Articles in the IMS Bulletin

February 28, 2021

Starting in 2017, I have contributed a few articles to the Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematic Statistics. A common thread in these articles is an address to fellow statisticians to perceive their discipline as implying a commitment to serving the public by applying thoroughgoing skepticism in order to challenge conventional scientific wisdom, established truths and the scientific and political establishment. To some extent these posts cover ground that I have covered before (e.g., of course, sortition), but the writeup is always new and tailored specifically to an audience of statisticians. I must note that I have been disappointed with the generally muted response (one way or another) to my posts and this disappointment has resulted in reduced motivation and diminished output.

Here is an index to my IMS Bulletin columns over the last 4 years:

Pro Bono Statistics: Statistics in the Public Interest. April, 2017
Statistics, like all of science, is a tool of powerful institutions. In our societies these institutions are widely perceived as not serving the public. Statistics can cut against the grain and promote a habit of skepticism toward power. Such a habit should be part of the statistics curriculum.

Learning as the replication of knowledge. October 2017
The educational system in our society is built upon an implicit model seeing learning as an mechanical, uncreative activity. This model is false and its implicit adoption inflicts great harm on students, teachers and society.

Democracy and statistical sampling. February 2018
Offering sortition – government selected by statistical sampling – to an audience of statisticians.

Statisticians for Democracy: A call to action. November 2019
Allotted bodies are gradually gaining acceptance in the political arena and may have real political impact. It is thus increasingly important to get the associated sampling procedures right. Yet, current sampling practices are quite deficient for multiple reasons. I call on statisticians to create standards by which sampling procedures for allotted bodies can be evaluated to determine how reliable and useful they are.

When experts go wrong…. February 2021
Polling is difficult for various reasons (including low response rates). Ignoring this fact and publicizing the polls as if they are highly accurate is highly irresponsible. It reduces the confidence of the citizenry in the establishments of our society and is thus quite dangerous and must be avoided. (A response to a column by Jeffrey Rosenthal.)


Sanders’s name recognition

February 1, 2016

The chart below shows the growth of Sanders’s name recognition (as well as favorability and unfavorability ratings) over the period March 2015 to January 2016, a period which roughly corresponds to the time between Sanders announcing his candidacy for president and the first primary votes. The data indicates that when Sanders entered the race 60% of the population never heard of him and only about 20% had some sort of an opinion about him. Even in January 2016, about 20% of respondents said they never heard of Sanders.


This can be instructively compared with candidate Obama’s name recognition history, who was unknown to only 15% in March 2007, and was known to all but 3% by January 2008.

Data sources:,

The figure below shows the frequency of certain types of words in inaugural speeches of U.S. presidents. The three types showed are words beginning with the string “elect”, words beginning with “repub” and words beginning with “democ”. Around the middle of the 20th century the “elect” and “repub” types were largely abandoned while the “democ” type became more prominent.


The Data was extracted from the texts of the speeches as found on the website of the “UCSB presidency project” using an R script.


November 26, 2011

It is fair to say, I think, that over the last 40 years or so there has been little progress in the quality of life of the average person in the West, and quite possibly there has been a deterioration. (The only indicator in which there has been steady progress, I think, is longevity.1)

Progressive ideology generally asserts that there is a wide variety of elements of conceivable and feasible policy and technology that would significantly improve average quality of life. It may be further assumed that the pursuit of any of those elements or any combination of those elements can be expected to be fruitful. To some extent this assumption – what may be termed the “parallel progress assumption” – seems to be implicit in much of present-day progressive activism: the agenda is usually very eclectic and often somewhat vague on specifics. While this is partly a tactic that is aimed at maintaining wide appeal, there is also the implication that as long as general principles are agreed to, laying out a detailed workplan is not necessary since progress can be made on any of many items quite independently of each other. While I accept the progressive assumption (i.e., that progress is possible) it appears to me that the parallel progress assumption is incorrect.
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First part here.

Book II

P. 85:

Since cities were founded and survive for no other reason than for the benefit of their inhabitants, which is based principally in preserving the common good, this cannot be restricted to one particular person or individual except at the expense of all the others. So what, I ask you, could be more pernicious or contrary to the essence of a city than for one part of it to be, quite unjustly and for no reason, excluded from all or part of the public benefits and consequently made to suffer greater disadvantages and burdens more than the other?

P. 103:

[A]lthough it [the Venetian government] has a different name from the one we want to use, because it is called a government of nobles and ours will be called a popular government, it is not for this reason of a different type, since it is simply a government in which everybody who is qualified for office participates, making no distinction either for wealth or for family, as happens when the ottimati rule, but all are equally admitted to everything, and they are very numerous – perhaps more so than in ours. And if the plebs don’t participate, the don’t in ours either, since infinite numbers of workers, newcomers to the city and others, do not belong to our Council. And although it is more difficult in Venice for the ineligible to be qualified for office than with us, this is not because the type of government is different, but because within the same type they have different institutions. […] So if we were to call our citizens gentlemen and reserved this title for those who were qualified for office, you would find that the government of Venice is as ‘popular’ as ours and that ours is no less a government of optimates than theirs.

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Minor party entry barrier

February 8, 2011

Elections are first and foremost a mechanism for eliminating non-elite competitors for power – their role as an inter-elite arbitration mechanism is merely a derivative of their primary function. The filtering function is most severe in first-past-the-post systems, where there are often just two credible competitors, and rarely more than 3.

[ Due to typesetting constraints, I am using [ … ] as shorthand for the reciprocal of the expression in the square brackets. That is [ x ] = 1 / x. ]

Within the Tullock contest model, the entry barrier for minor parties can be calculated. The Tullock contest model specifies the chance of party k winning power as pk = xk [ tk ] [ x1 / t1 + … + xn / tn ], where xi is the amount of resources spent by party i, and ti is the (in)effectiveness of the party’s campaign efforts.

Each party is characterized by its campaign effectiveness and its fund raising effectiveness fi. Given the benefits of power, G, the expected return for party k is:

Uk = pk G – xk [ fk ] = xk [ tk ] [ x1 / t1 + + xn / tn ] G – xk [ fk ].

The model assumes that parties spend the amount that maximizes their expected returns. Under the model assumptions there will always be at least two parties with non-zero expenditures, since a party that finds itself without a spending opponent reduces its spending, until the derivative of the expected return for a competitor becomes positive at 0.

Let zi = xi [ ti ] [ G ], Z = z1 + + zn, and ri = ti [ G fi ], i = 1, …, n. Then,

Uk = G ( zk [ Z ] – rk zk ),


d Uk [ d zk ] = G ( (Z – zk) [ Z2 ] – rk ).

An equilibrium with n parties 1, …, n exists if there exists a solution to the n simultaneous equations,

d Ri [d zi] = 0, i = 1, …, n,

such that zi > 0, i = 1, …, n.

If the solution exists, then, summing the n equations:

Z = (n – 1) [ R ],

where R = r1 + + rn.


zk = Z (1 – rk Z).

Then zk > 0 if rk > [ Z ] = R [ n – 1 ], which is true if and only if

rk > (R – rk) [ n – 2 ].

Thus, a solution exists if

mink rk = r(n) > (r(1) + + r(n – 1)) [ n – 2 ],

and the number of parties at equilibrium will be the maximum number n such that

r(n) ≥ (r(1) + + r(n – 1)) [ n – 2 ].

In particular, this implies that any party which has r > r(1) + r(2) will have negative benefit from engaging in an election campaign.

The following points are obvious, but they are important, and like some other obvious things, they tend to go unmentioned, possibly due their unpleasant implications.

1. The UN is an oligarchical institution. With the security council making all the binding UN resolutions, and with the security council being controlled by the veto-wielding nations, the UN is plainly nondemocratic.  This indisputable fact alone, the rest of the damning historical record aside, makes it quite absurd for the Western powers, and specifically the US, to be claiming to be promoting democracy in the world.

2. Nuclear terrorism will undoubtedly be used as an excuse for unprecedented violence worldwide and repression domestically. The actual probability of nuclear terrorism is not clear. Despite the fact that nuclear technology is spreading worldwide, it may still hold that any organization powerful enough to obtain a nuclear weapon would have more to lose than to gain by launching a nuclear attack, even when using some kind of a proxy covert agent. Even if is the case, however, incompetence and insanity can never be ruled out as influencing actions.

Be that as it may, if a nuclear attack does occur, its more destructive effects will not be its immediate effects. There is every reason to think that such an attack, whatever its circumstances would be, will be used as a justification for unleashing extreme violence across the globe and instituting harsh civil repression measures within the Western countries.

3. Nuclear disarmament serves to empower those with strong conventional power. Nuclear weapons serve as the weapon of the weak in being a relatively cheap way to counter an overwhelming conventional force. Therefore, nuclear disarmament that leaves conventional power relationships unaffected effectively favors the strong by eliminating a tool that serves the weak. This has to be kept in mind when considering proposals by interested parties (1, 2).

Danilo Zolo’s book Democracy and Complexity (1992) is a critique of the “classical” and the “neo-classical” doctrines of democracy. The classical theory espouses the idea that in a democracy the entire population of a country, en masse, can – in some way, usually assumed to rely heavily on elections – determine public policy. The neo-classical doctrine, sometimes referred to as the Schumpeterian theory, asserts that the people do not, and indeed cannot, determine public policy. According to this theory, democracy is merely the situation in which people are able to occasionally select, through “free” elections, which elite group is to set public policy.

Zolo agrees with the neo-classical argument against the classical theory, namely, that a large population does not, and cannot, determine policy. He is, however, critical of the neo-classical theory as well. He argues that for various reasons (resulting from “complexity”) elections are not only not a tool for setting policy, they cannot even be seen as reflecting popular choice of an alternative among elites.1
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This post addresses what I consider to be the main argument against regulation of the activity of uttering ideas. I note that that “uttering ideas” – to friends, or to small groups, in a setting that does not require much resources or authority to arrange – is separate from the activity of broadcasting ideas. I argued before that the latter activity – essentially engaging in a competition for the attention of large numbers of people – is always regulated in one way or another by government and is therefore subject (at least on some level) to different considerations and treatment.

The argument against regulating the utterance of ideas is that a such regulation infringes on what Robert Dahl calls a “democratic right”, (or could alternatively, and perhaps better, be called a democratic need). These democratic rights or needs are activities that are essential to democracy (i.e., to political equality).

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