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# Trump –> Armageddon: A Few Scenarios

Yesterday Genferei made a request:

Claire: Try to write a scenario where Trump causes Armageddon. Don’t leave out any steps or resort to hand-waving or amateur psychology or appeals to authority. Don’t forget there are a squillion hangers-on, advisers and career civil servants and/or soldiers involved. Perhaps you’ll convince us. The “I don’t know but it feels scary” isn’t convincing

me.

Great question, and exactly why I love Ricochet: Sooner or later, someone’s going to point out exactly where your argument’s a little vague or flabby, and you’ll either tighten up your argument or change your mind, both or which are good outcomes.

It’s going to take me a couple of weeks to make this case, because I want to do this carefully. I don’t want to write a book in a single post, then come back to see all the tl;drs at the end. So here are the the argument I’ll make in the coming weeks, not necessarily exactly in this order:

- I’ll argue that a nuclear war, even a limited one, would be a catastrophe for the United States, as would a major global war like the First or Second World War. I’ll also note that we now face a number of other, very serious, national security threats.
- I’ll argue that the probability of the outbreak of such a war in the next president’s term or terms is greater than it has been since the end of the Cold War, and greater than at many points during the Cold War. I believe the probability will be unusually high no matter who’s elected president. My argument will be based on fairly standard and widely-accepted theories about why wars among great powers break out.
- To draw analogies that may be relevant, I’ll look at the origins of previous great-power conflicts, particularly the First and Second World Wars, but also at other unusually catastrophic and costly wars that broke out among powers akin to the United States and its present-day competitors. (I’ll also explain why I think they’re relevantly similar.)
- I may also consider the risk of civil war, and why it might be slightly higher under Trump than other presidents, although I still think it’s quite unlikely.
- I’ll describe in some detail the nuclear near-misses of the Cold War, some of which may still be unknown to all of you, and more of which, I’d assume, are unknown to all of us. I’ll see if we can draw relevant conclusions about why these near-misses didn’t become misses. (Tangential: Why do we call it a “near-miss?” Surely we mean a “near-launch?” Anyone know?) I’ll argue that because we’ve been very lucky from 1945 to the present, we tend to underestimate the risk and see such a war as impossible. I’ll argue that it’s not.
- I’ll make the argument that in matters of foreign policy and war, the US president is far less constrained by institutional checks and balances than he is in matters of domestic policy. Moreover, the powers of the executive during wartime were markedly enlarged after September 11, and few of these powers have been withdrawn.
- I’ll ask how many advisors, staffers, bureaucrats, hangers-on, advisers, or DoD officials truly have the power to interfere with the commander-in-chief should he make a decision they think unwise. I’ll ask, for example, “How many steps does it take to launch a nuclear weapon?” (fewer than you’d think), and ask as well what we know, historically speaking, about the willingness of soldiers to follow illegal or unwise orders. I’ll try to come up with an estimate — based on what we know of similar situations in the past — of the likelihood that his bad judgment would be questioned or his orders disobeyed in an ambiguous situation that’s widely and plausibly perceived as a great threat.
- I’ll walk you through several plausible scenarios in which the president would have to make very quick decisions in response to an emergency, scenarios in which the making the wrong decision would be catastrophic.
- I’ll sketch out what the president might do using several hypothetical versions of Donald Trump, all based on things he’s said during the campaign or my observations of him in “The Apprentice.” We don’t know which things he really means, and they often contradict each other, so I’ll try creating a number of plausible Donalds. They’ll range from “Secret-Churchill Donald” — someone who campaigns as a lying fool because he knows this is effective, but unknown to the public has an alter-ego who’s a highly-informed strategic genius surrounded by competent and experienced foreign policy advisors who challenge his assumptions ruthlessly. For this Donald I’ll assume he and his advisors share the goal of furthering American interests. On the other end of the spectrum might be “Psychopath Donald,” a man who would score a full 40 on Hare’s Psychopathy test (click the link to read what that is), and who would neither surround himself with competent advisers, nor take anyone’s advice, nor act toward any goal save that of keeping himself entertained and stimulated. I’ll then try to estimate the odds of his being or behaving as these different alters, and I’ll ask how these alters would be apt to handle the scenarios I’ve suggested in Step 7. I’ll try to sketch out a more rigorous way of calculating “odds of Armageddon” based on that.
- I’ll also sketch out what the world might look like if he followed through with various things he’s said he’ll do, using the most common-sensical, plain-English interpretation of his words, and argue that some of these things would be likely to raise the risk of global or thermonuclear war even higher than it already is. Some of the things he’s said are contradictory, so I’ll sketch out both or all three or four scenarios. I’ll predict the effect these actions would be apt to have based on the best historical analogies I can find. I’ll offer some evidence of how these statements, even if he has no intention of acting on them, have already changed the perception of America among its allies, enemies, non-aligned states, and terrorist entities, making us less secure. I’ll outline how they would change even more dramatically if in office he acts on his campaign promises (as best I understand them), and what the implications of this would be. I’ll make the case that even if judgements such as these are incorrect or unfair, other states will be obliged, out of an abundance of caution, to prepare for worst-case scenarios, and thus their fear of him will tend to be self-fulfilling.
- I’ll look at two ways he could end up making decisions, good or bad, unconstrained by the usual checks on a president’s power. The first is the “sudden shock” scenario — something like September 11, or another highly traumatic event, after which the checks on his power might literally be gone (a plane hits Congress while it’s in session, or a bomb takes out the Supreme Court), or easily overridden (think of Trump’s gift for demagoguery, of our known willingness to accede to all kinds of liberty-killing legislation in the wake of a terrorist attack, our generally poor understanding of how our government is supposed to work and the importance of checks and balances, and how easily that combination could be exploited if Americans were even more frightened than they were on September 11.).
- The second is the “slow accretion of untrammelled power” scenario to which I alluded in a comment yesterday. As I wrote, “His personality reminds me [not so much as Hitler but of] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. … If you look at the last line [of a piece I wrote for City Journal about Istanbul in 2010], you’ll see I wrote it when we didn’t yet know what would happen next. That what happened next has been catastrophic makes me all the more uneasy about Trump’s personality. We may have checks and balances sufficient to contain him for a while, but over the course of two terms, even enormously secure restraints can wear thin. Tayyip managed
*seriatum*to discredit the military and imprison the top brass, stack the courts, stack the bureaucracy, quash the press, transform the Constitution, and ultimately make it impossible to get rid of him. It’s easier to do than you’d think.” In other words, I’ll sketch out the way I’ve personally seen a charismatic, shrewd and power-hungry leader undermine checks on his power that were widely believed to be nearly-failsafe.

That’s twelve posts, which I’ll work through over the coming two weeks. Genferei, would you consider the challenge met if by this line of reasoning I derive, “Armageddon is a higher risk with Donald Trump in office than it is with any other plausible aspirant to the presidency?” If not, does this mean that no argument would convince you, or does it mean you’re looking for a different kind of argument? If so, what kind of argument would that be?

(A closing thought: I’ll make the argument more fully and seriously in days to come, but how do you reckon Donald would score on the Hare Psychopathy test? Genferei asked me to eschew amateur psychology — as would Hare himself — but I reckon Trump won’t be sitting down with a professional psychologist anytime soon, so what choice have we but to practice amateur psychology? Run Trump through the scale as dispassionately as you can. What number do you get, roughly?)

Published in Foreign Policy, General, History
Because of my character limit, I have to spread replies across a couple of posts.

Anyway, I put the reference to MTTF in bold because it appears on every piece of hardware and every component in a system engineered for safety and reliability. A component fails, or it doesn’t fail. There is no subjective component to the measurement.

I’ve answered your question, supplied examples of objective measures of probabilities in the real world and in literature. Will you now answer me? The challenge to Berlinski was the following:

How is her argument not, in short, simply

The reasoning is circular. The probability has to be justified. Not the chain of events.

Maybe you need to brush up on basic logic.

This is fun, but it can’t be the first time on Ricochet that a Jaynesian and a classicist have ever discussed these kinds of issues. Can it?

When dealing with probabilities of events that have never before happened, how can “long-run frequency of occurrence of outcomes of an experiment” be objective? Why bring the artificial notion of “frequency” to the party?

Hard science is my business, but it depends on subjective opinions. Given that the weather on earth at any instant has no objectively perfect precursor, only subjective opinions about what is relevant can possibly be used to forecast future weather.

Proof? Different weather services often provide different answers. You must know this, and yet you still read weather reports, knowing they are “tainted” in subjectivity.

Like I wrote before, please name just one paper in the scientific literature involving probabilities with human interactions that you feel is purely objective. I claim there is no such paper, but maybe you have one in mind. This challenge is serious.

But the experiments are never exactly the same, so the judgments are always subjective. There are zero papers in the published literature of mean times to failure with entirely-free-of-subjective-judgement applicability. If you think I am wrong, please name one paper.

Fine.

True.

True, they can’t both be “correct”, but that’s exactly what happens when perfect objectivity is impossible.

Yes. I am very interested in what Claire has to say.

She may well.

Probability divides into two broad categories as the article on probabilities attests. The article is very clear that the frequentist school takes probabilities to be

objective. You’re taking concern for proper description of the sample space to which a probability refers as some kind of subjectivity. It isn’t subjective with respect to the measurement. As for subjectivism, the article writes:You’re using deceptive language when you ask for papers on phenomena involving

human interactionwhen what you really mean ishuman opinion. If most papers on reliability don’t announce a position on subjectivity, the reason isn’t that the papers take subjectivity for granted. Instead, the reason is that subjectivity isn’t a part of frequentist interpretations of probability. You asked for an area of probability with human interaction with complete objectivity, and I gave you an area.(Continued)

Why don’t you make the real request? Ask for an area with

human opinionthat is completely objective. You don’t ask the question because to ask it clearly is to prove my point. Her proposal for her argument is nothing more than an elaboration on her opinion, and how she quantifies her opinion is arbitrary and worthless until she can show that her attempt to quantify her opinion represents some kind of coherent probability. Is she going to state how her understanding of Trump’s probability of following a course of action will be conditioned on new evidence so that we can see is being consistent? I suspect that she is not. Is she going to explain how she calculates a prior probability? I’ve seen no explanation at all. Is there some demographic to which she can compare Trump and make the discussion rigorous at all? If not, probability is just a dressed up opinion. I introduced frequency to distinguish between clearly distinguishable kinds of probability when you tried to lump them all together. Again, I answered you. Are you going to tell me why she’s bothering to talk about probabilities at all? How is her probability different from her unfounded opinion? You’ve asked a lot of questions, but you haven’t answered my one question. Please, answer it.Some probability measures are neither discrete nor continuous. More fundamentally, I don’t see why you bring these terms to the party. Nothing I wrote, so far as I can tell, depends on these classifications.

OK, please offer a scientific paper in the literature in which weather forecasts, or medical diagnoses, or probabilites of system failure are objective. I claim there is no such case. If you are sure it happens all the time, then you must have an example of at least one case. I would like to see it.

You’re not going to answer me, are you?As for your most recent question, I already linked the Wikipedia article on probability interpretation, which cites references identifying frequentist and propensity interpretations of probability as

objective probabilities. You might not like the citation, but it’s a citation. I don’t have time to peruse articles as part of some wild goose chase. I’m guessing that few articles mention axiomatic set theory, but the absence of mentions isn’t evidence that the authors don’t assume the modern axiomatic treatment of set theory.You’re claiming that probabilities cannot be objective. You have the burden to prove that no one believes any probabilities to be objective.

As for your silly point about differing weather forecasts, the explanation is in non-linear differential equations and the work of Poincare going back a hundred years. Weather exhibits a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, so two people modeling the weather can reach different conclusions about the probabilities of future events by starting with different amounts of precision in their data.

Again, I answered you. Are you going to tell me why she’s bothering to talk about probabilities at all? How is her probability different from her unfounded opinion? You’ve asked a lot of questions, but you haven’t answered my one question. Please, answer it.By the way, only one of us, me, has made any citations at all. You’ve done a lot of name-dropping, but you haven’t cited one thing.

No worries there. As writer, I make a decent photographer, and I wish I could be more parsimonious in my writing. Maybe I’ll be good in a decade or two, after great effort.

Again, I would like to see a paper that even claims this. What if two papers exist, both claiming to have no subjective component in their measurement of MTTF for a particular component? Would you agree that at least one of them cannot possibly be objective?

Still, provide just one paper, if you please.

Not completely yet, no. I was hoping for a paper that claimed a perfectly objective estimate of probability in the real world, and none has yet been provided.

No, she has only stated the topics she wants to write about. She does not imagine her outline is proof. She wants to know if readers are interested. I am, certainly.

Claire was not offering any sort of proof at this time. She was offering her plan of discussion.

What “basic logic”? Ordinary Aristotelian logic? What would be the point? It is limited to reasoning from propositions that are assumed 100% true axiomatically. Ordinary Aristotelian logic is almost shockingly irrelevant to Claire’s topic—you can’t get anywhere with it.

To apply careful logic to Claire’s topic, we instead need something like Jaynes’s extended logic. It includes valid probabilistic reasoning, and it handles Aristotelian logic as a special case. If you have not seen this before, please check out chapter 1, Plausible reasoning, of E.T. Jaynes’s Probability Theory, the Logic of Science.

I had one question, and you didn’t answer it.

How is her use of probability different from her unfounded opinion?I already gave you citations.

You made no effort to back up your claim that probability cannot be objective.I already told you that I don’t have a reference from the narrow range that you requested, but that doesn’t mean either that no such reference exists much less that your assertion is true.You have to prove your assertion.I witnessed my assertion with a reference to a Wikipedia article that references textbooks. That is sufficient to sustain my proposition that parts of the expert community take probability to be an objective phenomenon and question the value of subjective interpretations of probability.Apparently, you are struggling with basic predicate calculus if you think that I have to produce more than one witness or a witness to your liking to establish that objective interpretations of probability exist. To prove existence, I only need one witness, and it doesn’t have to be exactly what you asked. Establishing your claim about the narrower domain of articles requires you to prove that no such article exists. I don’t have to accept your claim because I can’t refute it with a witness. You are the one that needs to exhaustively search the literature to prove your claim, which doesn’t even go to the issue.

Secondly, as I already noted, there is a fallacy in your argument. The absence of a claim of acceptance of objective probability is not evidence of the absence of the belief. You didn’t directly address my point that if I searched the literature, I might find no statements of explicit acceptance of the Axiom of Choice or axiomatic set theories, but the papers likely all accept axiomatic set theory as a mathematical foundation or at the very least never had any reason to oppose it as a mathematical foundation. Your assumption about objectivity suffers from the same defect as making any assumptions about axiomatic set theory and the positions of papers in the field on the subject of axiomatic set theory. Paper’s not explicitly about interpretation seem to have no reason to state a position.

Going in order, I am here responding to #93. You can safely assume I have not read further than that.

Yes, to their detriment. Not all probability is frequentist or objective, especially when humans are involved. I would think that is obvious.

If you read Jaynes, you will see arguments that not all probability requires probability spaces. In particular, subjective probability, such as “what is the probability that I remember correctly the capital of Nevada?” goes through without any need for probability spaces.

I have no problem with this.

Oooh, “deceptive”! Come now, can you please limit yourself to statements that don’t malign a Ricochetian’s motives? CoC and all.

No, I actually do mean human interaction. I was looking for a paper involving human interaction with probabilistic statements that you consider perfectly objective that could never be disproven by future research. I still want to hear of such a paper.

Really? Which specific paper did you give me?

Now replying to the above, which is #94. I don’t understand much in this paragraph, but I’ll reply to this key sentence: “How is her probability different from her unfounded opinion?”

We don’t know yet. Claire has not yet given us her actual argument. Too early to speculate.

Finally, since the original post said the following,

I take the original question and the rationale for the multiple inferences in her plan for her exposition to be giving a rigorous explanation for her dislike for Trump. You’ve already acknowledged that she hasn’t made the argument rigorous yet. I’m pointing out that simply assigning a number to her dislike doesn’t make the argument rigorous. The argument needs to explain how the number makes sense. If her argument follows the outlined form, the argument will not make rigorous use of numbers. It will substitute a number for a concept that could be said equally clearly in words, she really, really doesn’t like or feel comfortable with Trump. What is your complaint about my original criticism? A number or soft statement about relative magnitudes alone isn’t rigorous. Her plan doesn’t appear to involve justifying any probabilities. Are you saying that the argument can be rigorous with arbitrary probabilities, that the argument in effect, doesn’t depend on probabilities? Why introduce them? What value do they add?

I don’t know what question of yours you are thinking of. I’m going through gradually, and I have not yet seen answers to my questions, but we’ll see if maybe later something will be forthcoming. I keep looking for a paper from you that is as objective as you think is both necessary and possible.

Plenty of good probability is possible without any set theory. Indeed, Jaynes explains why Venn diagrams are often a misleading crutch.

Oh I don’t claim the latter. Some people believe wild and crazy things. That’s no skin off my nose.

And that proves that weather probabilities are not perfectly objective. Thanks!

She has given the outline of her project, and it doesn’t include justifying the probabilities. My original comment addressed her failure to acknowledge a need to justify the probabilities. You are arguing with some other point. I didn’t say that she couldn’t make the argument rigorous. I said that her plan contains nothing about making the argument rigorous. I explicitly allowed all kinds of evidence and not strictly frequentist interpretations of probability. She could certainly provide some reference class and explain Trump’s connection to it and its characteristics with regard to her project. She has indicated no such plan.

ob·jec·tive

əbˈjektiv/Submit

adjective

1.

(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

No, this proves the opposite. If two people start with different data and get different results, the probabilities that they calculated are not dependent on their opinions. One or both could be wrong or have incomplete information, but they aren’t making up values. Their conclusions are reproducible from the data, in other words, not subjective.

I’m pretty sure that you’re just wrong about this. I don’t know why you’re talking about Venn diagrams—I didn’t think that any serious student of mathematics looked at them after fifth grade—and I can’t imagine that adults use them in any capacity to reason about probability. Venn diagrams are not axiomatic set theory. They’re a tool for illustration. Axiomatic set theory is the formal foundation for arithmetic, so I doubt you can do much at all in probability without arithmetic. The point is that axiomatic set theory isn’t controversial for people working in probability, and I doubt that anyone mentions it. Similarly, people accepting objectivity and writing articles for their peers wouldn’t be inclined to spend time discussing objectivity.

Obviously, I meant that you’re disputing that others regard probabilities as objective. You should be answering that point.

No, you have not answered my request for a paper illustrating what you claim to be perfectly objective estimates of probabilities of events involving human interactions. Wikipedia is no help here.

Of course I did. I asked for one example from you of one case of one paper illustrating what you claim to be perfectly objective estimates of probabilities of events involving human interactions. That’s my effort. If it exists and is easy and prevalent, as you claim, then just one example will prove you are correct.

As a mathematician, I think you must know that an existence proof by way of a single example is orders of magnitude easier than that a proof that no example can be found. I’m probably not going to be able to provide a Godel-level proof of no possible example. If you are sure that one example exists, please show it. Otherwise, I feel safe in assuming you have none.

Oh my, I had no idea I was asking for a narrow range. By all means widen it. Give me some actual example of an actual research paper that actually exists in which the real-world, specific probabilities estimated are perfectly objective. I don’t know how to make the range wider than that. Wide enough now?

Oh, if all you want me to admit is that some people believe … whatever, I am sure they do think so, and I admit

If you can’t find even a single example in the literature of an objective estimate of any probability involving human interaction, then I will assume it is because none exists.

If I claim that purple unicorns are everywhere but you don’t agree, is the burden on you to scan all animals on the planet and show they are not purple unicorns, or is the burden on me to show you one simple single example of an actual purple unicorn? I say the latter.

I could have phrased this better if I didn’t have to live with the character limit. The point is that you’re avoiding describing what you’re actually talking about,

human opinion, ashuman opinionbecause to talk about her probabilities as opinions would leave no room for your objections. My initial post was that her probabilities look like they’re not going to be justified or rigorous and that they’re just opinions. If your answer is that probabilities can be just opinions, then you’re not contradicting me. You’re taking a subjective view of probabilities that makes them nothing more than personal opinions subject to some formal constraints and not necessarily bearing on reality. I wrote the following.My criticism was clearly based on her plan as described, and my criticism was contingent.

The analogy is defective. You said that no one takes probability to be objective under any circumstances or interpretation. You made the universal statement, not me. In your hypothetical, the correct way to disprove the assertion is to find any place lacking a purple unicorn, in other words, one counterexample, and your choices don’t include the correct form of a refutation.

I’m so confused by this. How do you mean rigorous? Mathematical rigor? Set theory? Axiom of choice? I can’t imagine what you are hoping for. A mathematical proof?

Goodness. Let her say what she wants to say. I don’t expect any new mathematical theorems or perfectly objective probabilities forthcoming in this topic.

Simple. Your asking her for objective probability estimates was over the top.

No. No rigor is possible here, so we shouldn’t ask for the impossible.

You’re guessing. I think you will be wrong, unless to you justification = proof.

Simple. When discussing uncertainty, whether subjective (reality) or objective (imaginary), the best language is probability.

I seriously doubt Claire will resort to frequency estimates or reference classes and pretend that she has thereby come in contact with any sort of perfect objectivity. She has too much common sense for that.

Then it’s settled. There are schools of interpretation of probability with an objective view. I gave you the Wikipedia article. It named textbooks on the subject by academics. That is sufficient to prove the claim.

You’re asking for an article instead of accepting the cited Wikipedia article and its included references as a cheap ploy to try to sustain an incorrect claim. It’s a cheap ploy because I’m obviously not sitting in a library with a searchable index, and even if I were, no burden of proof requires an article instead of a textbook or a Google search. (I should have done the Google search an hour ago; every business site defines the concept, which would be odd if no one subscribed to the idea, and the first page of results produces articles and quotations from academic articles.)

Objective interpretations of probability are one of the main interpretive frameworks. You’ve offered nothing to say that they aren’t, but you continue to assert that they aren’t or that probabilities aren’t ever objective. If that’s your opinion, that’s fine, but it has almost nothing to do with the post. My initial post was about rigor, and I didn’t demand

pureobjectivity. Without a doubt, I set a high bar for rigor, so what’s the problem?The choice of data is to use and believe in is subjective. We have choice as to what data to use, what model to use, what weights to use, etc., all of which are subjective.

I don’t expect any new theorems, either, and the overstatement as rhetorical trick isn’t going to work. She asked if she was just giving expression to her horror or offering some real insight, and in a nutshell, I only said that without making some rigorous statement she was just giving expression to her horror. I didn’t demand a particular kind of rigor. The hard sciences are rigorous without proofs. They involve measurements, reproduction of results within quantifiable margins of error, and sometimes, falsifiable predictions. I didn’t close the door to legal notions of proof. The point was, in all of her post, she never addresses the idea of justifying her probabilities, the only part of her argument that isn’t trivially a consequence of the probabilities.

This is non-responsive nonsense.

This is not a comment on the probability. It’s a comment on the experiment. Once the data is accepted, the calculation of the probability is objective and reproducible.

Again, you misrepresent my position by overstatement. I’ve hardly asked for “perfect objectivity.” I’ve asked for anything like rigor. What you’re saying is that at the only places where the argument isn’t completely trivial or speculative, the probabilities, she has too much common sense to make the argument rigorous. (I agree: trying to make it rigorous in any way would make it collapse.) I wrote the following in the

firstpost.I think that a completely commonplace reading of the sentence intends to exclude only

pure subjectivity. This is a low hurdle to clear. I’m just asking that the probability be shown to be something other than just her guess, which without other relevant evidence, is just her feeling about Trump.Either you are wrong, or you’ve just torn the mask off her argument and admitted that there is nothing more to her argument than her opinion of Trump.

I suspect that you’re wrong. Some rigor is possible. She could use some process to arrive at the number, a process that she could explain to someone like me and expect the person to use to reach the same or nearly the same conclusions. I suspect that she won’t be rigorous because being rigorous would undermine the argument.

I don’t get your reply. I was being generous in my description. Her outline at the head of the article clearly makes no mention of justifying the probabilities, and all of my comments targeted her written plan. Obviously, I can’t comment on results before they exist, and as I already noted, my conclusion that the result would be bad if she followed the plan are conditioned on her following the plan that she outlined as she outlined it.