If a team of robots playing soccer starts to communicate in this language, then we’ll know that they have a sensation of free will. “You should have passed me the ball — I was waiting for you and you didn’t!” “You should have” means you could have controlled whatever urges made you do what you did, and you didn’t.

[When will robots be evil?] When it appears that the robot follows the advice of some software components and not others, when the robot ignores the advice of other components that are maintaining norms of behavior that have been programmed into them or are expected to be there on the basis of past learning. And the robot stops following them.’

Please leave links to significant critiques of this paper or work that has developed the ideas in it.

If interested in the pre-history of the computer age and internet, this paper explores it.

On the referendum 24I: new research on Facebook & ‘psychographic’ microtargeting

Summary: a short blog on a new paper casting doubt on claims re microtargeting using Facebook.

The audience for conspiracy theories about microtargeting, Facebook and Brexit is large and includes a big subset of SW1 and a wider group (but much smaller than it thinks it is) that wants a rematch against the public. The audience for facts, evidence and research about microtargeting, Facebook and Brexit is tiny. If you are part of this tiny audience…

I wrote a few days ago about good evidence on microtargeting in general and Cambridge Analytica’s claims on ‘psychographics’ in particular (see HERE).

Nutshell: the evidence and science re ‘microtargeting’ does not match the story you read in the media or the conspiracy theories about the referendum, and Vote Leave did not do microtargeting in any normal sense of the term.

Another interesting paper on this subject has been published a few days ago.

Background…

One of the most influential researchers cited by the media since Brexit/Trump is Michal Kosinski who wrote a widely cited 2015 paper on predicting Big 5 personality traits from Facebook ‘likes’: Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans.

Duncan Watts, one of the leading scholars in computational sociology, pointed out:

‘All it shows is that algorithmic predictions of Big 5 traits are about as accurate as human predictions, which is to say only about 50 percent accurate. If all you had to do to change someone’s opinion was guess their openness or political attitude, then even really noisy predictions might be worrying at scale. But predicting attributes is much easier than persuading people.’

Kosinski published another paper recently: Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion (November 2017). The core claim was:

‘In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, we find that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered their behavior as measured by clicks and purchases. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts. Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences.’

If this claim were true it would be a big deal in the advertising world. Further, Kosinski claimed that ‘The assumption is that the same effects can be observed in political messages.’ That would be an even bigger deal.

I was sceptical when I read the 2017 paper, mainly given the large amount of evidence in books like Hacking the Electorate that I touched on in the previous blog, but I didn’t have the time or expertise to investigate. I did read this Wired piece on that paper in which Watts commented:

‘Watts says that the 2017 paper didn’t convince him the technique could work, either. The results barely improve click-through rates, he says — a far cry from predicting political behavior. And more than that, Kosinski’s mistargeted openness ads — that is, the ads tailored for the opposite personality characteristic — far outperformed the targeted extraversion ads. Watts says that suggests other, uncontrolled factors are having unknown effects. “So again,” he says, “I would question how meaningful these effects are in practice.”‘

Another leading researcher, David Lazer, commented:

‘On the psychographic stuff, I haven’t see any science that really aligns with their [CA/Kosinski] claims.’

Another leading researcher, Alex Pentland at MIT (who also successfully won a DARPA project to solve a geolocation intelligence problem) was also sceptical:

‘Everybody talks about Google and Facebook, but the things that people say online are not nearly as predictive as, say, what your telephone company knows about you. Or your credit card company. Fortunately telephone companies, banks, things like that are very highly regulated companies. So we have a fair amount of time. It may never happen that the data gets loose.’

I’ve just been sent this paper (preprint link): Field studies of psychologically targeted ads face threats to internal validity (2018). It is an analysis of Kosinski’s 2017 experiments. It argues that the Kosinski experiment is NOT RANDOMISED and points out statistical and other flaws that undermine Kosinski’s claims:

‘The paper [Kosinski 2017] uses Facebook’s standard ad platform to compare how different versions of ads perform. However, this process does not create a randomized experiment: users are not randomly assigned to different ads, and individuals may even receive multiple ad types (e.g., both extroverted and introverted ads). Furthermore, ad platforms like Facebook optimize campaign performance by showing ads to users whom the platform expects are more likely to fulfill the campaign’s objective… This optimization generates differences in the set of users exposed to each ad type, so that differences in responses across ads do not by themselves indicate a causal effect.’ (Emphasis added.)

Kosinski et al reply here. They admit that the optimisation of Facebook’s ad algorithms could affect their results though they defend their work. (Campaigns face similar operational problems in figuring out ways to run experiments on Facebook without FB’s algorithms distorting them.)

I am not remotely competent to judge the conflicting claims and haven’t yet asked anybody who is though I have a (mostly worthless) hunch that the criticisms will stack up. I’ll add an update in the future when this is resolved.

Big claims require good evidence and good science — not what Feynman called ‘cargo cult science’ which accounts for a lot of social science research. Most claims you read about psychological manipulation are rubbish. There are interesting possibilities for applying advanced technology, as I wrote in my last blog, but a) almost everything you read about is not in this class and b) I am sceptical in general that ideas in published work on using Big 5 personality traits could add anything more than a very small boost to political campaigns at best and it can also easily blow up in your face, as Hersh’s evidence to the Senate shows. I strongly suspect that usually the ‘gains’ are less than the fees of the consultants flogging the snake oil — i.e a net loss for campaigns.

If you believe, like the Observer, that the US/UK military and/or intelligence services have access to technological methods of psychological manipulation that greatly exceed what is done commercially, you misunderstand their real capabilities. For example, look at how the commander of US classified special forces (JSOC), Stanley McChrystal, recruited civilians for his propaganda operations in Afghanistan because the military did not know what to do. The evidence since 9/11 is of general failure in the UK/USA viz propaganda / ‘information war’ / ‘hybrid war’ etc. Further, if you want expertise on things like Facebook and Google, the place to look is Silicon Valley, not the Pentagon. Look at how recent UK Prime Ministers have behaved. Look at how Cameron tweeted about rushing back from Chequers in the middle of the night to deal with ISIS beheadings. Look at how Blair, Brown and Cameron foolishly read out the names of people killed in the Commons. Of course it is impossible from the outside to know how much of this is because Downing Street mangles advice and operations and how much is failure elsewhere. I assume there are lots of good people in the system but, like elsewhere in modern Whitehall, expertise is suppressed by centralised hierarchies (as with Brexit).

On campaigns and in government, figuring out the answers to a few deep questions is much more important than practically anything you read about technology issues like microtargeting. But focus and priorities are very hard for big organisations including parties and governments, because they are mostly dominated by seniority, groupthink, signalling, distorted incentives and so on. A lack of focus means they spread intelligent effort too widely and don’t think enough about deep questions that overwhelmingly determine their fate.

Of course, it is possible to use technology to enhance campaigns and it is possible to devise messages that have game-changing effects but the media focus on microtargeting is almost completely misguided and the Select Committee’s inquiry into fake news has mostly spread fake news. There has been zero scrutiny, as far as I have seen, on the evidence from reputable scholars like Duncan Watts or Eitan Hersh on the facts and evidence about microtargeting and fake news in relation to Trump/Brexit. Sadly they are more interested in grandstanding than truth-seeking, which is why the Committee turned down my offer to arrange a time to give evidence and instead tried to grab headlines. I offered friendly cooperation, as the government should have done with Brexit, but the Committee went for empty threats, as per May and Hammond, and this approach will be as successful as this government’s negotiating strategy.

On the referendum #24H: Facebook, data science, technology, elections, and transparency

This blog has two short parts: A) a simple point about Wednesday’s committee hearing, B) some interesting evidence from a rare expert on the subject of data and campaigns, and a simple idea to improve regulation of elections. (And a PS. on hack Jane Merrick spreading more fake news.) There is a very short UPDATE re Facebook posted the next day, highlighted in BOLD below.

A. Re Wednesday’s Select Committee and Facebook letter

Correspondence from Facebook was published and used by the Committee to suggest that Vote Leave/AIQ have lied about when they started working together.

Henry de Zoete was introduced to AIQ on 31 March 2016. (This is all clear in emails that I think have been given to the Electoral Commission — if not they easily could be.)

AIQ did zero work for VL before then and, obviously, did not have access to VL’s Facebook page before we had even spoken to them.

If Facebook is saying that AIQ was running ads for VL in February 2016, then Facebook is wrong. [UPDATE: actually, if you read Facebook’s letter carefully, they correct their own error in a table where they use the timeframe for AIQ activity of “15 April – 23 June”. “15 April” of course fits with the date of VL’s introduction to AIQ I gave in this blog, and is the first day of the official campaign. The MPs either didn’t read the letter properly or chose to use the date which gave them a news story.]

VL was running stuff on FB in February as Facebook says. But this was done by us, NOT by AIQ.

Probably Facebook has looked at the VL FB page, seen activity in February, seen AIQ doing stuff shortly after and wrongly concluded that the earlier activity was also done by AIQ. It wasn’t and any further investigations will show this.

This isn’t actually important viz the legal claims and the EC investigation but I make the point in the interests of trying to clarify FACTS — so far the fake news inquiry has spread fake news around the world and clarified little. Also note how the Committee drops correspondence on the day of the hearing to maximise their chances of creating embarrassing moments for witnesses. This is the behaviour of people happy to see false memes spread, not the behaviour of truth-seeking MPs.

The Committee is now threatening me with ‘contempt of Parliament’. Their behaviour in seeking headlines rather than cooperating with witnesses over dates for evidence is  the sort of behaviour that has increased the contempt of the public for MPs over the last 20 years, which of course contributed to the referendum result. The Committee doesn’t understand Vote Leave. We had to deal with threats from MPs every day for a year, including from the PM/Chancellor and their henchmen who could actually back up serious threats. We ignored that. Why would you think we’re going to worry about EMPTY threats? If you think I care about ‘reputational damage’, you are badly advised.

B. Rare expertise on the subject of data and elections from Eitan Hersh to US Senate

Eitan Hersh wrote a book in 2015 called Hacking the Electorate. It’s pretty much the best book I’ve seen on the use of data science in US elections and what good evidence shows works and does not work.

As I wrote after the referendum, we tried hard in Vote Leave to base decisions on the best EVIDENCE for what works in campaigns and we spent time tracking down a wide variety of studies. Usually in politics everything is done on hunches. Inevitably, the world of ‘communications’ / PR / advertising / marketing is full of charlatans flogging snake oil. It is therefore very easy to do things and spend money just because it’s conventional. Because we were such a huge underdog we had to take some big gambles and we wanted to optimise the effectiveness of our core message as much as possible — if you know the science, you can focus more effectively. The constraints of time, money, and the appalling in-fighting meant we never pushed this nearly as far as I wanted but we tried hard.

For example, one of the few things about advertising which seems logical and has good evidence to support it is — try to get your message in front of people as close to the decision point as possible. That’s why we spent almost the whole campaign testing things (via polls, focus groups, online etc) then dropped most of our marketing budget in the last few days of the campaign. Similarly, Robert Cialdini wrote one of the few very good books on persuasion — Influence — and ideas from that informed how we wrote campaign materials. We were happy to take risks and look stupid. We came across a study where researchers had used as a control a leaflet with zero branding only to find, much to their surprise if I remember right, that it worked much better than all the other examples. We therefore experimented with leaflets stripped of all branding (‘The Facts’) which unleashed another wave of attacks from SW1 (‘worst thing I’ve seen in politics, amateur hour’ etc), but sure enough in focus groups people loved it (the IN campaign clearly found the same because they started copying this).

Of course, all sorts of decisions could not be helped by reliable evidence. But it is a much healthier process to KNOW when you’re taking a punt. Most political operations — and government — don’t try to be rigorous about decision-making or force themselves to think about what they know with what confidence. They are dominated by seniority, not evidence. Our focus on evidence was connected to creating a culture in which people could say to senior people ‘you’re wrong’. This is invaluable. I made many awful mistakes but was mostly saved from the consequences because we had a culture in which people could say ‘you’re wrong’ and fix them fast.

This is relevant to Hersh’s evidence and the conspiracy theories…

Hersh’s evidence should be read by everybody interested in the general issues of data and elections and the recent conspiracy theories in particular. I won’t go into these conspiracies again.

Here are some quotes…

‘Based on the information I have seen from public reports about Cambridge Analytica, it is my opinion that its targeting practices in 2016 ought not to be a major cause for concern in terms of unduly influencing the election outcome…

‘In every election, the news media exaggerate the technological feats of political campaigns…

‘The latest technology used by the winning campaign is often a good storyline, even if it’s false. Finally, campaign consultants have a business interest in appearing to offer a special product to future clients, and so they are often eager to embellish their role in quotes to the media…

‘I found that commercial data did not turn out to be very useful to campaigns. Even while campaigns touted the hundreds or thousands of data points they had on individuals, campaigns’ predictive models did not rely very much on these fields. Relative to information like  age, gender, race, and party affiliation, commercial measures of product preferences did not add very much explanatory power about Americans’ voting behavior…

‘Many commercial fields simply are not highly correlated with political dispositions. And even those that are might not provide added information to a campaign’s predictive models…

‘Nearly everything Mr. Nix articulates here [in a video describing CA’s methods] is not new. Based on what we know from past work,  it is also likely to have been ineffective. Cambridge Analytica’s definition of a persuadable voter is someone who is likely to vote but the campaign isn’t sure who they will vote for. This is a common campaign convention for defining persuadability. It also bears virtually no relationship to which voters are actually persuadable, undecided, or cross-pressured on issues, as I discuss in Hacking the Electorate… Cambridge Analytica’s strategy of contacting likely voters who are not surely supportive of one candidate over the other but who support gun rights and who are predicted to bear a particular personality trait is likely to give them very little traction in moving voters’ opinions. And indeed, I have seen no evidence presented by the firm or by anyone suggesting the firm’s strategies were effective at doing this 

‘As many journalists have observed, building a psychological profile by connecting Facebook “likes” to survey respondents who took a personality test would lead to inaccurate predictions. Facebook “likes” might be correlated with traits like openness and neuroticism, but the correlation is likely to be weak. The weak correlation means that the prediction will have lots of false positives…

‘In campaign targeting models I have studied, predictions of which voters are black or Hispanic are wrong about 25-30% of the time. Models of traits such as issue positions or personality traits are likely to be much less accurate. They are less accurate because they are less stable and because available information like demographic correlates and Facebook “likes” are probably only weakly related to them…

‘In a series of experiments, a colleague and I found that voters penalize candidates for mis-targeting such that any gains made through a successful target are often canceled out by losses attributable to mistargets… 

I am skeptical that Cambridge Analytica manipulated voters in a way that affected the election 

[Hersh then says ‘The skepticism I offer comes with a high degree of uncertainty’ and describes some of the gaps in what we know about such things. He also calls on Facebook to make its data available to researchers.]

‘News, both real and fake, is disseminated among users because it feels good to share. The kinds of news and content that often piques our interest appeals to our basest instincts; we are drawn to extremism, provocation, and outrage.’

Transparency — two simple ideas to improve things

In the last section Hersh discusses some broad points about transparency and social media. These things are important as I said after the referendum. Sadly, the focus on conspiracy theories has diverted the media and MPs away from serious issues.

I have zero legal responsibility for Vote Leave now — I ceased to be a director as part of our desperate rearguard action during the coup that kicked off on 25 January 2016. But I wouldn’t mind if Facebook wanted to take ALL of Vote Leave’s Facebook data that may be still sitting in ad manager etc — data normally considered very sensitive and never published by campaigns — and put the whole lot on its website available for download by anybody (excluding personal data so no individuals could be identified, which presumably would be illegal).

Why?

  1. In principle I agree with Hersh and think serious academic scrutiny would be good.
  2. In the interests of the VL team, it would prove what I have been saying and prove aspects of the conspiracy theories wrong. We never saw/used/wanted the data improperly acquired by CA. We did practically no ‘microtargeting’ in the normal sense of the term and zero using so-called ‘psychographics’ for exactly the reason described above — we tried to base decisions on good evidence and the good evidence from experts like Hersh was that it was not a good use of time and money. We focused on other things.

Here is another idea.

Why not have a central platform (managed by a much-reformed and updated Electoral Commission with serious powers) and oblige all permitted participants in elections to upload samples of all digital ads to this platform (say daily?) for public inspection by anybody who wants to look. After the election, further data on buy size, audience etc could be made automatically available alongside each sample. This would add only a tiny admin burden to a campaign but it would ensure that there is a full and accurate public record of digital campaigning.

Of course, this idea highlights an obvious point — there has never been any requirement on the parties to do this with paper documents. Part of the reason for the rage against Vote Leave in SW1 is that the referendum victory was something done to SW1 and the parties, not something done by them, hence partly their scrutiny of our methods. (This is also partly why the MPs are struggling so much to get to grips with the consequences.) There are no silver bullets but this simple measure would do some good and I cannot see a reasonable objection. Professional campaigners and marketers would hate this as they profit from a lack of transparency and flogging snake oil but their concerns should be ignored. Will the parties support such transparency for themselves in future elections?

One of the many opportunities of Brexit, as I’ve said before, comes in how we regulate such things. American law massively reflects the interests of powerful companies. EU law, including GDPR, is a legal and bureaucratic nightmare. The UK has, thanks to Brexit, a chance to regulate data better than either. This principle applies to many other fields, from CRISPR and genetic engineering to artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, which in the EU will be controlled by the ECJ interpreting the Charter of Fundamental Rights (and be bad for Europe’s economies and democracies). MPs could usefully consider these great opportunities instead of nodding along as officials do their best to get ministers to promise to maintain every awful set of EU rules until judgement day.

The issues of data-technology-elections is going to become more and more important fast. While the field is dominated by charlatans, it is clear that there is vast scope for non-charlatans to exploit technology and potentially do things far more effective, and potentially dangerous for democracy, than CA has claimed (wrongly) to do. Having spent some time in Silicon Valley since the referendum, it is obvious that it is/will be possible to have a decisive impact on a UK election using advanced technology. The limiting factors will be cash and a very small number of highly able people: i.e an operation to change an election could scale very effectively and stay hidden to a remarkable degree. The laws are a joke. MPs haven’t mastered the 70 year old technology of TV. How do you think they’d cope with people using tools like Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) — never mind what will be available within five years? The gaps in technical skill between commercial fields are extreme and getting wider as the west coast of America and coastal China suck in people with extreme skills. Old media companies already cannot compete with the likes of Google and the skill gaps  — and their consequences — grow every day.

But but but — technology alone will very rarely be the decisive factor: ‘people, ideas, and machines — in that order’, shouted Colonel Boyd at audiences, and this will remain true until/unless the machines get smarter than the people. The most important thing for campaigns (and governments) to get right is how they make decisions. If you do this right, you will exploit technology successfully. If you don’t — like the Tories in 2017 who created a campaign organisation violating every principle of effective action — no advantage in technology or cash will save you. And to get this right, you should study examples from the ancient world to modern projects like ARPA-PARC and Apollo (see here).

Anyway, I urge you to read Hersh’s evidence and ponder his warnings at the end, it will only take ~15 minutes. If interested, I also urge you to read some of the work by Rand Waltzman who ran a DARPA project on technology and social media. He has mostly been ignored in Washington as far as I can see but he should not be. He would be one of the most useful people in the world for MPs and hacks interested in these issues to speak to.

https://www.eitanhersh.com/uploads/7/9/7/5/7975685/hersh_written_testimony_senate_judiciary.pdf


PS. I’ve just been sent a blog on The Times website by Jane Merrick. It includes this regarding the latest odd news about a C4 drama:

‘Yet as with Mandelson, Cummings seems to complain about everything that is ever written about him, and so his reaction from his Twitter account — @odysseanproject (don’t ask) — was this: “What’s the betting this will be a Remain love-in and dire.” Oh how humbly he does brag!

I’ve had hacks email me asking me to ‘defend’ things on that Twitter account.

1. That is not my twitter account — it is a fake account. It’s interesting how many hacks complain about fake news while spreading it themselves. If you’re going to make claims about anonymous Twitter accounts (as she does elsewhere in her blog), try not to get confused by obvious parodies.

2. She also doesn’t mention that her husband, Toby Helm, was the SW1 equivalent of the guy in Scream chasing me and Henry de Zoete around Westminster for two years with a carving knife and a scream mask. The Observer promised the lobby I’d be marched out of the DfE in handcuffs. Nothing happened. Why? Because hate clouded their judgement, they botched the facts, and their claims were bullshit. Sound familiar?

[Update: The Times has cut that passage from the blog.]

On the referendum #24G: Grandstanding MPs and the Zoolander inquiry

The Select Committee doing the inquiry into fake news asked me to give evidence over a month ago.

I said I would be happy to but explained that I could not do those dates and also explained legal issues re the Electoral Commission’s 3rd inquiry which means that lawyers of multiple parties have told me to keep my trap shut until they’ve finished, which is unlikely for months to come.

I also made clear I was happy to give evidence once this snag was out of the way.

Instead of discussing dates in a cooperative way, they went silent for weeks then threatened me this morning with a ‘Summons’. (They have also published claims today about the attitude of the ICO and EC towards me giving evidence which those organisations have never told me.)

I said that if they took such a foolish step — and an unnecessary one given I wanted to give evidence — they would be demonstrating their priority was grandstanding PR, not truth-seeking. I also suggested they bring Wylie and Zoolander back to the Committee to explain the multiple factual errors and inconsistencies in their stories so we could all be clear about what exactly they are really claiming. So far the inquiry on fake news has helped spread fake news across the world.

Minutes later they sent their Summons and asked for confirmation I will change my mind and appear on the date they already knew I could not make.

No, of course not.

I said that if they issued a Summons instead of discussing possible dates like reasonable people, then it would be obvious they are not interested in friendly cooperation to uncover the truth. So I will not give evidence to this Committee under any circumstances. (I may to other Committees depending on behaviour.)

One of the many things about government that could be improved is changes to the Committee process and powers. They should, like in America, have the power to compel attendance (!), but they should also have processes that push them towards truth-seeking behaviour rather than the usual trivialising grandstanding. Committees also need resources for specialist help as they are unable to question witnesses properly on many issues.

If they really wanted to get to the bottom of things, they would have continued discussions over dates, not sent an ineffectual Summons to the media. Their desire for a quick headline has robbed them of hours of TV… 

Ps. For those who missed it, Facebook analysed Vote Leave advertising on Facebook during the referendum and concluded that not only did Vote Leave NOT use the data wrongly appropriated by CA, but that we COULD NOT HAVE DONE. So far, no correction from Observer/C4.

On the referendum #24F: Another central claim of the Observer/Channel 4 conspiracy blows up

Yesterday I posted Facebook’s evidence showing that the central allegation of the Observer/Channel 4 conspiracy theory — that Vote Leave used the infamous data obtained by Cambridge Analytica — was provably false.

Today, the Spectator blows up other claims.

The most striking bit of ‘evidence’ the Observer produced recently was a video which they claimed showed the ‘destruction of evidence’ and a ‘coverup’. At the time I said that it did not show who or what the Observer claimed. (I won’t post it to avoid spreading fake news.)

The Spectator carries a statement from Vote Leave directors sent to the Electoral Commission proving that the Observer claims are entirely false:

‘This statement concerns a serious allegation against Ms Victoria Woodcock recently made by Shahmir Sanni et al, which we have reviewed urgently and needed to respond to more immediately, alleging what was variously described as data deletion on, or removal of access permissions from, Vote leave’s ‘BeLeave’ folder on March 17th 2017. We are now in a position to respond on this matter following a forensic review of Vote Leave’s Google Drive.

Ms Woodcock did not on that date access, delete, amend, or change permissions for any data or files on the BeLeave folder, as alleged by the so-called whistle-blowers and as is purported to be shown in the GIF published by The Observer. Allegations that claim she did are false and are based on misconceptions and misunderstandings of how Google Drive works.

‘Prior to March 17th 2017 Ms Woodcock was the Data Controller for Vote Leave and, in preparation for closedown, the majority of documents on its drive had been incorporated by her into a super-folder in her name. As a next step in the closedown process, it was decided that Ms Woodcock should hand over her responsibilities on March 17th 2017, and accordingly, on that date, her access to the Vote Leave Gdrive was removed. Later that day, continuing the closedown, at the direction of the Board and as a part of a standard data protection exercise, permissions were removed from folders across the Gdrive (of which the BeLeave folder was a part) for a group of high-level users (this group included, but was by no means merely, Ms Woodcock and the other two individuals shown in the GIF).

‘Ms Woodcock’s name appears as the user making the changes because she had been the super-administrator and data controller, so the “Victoria Woodcock” account was a convenient one to use, to achieve best visibility across the G Drive; the changes were in fact made by an authorised Vote Leave administrator, using her account, at a time when Ms Woodcock had had her access removed so would therefore not even have known that this activity was taking place. Independent IT consultants have verified that no BeLeave files were deleted from the folder. Permissions were removed, not by Victoria Woodcock; from folders across the drive, not just the BeLeave folder; and for a wider group than the three individuals shown in the Observer’s GIF.

‘These allegations against Ms Woodcock are therefore groundless.’ (Emphasis added)

In short, VW was removed from access to the drive before the video was taken, the video does NOT show her, it shows a different person to the Observer’s claim doing something completely different to the Observer’s claim, and nothing was deleted. (I was removed from access to this system long before 17 March 2017.)

Everything the Observer/C4 claimed about this GIF/video was wrong. No responsible media organisation should repeat the libellous allegations from Observer/C4. 

*

2 other interesting snippets re the EU today.

1/ The GDPR legislation is horrific. One of the many advantages of Brexit is we will soon be able to bin such idiotic laws. We will be able to navigate between America’s poor protection of privacy and the EU’s hostility to technology and entrepreneurs. It doesn’t matter that this Government will sign up to a shockingly bad deal that purports to keep us in such stuff. The deal will be binned. With Brexit, it is the long-term that counts most — not what ministers like DD say and sign.

Hacks should ask around big companies for lunatic documents circulating to staff giving them directions on how to behave under GDPR to see what I mean. From baby photos to sickies, hacks will have a field day.

Also note that Whitehall is happy to spend huge amounts of time and effort passing GDPR and associated bullshit while stalling on preparations to make the UK a ‘third country’ under EU law and claiming to ministers that preparations to leave the EU are ‘illegal’ (and requiring they make written notices to Permanent Secretaries and other classic moves of the normal bureaucratic chess match). This Government is so comical that we will soon leave the EU without preparing to leave the EU AND we will not even prepare to leave the EU after we have already left because officials continue to argue such preparations are illegal 2019-2020 and DD has already conceded the argument. (Officials use various devices including our supposed obligations under A50.) If I had wanted to create a story to demonstrate my long-running claims about Whitehall, I could hardly have bettered this.

Whitehall spends much more time implementing new EU law than preparing to get out of EU law and almost all Ministers have so little grip of their departments, and have so little support from May (herself an avatar for Heywood and Robbins), that they meekly acquiesce. The Cabinet even now has never insisted on a single discussion with responsible officials over preparations — a dereliction of duty that will be seen by history as similar to the failure of the pre-World War I Cabinet to have discussions about UK military commitments to France.

2/ During the campaign VL warned that the ECJ would use the Charter of Fundamental Rights (NB. NOT the ECHR/HRA) to interfere with UK intelligence services and police. Cameron and Osborne claimed this was ‘lies’ even though it was perfectly obvious this would happen to anybody reading ECJ cases.

An example of what we warned about is HERE. Today’s judgment undermines the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 using the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Conservatives used to claim that these powers were vital for national security and fighting crime.

The ECJ will soon decide in the Privacy International on further aspects of the Five Eyes Agreement. During the campaign, Cameron, Osborne, Grieve and their collaborators claimed EU law would have no effect on the Five Eyes agreement. An example of the repeated dishonesty by Grieve on this subject is HERE. Grieve claimed that Gove’s statements during the referendum were wrong, ‘unfounded and indeed untenable’ and so on. It is Grieve’s claims on the Charter that are factually and legally wrong and ‘untenable’ in the light of the actual law and actual ECJ decisions. Grieve’s repeated bullshit on this issue should be called out by broadcast interviews. The treatment of him as an impartial expert is absurd. He is no expert and he is repeatedly dishonest on the subject.

Today’s judgment will be one of many if we remain ‘aligned’ to EU law and the Charter. Are MPs going to win the argument that we will leave the EU but leave the ECJ in charge of our response to terrorism? Not long-term. (And this is why we will win a referendum on the ECHR too.)

Of course, every single bit of advice that VL gave pre-referendum about what to do has been ignored by the Conservative government and MPs generally, from how to handle A50 to the need for investment in the NHS to this issue.

VL said that there should be ‘notwithstanding ECA1972’ legislation to remove the ECJ from any interference with the intelligence services, which would be strongly supported by Leave and Remain voters. Instead, the Government will accept this judgment and do nothing about it despite their previous promises. Ministers will, as usual, be easily bamboozled by officials waving ‘legal advice’ at them, just as Heywood bamboozled them into their catastrophic decisions on A50 by waving ‘legal advice’ at them.

This is just one small example of how extremely rubbish this government is and why it is vital that there are radical changes as soon as Brexit happens next March. This government, Parliament, and Whitehall generally are not remotely able to cope with the hard reboot of Brexit. Vote Leave warned them they could not do Brexit with the normal dysfunctional management processes of Whitehall. They ignored this advice and have collapsed into repeated and inescapable shambles.

Many in SW1 think that willpower can bounce them from the actual branch of reality we are on to a neighbouring branch of the multiverse where they can escape the referendum, just as many Brexit supporters think willpower can bounce them into a branch of the multiverse where we can escape all the disastrous effects of the May government. Both are wrong. ‘Reality cannot be fooled’ indefinitely. A hard rain is coming for SW1…