Confirmation Bias And The Taiwan Phone Call


I have told the story here before, I think, of the poker hand I once witnessed in Las Vegas that forever serves as a warning about the dangers of confirmation bias. I was considering joining a seven card stud table at a casino, and as is my practice, decided to watch a few hands to see what the competition was like. One player stood out: an elderly, grandmotherly woman who played hesitantly and was prone to say things like “Oh, dear!” and talk to herself. She obviously irritated the  other players, who were all male and the human equivalents of the Dogs Playing Poker.

As it happened the  third hands I watched was a big one, with most of the players showing pairs and flushes. The grandmother dithered and sighed as usual, and when it she was faced, after the last card, with the decision of whether to call a huge bet, she delayed, pushed all her chips into the center to raise, and then pulled them back, saying that she would fold instead. The players protested, and the dealer informed her that once her chips had crossed the line on the table, her bet was complete. She looked horrified, and explained piteously that she had never played by those rules before. It was to no avail, however, and the remaining players eagerly called her wager, happy to take advantage of her gaffe.

The old woman had four jacks! It wasn’t a gaffe, it was an act, all of it. She had been taking advantage of the other players’ eagerness to stereotype her. Once the betting was over, she dropped the mask. “Four of a kind, gentlemen!’ she said authoritatively, revealing her hand. She raked in the gigantic pile of chips, and got up from her chair. “Thanks for the competition. I think I’ll try another table now.” She was heading to a table where they would think she was a clueless old lady, having blown her cover at this one.

I thought about that poker player when I was reading the comments on social media and from various pundits after it was reported that Donald Trump had engaged in a telephone conversation with the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Ever since the U.S. officially recognized Red China, Taiwan, formerly Formosa, has been treated diplomatically as if it doesn’t exist. Taiwan, the Chinese island territory where Chinese Nationalists fled after Communists  took over the country, still claims to be the real government of the Chinese mainland.  Under President Jimmy Carter’s “One China” policy, the U.S. officially refuses to recognize it as independent. It is, however, a convenient fiction.  As Slate explained in 2000:

While the U.S. officially adheres to the one-China policy, it practices a de facto two-China policy. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. sells Taiwan military weapons, and the language of the act warns the People’s Republic that any coercive unification efforts would be “of grave concern to the United States.”Beginning in the late 1980s, the two Chinas flouted their one-China policies by establishing economic and cultural but not political ties….Taiwan… has continued to pay lip service to independence–two Chinas–but, out of fear of provoking China, has refrained from explicitly repudiating the one-China policy.

An incoming President publicly treating Taiwan’s leader as a head of state is bound to make China nervous. Sine everyone has already concluded that Donald Trump is an impulsive, reckless idiot, the phone conversation was immediately interpreted by his critics in that context. Similarly on social media: every Angry Left poster who mentioned the incident was contemptuous, as if any of them had superior diplomatic expertise to Trump, who is not exactly unfamiliar with the Chinese, with whom he has had many business dealings. Many were also fearful. This is the apparently agreed-upon strategy of  de-legitimizing Trump: he’s scary. He’s not a real American President ( just as many Republicans claimed Obama was an alien), with American virtues and values. He’s a bull in a china shop! (China, get it?) A beast, not a statesman! He’s Hitler, a criminal, a dictator, the boogeyman. See? See? This is going to start World War III!

This interpretation of Trump’s actions is pure confirmation bias. If a President-Elect with respected foreign policy credentials (not that we’ve had one since in 50 years) had done exactly the same thing, exactly the same way, it would be debated, but many more would see it as wily diplomacy. Again, confirmation bias: nobody really knows what the idea behind the call was, or if there was an idea. The Democratic National Committee responded by saying, “Donald Trump is either too incompetent to understand that his foolish phone call threatens our national security, or he’s doing it deliberately because he reportedly wants to build hotels in Taiwan to pad his own pockets.” Wow…THAT’s fair! Stay classy, Democrats! I’m sure this is the way to win back the trust and support of the electorate. Talk about a parody of partisan rhetoric;  tell us again about how the mean old Republicans wouldn’t give Barack Obama a chance.

Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist who through luck or perception went on record early that Trump’s candidacy was not the toothless joke it was seen to be, and who continues to argue that Trump’s unconventional methods are dumb like a fox, had this to say about the phone call:

Trump is “setting the table” for future negotiations with China. He just subtracted something from China’s brand that they value, and later he will negotiate with them to maybe give it back in some fashion. Probably in return for some trade concessions.

But what about the risk? Does it ever make sense to poke a nuclear power? In this case, probably yes. As I have said in this blog before, China’s leadership is both mature and competent. Many of them have engineering degrees. They understand what Trump is doing, and none of it is a path to war because neither side has any interest in war. None. Zero. 

I can imagine some scenarios in which China and the U.S. might dangerously escalate toward war, but one friendly call to a major trading partner isn’t one of the scenarios.

But why take that call now? Shouldn’t Trump have cleared this with Obama, or waited until he was President?

No. Because the Obama administration would have advised him not to do it. And waiting until January is the way old politics is done. This sort of bold, rapid action is evidently what Trump wants you to think is his brand as president. The Taiwan call is consistent with the New CEO Play that I described in this post. He’s setting the tone as bold, effective, and not waiting for red tape to slow him down.

Hmmmm. Interesting. Of course, that analysis reflects Adams’ own confirmation bias.

The fact is that at this point, nobody knows what Trump intended, and we may never know. In the interest of competence, responsibility and fairness, however, those interested in remaining ethical need to be mindful of three things when considering the new President:

The Golden Rule tells us that it is wrong to conclude that anyone is lousy at their job before they have had a chance to do it.

Bias makes us stupid,


Remember that old lady in Vegas!


Sources: Fox News, New York Times

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

19 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias And The Taiwan Phone Call

  1. My lovely wife, as she is wont to do from time to time, solved this one with blinding clarity, and almost immediately, long before I did. Her comment: “I see. The left wants Trump to CONTINUE to allow China and Russia to determine our foreign policy and Trump wants to do his own.” Very perceptive, my wife.

  2. Yeah right. A telephone call to the new President congratulating them threatens our national security. As Alizia might put it, the pearl clutching is breathtaking.

    • Because I didn’t take a picture of the real old lady, and that was the closest thing I could find.


      That was the old lady, after she moved to the gin rummy table.


      One of her bluffs that I didn’t mention was that she kept asking the rules of the game, and pretended to get poker mixed up with gin rummy.

      Take your pick.

  3. As much as I dislike Trump, I at least have to respect his straightforwardness. I’d rather have both our allies and our enemies know that we mean what we say than have our head of state constantly dissembling and trying to split the difference.

  4. This post is exactly why I’m addicted to your blog. My education is limited so I’m very picky about what newspapers, magazines and blogs I “waste” my time on. I loved this … if I could only remember it long enough to relay it to others, like in real conversation, I’d be in like Flynn.

  5. I seem to recall a freshly sworn-in President Obama bowing to a foreign ruler, something that was almost certainly not any kind of shrewd play but just plain old cluelessness. Some conservatives gave him a hard time, but the Left was more forgiving, which is to say, they fell over themselves defending Obama’s honor and accused anyone criticizing him of being a hateful, nitpicking, bitter villain.

    Pundits seem to think we all have very short memories.

  6. I should note that even if a more conventional president had made the call, both the left-leaning and establishment commentariat would likely still be freaking out; despite Taiwan being a much more “progressive” country than China (and the only Chinese-speaking democracy on Earth), a lot of intelligent people still seem to subconsciously think of it as being the “right-wing” dictatorship it was back during the Cold War, and therefore not worth treating with any respect (heck, remember that New York Times article from sometime ago that seriously suggested outright selling out Taiwan to China?).

    On a side note, I think Trump’s call actually won himself several brownie points with other East Asian countries; I know people in Taiwan were nervous that he’d unhesitatingly sell their sovereignty to the Chinese in exchange for a better trade deal, but he’s clearly sent the message that the US is still going to maintain relations with its allies, despite his isolationist rhetoric.

    • The Taiwan situation is bizarre. The US recognizes Cuba, a brutal Communist dictatorship, yet officially treats Taiwan like a skunk at a picnic. I don’t think most American focus on the issue: Trump’s call was felicitous if only to force some education and consideration.

  7. Hello Jack, I loved this one, too. I still visit to read your analyses from time to time, most recently because I was curious to see how you’ve sorted through all this incredible election crap. Good job.

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