Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve been trying to pick up on the local history, ranging from films like Dirty Harry and Rise of the Planet of the Apes that were set here, to documentaries and audiobooks about local history – especially that of gays and AIDS, of which my knowledge was pretty sparse. From the latter genre And the Band Played On is a particularly excellent – albeit long and depressing – work. Surprisingly, there are very pertinent parallels between the early years of AIDS and Trump today. Granted I haven’t finished the book so my understanding is still incomplete, but check out this rough chronology of stages:
- indifference: AIDS initially seemed to only impact those the majority didn’t care for anyway <=> watching Jeb Bush squirm during the Republican primaries
- cluelessness: a combination of long incubation period, indirect cause of death, and social taboos against discussing gays and anal sex openly added up to a dearth of reliable information, leading to a lot of noise and heat expended on bunk theories on transmission mechanisms, ranging from tainted poppers, routine household contact, and god’s plague drowning out the signal of reliable forensic data <=> Trump’s assault on the very notion of truth means we have no idea whether he is an evil genius, mentally imbalanced, a grifter in over his head, Bannon and/or Putin’s puppet, or what
- OH SHIT: with a 1983 JAMA article claiming AIDS could be transmitted via “routine household contact”, the broader populace suddenly realized it could actually affect them personally <=> election night
- panic and overreaction: sanitation workers cleaning up after a gay pride march wearing hazmat suits, nurses refusing to go into AIDS wards <=> current protests, which might be effective but are definitely not sustainable for the next 3 years 11 months
- unhelpful precedent: not long before AIDS, in the 70s gay community had helped the CDC overcome another sexually transmitted virus – hepatitis. But the aspect of hep that was most challenging – its long incubation period, on the order of weeks or months – is precisely what made AIDS – with an incubation period of years – a challenge whose difference in degree was sufficient to constitute a difference in kind <=> Bush/Cheney discomfited the beltway by holding court in Crawford, using his folksy charm to appeal to the common man, bypassed the bureaucracy by stovepiping handpicked intelligence, and sneered at the “reality based community.” But where Bush used these tactics to undermine the Democrats, Trump uses them against democracy itself
- most important: the turning point in AIDS was understanding it. Even before the virus was positively identified, by 1983 scientists were reasonably confident that the transmission vector was semen and blood. Even after, knowing it was a virus wasn’t useful without a test to discriminate its footprint and behavior
So Now What?
so how do we achieve #6 and reduce DJT, like AIDS, to something manageable, predictable, containable albeit still dagerous?
There’s a lot of posts on FB positing various models for who Trump is and how he thinks. Is he a powerful autocrat or a thin-skinned man-child? Is he a chessmaster or Steve Bannon’s puppet? The next step is to posit tests to discriminate between these scenarios, so that his actions can be filtered into evidence in favor of one or the other, converging towards “I can say X about him with p confidence”
In a word, Bayesianism. A discipline which my grasp of admittedly is limited to theory, but as applied to DJT boils down to:
- establish the main competing models about how he thinks
- make advance predictions about possible actions he might make, and how each choice can serve as evidence discriminating between those models
- monitor his activity and use to update probability of each given model
Sean Spicer could be an interesting trial, what with his highly public role and DJT’s focus on public appearances. Then again, he didn’t want Spicer for the job in the first place, it was at the behest of Priebus it’s unclear whether removal from office would be interpreted as a humiliation or a vindication of his initial gut response.
My take is that it that the prediction markets will come into play. Not because they will necessarily make accurate predictions (they certainly didn’t during the election) but because they will encourage people who today are merely speculating on which mental model applies to translate those models into coherent, consistent predictions, and over time will (hopefully) reward those models which are most accurate.
Obviously a human agent is capable of defying expectations for its own sake in a way that a virus, no matter how complex, never can. Still, it’s an avenue of exploration.