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Last Tuesday, just after leaving for school, my son called me. Once you have kids driving, getting a call from them while they have one of your cars always creates a significant sense of dread, because there’s a good chance that something bad happened. Particularly these days when if it wasn’t something bad or urgent they would just text. On Tuesday this dread ended up being completely justified, my son had been t-boned on his way to school. Fortunately he was okay. He did say his side was sore from the airbag, and the back of his hand ended up with some abrasions, but luckily the other car hit right behind where he was sitting. If the impact had happened a half a second earlier it would have been much worse. So he was okay. Our 2006 Honda Odyssey, on the other hand, was definitely not. It was clearly totaled.
The accident took place within walking distance of my house, so after I got the call that’s what I did. Though actually, I ran most of the way. And of course, once I got there, the very next question, after determining that he was okay, is determining what happened. He said he was sure the light was green. When I later pressed him on how sure, as a percent, he said 80%. Okay, not 100%, but surely there are witnesses. There was one gentleman who had kindly stopped to check on my son and stuck around while we waited for the cops, but unfortunately he hadn’t seen the accident he had only heard it, and he couldn’t remember what configuration the lights were in. This is not really surprising, it’s interesting how bad memory truly is and particularly how bad we are at any kind of rational thought after something dramatic happens.
In any case, even though it had taken a few minutes for me to get over there, I still felt like we waited at least another five minutes for the cops to show up while we waited in the cold (it was in the low 20’s). When the cop did show up, everyone gathered. There was my son, the two people in the other car and two witnesses. And, unfortunately, the other four all said my son ran the red light. Case closed, right? Well, as far as the cop was concerned, that’s exactly what it was. My son was found to be at fault and given a ticket, and the whole thing goes on my insurance. But there a several things that don’t entirely make sense about the story the other people told.
When asked to describe the state of the lights the passenger in the other car said that it had been green for my son, but it had turned yellow and had been red for a bit when he went through the intersection. That would certainly make sense. It had been green, but my son got distracted and missed the fact that the light had changed. She also said she could see him coming from a long way away and he was going really fast. Okay, now things start to make less sense. If she could see him from a long way away it seems a little bit suspicious that they weren’t able to avoid him, though this was the passenger speaking, maybe the driver didn’t see him. But then, also, if they could see him from a long way away, then that implies that they were stopped at the light. So if that’s the case how did they get going fast enough from the edge to the middle of the intersection to hit my van hard enough to total it? (And knock it quite a distance as well...) Presumably they could have been approaching the intersection when the light turned green and had plenty of speed, but then how would they have seen him from a long way away? The buildings on the corner make it so you can’t see very far down the cross-street until you’re at the intersection.
You’re probably thinking that all of this is interesting but beside the point because there were witnesses, and they said my son ran a red light. Well first it’s important to remember that eyewitnesses are a lot less reliable than people assume. Second both of the witnesses were in the same car, so their opinion is not as independent as you might have first assumed. Finally, and most alarming, the two witnesses invited to the two people in the other car to sit in their car while waiting for the police. Meaning they had quite a bit of time to discuss things. Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming that they colluded (though they could have) it’s far more likely that they were all attempting to reconstruct what happened and that as they did that they were more likely to arrive at a narrative favorable to the other car. This may in fact have been the correct narrative, but the final result is that it’s not the four against one it initially appeared to be.
And this takes us back to the beginning, despite the inconsistencies in their stories there was no way that a cop was going to take the word of a teenage male driver over the word of four adults, so my son got the ticket. Also it’s not like I could cross-examine the other people either. Though maybe I should have tried. My son is still convinced he had the green light and when he discovered that there was a traffic camera at that intersection he figured it would vindicate him. Unfortunately the point of the camera is not to exonerate individuals wronged by the cops, it’s so you can get on the UDOT website and see what the traffic is like. Meaning it’s live feed only, it’s not saved anywhere.
There’s also a bank on that corner and I checked with them to see if they might have any cameras pointed in that direction. They do, but the framing is such that the light isn’t captured. Also they said I had basically zero chance of getting access to the recording. All of this is unfortunate because I really would like to know for sure one way or the other. Worst case scenario it leaves us with the situation that already exists. At best it could mean lots of money saved on my insurance, and a considerable boost in confidence for my son. So it’s annoying that I’ll never know. Though, I should mention the key point of the whole accident, because it ends up being the most annoying thing of all about it, far more annoying than never knowing. I had just replaced the engine on that van last month.
As I have mentioned before in this space it’s difficult to know what to do in a situation where the facts aren’t clear. And when that’s the case, far too often people default to making a decision based on their biases, treating ambiguous evidence as ironclad evidence, or frequently ignoring all the evidence which contradicts their decision. In the situation with my son, I still know there’s a good chance he ran the red light, despite the inconsistencies in the other stories. And in talking to him I think he’s aware there’s a good chance of that as well. My guess is that because of his biases he places that chance lower than he should. (I’d say it’s better than even that he ran the light, but I’m guessing he’d stick with his initial 80% chance that he didn’t.) But as I said this is a fairly common response.
As we finally move away from my son’s accident, I’d like to talk more about that last tendency I mentioned, ignoring contradictory evidence. This tendency is so strong that it often extends to discounting even a preponderance of evidence if it points in a direction which contradicts your biases. We’re seeing that play out as I write this in the case of Jussie Smollett. Though by the time this is actually published my prediction is that it will be clear to all but the most obdurate that he staged the attack and the threatening letter.
For those that have somehow missed the story. On January 22nd Smollett received a threatening letter with some white powder inside. (The powder was later discovered to be aspirin.) Then early on the morning of January 29th he claimed he was attacked by two white men in ski masks who shouted racist and homophobic slurs and put a noose around his neck. The assault got a huge amount of attention (on the other hand, as of this writing the letter isn’t even mentioned in Smollett’s Wikipedia article) with numerous Democratic presidential nominees tweeting their support, along with lots of celebrities. But there were doubts as well. For one thing it happened at 2 am on one of the coldest nights of the year. For another, it seemed almost cartoonishly over the top. The attackers apparently shouted “This is MAGA Country!”, and they just happened to know that not only was he black, but that he was gay? And they also just happened to have a rope handy?
But of course this was not a story that could be viewed dispassionately, this is a story where you are almost required to believe one thing if you’re on the left, and quite another when you’re on the right. And now, even as it’s becoming nearly impossible to view it as anything other than elaborate hoax people are still registering their support of Smollett. This is unlike the story of my son’s accident, where you views on whether he was at fault probably have very little to do with your political leanings.
None of this is new or particularly original, even if you restrict yourself to just what I’ve written, to say nothing of the gallons of virtual ink that has been spilled elsewhere. And I actually do have a different point I’m working towards, but before I move on I would like to make one final observation about the mess we’re in. There are people who don’t immediately judge events by their political leanings. I hope I’m one of them, though I suspect I’m not as good about it as I could be. People who actually are trying to get at the truth, regardless of whether it fits their biases. But this turns out to be extraordinarily difficult. Look at how long there was uncertainty about the Smollett case and how long it took for the police to admit that the “trajectory of the case” had “shifted”. And the Smollett case is about as easy as it gets. There’s a single incident, involving at most three people, limited in time and space, with lots of video. Now take something like determining what did or didn’t happen as far as Trump and Russia, where there are dozens of players and potentially thousands of incidents. All of which is to say that being objective is a nice ideal, but very hard in practice.
As I said none of this is particularly original and if I were just one more person piling on Smollett I don’t think there would be much point in this post, but I’m interested in a related and slightly deeper issue. Assuming that he did lie about it, which seems pretty safe at this point, why did he lie about it? Why did he hire the two Nigerian brothers? The current theory is that he staged the attack because the hate mail didn’t get enough attention. But why did he want attention? Well there’s a theory that he was about to be written off of Empire, but it’s clear that lots of people want attention for its own sake, so this isn’t very mysterious. But why were other people willing to give incident so much attention? One answer is that this is the way politics works at the moment, but I want to look at it from a different angle. Why was this even an option for him? Why was there an incentive for staging an assault in the first place?
Over the last couple of posts I talked about how when systems have been going long enough eventually people start to figure out how to take advantage of them. That eventually no matter how sensible or ancient the rules are, if the incentive is great enough eventually those rules will be broken. In one post it was people taking advantage of weak spots in the constitution in the following post I talked about corporations taking advantage of modern technology and antitrust statutes, well I think the Smollett case is an example of people taking advantage of the framework of social justice.
And this is one of the reasons why many of the opponents of social justice have a problem with it. They certainly don’t have a problem with the idea of justice, and they’re even on board with “social justice” but they worry that these good ideas, when taken too far, can create a significant incentive for abuse. And when the abuse does happen they worry it will be ignored by social justice advocates, because the advocates don’t want anything to detract from the underlying good idea.
The general point I’m making is that it’s important to recognize what incentives people might have. Obviously I wouldn’t be nearly as suspicious of the story the people in the other car told about my son’s accident if they had no incentive to lie. And the same applies to Smollett, if there was no incentive to fake an attack, then the chances of it being fake go down. But clearly based on all of the attention it’s received there was a huge incentive. And to a certain extent the environment which generates all that attention is to blame. I get the impression that there are some people who think that Smollett got so much attention because his fake assault resembled actual assaults which did happen. If so, I’d be curious which assaults they’re referring to.
I understand that most people do not lie about being insulted, or assaulted, or raped. But if the incentive gets to be large enough some people definitely will. Another obvious example of this is the Rolling Stone article A Rape on Campus, the discredited story of a gang rape on the UVA campus. Yes, most people do not lie about being raped, but Jackie Coakley apparently did, presumably because there was some incentive to do so. There are also the more ambiguous cases. Was Christine Blasey Ford lying or was Brett Kavanaugh? I don’t know, I do know that both of them had a very large incentive to do so.
Now I realize that a big part of this whole discussion is that some people really want to believe that Trump supporters are capable of an attempted lynching in downtown Chicago or that some fraternity brothers are capable of committing a gang rape, or that the Clintons have had a bunch of people murdered, or that everything bad that happens to Trump is because of the “Deep State”. Which is symptomatic of a whole other problem, but for now I don’t want to dissect the incentives I just want people to realize that the incentives are there, and that certain people will act on them, regardless of whether it’s what we expect or whether it’s wrong.
It should go without saying that fewer people will act on incentives if there’s some punishment attached for doing so. This is why stealing is illegal. There are also punishments attached to giving false police reports. Though, apparently, that didn’t dissuade Smollett, and also he may be in the most trouble for the original letter, since that’s a federal crime. And, while it’s well known that stealing is a crime, my guess is that the penalty for lying to the police is less well known. But one assumes and hopes that whatever legal consequences Smollett ends up suffering that it will discourage people from attempting anything similar.
But what happens when there’s nothing illegal about following an incentive, just the disapproval of others? I think such disapproval used to be pretty powerful, particularly when there was a greater emphasis on community, and you’d have to encounter the same people and their disapproval for the rest of your life. Now with selfishness ascendent and the ability to find whole new groups to interact with, groups who may even applaud your choice, I don’t think disapproval is nearly as effective. (But, then again, even something being illegal isn’t entirely effective.) I’d like to close out by examining two examples of this.
First, there’s the behavior of male managers and executives in the #metoo era. From a recent article in Fortune:
A new set of findings from women’s empowerment non-profit LeanIn.Org and online survey platform SurveyMonkey reveal that, since the media reports of sexual harassment first emerged last fall, male managers are three times as likely to say they are uncomfortable mentoring women and twice as uncomfortable working alone with a woman. The hesitation to meet with women outside of work is even more pronounced: Senior men were 3.5 times more likely to hesitate having a work dinner with a junior female colleague than a male one–and five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior woman.
There are of course a number of follow-up articles berating men for this behavior or assuring them that they have nothing to worry about. But the #metoo movement, whatever it’s accomplishments, however important it might be on net, has created some incentives, and male executives are following those incentives. I’m sure there are some who will read those follow-up articles and continue to mentor or return to mentoring, but some will not because the incentive to not do so is too great. Which is to say being accused of harassment has become so bad that they are incentivized to not do anything which might open them up to the possibility.
My second example is transgender athletes, where I think the incentives are even clearer and what disapproval there is, getting progressively weaker. This was brought to my mind recently by some statements Martina Navratilova made. I guess back in December she said some things about transwomen competing and after getting a lot of pushback, she promised to keep quiet until she had done some research. Just recently, she came back and said, “Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened.” Going on to say:
To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.
There’s a whole mess of stuff going on in with this statement, but for the purposes of this post I just want to focus on one thing. Is it conceivable that someone who doesn’t really suffer from gender dysphoria would nevertheless take hormones in order to “win everything in sight...earn a small fortune and then reverse his decision”? Well the only thing stopping them is people calling out the tactic and the instant criticism of Navratilova illustrates how effective that is. So the only thing left is determining whether the incentive exists. Could they win everything in sight? Well that’s a big topic I don’t have time to go into, but a search for transgender athlete wins should be enough to convince you that it’s a definite possibility.
As you might imagine athletics is not the only place where someone might be incentivized to switch genders, and there’s at least one case of a transwoman being put in women’s jail and then committing multiple sexual assaults. Once again, in the absence of anything to prevent it, this person followed their incentives. In the case of the prison it’s clear that this was a bad person, but there are lots of bad people, and some of them are going to do whatever they can get away with, and if we abdicate the responsibility of determining what that is, they’ll end up getting away with quite a lot.
What this all boils down to is that we need focus more on what people are incentivized to do, rather than on what they should do. Particularly given the fact that while progress and technology have only somewhat altered what we should do, they have dramatically altered what we’re incentivized to do.
I think when I do these closing pitches for donations that I’m trying to incentivize you to give me money. I don’t think the incentives I offer are very strong. Though I was just thinking of how it would be nice if the donations could pay for me to subscribe to all the paywalled news sites, since that doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing I would do normally, but maybe it’s the kind of thing a blogger “In search of the truth!” would do. If that seems like a reasonable ask, consider donating.