It is not often that Terry Tao gets into politics in his blog, but, as political observers like to say, normal rules don’t apply this year. Tao writes that many of Trump’s supporters secretly believe that he is not even remotedly qualified for the presidency, but they continue to entertain this possibility because their fellow citizens and the media and politicians seem to be doing so. He suggests that more people should come out and reveal their secret beliefs.
I generally agree with Tao’ sentiment and argument, but I have a quibble. Tao describe the current situation as mutual knowledge without common knowledge. This, I think, is wrong. To get politics out of the way, let me explain my position using a similar situation which Tao also mentions: The Emperor’s new clothes. I have already come across people casting the Emperor’s story in terms of mutual knowledge without common knowledge, and I think it is also wrong. The way I understand the story, before the kid shouts, each of the Emperor’s subjects sees that the Emperor is naked, but after observing everybody else’s reaction, each subject updates her own initial belief and deduces that she was probably wrong. The subjects now don’t think that the Emperor is naked. Rather, each subjects thinks that her own eyes deceived her.
But when game theorists and logicians say that an assertion is mutual knowledge (or mutual belief) we mean that each of us, after taking into account our own information including what we deduce about other people’s information, think the assertion is true. In my reading of the Emperor’s new cloths story this is not the case.
For an assertion to be common knowledge, we need in addition that everybody knows that everybody knows that the assertion is true, and that everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows that the assertion is true, and onwards to infinity. A good example of a situation with mutual knowledge and no common knowledge is the blue-eyed islanders puzzle (using the story as it appears Terrence’ blog and a big spoiler ahead if you are not familiar with the puzzle): Before the foreigner makes an announcement, it is mutual knowledge that there are at least 99 blue-eyed islanders, but this fact is not common knowledge: If Alice and Bob are both blue-eyed then Alice, not knowing the color of her own eyes, thinks that Bob might observe only 98 blue-eyed islanders. In fact it is not even common knowledge that there are at least 98 blue-eyed Islanders, because Alice thinks that Bob might think that Craig might only observe 97 blue-eyed Islanders. By similar reasoning, before the foreigner’s announcement, it is not even common knowledge that there is at least one blue-eyed islander. Once the foreigner announces it, this fact becomes common knowledge.
No mutual knowledge and no common knowledge are two situations that can have different behavioral implications. Suppose that we offer each of the subjects the following private voting game: Is the emperor wearing clothes ? You have to answer yes or no. If you answer correctly you get a free ice cream sandwich, otherwise you get nothing. According to my reading of the story they will all give the wrong answer, and get nothing. On the other hand, suppose you offer a similar game to the islanders — even before the foreigner arrives — Do you think that there is at least one blue-eyed islander ? they will answer correctly.
There is an alternative reading of the Emperor’s story, according to which it is indeed a story about mutual knowledge without common knowledge: Even after observing the crowd’s reaction, each subject still knows that the Emperor is naked, but she keeps her mouth shut because she suspects that her fellow subjects don’t realize it and she doesn’t want to make a fool of herself. This reading strikes me as less psychologically interesting, but, more importantly, if that’s how you understand the story then there is nothing to worry about. All the subjects will vote correctly anyway and get the ice cream even without the little kid making it a common knowledge. And Trump will not be elected president even if people continue to keep their mouth shut.