They’re Telling You They’re Lying!

Robert Aumann, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to game theory, is vocally opposed to peace gestures that Israel either has made or that people have suggested it should make.  His basic message can be summarized in the following passage:


"Roadmaps, capitulation, gestures, disengagements, convergences, deportations, and so forth do not bring peace. On the contrary, they bring war, just as we saw last summer. These things send a clear signal to our "cousins" that we are tired, that we no longer have spiritual strength, that we have no time, that we are calling for a time-out. They only whet their appetites. It only encourages them to pressure us more, to demand more, and not to give up on anything. These things stem from simple theoretical considerations and also from straight thinking. But it’s not just theory: it has been proven and re-proven in the field over thousands of years. I returned today from a trip to India, where we heard about historical stories that illustrate the same. Capitulations bring about war; determination and readiness bring about peace. Ladies and gentlemen, we must tell our cousins that we are staying here. We are not moving. We have time; we have patience; we have stamina. Understand this and internalize it. And we must not simply say it to our cousins but feel it within ourselves. This and only this will bring peace. We can really live in peace and unity and cooperation with our cousins. But only after they understand and internalize that the Zionist state will be here forever."

As Aumann himself acknowledges, one needs no expertise beyond "straight thinking" to understand that there is strategic value in convincing your opponent that you are steadfast.  What’s not obvious is how much weight to give to this consideration compared to other strategic considerations (leaving moral considerations aside) that might cut in the opposite direction.  Aumann doesn’t mention any alternatives even to argue against them.  One would infer from this that he thinks that displaying steadfastness is the only consideration or at least the dominant one.  Since Aumann is a famous expert on game theory, an indication that he thinks this is so should presumably cause one’s own views to move in that direction.  And I daresay that this is what Aumann himself is hoping will happen when he agrees to give these speeches ("Esteemed ladies and gentlemen, your humble servant makes his living from game theory").  What’s weird about this is that Aumann is a very publicly Orthodox Jew, and Orthodox Jews of Aumann’s stripe are very vocal about their opinion that God is opposed to any concessions regarding the Land of Israel (and that one ought to care what God thinks on the matter).  Why doesn’t this destroy literally all of Aumann’s credibility as a pundit?  After all, this isn’t a case where one suspects that an expert might have a motive for saying what he says other than that it’s his considered judgment based on his expertise.  He’s telling you that he has such an ulterior motive, and he’s telling you that his primary commitment is to that motive.  Why isn’t that game over?

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Aumann’s statements as cited by you, like much of the Israeli/Arab conflict, seems performative to me. Does Aumann actually believe in his strain of Orthodox Judaism, or is that also a performance by him? It’s a good example of where one could benefit by the use of a perfect “lie detector” and “self-deceptor” machine. Aumann stands in contrast to what I think we expect a perfect, uncompartmentalized, empiricist to be: -he calls himself an “orthodox jew” and sees himself as part of ingroup/outgroup dynamics that seem to be far too large (millions of people on either side) to not be abstracted, imagined communities and dynamics.

  • michael vassar

    Logically, Aumann’s biases mean that you can’t accept his assertions based on authority, but one can still follow the logic of his claims.

    Rhetorically things get weird. Here’s another instance that I suspect is similar.
    I cannot relate to it, but for at least some fraction of the population the assertion of one’s own selfish interest in a charity is taken to be moral support for one’s request for charitable donations, as in the letter posted below, where the petitioner literally says that she would not do what she is asking me to do and did not do it when she was in my position, but treats this as her main argument for why I should do it.

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    If Aumann was a perfect, outcomes maximizing agent for him personally, then I don’t think it makes sense to take a disproportionate advocacy burden for zionists, particularly one that could risk any of his reputational power as a nobel prize winning game theorist. However, I think it could potentially make sense for him to take this otherwise peculiar, potentially auto-controversializing stand if it maximizes his ability to represent a certain cultural archetype, and hence achieve a sort of cultural power that way. I’d put Dershowitz’s shift to defender of Israel in that category too. Maybe even Bin Laden’s apparent propaganda positioning, to tie this in with the earlier discussion on what motivates terrorists. Aumann’s positioning, unless it’s simply irrational, might make sense to me if he’s making a play at maximizing his representational privilege. Since we’re discussing him right now (out of 6 billion potential living candidates for discussion) perhaps by at least that outcome measure he has achieved success.

  • Chris Meyer

    Appearing steadfast may be important, but being entirely steadfast is not necessarily desirable. Real life is not always a Prisoner’s Dilemma, and sometimes mutual betrayal is the worst outcome not only collectively but for each respective individual. Ought the leaders of United States and the Soviet Union have felt it in themselves that they were perfectly willing to bring a nuclear holocaust upon tens of millions of people? Did the United Kingdom “lose” the Troubles? Would continued terrorism and counterterrorism be preferable today, or would the issue be eliminated by a campaign of unflinching brutality? Could such a campaign actually suppress the enemy without the unmitigated slaughter of Republicans? These doubts are fortunately irrelevant as the citizens of the UK would not have countenanced such actions.

    The point is that it is entirely facile to demand that no one ever do anything perceived as giving into terrorism ever lest they should encourage it. This relies on a universal willingness to be unwaveringly inhuman, but inevitably people will defect, even if it is “irrational” to do so. I am no expert, but I do not think that game theory supports adopting tactics that are extremely undermined by minimal defection over conciliation.

    Is there is “rationalism bias” to describe “straight thinking”? After all, straight thinking gives us things like geocentrism.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I’m not sure why you think that Aumann’s religious beliefs make him a liar. Assuming he holds those beliefs sincerely, why is God’s support for Zionism an ulterior motive? I’m sure that in his view, God’s will and the will of the Israeli populace to be strong and warlike are completely aligned, and it’s his job to make sure they stay aligned. Whether this reasoning (if that’s what it is) should be accepted by non-believers is another matter entirely, of course.

    In fact, it’s a reasonable theory to think that the chief function of religion is to create group solidarity, strength, and resolve. And in a world where everyone is a religious fanatic (not our world, thankfully), those gods and societies with the greater degree of devotion and warlike fanaticisim might win out over those with wimpier belief systems. This is essentially the group-selectionist theory of religion advocated by David Sloan Wilson in his book Darwin’s Cathedral.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    mtraven,
    I think the idea that religion has functional utility that’s not internally transparent to (or at least that’s seamlessly unstated by) the membership is plausible. But I think that optimizing any social organization phenomenon (for example for the purpose of a given society “winning out” over other societies) would be enhanced by haven’t transparent spaces where one could use empirical inquiry to test out ways to adapt the social organization phenomenon.

    So I wonder, are there active empiricists in the leadership of different religions that in some interior transparent space are applying the best empirical science available to optimize the utility of their religions for their societies (or subcultures)?

    For example, is this something Aumann is working on with other orthodox jewish economists of the same zionist stripe as him? Or something Mormons, Scientologists, sunni or shiite muslims or evangelical christian economists and/or religious leaders are working on? Or to the degree that they intentionally maximize on group solidarity, strength and resolve benefits, do they have to do so without internal transparency that they’re performing these religious beliefs for the purposes of trying to optimize these benefits? I think it’s phenomenologically interesting, how these coordination effects occur, when it’s without what I think would be the enhanced facility of internally transparent discussion of how to use a given social structure (such as a religion) to optimize a given benefit (a culture winning through creating greader group solidarity, strength, and resolve).

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    correction: “by haven’t transparent spaces” should read “by having transparent spaces”

  • TGGP

    I think it is a bit too much to say “he’s telling us he’s lying”. A lawyer or P.R person is hired by a client to say certain things, but that doesn’t mean “they’re telling us they’re lying”.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Hopeful Anon, I would be much more interested in research on how to weaken group identification.

    You can look at war (and politics and religion, to lesser extents) as games that work by promoting in-group solidarity and out-group hostility. The techniques for doing this have been refined for thousands of years. Aumann is just echoing his genetic and cultural heritage.

    Movements that try to stop war and promote peace (in Israel, Peace Now for instance) have to try to reach across group boundaries and promote shared interests that transcend tribal boundaries. Presumably ordinary Israelis and Palestinians would materially benefit if they could dampen the hostilities and devote their resources to other things, although their leaders might not. That is a much harder sell, for all sorts of reasons.

  • TGGP

    The way to get people to stop fighting and start uniting is to give them a common enemy. It would be best if this enemy doesn’t actually exist so you don’t switch from a smaller conflict to a larger one. I nominate space aliens, although I believe Reagan had the same idea earlier.

    Since I rarely tire of plugging Mencius Moldbug’s Unqualified Reservations, I thought I’d point out the post “The mystery of pacifism” to mtraven.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP, I think we do have such a common enemy, and it actually exists: it’s called existential risk. Also, us currently living humans have a shared existential threat (although it’s not an existential threat for the species) of aging. Some of these conflicts (and a wide variety of other wasteful phenomena) can be seen as increasing our existential risk. To a large degree these seem to me to be mundane collective action problems that have been thoroughly articulated by economists and others.

  • michael vassar

    Existential risks don’t have the anthropomorphic characteristics required to trigger in-group formation. Some-one has to be to blame to form an in group, which is then justified in attacking that some-one. Anti-Americanism and Anti-Islam are the two obvious choices facing the world in this regard, with anti-capitalism as a relative of the former.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The reason why ad hominem is a logical fallacy is that a correct argument does not cease to be correct because the arguer has an ulterior motive to argue for that conclusion.

    http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/circumstantial-ad-hominem.html

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Michael, I don’t think America or Islam is particularly anthropomorphic either. Although perhaps Anti-Islamism conjures up archetypal, anthropomorphic images of a brown guy. I’m not sure what exact anthropomorphic image America conjures up: but George W. Bush doesn’t seem to capture it, and it seems less anthropomorphic to me. Partially because America is relatively good at representing itself flexibly and in a diversified way. America, heathen or religious? Anglosphere or original rebel to the anglosphere? White or diverse? etc. America seems particularly effective at coopting challenges and rebellions before they can become salient enough to threaten current American power structures. Hence, America has its first muslim congressman, and America’s had a chief executive (Reagan) who said “Goverment is the problem, not the solution” -perhaps the ultimate coopting of subversive rhetoric.

    To get directly to your point, you and I are both vested in an optimizing of whatever social phenomena exists towards the purpose of maximizing our mutual odds of persistence. In-group/Out-group manufacture is a powerful social phenomenon and I think it’s a question of how it can be optimized to that end.

    The problem is that there’s a natural incentive for people to turn in-group/out-group manufacture towards the purpose of optimization of personal social heirarchy or intra-group distribution of wealth, even if this isn’t overall maximizing reduction of collective existential risk (or alternatively, maximizing your and my persistence odds). This could be viewed either as a colllective action problem, or (from an egoist’s perspective) as a personal persistence challenge.

    There’s also the question if our effort is just better spent in other areas, and, at least for now, should let these phenomena run their course while looking to maximize our persistence odds in other ways. Because there’s probably an energy cost to trying to change in-group/out-group manufacture from Anti-America/Anti-Islam to most rationally anthropomorphized increasers of existential risk (or anthropomorphized challenges to MS and HA’s personal persistence odds) that may not be justified compared to various other ways to spend our energy.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Correction: “challenges to MS and HA’s” should read “challenges to MV’s and HA’s”

  • TGGP

    HA, you talk a lot about “existential risk”. How likely do you think such risks are?

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    All of them in the cummulative? They seem to approach 100%.
    Distinct existential risks? I’d have to go with the calculations of the experts. Of them, the creation of a self-improving intelligence smarter than humanity seems to be the highest near term risk, whether it’s created intentionally by the Singularity Institute, by DARPA, or whether it occurs naturally in the internet or some such thing. I think smart people who think they can create a friendly AI misunderstand their own nontransparent (maybe even non-internally transparent) ruthlessness.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    The reason why ad hominem is a logical fallacy is that a correct argument does not cease to be correct because the arguer has an ulterior motive to argue for that conclusion.

    However, a sucessfull ad hominem informs us that the arguer will omit arguments undermining his position, and that he cannot be given the benefit of the doubt in his appeals to authority (to his own authority, for Aumann). So unless you have a good undersanding and overview of group theory, Aumann’s arguments should be ignored, as there is no way of testing their veracity.

    Michael, I don’t think America or Islam is particularly anthropomorphic either.

    Nor was Nazi Germany. You don’t need an anthropomophic enemy – you need an enemy that has symbolic athrompomorphic figures. Islam is the enemy, brown-faced suicide bomber are the figures. America is the enemey, multi-cutural homosexual decadents dropping cluster bombs or pornographic movies, are the figures. Nazi germany – gestapo officers. Railing against corrupt business practices has resonance only if you can find corrupt businessmen.

    Think of what has happened to christian oposition to gays and gay marriage. None of the moral arguments against gay marriage are any different, or any weaker, than they used to be. Yet they are widely disbelieved nowaday. Why? Because the symbolic hate figure – the homosexual – turned out to be human after all.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    TCCP wrote:
    I nominate space aliens, although I believe Reagan had the same idea earlier.

    Ah, that glorious day when American tanks, aided by Al Qaeda suicide bombers and North Korean missiles, will do battle against Zog, Lord of Alpha Centauri.

    Just an aside TGGP, that particular Unqualified Reservations seemed very weak. It totally neglected a major bread of pacifist – realistic pacifists. Those who want a peace that will hold. Close to status quo pacifists, but wanting viable states, clear borders, and less excuses to invoke righteous violence on any side (I also think that the modern world and the rise of nationalism and Kalashnikovs has made that old solutions to war – forcible occupation of the vanquished enemy – unviable. Genocide still works, though, unfortunately (see Darfur)).

  • David J. Balan

    Eliezer,
    I am not saying that Aumann’s position has to be false because he has an ulterior motive for making it. If we all had the ability, on our own, to fully evaluate all arguments and evidence that we came across, no one’s motives for offering their opinion would matter at all. But in reality no one can know everything there is to know about every topic, which means that to a certain extent we must accept expert opinion simply because it is the opinion of experts, who presumably know more than we do. And when deciding how much store to set by a particular expert, ulterior motives matter a great deal.

  • TGGP

    It totally neglected a major bread of pacifist – realistic pacifists. Those who want a peace that will hold.
    I believe Mencius does neglect serious pacifists of the Tolstoy/LeFevre sort (in the comments he acknowledges their existence but dismisses them as unimportant). The problem with your last sentence is that anyone who actually wants “righteousness” or “justice” or what Mencius would call “victory” rather than peace can always claim to be realistic pacifists, by saying that peace cannot come until their actual aims are achieved.

    I also think that the modern world and the rise of nationalism and Kalashnikovs has made that old solutions to war
    Nationalism is just modern tribalism. Tribalism isn’t a new thing. All the ancient empires had to deal with the problem of ruled populaces occasionally getting riled up and revolting. As for Kalashnikovs, I hardly see how they equal the playing field anymore than flintlocks of old. If anything, the modern day with tanks and air-power that non-state actors (with the exception of the Tamil Tigers) cannot use makes the deck even more stacked against them. What I think has changed is that, as Steve Sailer points out, conquest makes less sense when economies are more dependent on human capital than land and other natural resources.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    can always claim to be realistic pacifists
    Anyone can claim to be something if they feel like it 🙂 The question is, are they? I feel there are huge amounts of “ignorant realistic pacifists” about the Israel-Palestine issue (including me). We don’t care who is most righteous, we don’t care about the details, we just want them to get their act together and sort things out.

    What I think has changed is that, as Steve Sailer points out, conquest makes less sense when economies are more dependent on human capital than land and other natural resources.
    Good point there. And I think it dovetails with my point about Kalashnikovs and other weapons – the power of non-state actors to fight out the occupier is reduced today. The power of non-state actors to make life utterly miserable for the occupier is increased.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Something that should probably be kept in mind in this discussion is the fact that Aumann has been a top adviser for decades to Israeli military intelligence. I do not know the details of what he has advised in the past, but he has certainly had a reputation for being a pretty hawkish hardliner. Also, a disproportionate number of top game theorists are Israeli, with a non-trivial number of those being former Aumann students, although not all of them share his relatively hawkish views, and even fewer of them share his Orthodox beliefs.

    Another point is that there is a division among the Orthodox on hawkishness. Many of the Chasidim are anti-Zionist and not hawkish at all. The most hawkish tend to be the non-Chasidic Orthodox, the particular camp that Aumann happens to be in.

    Chris Meyer is right that clearly there are examples from other situations where it looks like making appropriate gestures or “capitulations,” to use a loaded term from Aumann, probably worked, with such examples as the Cuban missile crisis being at the top of the list, and some other Cold War or other cases certainly available. Schelling long ago identified most of these situations as being prisoners’ dilemma games, repeated ones at that.

    Now, in repeated prisoners’ dilemma games, one of the more efficient ways to move to cooperation is to punish “cheaters,” as in tit-for-tat. While Aumann did not put it this way in this statement, where he seems to give no quarter, one could justify his hardlining on such a basis. Thus, Israel made a gestures by pulling out of both southern Lebanon and also Gaza, with the result not being reciprocal moves to negotiation or peace, but triumphalist rhetoric by Hezbollah and Hamas hardliners that their uncompromising stances won and should be followed more vigorously. Of course, the Israeli effort to “teach them otherwise” last summer in southern Lebanon was a full-blown disaster, and arguably the uncompromising policies of sealing off Gaza have undermined al Fatah in Gaza and led to the current situation where uncompromising and war-making Hamas is in control there. Anyway, I can see why a usually close-mouthed hardliner like Aumann may now be surfacing more publicly with what probably amounts to an “I told you so” set of comments, even as such things as the building of the wall continues to undermine pretty much any sympathy most outsiders have for the Israelis in their current predicament. They are now in a very difficult situation, largely of their own making.

    On the original posting, I do not see any reason to agree with David Balan. I do not see Aumann as telling us he is lying. He is telling us he told us so, frustrated that his advice has not been followed, and frustrated at the inability of Israel to “punish” the cheaters as called for in dynamics game theoretic solutions.

  • Joshua Fox

    Michael Vassar: “I cannot relate to it, but for at least some fraction of the population the assertion of one’s own selfish interest in a charity is taken to be moral support for one’s request for charitable donations.”

    Michael, I agree with your point.

    However, the argument in the letter could be understood as follows: “When my brother was diagnosed with MS, I was forced to learn some information which I had not bothered to learn before: the devastating effects of MS on the patient, as well as the emotional effect on the family. [maybe: And I also learned about the disease itself.] Please take advantage of my learning opportunity to understand why donating for MS is so important,”

  • Joshua Fox

    David Balan: “Why doesn’t this destroy literally all of Aumann’s credibility as a pundit?

    Aumann’s position could be seen as combining intellectual honesty with social signaling.

    First, he honestly exposes his religious and ideological background, even though this might be considered to weaken his position.

    Second, he signals “my argument must be very strong: So strong that I am not afraid to admit what might be seen as a weakness.”

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Second, he signals “my argument must be very strong: So strong that I am not afraid to admit what might be seen as a weakness.”

    Very interesting, and counter-intuitive. Probably too counter-intuitive to be true, though – signalling only works if people generally come to the conclusion being signalled. Everyone’s reaction on this blog seems to imply that people get the opposite signal. So if Aumann is trying to signal the strength of his arguments, he’s doing a very bad job of it.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    The real question about Aumann is what his views were on the Oslo accord prior to an Israeli fanatic nationalist assassinating Yitzhak Rabin. Many think that if Rabin had lived, there might have actually been a successful peace settlement, although possibly Aumann would disagree. However, the problem is that it was a hardliner of the same general position of Aumann’s who brought about damaging its possibility of working by assassinating Rabin, as most think it was his death that really pushed it off the rails of possibly being achieved. I am not suggesting here that Aumann supported the assassination of Rabin, as I am sure that he did not.

  • andrew

    So the optimal strategy for both Israel and Palestine is to play hardball and refuse to make concessions in any way in case they weaken their position.

    Looks to me like thats exactly what we have been doing for 60+ years. Maybe in another 60 we can move forwards…

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Aumann: “We have time; we have patience; we have stamina. Understand this and internalize it. And we must not simply say it to our cousins but feel it within ourselves.”

    The obvious flaw in Aumann’s reasoning: he treats emotions as always available moves in a game