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Boycott Iranian Chess? A reply

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 4, 2016 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

EDIT:  Nigel Short responded with an addendum that “the Iran bid was not mentioned in the FIDE General Assembly Agenda. It was sprung on Delegates as a surprise.” This procedural anomaly is worth mentioning in light of my shielding FIDE from blame in the text below.

 

Too-long-didn’t-read version:  I don’t support a mass boycott of the upcoming women’s world chess championships in Iran, or removing Iran’s right to host. My reason is that it will hurt, not help, gender equality, particularly in Iran. This will probably make me unpopular.

The chess world has been rocked in the last week by a fresh controversy, this time the awarding of hosting rights for the Women’s World Championship to Iran. The main tinder box was US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze issuing a statement that she will boycott the event rather than wear a hijab and acquiesce to sex discrimination, a provocative comment that was irresistible to the mainstream media (see these articles in Fox News, The Telegraph, CNN and of course the Daily Mail). Other notable chess celebrities, such as Nigel Short, Emil Sutovsky, Tatev Abrahamyan and Sabrina Chevannes, have strongly and angrily come out in support of her boycott.

 

This is a tough issue for me, and I’ve sat in nervous silence for a week while deciding whether to write about it. As many know, I’m a strong defender of equality and women’s rights, particularly in the chess world. And yet try as I might, I cannot support the proposal to withdraw Iran’s hosting rights and move the championship. My main reason for this, as ironic as it may seem, relates to defending and empowering women.

 

My opinion has landed me on quite an unfamiliar side of the political divide. Across the gorge are friends and others whose beliefs I generally respect, while some of those besides me are traditional ideological foes. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, particularly seeing as this debate seems to have brought out the worst of ad hominem in people, so I will tread carefully.

 

I’ll start with an obvious clarification. I’m not a supporter of the Iranian governmental regime, and many of its policies that engender the oppression of women are simply indefensible. Neither am I a ‘defender of Islam’, just as I don’t specifically promote any religion. (And let us not forget that almost every major religion, taken at its fundamental level, demands gender discrimination, with the notable exception of Pastafarianism.) Several of the public criticisms of having Iran as host seem to be well-intentioned, but use the guise of “defending women’s rights” to champion an anti-Islam agenda (thereby employing another logical fallacy, that of tying). Opposition to freedom of religion has no place in this debate. Others have argued that FIDE has put women’s lives in danger by awarding the host to an unsafe country, a not unreasonable objection, but also one not supported by precedent.

 

I do not at all oppose the right of an individual (or team of individuals) to boycott this or any other event, nor their right to publicly state their reasons for doing so. But here we are talking about a mass, organised boycott and potential removal of Iran’s hosting rights, and as such, it’s important not to conflate the issues above. First, many international events (and here I mean world championships for both genders, European championships and world senior, youth and junior events) have been held in countries that are predominantly Muslim, are suffering unrest, face high crime rates, have a historically bad record on human rights or have deep political conflicts with other nations. Players from thirty-four countries were not permitted (by their own nations) to participate in the 1976 Olympiad in Israel. In 1978 at the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, some players could allegedly hear the shots of executions of political dissidents by the Argentinian junta as they played their games (it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed during the Dirty War of 1976-1983). At the 2006 World Student Championships in Lagos, participants were not allowed to leave their hotels without armed guards. There are many stories of corruption and human rights abuses carried out by the Aliyev-led government of Azerbaijan, a great supporter of international chess and host of the recent 2016 Olympiad. (Incidentally, former Olympiad champions Armenia could not participate for fear of violence.)

 

And of course there have been similar moves in other sports: many objections were raised to China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympiads for reasons of its human rights record, while the US famously boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. My point is that one cannot simply exclude a country as host due to political or religious objections, or because the conditions aren’t favourable to a particular country. That’s not the way of international sport. So let’s turn now to the one viable issue at stake: whether a participant should be forced to wear a hijab.

 

The hijab is a head covering worn predominantly by Muslim women, originally as a symbol of “modesty and privacy” (Wikipedia). Less than 50% of self-professed Muslim women wear one, though statistics here are unreliable. Iran’s government is somewhat unique in that it follows what is commonly (though inaccurately) called Sharia Law, in that the principles of Shia Islam are hardwired into the Constitution. Practically, this means that citizens can be arrested for breaking those principles, including with regard to dress. Men cannot wear shorts in public places. Women must have their hair covered by a scarf or hijab, though for tourists and foreigners, the punishment for forgetting is usually a request to get one. As with men, legs should be covered, but all the way to the ankles (sandals or bare feet are allowed).

 

At the championships in Iran, the female players will be required to adhere to the Iranian dress code. This has been the case at all international chess events held in Iran (including the 2016 Women’s Grand Prix, in which 12 of the world’s top female players took part). Many other countries have strong cultural norms that follow these principles, although there may not be legal punishments in play. At two world junior championships in India in which I competed, both foreign boys and girls felt some cultural pressure to dress to cover our legs; in fact, refusal to do so actually led to the male and female events being segregated into different rooms!

 

After that very long setup, we come to the key point. The main question is whether or not FIDE’s awarding the hosting right to Iran, which means women must wear hijabs during the games, constitutes gender discrimination. First, 165 member nations of FIDE had a chance to vote against Iran’s bid, and none did, so I’m not even sure FIDE or its Commission for Women’s Chess could be blamed in any case. (This issue really does make for strange bedfellows.) Secondly, the wearing of the hijab is an Iranian law, not a rule made by the organisers. And finally, covering the head is by and large a reflection of the cultural values of the host country that are admittedly tied to its religion, in much the same way that a woman would take off shoes before entering a Hindu temple, remove her hat at a Christian church or funeral, or refrain from touching a Buddhist monk. To some individuals, I can understand that a hijab might symbolize oppression, but only if that is one’s stance against Islam; in that case, a personal boycott is the appropriate action. If the players were required to drape themselves in the Iranian flag, that might be another issue. But here, the players aren’t being asked to do anything more than what any other tourist or visitor to Iran is asked.

 

(As an aside: A good point was raised by IM Elizabeth Paehtz, who wondered how women would be permitted to be alone with their male trainers, which may also defy Iranian principles. This is something that could materially affect the players’ preparations as it has done for Iranian girls competing in events, and I hope a solution is found.)

 

Finally, why does this issue matter, if at all? The truth is, it matters a whole lot. Iranian chess has seen something of a revolution in the last decade, and the national team at the Olympiad was one of the standouts. The federation has organised several large tournaments and events, including the aforementioned Women’s Grand Prix earlier this year. While women do suffer oppression in everyday life in Iran, as has been well documented, chess is a medium through which they can travel, engage in bilateral cultural exchange with their western counterparts, earn respect and standing among their male peers at home, and potentially even foster an independent career. For girls, it provides a complementary source of education, along with all the associated benefits, as well as rare opportunities to interact and compete with boys on a more even footing.

 

I’m not the only one who thinks this. GMs Adly and Al-Medaihki, for example, have spoken out strongly on this matter. But on this point, I can’t do better than re-quote the statement of Mitra Hejazipour, a women’s grand master from Iran and winner of the 2015 Asian continental championships. She pleaded:

 

“This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past. It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”

 

In an interview with The Guardian, she went on to say that such a move would ‘isolate Iran and ignore progress that Iranian women have made in the country.’

 

I agree. For me, the key test is to consider: Would the lives of Iranian women and girls be better or worse if all major events were banned in their country? I have carefully weighed the evidence, and I believe it is in the best interests of promoting equality and lifting Iranian women out of oppression for the championships to go ahead. This is probably going to make me unpopular among some of the more opinionated in the chess world, but I can’t compromise my beliefs on this. Individuals such as Paikidze may wish to boycott it, as is their right. But please, let’s keep sight of who the real victims are here, and look at the big picture: supporting equality for women, everywhere.

 
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Pirate Week

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 27, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Three strange pirate-related things happened to me last week.

Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day. Admittedly, some of the links to buccaneering are a little tenuous, but it still makes for an unusual theme.

It started when I found out about some trouble one of my German friends had gotten into. Having just started university, he, like many freshers, soon discovered the shady world of movie downloading – or ‘online piracy’ as it’s more commonly known. He’d downloaded a grand total of 12 movies before he got sent a letter from a law firm representing a media corporations demanding almost a thousand euros for one particular movie. Another demand following on behalf of a different corporation, for a similarly jawdropping fee.  If he pays the fines, it’ll have cost him roughly 150 euros on average per movie he watched. And that’s assuming no more fines follow.

Now, I have lots of friends. And some of them illegally download media from controversial ‘activist’ sites like The Pirate Bay. Some of them have been doing it for years. My old college’s intranet literally had terabytes of material (…at which point the law gets a litle fuzzy. If a pirate buys you a drink with his stolen loot, are you also culpable?).

But in all these years and of all these people, I’ve never heard of anyone having to answer. At first I thought my friend was particularly unlucky, but then I googled anti-piracy laws in Germany. It turns out Germany is the Stockfish of online piracy: no mistake goes unpunished. Literally millions of letters are sent to perpetrators, and the law allows little leeway. (Not that I’m bagging out Germany’s techno laws in general, mind you; their mobile phone services are so impressive that it’s actually cheaper to call within the Netherlands on my girlfriend’s German phone than my Dutch one.)

A full post about online piracy will have to wait for another day, however, because it’s time to move on to pirate event number two. We’ve recently moved apartments to the north-east side of Amsterdam, and by coincidence we look out over the Ij (“Eye”) harbour where last week the Amsterdam Sail Festival took place. Held once every five years (or “quinquenially”, if you’re feeling fancy), it’s one of the largest maritime festivals in the world.

“Honey, what’s that outside our window?”

I’m not really a ‘boat’ person, but this festival was phenomenal. About two million tourists crammed into tiny Amsterdam to check out the ships, which were, I have to admit, stunning. They came from all over the world, these huge sail boats from various centuries, including a small Aussie one that had sailed all the way from Down Under with most of its crew barely out of high school. But it was the collection of older boats that really stood out in my opinion. Some of them were huge. Some, such as the Russian, French and South American vessels, were immaculate, with the crew dressed in exquisite, colourful garb. Other crews were literally dressed as pirates, for no good reason that I could discern. My favourite was the Nao Victoria, a replica of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships from the early sixteenth century, and the first to circumnavigate the world.

Hanging out near the Aussie boat “The Young Endeavour”

On the final night of the festival, my girlfriend surprised me with tickets to a screening of Pirates of the Carribean ‘in concert’. But not just any screening; it was set up in a huge open-air marina, and you could either have grandstand tickets or ‘ship tickets’, whereby you just moor your boat next to the screen. Most importantly, however, there was a large Dutch orchestra playing all the music from the movie live – and if you know the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, you’ll know that’s quite a big deal. The movie/concert finished with a bang, literally, as we had front-row seats to the huge final fireworks show. By the end of the festival, I’d been transformed from a non-boaty person to someone who perhaps could finally understand the romantic appeal of a life at sea. After the movie, I kept coming back to the cheesy words of Johnny Depp’s pirate character, Captain Jack Sparrow:

 

“Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails; that’s what a ship needs, but what a ship is, what a ship really is, is freedom.”

And then, the next day, I was called a pirate.

Really. I mean, fair-dinkum, life-goal-achieved, called a pirate. Twice, and in print, no less, by the UK’s The Times.

So, as I recently mentioned, I’ve just finished writing my first book. This post wasn’t really meant to be a plug for it, but there you go. And GM Raymond Keene, a widely read chess journalist, has started publishing reviews of it. This is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, I have no idea how he got a hold of it, seeing as even I haven’t seen a copy of the book yet! But secondly, Keene’s gone for a pirate-themed approach to colouring the ‘swashbucklingly’ exciting style of the gambits I cover. Here I get called a pirate, and here, a buccaneer. Keene then branches out in his other column in The Spectator by going for a viking comparison, before reverting to more pirate-related descriptions the following week. This final column is so colourful that I can’t help but reprint my favourite snippet in full:

 

“In my mind’s eye, I visualise Smerdon as some swashbuckling buccaneer of the chessboard, complete with eyepatch, wooden leg, tricorn hat and probably a parrot.”

My parents must be so proud.

 

At least he was right about the parrot

 
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Leaving the Politiks behind

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 26, 2014 in Chess, Politics

It’s not like me to write about chess politics (i.e. my last post), but I’m sure I’ll have no choice at the Olympiad next week. Not to mention Australian politics; these days, it’s hard for me to read the politics section of The Australian without a shudder and a groan or two. So it’s nice to have a little respite before the FIDE elections begin. I’m in Helsingor, a cozy seaside town in Denmark, for the Politiken Cup. (And therein lies the headline pun. Okay, I was really reaching this time.)

Usually, being a part-time chess tourist, I like to play different tournaments in different places. So the Australian Olympiad team was a little surprised when I suggested they join me in Denmark for my second visit at this event, as a warm-up for Tromso. And a couple of my other friends have asked me what’s so great about the tournament. Well, without going into too many details or hyperbole, let me outline a typical day here in Helsingor.

8.00:    Wake up; the sun is shining and it’s already a charming 25 degrees. Sneak in a quick gym session (on site), then breakfast outside in the garden, overlooking the ocean.

9.30:   Chess preparation (naturally).

11.30:  Duck off through the woods to the beach for a dip in the (surprisingly warm) ocean.

12.30:  The lunch here – I’m not exaggerating – is by far the best food I’ve ever eaten at a chess tournament. The seafood, in particular, is astonishing.

13.00:  The round begins. One round a day is a must in a place like this!

17.30:  Soccer – again, on-site. Last night was “GMs versus the rest.” No prizes for guessing the result.

19.00:  Dinner is also outside; the sun stays up for a ridiculously long time in the Scandinavian summer.

20.30:  Normally, show-and-tell of our games in the bar; a few games of pool (free, and also on-site). Otherwise, a variety of social chess events are sometimes on offer, such as knockout blitz, pairs blitz or a problem-solving competition.

23.00:  Sleeping as the sun sets, as nature intended.

Tough life. The only downside is that I’m far too relaxed to play quality chess. I’ve had a rubbish tournament so far, but thanks to some very favourable pairings, I find myself in a position to challenge for the top spots. Still, I can’t see my luck holding up. I did have one nice finish to a game, however, which will be the only chess contribution from this post. Enjoy.

 

 

 
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Cancel the Olympiad? No(r) way!

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 18, 2014 in Chess, Politics

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest Olympiad drama. There are so many conflicting reports, rumours, innocent victims and different parties with skin in the game, that it reminds one of an election campaign. Oh hang on; there IS an election campaign. Go figure.

Back it up a little. For those of you without your finger on the pulse of chess gossip, here’s the state of play. The Olympiad in Tromsø, Norway starts in two weeks. Ten teams (including, most significantly, the Russian women’s team) missed the deadline for registration. The organisers have said they’re not accepting the late entry of these teams. FIDE says they MUST accept these teams, citing a statute that gives the FIDE President overriding powers. The organisers say that power doesn’t apply. Drama ensues.

That’s where we stand, at least from a fact perspective. The rumour mill is well and truly in production, as you might expect, with my favourites being that (1) Gary Kasparov’s team has orchestrated the organisers’ behaviour in order to embarrass FIDE before the upcoming FIDE election; (2) FIDE may cancel the whole Olympiad, and (3) FIDE, with the help of Vladimir Putin (!), is considering moving the whole Olympiad to Sochi, Russia, within the next two weeks.

There are a lot of parties at fault in all of this. The Russian chess federation should have registered its team on time, but delayed until after Kateryna Lahno, one of the strongest female players in the world, could officially change chess federations from the Ukraine to Russia. The addition to the Russian team was especially important, given the huge rifts within the team between two of its star players, the Kosintseva sisters, and the coach, Sergei Rublevsky, after the last Olympiad. It should be noted that the Russian team could have registered a team anyway and simply added an extra name later, for a nominal fee of 100 euros. But they didn’t, and here we are.

FIDE is hardly guilt-free in this, either. I doubt FIDE would have gotten involved at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s Russia who is affected. Meanwhile, the animosity between FIDE and the Norwegian organisers has been heated for some time, I suspect largely underpinned by the fact that Norway is a vocal supporter of the Kasparov campaign. The Tromsø organisers must also accept blame in all this; it’s clear that the budget for the Olympiad has been completely blown out of the water (although the organisers could not have known so many more teams would want to play than in previous years), and they have cited budgetary reasons for why they won’t allow exceptions to the late deadline rule. In fact, because of budgetary uncertainty, the Olympiad was only confirmed on June 5 – notably, after the deadline for registration. I have a lot of sympathy for the organisers: this will surely be one of the most expensive Olympiads ever, with the most teams, in a country where costs are high, and just after Norway has hosted a rather expensive World Championship match and a World Cup to boot. But a budget is a budget.

The innocent victims I mentioned are, of course, the players. And not just the Russians, either. Other teams affected include the Afghani women’s team, which has itself overcome its own internal problems in the past just to be able to play, and several African teams that have had to jump over many well-publicised visa hurdles to secure their place.  And, of course, if the whole Olympiad is moved or cancelled, literally thousands of chess players and fans will be affected.

I really have no idea what’s going on, and it’s even possible that the ‘facts’ I’ve re-quoted above have been massaged somehow by their sources. But what I can do is apply some basic game theory to the situation to make a prediction about what’s going to happen.  For example, it’s highly unlikely that the Olympiad will be cancelled or moved. There’s just no way that FIDE would accept the negative publicity in the run-up to what will be one of the closest-fought FIDE elections in recent history. Secondly, I find it very hard to believe that these teams will ultimately not be allowed to play, for similar reasons. If the Tromsø organisers just wanted to make a point, it’s been made: this story has been widely publicised in all major media outlets in the chess world. If it’s a budgetary issue, either the money will be found somehow, or the Norwegian organisers will cave in; after all, they would have had to have budgeted for these teams a couple of months ago, when they thought that these teams would register. The unfortunate reality is that perhaps without the Russian team being affected, the organisers might have gotten away with denying the other countries a place; as it stands, although ‘no exceptions should be made’, the might of Russia is a tough beast to fight against.

So, my prediction is that the Olympiad will go ahead, and the teams will play. The real question to me is, how are we going to get there? Who is going to cave first? And which side of the election is going to come out of this looking better than the other?

I, a lowly chess blogger, have no idea. But it’s all very exciting!

 
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Australia: The (Un)lucky country

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 6, 2014 in Non-chess, Politics

Ah, Australia. The sunburnt land. The land down under. The lucky country.

Well, usually.

Don’t worry; I promise this post isn’t about the latest Federal budget, though many of you are aware how much I have to say about that. Cutting $8 billion for foreign aid to the world’s poorest? Sure, why not; they can’t vote anyway, right? Sorry; I promised not to.

No, this is about a topic that many Europeans would consider to be far more important than anything else: the upcoming football World Cup. By ‘football’, I of course mean soccer. That round-balled game whereby players stare at each other for 45 minutes, score a goal, celebrate like they’ve won the shirtless lottery, and then stare at each other for another 45 minutes. Nah, I’m joking (well, partially). During my time in Europe, I’ve come to appreciate the game a lot more – the skill, the nuance, the culture, and even the sheer scale of the soccer world in business terms. (Incidentally, the total salaries of the English Premier League last season topped $3 billion. If the annual salary of the average player was reduced by a third from $2.7 million to $1.8 million – still not a bad payday for kicking a ball – the savings would completely cover the $2 billion in foreign aid projects cut from next year. But, you know, I promised…)

Anyway, back to the World Cup. It’s a huge extravaganza, uniting the world for a month in a sea of nationalism and euphoria. And amazingly, Australia made it in as one of the 32 countries to compete for the cup. Given that we are currently ranked 62nd in the world on the FIFA Rankings, some might call this a lucky break – and they’d be right, as, to a certain extent, Australia’s qualification path is a little easier than some of the higher-ranked countries. But hey, once you’re in, you’re in, and then it’s anyone’s game. Well, at least the draw is done pseudo-randomly, such that there’s always the chance you get paired in a relatively favourable group, increasing your chances of making it past the group stage.

Unfortunately, in Australia’s case, that hasn’t happened. In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, Australia has received the unluckiest draw of any competing nation. I had already publicly declared (much to my Aussie friends’ shock) that Australia was in my opinion favourite to finish last, even before the groups were announced. But now I’m convinced; if we score even a single draw, I’ll be impressed.

 

Unfortunately, no, it's not in alphabetical order, but rather in increasing order of luck.

Unfortunately, no, it’s not in alphabetical order, but rather in increasing order of luck. (Source: New York Times)

Australia’s opponents in Group B are: Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile. Yep.

Spain is the world’s best team and the reigning World and European Champions. That’s already an unlucky draw, but to be honest, we would have struggled against any of the other “Pot One” teams that we could have drawn, such as Germany, Argentina, Brazil or even Belgium. Bad luck, but not the end of the world.

No, the real pain comes in the form of the other two teams. To qualify for the group stage, we need to be in the top two finishes of our group, which basically means finishing higher than the teams other than Spain. In this case, we’ve drawn the Netherlands, the finalists in the last World Cup and one of the historically great football teams. A recent form slump has seen their ranking fall to a paltry 14th, meaning that they were candidates for our “Pot Four” team. We could have instead faced Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Croatia, or even Greece. Not a great result.

But the real pain comes in the form of our ‘weaker’ group member, Chile. Chile has had an incredible run of late, and is now ranked even higher than the Netherlands at 13th in the world. Moreover, it’s well known that South American teams tend to do much better in their own continent. They’re understandably the favourite to take the second spot in the group ahead of the Netherlands. In football parlance, we’re in the Group of Death.

Sounds bad, but wait, there’s more. One of our national legends of the game, Josh Kennedy, is out through injury. One of our new young stars, Tom Rogic, has also just been ruled out because of injury.  Our old captain has just retired, but I’m sure our new guy, Mile Jedinak, will be up to the challenge. That is, if he recovers from his recent ankle injury in time.

Am I too pessimistic? Perhaps. On the other hand, several betting sites have Australia has favourite to finish last (you can get 4 to 1 odds in some places). Call me unpatriotic if you will, but I’m already thinking ahead to my ‘second’ team to support in the Cup. I’ve decided that if I’m going to double-dip, I should at least choose a team with which I have some innate connection, so England it is. I’m not sure it’s going to bring much more joy, though, particularly given I live in the Netherlands with flatmates who support Spain and Germany.

English football fans also have a history of disappointment

Still, on the plus side, Australia’s chances in the partially knock-out draw have to be higher than Australia’s chances of winning the upcoming World Chess Olympiad. At least, according to chess commentators Lawrence Trent and Jan Gustafsson in a recent broadcast, Australia finishing first would be nothing short of a ‘miracle’. Two years ago we could have had our best-ever finish, sneaking into the top ten, had I not stuffed up the final round. This year, we’re also fielding a team with only one Grandmaster, but things are a little different. The team has gone for youth, a good long-term strategy, and I’ll be easily the oldest (and the tallest) member of our team. The squad will hopefully bring a hunger and energy to the campaign that I’m looking forward to cultivating. If nothing else, perhaps we have a good chance in the informal soccer matches on the rest day. If we’re lucky.

 

 
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Kasparov in Australia

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 22, 2014 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Check out Garry K’s eloquent interview on one of Australia’s major news channels. The interviewer, like most Australians, is predictably fairly ignorant about the chess world, but the questions are above average, and the answers are insightful.

 

 

 
0

Is Tony Abbott a Misogynist? Part II: Comments, Clarifications and Corrections

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 3, 2013 in Economics, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

Well, my attempts to break down the Tony Abbott gender issue into simple, undisputable mathematics proved anything but uncontroversial. On my Facebook page, the comments came thick and fast, quickly turning my wall into rigorous debating forum.  The post received so much interest that for a couple of days in a row last week, it came up as one of the top Google hits of searches for “Tony Abbott gender bias one woman cabinet” (although, as Roger Emerson cheekily pointed out, it was also the top Google hit for “David Smerdon misogynist”).

There was quite a lot of support for my post, but of course, those aren’t the most interesting comments…everyone loves controversy! Criticisms largely came in three categories: emotive, philosophical and mathematical. A brief summary follows, after which I offer a small correction to the statistical analysis.

Emotive

A small percentage of the comments fall into what can generously be termed “emotive” arguments – in other words, arguments based more on emotion than substance.

Some comments implied, directly or indirectly, that I was supporting or defending Tony Abbott’s sexism, with one commenter going so far as to dispute my own claims to promoting gender equality. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have for many years been active in my pursuit of gender equality, both in Australia and abroad, and I certainly would not call myself an Abbott supporter in any form. In fact, the main reason I imposed significance criteria ex-ante was to ensure that my own biases against Abbott didn’t massage the statistical results to suggest a gender bias that wasn’t there.

Furthermore, one of the driving factors for wanting to check the statistics is that I believe public criticisms in the media from feminists must not misrepresent the facts if their wielders truly want to further their cause. Gender equality is an emotion-charged topic and often provokes fiery reactions, but how can the voice of equality be trusted if it is found to have misrepresented, deceived or used false facts in the past? Proponents for change have to be especially careful in this regard, and I don’t think being factually careful is worthy of vilification from members of one’s own cause. As I said in response to one such comment, “Just call be Galileo.”

A further emotive criticism was that the analysis was irrelevant because it wouldn’t be understood by “about 99% of the population.” If this were true, I shudder to think about the future of science (as well as chess, making soufflés and speaking Swahili, come to mention it).

Philosophical

Elements of rational debate were employed by quite a few commentators seeking to invalidate the analysis. Two of my acquaintances pointed out that a prior belief that Tony Abbott is sexist would not be refuted by a statistical significance between 5% and 10%, and therefore his sexism could not be disproved. These and other comments led me to realise that the title of the article was a bit misleading. In the end, the analysis measures gender bias in the appointments; I make no comment on Abbott’s sexism per se, which is more of a personality assessment. However, the point about prior beliefs applies equally to gender bias in the Cabinet. If one believes beforehand that Abbott would choose a biased Cabinet, then the statistics do not disprove this belief, and thus it can be continued.

Quite a few others focussed on outside factors that could have confounded the analysis, such as ministerial and geographical quotas in the Liberal-National coalition – quotas I must admit I wasn’t aware of.  Coupled with heterogeneity (in other words, other differences) in pre-selection, electorates, merit and experience of the candidates, etc, it was claimed that the analysis was not valid and did not disprove the gender bias.

My response to both of these criticisms is the same. Confounding factors only serve to reinforce that one cannot claim a gender bias in the appointments from the facts. These arguments use what is known as “Burden of Proof Reversal”, a cardinal sin in rational debate, but unfortunately a commonly employed one in politics and the mainstream media. The approach usually claims that something is true simply by stating that is cannot be proved it is not true. Preaching that the earth is flat in an age without astrological tools is one example.

However, in science as well as law, the proof should be on the claimant. If a man is accused of murder, the onus is on the accusers (or their representatives) to supply the evidence to support the claim. Such ‘presumption of innocence’ should also apply to public vilification in the media. In this case, the claim is that Tony Abbott exhibited gender bias in the Cabinet appointments, and the evidence supplied is the ratio of women to men – nothing more (this was the case in, for example, media reports by the ABC, the Australian, the Huffington Post and Adelaide Now, among others). The fuzzier the evidence, then, the weaker the claim, and therefore more shame to these media outlets, in my opinion. My statistical analysis is meant as a rational attempt to clarify the factual ‘evidence’ supporting the claims, and my conclusion is that, even with confounding variables excluded, the numbers don’t stack up.

Mathematical

Finally we turn to the real embarrassment of this addendum to the original post: My mathematics was wrong! My thanks to Dave Mitchell and Melissa Hogan (two of my friends studying at the Australian National University and who I met from ju-jitsu, of all things) for pointing out the error. [EDIT: Since writing this, Barry Cox has also made the same mathematical point in the comments.] While the mistake does alter the analysis such that the chances of gender bias seem lower than they actually are, the bias is small enough that there still isn’t quite enough evidence to support the claim against Tony Abbott – although it’s now pretty close.

Before we get into the technical aspects, the problem can be summed up succinctly as follows: I chose an approximation to the true probability that wasn’t appropriate and systematically biased the analysis against there being a gender bias. Oops. The story of the error is a little bit amusing. I came up with the idea to do this analysis while sitting in my local café with nothing more than a pen, some napkins and my archaic mobile phone. When I started, I quickly realised that calculating the true probability, as you’ll see below, involves multiplying such huge numbers that I had no chance to work things out. Adopting a binomial approximation, on the other hand, meant that I only needed to calculate a couple of powers (e.g. 0.78118), which my phone-calculator was capable of handling. I never bothered to check things afterwards, much to my shame.

In fact, as both Dave and Mel commented, the binomial approximation can only be used in what is known as ‘sampling with replacement’. In other words, by using this approximation I was essentially posing the question, “If there is a 22% chance of choosing a women and I choose one person at random, and repeat this exercise 18 times, what are the chances of picking no more than one woman?”

Sounds reasonable – but it’s not quite correct. Melissa and her colleague backed up their criticism by running Monte Carlo computer simulations that showed the chances of randomly selecting not more than one woman in the Cabinet are roughly 5.5%. At first I have to confess I was suspicious of this claim, but I should have known better – Mel is one smart cookie J I ran my own simulations and got the same result (and about 6.3% with Bronwyn Bishop removed). Annoyed with myself, I did the proper calculations analytically doing the heavy calculations on a computer and, lo and behold, I got 5.49% and 6.29% respectively. D’oh.

This is still outside the stipulated 5% level, though it’s obviously much closer. Given the burden of proof on those claiming a bias, and given that three chief excluded variables – experience, a male-heavy Nationals party and the higher weighting of Julie Bishop’s portfolio – all systematically seem to move the analysis away from a significant gender bias, I think the main result still holds. Some commenters claimed, correctly, that a proper data set could be constructed to include most of these variables and thus get more accurate results. However, given I’m not paid for my writings and also the heat I’ve taken for the analysis to date, I’m probably not going to do it…but we’ll see.

Barry Cox also made the point that it could be argued Tony Abbott had little choice but to choose his chief Cabinet ministers, and in fact he could only exercise choice in the more minor positions. That rules out Julie Bishop, Warren Truss, Joe Hockey and whoever else one deems a ‘forced appointment’ from the analysis. Barry shows that the subsequent revised analysis would show above a 95% probability of gender bias unless one assumes Tony Abbott had a say in less than eleven Cabinet ministers (or, as I showed, in all 18 of them). This is a really interesting result in my opinion. However, my analysis has steered clear of political arguments for the most part, and so I have continued to assume that Tony Abbott chose his entire Cabinet, but this stream of analysis is definitely worthy of more attention.

Here is the correct graph of the probabilities for each possible number of female Cabinet members.

 

The correct distribution

For comparison, here is the graph I previously supplied.

 

The old, incorrect distribution, which places too much emphasis on the 'tails'

 

As you can see, they’re pretty similar, but if you look closely you’ll notice the correct graph is weighted higher in the middle section of the graph and weighted lower on the edges – so there is a marginally higher chance of more than women in the Cabinet.

What follows is the mathematical derivation of the correct probabilities. Feel free to skip it if it looks horrifying or hypnagogic.

(Note: In what follows, $latex n\choose k$ is the symbol for the so-called binomial coefficient. It is sometimes written as nCk or as $latex \frac{n!}{k!(n-k)!}$, which can be written in full as $latex \frac{n*(n-1)*(n-2)*\dots*2*1}{k*(k-1)*\dots*2*1*(n-k-1)*(n-k-2)*\dots*2*1}$. Looks scary, but a lot of numbers cancel out from the top and the bottom. For example, $latex 7\choose 3$ can be calculated as $latex \frac{7*6*5*4*3*2*1}{3*2*1*4*3*2*1}$, which simplifies to $latex \frac{7*6*5}{3*2}=35$.)

$latex Pr(No\quad more\quad than\quad 1\quad woman)$

$latex =Pr(0\quad women)+Pr(1\quad women)$

 

$latex =\frac{(\text{\#ways 18 men can be chosen})+(\text{\# ways 17 men and 1 woman can be chosen)}}{{\text{Total \#ways 18 Cabinet members can be chosen from 114 candidates}}}$

Then, breaking it down:

$latex Pr(0\quad women)=\frac{\binom {89} {18}}{\binom {114} {18}}$

$latex \qquad =\frac{89*88*\dots*73*72}{114*113*\dots*98*97}$

$latex \qquad \approx 0.0076$

 

$latex Pr(1\quad women)=\frac{\binom {89} {17} *\binom {25} 1}{\binom {114} {18}}$

$latex =\frac{25*18*89*88*\dots*73}{114*113*\dots*98*97}$

$latex \approx 0.0473$

Therefore,

$latex Pr(No\quad more\quad than\quad 1\quad woman)$

$latex \approx 0.0076+0.0473\approx 0.0549$

 

$latex \approx 5.49\%.$

 

 
11

Is Tony Abbott A Misogynist? A Statistical Analysis

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 27, 2013 in Economics, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

[EDIT: Make sure you don’t miss Part II: Comments, Clarifications and Corrections for an update on the analysis.]

 

Like many Australians, I was dismayed to read that the newly elected Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had appointed an incredibly male-heavy Ministry to the Parliament of Australia. Most news reports in the mainstream media, both at home and abroad, slammed the announcement by levelling a fairly routine string of sexist labels at our new head of government, the most common being “Misogynist”. However, I was a little surprised by the lack of any quantitative evidence suggesting that the appointments were based on sexism over, say, statistical chance, so I decided to do a rudimentary check myself. Below you’ll find the results of a basic statistical analysis to answer the question:

Is there a gender bias in Tony Abbott’s new Cabinet?

I should point out that this is hardly the first time Tony Abbott has been called this in his life. Throughout his political career, Abbott has regularly been called insensitive to gender equality and the concerns of women, as well as possessing views on gender issues more likely found among Australian males half a century ago. However, to me, none of those reports have been especially convincing, either. As a feminist as well as someone who strongly opposes a lot of Abbott’s policies (particularly with regard to climate change and refugee policy), I was looking forward to the opportunity to finally analyse some ‘hard’ data in coming to a conclusion about our new chief. After reading the initial reports that the new Cabinet contained only one woman out of 19 spots, I felt pretty confident. In the words of Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose, “You can’t have that kind of parliament in 2013. It’s unacceptable.”  How could the data suggest anything other than that the man is a raving chauvinistic pig?

However, it turns out that things are not so simple. For starters, the Australian media has a reputation for being (a) incredibly biased, and (b) terrible at statistics. First, a lot of reports link to the following graph, taken from the Australian Labor Party website:

The most obvious question that comes to my mind is: Why aren’t the values given as percentages? Of course, this doesn’t matter if all the cabinets are the same size…but a quick check shows that this is indeed not the case. For example, India’s cabinet (made up of ‘Union Members’) has 33 spots. My second concern was about the choice of countries, which seemed incredibly arbitrary. The ALP chose to compare Australia to such countries as Rwanda, Liberia and Egypt, but excluded the United Kingdom (our closest parliamentary sibling), most of the G20 countries, and in fact ALL of Europe! Show this graph to anyone with even the vaguest of quantitative training and they’ll start screaming “Data mining! Data mining!” before you can blink.

Comparing ourselves to other countries is a bit fishy in any case. If every country always did this, no women would ever have been elected to high office in any country, ever. No, what I really want to know is whether the election of one single female (Julie Bishop) to Abbott’s new Cabinet could have come about by chance, or whether it suggests deliberate sexist. To ensure that my own biases don’t interfere with the analysis, I established a threshold before I got into the numbers. In any sort of quantitative research, the standard measure is to be at least 95% confident of something in order to draw a conclusion (formally, ‘reject a hypothesis’). I therefore decided that Tony Abbott could be considered guilty of gender bias in his appointments if it could be shown that we could be 95% sure the male/female ratio did not come about by chance. To be perfectly clear, I decided beforehand (ex ante) the analysis would conclude that Tony Abbott’s appointments:

  • were gender-biased if the chances of them being random were less than 5%; or
  • were random, and the media reports should be condemned for factual inaccuracy, if the chances of them being random were greater than 10%; or
  • could not convincingly be shown to be gender-biased if the chances were between 5% and 10%.

So let’s set up the analysis. Now, Abbott was of course elected Prime Minister before he chose his  own Cabinet, so we should exclude him from the list – the relevant statistic is then “One woman out of 18 spots”. Not all of the seats had been officially declared by the time the Cabinet was announced, but according to the Liberal Party website, Abbott had a total of 114 Members and Senators to choose from to fill these 17 spots. Of these candidates, 89 (78.1%) are male and 25 (21.9%) are female. (Note that this excludes the appointment of Bronwyn Bishop as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, so called “the most important position in Parliament” Australia’s premier newspaper The Australian. If she is excluded from the list, the percentage of female candidates falls slightly to 21.2%.)

Further, let’s assume that each female candidate is equally as qualified as each male candidate to serve in Cabinet. Now, this has been a contentious issue in the media, with a lot of the justifications given to the male-dominated appointments revolving around the issue of ‘merit’. Former Liberal Senator and Ambassador to Italy Amanda Vanstone is quoted as saying, “I’d rather have good government, than have more women in the cabinet for the sake of it.” However, let’s ignore merit arguments and focus on the numbers. From a statistical perspective, the question then becomes:

“Assuming all candidates are equally likely to be picked, what is the chance that Tony Abbott appointed no more than one woman (5.6%) to the Cabinet?”

First, note that if we take the ratio of females from the list of candidates and apply it directly to the 18 Cabinet positions, we would expect roughly four women to be appointed (0.219*18 = 3.95). However, we would expect exactly four women to be selected around 20% of the time. We can model the random likelihood of any number of women being selected by what is known as a ‘binomial distribution’. Basically, if Tony Abbott was to put all 114 candidates’ names into a hat and take out 18 at random, and repeat this 100 times, the graph below tells us how many times we would expect each possible gender division to occur.

Therefore, the chances of no more than one woman being appointed – that is, the probability of appointing zero or one woman – looks to be around 7%. Indeed, calculations bear this out (‘P’ stands for ‘Probability’ in what follows):

P(No more than one woman)

= P(0 women) + P(1 woman)

= (0.781)18 + 18*0.219*(0.781)17

= 0.012 + 0.059

= 0.07

= 7%

So the answer falls within 5% and 10%, leading us to conclude that the actual Cabinet appointments do not convincingly suggest gender bias.

Still, you might think that finding only a 7% chance that a Cabinet with one woman was randomly selected is still something to think about. This may be true, but taking into account a few other factors dilutes the strength of the result even further. Excluding the new Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop, from the initial sample raises the probability of randomly selecting no more than one woman to 8%.

Furthermore, the one woman who did make it into Abbott’s Cabinet, Julie Bishop, has been appointed Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party as well as taking on the esteemed Minister for Foreign Affairs portfolio. Along with Warren Truss (Deputy Prime Minister) and Joe Hockey (Treasurer), she thus takes one of the three chief roles in Tony Abbott’s leadership team. One woman out of these three key positions is technically something of an overrepresentation, given the candidates available, and so our result weakens further if we weight the spots accordingly. For example, just for argument’s sake, assume that getting appointed to one of these roles is doubly as important as other positions in the Cabinet. That is, assume a woman earns one ‘point’ for each normal Cabinet position and two ‘points’ for one of these chief positions. Then the current Cabinet earns two points through its women (or woman, in this case). The chance of the Cabinet earning no more than two points with a random selection of the candidates is then a whopping 17%. Don’t be scared of the formulas…

P(No more than two points earned by women)

= P(0 points) + P(1 point) + P(2 points)

= (0.781)18 + 15*0.219*(0.791)17 + 15*7*(0.219)2*(0.781)15

= 0.01 + 0.05 + 0.11

= 0.17

= 17%

Even less convincingly, when I use this weighted approach in conjunction with excluding Bronwyn Bishop from the list of candidates, the chance that the current parliamentary Cabinet could occur randomly without gender bias rises to 18%. Statistically, such numbers mean we can basically rule out any sort of gender effect at all.

There are a couple of little caveats I’d like to point out before we jump to any conclusions. This very basic statistical analysis makes a lot of assumptions which may or may not be justified. For example, the men and women in our list of candidates may not be equally capable to serve in the Cabinet after all. For example, what if, all else being equal, older politicians are on average better suited to the Cabinet than younger politicians? This could be relevant because the male and female candidates’ average ages might be different. Judging from the photos on the Liberal Party website, it seems to me that the men are on average older than the women, but of course I should actually get the ages and then compute some sort of weighting scheme if I want to really work out the effect. My intuition tells me, however, that including this feature would produce less sexism in the results.

Secondly, my analysis assumes that Tony Abbott selected all Cabinet positions simultaneously. Of course, it’s more likely that he selected the most important positions first and then worked down the order. I’m not sure how this would change my results; intuitively it shouldn’t make much of a difference, except that Julie Bishop’s position again takes on a little more precedence.

Finally, I’ve assumed that Tony Abbott was essentially just given a list of elected candidates and told to choose a Cabinet. That is, I assume Tony Abbott had no say in selecting the Liberal Party nominees for the electoral seats, which may have led to the gender bias in the candidates in the first place. But that’s a topic for another project.

In the end, then (if you’ve managed to read this far), it does seem that the emotive journalistic style of the Australian media has again got something to answer for in its vilification of Tony Abbott on this issue. I’m not saying our new Prime Minister is taint-free on matters of gender policy – far from it, but my own opinions shouldn’t weigh into it. So here it is, finally: The bottom line, from a basic statistical analysis.

We cannot conclude there is any gender bias in Tony Abbott’s appointment of his Cabinet.

 

 

 

 

 
1

The Lion King: The Circle of Rudd

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 12, 2013 in Non-chess, Politics

Have you heard of The Lion King? Of course you have. Won two Oscars, took in almost half a billion US dollars at the box office, got turned into one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time…sound familiar? Well, in case you still need a reminder, here’s a brief run-down of the plot:

 

The setting is the glorious Pride Lands of Africa. Simba is a young and ambitious lion cub who, following the unfortunate demise of his long-reigning predecessor, is the rightful heir to the throne. However, the second in line to the crown, his uncle Scar, has other plans. After sneakily gathering the support of the hyena clan with all sorts of promises of power (“A shining new era/ Is tiptoeing nearer”), Scar embarks on a daring coup, usurping Simba and banishing him from the kingdom.

While languishing in the backwaters of the wilderness, Simba befriends other outcasts, beings his new life and renounces any ambitions to the top spot. Meanwhile, Scar’s rulership has led to the once vibrant lands slipping into a desolate wasteland, with the forecasts looking equally dark and barren. Simba is persuaded by the other animals to return from exile and challenge the usurper in a desperate bid to save the kingdom. After a brief struggle, Simba defeats Scar and takes his rightful place as leader, thus completing the Circle of Life.

 

Now, ready for some magic? Let’s do a couple of small replacements, and BAM, you’ve got the synopsis of Australian politics over the past five years.

 

The setting is the glorious Parliament of Australia. Kevin is a young and ambitious minister who, following the unfortunate demise of his long-reigning predecessor, is the rightful heir to the throne. However, the second in line to the prime ministership, his deputy Julia, has other plans. After sneakily gathering the support of the labor clan with all sorts of promises of power (“Don’t be a fool/ Go with Jule”), Julia embarks on a daring coup, usurping Kevin and banishing him from the front bench.

While languishing in the backwaters of the political wilderness, Kevin befriends other outcasts, beings his new life and renounces any ambitions to the top spot. Meanwhile, Julia’s rulership has led to the once vibrant economy slipping into a desolate wasteland, with the forecasts looking equally dark and barren. Kevin is persuaded by the other ministers to return from exile and challenge the usurper in a desperate bid to save the election. After a brief struggle, Kevin defeats Julia and takes his rightful place as leader, thus completing the Circle of Kevin.

 

Of course, we’ve still got the election coming up in August, and I haven’t found a role yet for Tony Abbott. Was there a Lion King II??

(Now showing in a pub conversation near you.)

 
5

Olympic cheating: Badminton and chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 15, 2012 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Chessbase has started a little online debate thanks to King-Ming Tiong’s comparison between chess and the deliberate losing by some of the teams in the Olympic badminton.  Unfortunately, as often happens in online chess forums, the debate has really missed the mark, focussing solely on ‘grandmaster draws’ and pointing out (rightly) that badminton doesn’t have any draws, and so any comparison is irrelevant.

This is really not the point, in my opinion.  The Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian teams who deliberately threw matches to get favourable pairings in the next round absolutely brought the game into disrepute, and in fact this was the cited reason for their eventual expulsion from the event.  And that’s the key point: the game is disrespected, and the fans suffer. As one of the officials publicly stated, “Who wants to come and watch that?”

Can we draw a comparison to this principle with chess?  Couldn’t it be argued that two grandmasters who are getting paid to compete, but barely move the pieces before sharing the point, are doing exactly the same thing?  I’d argue yes, but regardless of your opinion, the debate really needs to be better centred on this issue of disrespecting the sport and its supporters.

Another issue coming out of this little saga is whether a country with multiple teams (or players) can conspire to maximise its overall performance.  On the badminton circuit, the Chinese usually has several teams dominating the early rounds, and it’s apparently well established that they occasionally throw matches to ensure they won’t be paired against each other until the final.  For example, this might  maximise the chance of them picking up both a gold and silver medal.  This is hard to prove conclusively, of course, but the statistics are pretty convincing.  In 2011 on the badminton circuit, for example, a fifth of all matches between Chinese players were not completed.

This has been known to happen in other sports too, unfortunately, with a few twists.  For instance, it used to be in grand slam tennis that Russians would play a “one set match” against each other, so that the victor could conserve strength for the remaining rounds.  The two players would seriously battle out the first set, and the loser would just throw the remaining sets.  Does this make it any less disgraceful?  Maybe half disgraceful?  Or, in a five set match, just one-fifth disgraceful?

I wish I could say this doesn’t happen in chess, but that’s not true.  The most famous example is from Curaçao in 1962, where the world’s top player, the American Bobby Fischer, accused the Russian grandmasters of colluding to ensure he wasn’t the victor.  There’s a really great paper written a couple of years ago in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation where a couple of academics cleverly and rather conclusively showed that a Russian cartel did exist during this event, and that Fischer really did get a raw deal.

But you occasionally also see this sort of behaviour at world youth events, unfortunately.  It’s even to the point where quite often now organisers don’t allow participants of the same country to be paired in the last round.  Before this rule came into effect, I remember watching in disbelief in 1998 when the now super Grandmaster Teimor Radjabov lost his last game in the World Under 12 Championships to his countryman Kadir Guisenov.  Radjabov already had the gold medal sewn up before the last round, but his loss in under an hour to Guisenov (culminating in the two of them walking out of the playing hall arm in arm, all smiles) allowed the latter to snatch the bronze medal away from Australia’s Zong Yuan Zhao.  To be fair to the 11 year old Radjabov, if indeed the game was thrown, it’s highly likely that it was the result of an official directive from the Azeri coach.

All in all, I can’t really agree with the pundits on Chessbase.com who claim that the badminton-style cheating doesn’t occur in the chess world.  If anything, I’d say it was so prevalent that we’ve come up with regulations now to prevent it, unlike the shuttle sport.  Is chess ‘clean’ now?  Almost certainly, especially at the very top, although there was the infamous French cheating scandal at the last chess Olympiad.  I’m optimistic that there won’t be anything as controversial as this badminton scandal at the next Olypiad in a fortnight in Istanbul.

At the very least, I’m pretty sure our doping tests will come back negative.

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