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“There’s at least as much as an 80 percent chance . . .”

Kaiser Fung points to the above self-canceling statement which comes from a quantitatively-trained expert on international debt. I can only assume that he was speaking quickly and that the reporter didn’t know enough to ask him to clarify. When I’m interviewed, I emit a lot of ums, uhs, and probably quite a few meaningless remarks, but usually whoever is interviewing me knows to just keep the good stuff. As Kaiser points out, the above quote could mean two completely opposite things! In context I’m sure it was clear to the speaker but it’s not at all obvious what’s going on in the published version. Again, I’m not blaming the expert here, it’s just a miscommunication that got into the article, something that Kaiser noticed (and that I care about) because of our interest in probability communication.

In any case, the line “at least as much as an 80 percent chance” should join “But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable” in the Probability Hall of Fame.

P.S. I was curious about the background of Kenneth Rogoff (the source of the above quote) so I looked him up and found this mini-autobiography, which for some reason irritated me. I’m not sure if it was the odd line about his parents being “true liberals” or the exhaustive detail about the various newspapers and books that reprinted his old chess games. I can’t fault the guy for bragging—in some ways, this entire blog is a big brag—but there was something about the tone of Rogoff’s bragging that put me off. My favorite part was where he mentions that he finished 13th in a chess tournament in 1976—he is oddly precise and lists his place as “tied for 13th-15th”—but qualifies this by explaining that he played only in the summers, unlike the other players who were full-time professionals. I have to admit, if I’d ever been good enough in a sport to finish 13th in a major tournament, I’d probably find a way to work it onto my webpage too.


  1. I don’t get it. Taken as a whole, “there’s at least as much as an 80% chance” means that the chance is at least 80%. At least, as I interpret the English language.

    Mountain. Molehill.

  2. Jim says:

    This post irritates me Andrew!

    Rogoff is one of the economists I´d have thought you´d have had a lot in common with. I´ve read boatloads of his work, and find it to be rigorous and insightful.

    That said, from his biography it´s clear he´s a raging nerd— he´s a chess Grandmaster for Christ´s sake, who lived as a teen by himself in Yugoslavia to play chess. I think when chess forms that much a part of your life, coming 13th in a tournament likely means more to you than to other people.

    • Andrew says:

      I have nothing against Rogoff or his work. As I’ve mentioned many times here, I’m ignorant of macroeconomics. I’m not proud of this ignorance, it’s just where I stand right now. I could well believe that I would like Rogoff’s work if I were to immerse myself in it. And, yes, I can see why he’s proud to have finished 13th in the chess tournament, it just seems funny for it to be on his official bio, not just as a throwaway line (e.g., “By the way, I’m a chess grandmaster. I once finished 13th in a major tournament”) but with so many details.

  3. Louis says:

    We all have our quirks.

    Some big name professors find their youth achievements in chess important enough to put it on their website. Others prefer to blog about the trivialities of every day.

    That makes me happy. I like quirkiness.

    That being said, Rogoff always strikes me as an honest and engaged academic. I know one story which shows that he has some integrity (which is apparently less widespread then one would hope for -both in academia and in economics). Moreover, his book, “this time is different” is a fine book and a well written piece of research.

  4. Yes, the fearless chess Grandmaster perhaps best remembered these days for agreeing a draw without even playing a move …

    World Student Team Championship game played in Graz in 1972. 1 c4, draw agreed.

  5. Ani says:

    Now that story about the draw is funny!