Friday, May 08, 2015

Problems in explaining the problems of First Past the Post election systems

A friend of mine posted the following graphic to their Facebook page to show the problem with First Past the Post elections:

This shows the vote totals for three parties in the 2015 UK general election, and uses it as an example of the problems of fist-past-the-post (FPP) voting systems. In 2011, CGP Grey made a decent video explaining the problems inherent in FPP voting:

Now, the explanations in his video were effectively for national parliamentary elections, and it didn't focus on the effect of regional parties. But the 2015 British elections were heavily influenced by regional parties; the biggest shift being the sudden dominance of the SNP in Scotland.

Now, while it's true that FPP suffers from MANY MANY problems, using the above graphic is (IMO) a bit disingenuous, and let me explain why. The SNP is a regional party (as is - to some extent UKIP). SNP won no seats in England and Wales, but it also didn't front any candidates outside Scotland. Conversely, UKIP won no seats in Scotland, but although it did front some candidates in Scotland, it focused most of its efforts in England.

To put this in a different context, one might as well list Sinn Fein who won 4 seats with 0.176m votes, Plaid Cymru who won 3 seats with 0.181m votes, or the Ulster Unionists who won 2 seats with 0.115m votes. But this, too, wouldn't be an apples-to-apples comparison, since Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, and UUP winning of so many more seats than UKIP is less to do with FPP and more to do with regional politics and identity and the posting of candidates. Why? Because Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, and UUP are regional parties who have MAJOR sway in their respective non-England regions, whereas UKIP is (nominally) a national party (that has relatively little sway outside of England).

In short, comparing the dominance of non-England parties in their non-England regions against a (nominally) national party that has greater influence in England than outside of England is not really making a fair comparison, since the vote totals don't stem from the same regional elections. A far better comparison would be between UKIP, the Greens, and LibDems would have been a better comparison, since all of them are (effectively) national parties:

LibDems: 2,415,888votes, 8 seats
UKIP: 3,881,129votes, 1 seat
Greens: 1,154,562votes, 1 seat

The apparent message remains the same, and it's more consistent in the comparison.

I'm pretty sure that there are ways to normalize the impact of regional parties vs. national parties in vote counts, but I'm almost certain that straight-up vote counts isn't the way to do it. Let me attempt one possible way of normalizing the impact of regional parties on regional elections against national parties in the same constituencies.

However, let's look at comparisons within Scotland (i.e., the only place where SNP had candidates):

Looking at the election results from Scotland (which is not necessarily a perfect assessment, since I don't know if all parties ran candidates in all constituencies in Scotland):

SNP: 1.454m votes: 56 MPs
Labour: 0.707m votes: 1 MP
Conservative: 0.434m votes: 1 MP
Liberal Democrat: 0.220m votes: 1 MP
UKIP: 0.047m votes: 0 MPs
Green Party: 0.039m votes: 0 MPs
TUSC: 0.002m votes: 0 MPs

This is a better representation of the problem of FPP. Furthermore, it indicates that SNP won far more candidates than it "ought" to have, given the median voters/seat in Scotland is 69,000. If exact proportional representation were in place (and if the median value of voters/seat were consistent throughout Scotland), then the number of MPs from Scotland OUGHT to have been:

SNP: 21 MPs (-35)
Labour: 10 MPs (+9)
Conservative: 6 MPs (+5)
Liberal Democrat: 3 MPs (+2)
UKIP: 0.047m votes: 1 MP (+1)
Green Party: 1 MP (+1)
TUSC: 0.002m votes: 0 MPs (+/-0)

THIS is a better example of how FPP didn't provide proportional representation, since it's comparing election results within the region dominated by SNP. Similar examples can be run for N. Ireland and Wales (and likely England), undoubtedly showing similar results.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

On sectorial water use and obfuscation via statistics

So a friend of mine posted this picture on their Facebook wall, and its message seemed well-intentioned but also so very problematic.

Let me first state that I do think that California must make hard decisions about water restrictions and water use, and I don't think that the current forms of water restrictions and bans are anywhere approaching what would be an equitable diminution in water use (and never mind the problems that California's system of water laws, interstate compacts, and inter-watershed irrigation systems play in creating further problems in the legal, political, and water management worlds). However, I don't know whether this image presents a useful comparison on all fronts. Furthermore, the presentation is arguably deceptive, since the compared units are not the same, with toilets (presumably being the one thing that the viewer is supposed to be sympathetic toward, since it is placed last) being based on a very low metric of gallons/flush of one toilet, and all the rest (presumably the ones the viewer is supposed to feel antagonistically toward, since they are often held up as being "enemies" of water use) being based on really large sector-wide annual figures.

This simplistic switch of metrics undermines the presumed argument of the image on two fronts. First is the casual deception: why present sector-wide annual figures for the "bad" water uses, and personal, single-use figures for the "good" water use? This presentation does not present an easy-to-grasp comparison between water uses at the State level. (There is also the problem of using words like "million" and "trillion" to describe the amount of water used, since it is so easy for people to lose the differential scales between hundred, thousand, million, billion, and trillion, but those sorts of distinctions are better covered in places such as this visualization of what $1 trillion looks like.) In order to place the water used in Californian toilets in direct comparison with the others, we must first convert the value of 1.6 gallons/flush into a figure of gallons/year throughout California. When we do this, we find that toilet-flush water use in California is at least:

1.6 gallons/flush (x 5 flushes/person/day)
= 8 gallons/person/day (x 38,800,000 Californians)
= 310,400,000 gallons/day in California (x 365 days/year)
= 113,296,000,000 gallons/year

(I write "at least" 11,296,000,000 gallons/year, since I am using the figures for household toilets and only 5 flushes/day, even though the average is somewhat higher. This number doesn't include, of course, water use statistics for public toilets, urinals, port-a-jons, etc.)

Now let's list all the water uses presented in the picture in increasing gallons/year:

70,000,000 gallons/year (fracking)
400,000,000 gallons/year (Nestlé bottled water)
113,296,000,000 gallons/year (toilet flushes)
1,100,000,000,000 gallons/year (almond farms)

When we look at toilet flushes in this perspective, it is clear that it is 1,618 times greater than the reported value for fracking. Furthermore, it is 283 times greater than the reported value for Nestlé bottled water. Indeed, when presented in this way, California toilet-water use can be presented as being far more profligate than either fracking or Nestlé bottled water, and by a LONG shot, simply because California has SO many people, and almost 60% of that population (22,680,000 in 2010) lives in sunny, drought-ridden SoCal. This places domestic water use (which includes baths/showers, toilets, dishwashing, lawn irrigation, carwashing, etc) far ahead of most industrial water uses... save agriculture.

Indeed, when compared to the reported value of almond farms, toilet-water use is a mere 10%. However, there's a problem with the number presented in the graphic for almond farms. Specifically, the number of 1.1 trillion gallons/year is 1.6 times greater than the value reported by Hanson out of UCDavis, whose figure of roughly 2.1 milion AF/year works out to roughly 680 billion gallons/year (compared to this number, toilet flush water use is roughly 16%).

Let's look, though, at water used to grow alfalfa, which is, according to Hanson, the largest agricultural water use in the State. Accordling to Hanson, alfalfa grown in California uses roughly 5.2 million AF/year, or roughly 1.7 trillion gallons/year (which is about 2.5 times greater than the amount he reports for almond and pistachio irrigation). The second-largest agricultural water use (reported by Hansen) is for forages, which uses roughly 3.3 million AF/year, or roughly 1.1 trillion gallons/year.

So we can see that -- from an argument based around comparative water uses alone -- the merits of placing fracking and Nestlé bottled water fall flat, since toilet-flush water use far outstrips both of these two uses combined. It would have been a better argument to put up alfalfa farms and forage farms. However, it's almond growers that have been in the news, and not alfalfa or forage, which is likely why it is almond growers that are shown (even though they are not the largest agricultural water users, and even though they have a far more valuable crop than either alfalfa or forage crop farms).

Now, one could still use the water use figures presented in the graphic to make associated arguments, but I was unable to find a single argument that held true against the fracking, Nestlé, and almond farms while preserving toilet flushing. For example, one argument for water conservation that is often made against fracking regards removing water from the hydrological cycle completely, and it's true that one could make the argument that water used in fracking is effectively "lost" to the immediate hydrological cycle (since fracking wastewater is often deepwell injected) and therefore cannot be used for drinking or any other use, but that argument doesn't hold for almond farming or bottled water, since both return their water to the immediate hydrological cycle (primarily as groundwater recharge, evapotranspiration, and biomass decay in the case of almond farms and as urine that is flushed down a toilet in the case of bottled water). So the argument that it's about removing water from the hydrological cycle use is not valid across cases. 

Another common argument against fracking, irrigation, and bottled water is that these uses are consumptive uses. In the case of fracking, this is undoubtedly true (as laid out above), and water used in agriculture is often also considered to be consumptive. However, the charge of consumptive use can also leveled at most of California's toilet water flushes, since much of the State's water is pumped from watersheds in Northern California and the Colorado River, creating consumptive water use pressures in those areas.

The only real argument that comes to mind is that it is unfair for the government to impose water restrictions upon flesh-and-blood citizens but not impose water restrictions upon corporate "citizens." However, such an argument isn't a water volume argument, but a water rights argument, especially in how Californian water rights are not egalitarian, with a large part of this argument lying in the problems associated with California's water rights laws. Most individual Californian citizens do not own any water rights, let alone water rights that predate 1914. The date of 1914 forms the demarcation date between so-called "junior" and "senior" water rights, and those holding junior water rights will have their rights to water curtailed before those of senior water rights holders. Such a system of rights is based on a "first in place, first in right" principle, with a strong incentive for the right to be held by a non-human entity (such as a corporation, water district, or the like), since the death of an individual could lead to the "death" of that right. From an equity perspective, such distributions of water rights is inherently inequitable, since it creates structural inequalities that become evermore entrenched as the value of water increases (making the purchase or transfer of water rights less likely to occur). During times when water availability is high, such a structurally unequal distribution of water rarely impacts large swathes of citizens. In cases of drought, though, such inequalities emerge. But regardless of the structural inequalities that California's water rights system imposes upon its citizens, the percecption of unfairness in who gets the restrictions is not due to water volumes (as the graphic implies), but due to water policy and water law.

One "good" note though (if only from a perspective of masochistic schadenfreude), is that if the drought continues, it is likely that even those holding senior rights (which includes many major agricultural water users) will have their water withdrawals restricted.

In sum, while bottled water and fracking are often seen as problematic for various social, public health, and environmental reasons, the comparative water consumption in these two sectors doesn't hold a candle to the total sector-wide water consumption of toilets. Furthermore, hiding the scales of water use between different water uses in the way presented in the graphic is deceptive, and such deception can foster mistrust of the messenger or supporter of the message. In other words, in order to make the graphic less deceptive and more salient to a message associated with different types of water use, it needs more than just a simple comparison of water volumes.

Of course, this additional nuance can create problems when trying to disseminate a message...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Ride the bus!

I wish that it was this awesome when I ride the bus.

From 2012

From 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday Thoughts: VMAP0 shapefiles for Chile?

Presently, I'm working on creating some GIS-based analyses of Chilean rivers and river ecology. However, Chile being Chile, a lot of the data (both GIS data layers and river ecology data) are not readily available. Therefore, in order to get GIS data, I have to find whatever publicly available GIS data are online and use those.

I spent the last week developing a hydrology layer from a relatively high quality DEM, and - happily - the results of deriving hydrology from a DEM were generally confirmed by lower-quality GIS layers of water courses. (I used these lower-quality layers to assess the quality of the DEM-derived layer).

Now, though, I have encountered the problem of not being able to find a good surficial geology layer for the watershed I'm studying. I'm sure that there must be something out there, but I can't find it. I'll have a talk with some people in the lab once the summer break is over, but I wanted to start on something today. Well, after a rummage around, I found nothing usable, and so I turned back to the central source of GIS data layers that I used for my master's research: VMAP0.

Although it's somewhat old (and that's an understatement), VMAP0 does provide a decent (if somewhat coarse-resolution) data source for those data layers that don't change too quickly over time (like geology). One thing that I had forgotten was that VMAP0 is in a file format that I can't use in QGIS (which is the GIS program I'm using while I wait for the summer break to be over and I can get someone from IT to set up a remote connection to the university's license server).

Well, after a couple of searches, I found that someone had already converted all the VMAP0 regions into "shapefile" format. Harasho to the guys at GIS-lab!

EDIT: ... and it turns out that VMAP0 actually doesn't have geology layers. Darn. Well, back to the search.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wednesday Omphaloskepsis: Will combining two forms of birth control increase overall birth control effectiveness?

Screen capture taken from, which shows the first two of three rows of the interactive graphic from the NYTimes article "How Likely Is It That Birth Control Could Let You Down?"

A friend of mine posted a link to this article on the effectiveness rates of various forms of birth control, from highly ineffective methods, such as fertility awareness based methods (i.e., the rhythm method) and withdrawal (i.e., “pulling out”) shown above, to highly effective methods, such as female sterilization (i.e., a hysterectomy) and male sterilization (i.e., vasectomy), not seen in the graph above. All of these statistics were presented as increasing rates of getting pregnant over a 10 year period, so the reader could directly compare the cumulative rates of pregnancy over time. An interesting thing is that some of the graphs show the differences between the "optimal" and "typical" rates of getting pregnant. Some of the methods, such as "spermicides" and "sponge (after giving birth)," show optimum curves that are not that better than typical curves, while other methods, such as "Pill, Evra patch, NuvaRing" and "Depo-Provera" show major differences between the optimum and typical curves. This indicates that some methods are minimally impacted by "human error" (e.g., improper use of spermicide or improper placement of the sponge), while others heavily impacted by such errors (e.g., using the Pill irregularly).

(A note to my fellow pedants: Here, I will be only considering the final (i.e., 10 year) rate, and so instead of referring to a chance of “X in 100 over 10 years,” I will refer only to a chance of “0.0X.” Yes, I know that there is a difference between “X in 100 over 10 years” vs. “0.0X,” but I don’t want to write “X in 100 over 10 years” over and over in this entry, and I assume that the reader doesn’t want to read “X in 100 over 10 years” over and over in this entry, so let’s just recognize that when I write “0.0X” in this entry, I implicitly mean “X in 100 over 10 years.”)

Interestingly, the most effective method on their chart wasn’t sterilization (which had a rate of 0.05 for women, and a rate of 0.02 for men), but actually a hormonal implant (which has a rate of 0.01). This raised a question in my mind: would it be possible to combine birth control methods in order to diminish the overall chance of getting pregnant? It is quite alluring and – on the surface – seems to make perfect sense.

Well, the more I thought about it, the more the answer was: it depends.

Although it's been several years since I studied reproductive physiology, I suppose that there would be some increased effectiveness if a couple combined two or more methods. Statistics indicates that, if the two methods were truly independent, then you multiply the two rates together (much like the chance of rolling two sixes with two dice is 1/6*1/6=1/36 and not 1/6+1/6=1/3). Therefore, if the woman uses one method and the male uses another method, then we can assume that the two methods are independent of each other, thus allowing us to multiply the two effectiveness rates together. Therefore, if a woman is using only spermicide (0.94) and if her male partner uses only the withdrawal method (0.92), then the possibility of pregnancy IS lower than the use of one of those methods alone (0.94*0.92=0.88); slightly worse than male condom alone (0.86).

However, if the two methods are not independent (like withdrawal and male condom), then one cannot simply multiply the two rates; an additional correctional factor must be multiplied to account for the codependence inherent in the two methods. Two additional hitches: (1) we don’t know what that correctional factor is, and (2) it will likely be different for each combination of codependent methods. However, even though we don't know what any of these correctional factors are, we could make the assumption that no two birth control methods will be synergistic (i.e., no correctional factor would be >1), which means that multiplying the two rates together produces an indication of the best potential effectiveness for typical use. Therefore, if the male partner uses both withdrawal and a male condom, the best potential effectiveness for typical use is (0.92*0.86=) 0.79.

However, the major take-away (at least for me) is the worlds of difference seen in the comparison between the effective pregnancy rates shown in the first two rows when compared with the third row. It’s like night and day. If one of the partners is using a method from the third row, the improvements provided from the use of any of the methods shown in the first two rows is effectively negligible. For example, if we look at combining male condom use (0.86) with female sterilization (0.05), and assume that these two method were totally independent (which is – in my opinion – a safe assumption in this case), then the resulting chance of pregnancy over 10 years of using this combination of birth control measures is (0.86*0.05=) 0.04; a change of 0.01.

The only way to see a significant improvement within this bottom row is if they were combined with another method from the third row. In the case of combining male sterilization (0.02) and female sterilization (0.05), the resulting chance of pregnancy over 10 years would be 0.001 or a 50-fold increase over female sterilization alone.

Of course, the statistics presented in the article are rates garnered at a population level. Like so many things in life, when one looks at individual cases, the picture can appear quite different. After all, in order to get that number of “5 in 100 over 10 years” for female sterilization, there had to be some women who got sterilized and also got pregnant. Part of this is due to potential errors in the medical procedure or with the medical device. Part of this is due to individual physiology. But while one can’t really change the impacts of either of these two factors, there is one other factor that alters an individual’s chance of getting pregnant: their copulation rate.

If a person's copulation rate is really high, it will have a major effect on the possibility of that particular individual getting pregnant, even if the effectiveness of their birth control method doesn't change. Why? Well, let's assume we are looking at a woman who has been sterilized (0.05). If this woman has sex only one time without any additional birth control, that chance 0.05. If that woman has sex once every single day for 10 years, then each time she has sex, there is an additive 5-in-100-over-10-years' chance that she will get pregnant. (Why is it additive and not multiplicative here? It’s for the same reason that there is a 1/6+1/6=1/3 chance of rolling at least one 6 when you roll two dice.) Of course, the chance of a resulting pregnancy (in the case of female sterilization - as with all of the cases on the bottom row) remains vanishingly small, due to the effectiveness of the form of birth control, but - given enough sexual encounters - the rate of 5-in-100-over-10-years does imply that a pregnancy will occur. And indeed, it does happen:
[A] mother from Menden, North Rhine-Westphalia, decided to have the sterilization after the birth of her second child in 2006. ... But in 2008 she became pregnant again and gave birth in 2009.
The truth is that having a copulation rate of zero (i.e., never having sex at all) is the best preventative to getting pregnant. (Keep in mind that this also means that you don't try to get in vitro fertilization, either.) Indeed, this course of "abstinence only" pregnancy control is often the method preferred by religious organizations (at least in the United Stated). Of course, what with humans being the biological animals that we are, copulation (and resulting pregnancy) tends to happen, even to men and women sworn to clerical celibacy.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Terrifyingly Simple Normalcy that Segregation Used to Be

I saw the following photo from a friend's Facebook newsroll:

What read while scolling through Facebook was "COLORADO ENTRANCE," and it was the incongruity of that statement (that there was an entrance specifically for people from Colorado) that made me stop at the photo and actually read it; to see that it was a color photo from the segregated South.

This made me wonder whether the fact that I unconsciously read "Colorado" instead of "colored" was an indication of the complete unthinkability that such institutionalized racism could exist made my unconscious mind immediately fill in the word as the name of the 38th State. The completely calm and completely normal-looking appearance of everything in the photo also is so foreign to me. Indeed, the utter banality of the form that segregation took in day-to-day life in the South reminded me of the phrase, "the banality of evil," first coined by Hannah Arendt. Here is a really good and easy to understand summary of Arendt's point about evil and how it is so often so banal:

The banality of evil (the subtitle of Arendt's book covering the war crimes trial in Jerusalem of Eichmann) derives from encountering Eichmann, a man conceived as being a characteristic monster, and discovering that he was an utterly normal type of man who produced evil as a matter of just doing his job, and not because he was some sort of monster. Extending this recognition to the broader populace, Arendt writes with some understanding as to why societies - filled with similarly innocuous (and even generally good) people - can cause such massive evil to take place:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him. They were neither overly perverted nor sadistic. They were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal... This normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together...
-- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: Report of the Banality of Evil, pg. 276

This links back to what I find (and likely many find) so jarring about the photo above: its terrible and terrifying normality. It is the utter normality of the scene pictured above that is jarring. It is the dull, day-to-day reality of segregation that is worrisome. We so often learn about the harsh problems associated with Segregation - the lynchings, the beatings, the stacked juries - and we so often read about the Civil Rights movements - the marches, the sit-ins, the use of the National guard to open schools and universities to desegregation - that the picture of Segregation and the reaction to it seem so much more about action and reaction; of mostrous evil and righteous struggle. And it is easy to paint that picture. And it is easy to think in those terms. (Which makes it easier to paint the picture, and so on.) But, as the photo tacitly implies, for the vast amount of time and for the vast amount of people, Segregation was simply a boringly normal part of life.

Thinking on this, statements by some older Southern Whites who have their perspectives on life during Segregation ring even more sinister, despite their statements lacking any overt inflammatory statements about how they reveled in its more obviously monstrous aspects. One telling example is in the remembrances of former Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, who commented that his town of Yazoo, MS, during the Civil Rights era, "wasn't that bad." In Salon, Steve Kornacki wrote about why Barbour's position on race in the South was troubling in a way that Clinton's wasn't:
The controversy that his remarks will surely stir ... underscores how problematic Barbour's political roots are for him. The simple fact that he was born in a segregated town ... isn't the issue. Bill Clinton was a product of segregation, don't forget. The problem is that Barbor, unlike Clinton, has never seemed to come to terms with what segregation meant to African-Americans throughotu the South - and what the legacy of segregation continues to mean now.
...[Barbour] has previously asserted that the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 - accomplished only through federal intervention and which set off riots that killed two people - was "a very pleasant experience."
He's also told of building a friendship ... at Ole Miss in 1965 with one of the school's few black students, a woman he identified ... as Verna Lee Bailey. ...Of course, the woman's real name is Verna Ann Bailey, and ... she didn't even recall meeting Barbour. She also remembered the integration of Ole Miss a little differently: "I thought my life was goign to end."
And then theres his claim that the South's wholesale transformation from Democratic to Republican stronghold had nothing to do with race.... That would be news to anyone familiar with the vote that Barry Goldwater received in Mississippi in the 1964 presidential election: 87 percent.... The truth, of course, is that the passage of Civil Rights in 1964 kicked off a steady, decades-long shift among white Southerners from the Democratic Party (which they'd been loyal to since northern Republicans had tried to impose the "humiliation" of Reconstruction on them) to the GOP.
It is hard to look back in history and not want to align yourself with the "bad guys." It is especially hard when the history you perceived was actually not that bad. In their paper, "But I'm no Bigot," authors O'Brien, Crandall, Horstman-Reser, and Warner discuss distancing strategies used by White Southerners to somehow say that they aren't racist (despite having racist attitudes). One major way was to define being racist as belonging to an openly racist and historically violently racist organization, such as the KKK, or doing outrageously racist things, such as Black lynching or cross burnings. However, as the photograph above shows, these sorts of actions wasn't what Segregation was about for most of the people most of the time. No, it was something far more troubling and worrisome, specifically for its non-overtness; it was something that was terrifying in retrospect because it was so normal as to not warrant much mention: it was the banality that everyday life with Segregation meant to the vast majority of people, Black and White.

And it was a form of racism that the vast majority of Whites supported, even as they might similarly have distanced themselves from the more overtly "evils" of Segregation (such as membership in the Klan or participation in lynchings).

And so we return to the photo of a covered entrance on which a sign marked "colored entrance" points, in shining neon lights, to an open door, outside of which stand a nicely attired woman in robin's-egg blue and girl in white with a bow in her hair. The woman appears to be putting something away in her purse while the girl waits; that somewhat bored stare that children have (while waiting, waiting, waiting for adults to do thier thing) marks her face. In the distance, a woman in a red dress walks up the street. A black-painted car shows up as as slightly blurred on the street, caught in motion as it drives down and to the right of the photo. Neon lights up the street point to other businesses, which - perhaps - also have similar signs attached to them: "colored entrance" or "White entrance." The woman in blue and girl with the bow in her hair, both standing outside the open door marked "colored entrance" are. The woman in red, walking away from the "colored entrance" is not.

... and the image, in its utter normalcy, forces the mind to think in those terms; those terms that were so normal then and so alien now; those terms that implicitly equated race with levels of purity and cleanliness. I would so much more like to change the sign to read as my unconscious initially read it: "COLORADO," but that is not what it says, and that is not was it - and the whole system of systematized and banalized malevalence that also spawned the KKK, cross burnings, church bombings, and (now) decades of post-desegregation White Southern butthurt - want us to think, in simple terms of "white" and "colored."

And so I go back and read "COLORED ENTRANCE," and I see one of the many simple, everyday evils that was Segregation. Seeing this Black woman and girl calmly and normally going about their business, I am reminded of the implicit hypocrisy and privilege inherent in statements made by Barbour and other old Southern Whites. And I am reminded of another part of American history - my history, despite having no close Southern roots - to which the myth of "American Exceptionalism" provides a tempting exit, paved (as shown by Barbour) with white-washed history and denial of any social responsibility.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

If you don't like something, don't try to couch your position with self-contradictory statements and self-rationalization

So I saw this:

The logic employed by the second person seems to either contradictory or highly selfish. His position seems to be that: On the one hand, he doesn't get it and he thinks it's offensive (and he thinks that a lot of other people would find it offensive, too), but on the other hand, if it saves the lives of even a couple people, okay, but then to go back to his first position, it's offensive to him, so no.

First, off, let's recognize that his initial position is couched as in the false logic of argumentum ad populum.
"I just find it offensive, and a lot of other people would as well."
First, this is a relative statement. How many - exactly - constitutes "a lot of other people"? A majority of a population? Well, no. After all, if - in a city the size of Sydney (5.6 million) - you gathered 1,000 people to actively congregate in front of the pink-condom-covered pillar, that could easily be considered to be "a lot of people," despite it being a mere 0.00018% of the city's population. Conversely, if you were considering a tiny town of only 100 residents, "a lot of people" might well mean something approaching the majority (which could never approach anything more than a mere 10% of the hypothetical crowd of 1,000 around the condom-covered Sydney statue). So the phrasing, "and a lot of other people would [agree with me] as well," is a false argument in that it doesn't work to designate an objective measure, but merely refers (in a purely arm-waving fashion, since the person makes no attempt to bracket his statement) to an unknown quantity of people (likely merely presumed to exist by the speaker) that is implied to be of significant numbers (but - as we might argue in the case of 1,000 people gathered in a square in Sydney to be - not necessarily anything close to 1% of a city's population).

Second, even while there is truth in the statement that - in a city of 5.6 million people - you will probably find a large number (say >1,000) of people who are against covering a statue with a large pink condom, it does not mean much more than that in a city the size (and with the diversity) of Sydney, there will be many people who support almost any position that you propose. For example, if you did a poll on the number of people who believe that all English tourists should pay a 100 Australian Dollar tourist tax, there would likely be more than 1,000 Sydney residents who would agree with that decision. However, the fact that you can find 1,000 people in a city of 5,600,000 people means next to nothing. This leads us to the next point.

Third, while one might well find "a lot of people" who find a pink-condom-covered column to be offensive, it does not automatically follow that there aren't "a lot of people" who find a pink-condom-covered column to be affirmative. (And the first person in the clip is one who fits this camp; likely she, too, has "a lot of people" who support her position.) Furthermore, it does not automatically follow that there aren't "a lot of people" who don't give two shits either way. (The numbers of voters showing up to vote in elections where voting is not mandatory is an indication of the number of people who can't really be bothered to vote on their own futures - for whatever reason.)

Fourth, this appeal to the people is not what modern democracies are based upon. The tyranny of the majority is something that many Western democracies, including Australia (and the UK, where the second individual appears to be from), have structured their governments to try and avoid. Under modern democracies, the presence of a constitution that provides rights to all citizens cannot (in theory and in principle) be superseded by the mere will of the voting majority. It is from this that we get the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of minority groups, etc. In this case, the point of covering a column with a pink condom was to promote HIV/AIDS prevention. HIV/AIDS affects a minority of the Australian population, with 85% of transmission occurring being MSM, and 63% of the cases being among those practicing MSM, which makes it roughly 0.001% of the national population who has HIV/AIDS. This population is a diminishingly small minority of the country, and one for whom protections against the tyranny of the majority ought to be considered. In short, to base public decisions that affect minority populations upon the actions deemed appropriate by a voting majority runs counter to one of the fundamental bases of Western democracies, to which (I imagine) this individual would likely state his personal support.

In sum, the mere fact that you have "a lot of people" who agree with you doesn't mean that your group is of significant size (see point one), it doesn't mean that it's representative (see point two), it doesn't mean that other groups aren't as big or bigger (see point three), and it's not the sole form of decision-making in Western democracies, especially when the protections of minorities are in question (see point four). What it does mean is that you've employed a fundamentally flawed argument.

But these are just four points that undercut the first part of his argumentation. The next thing he says is:
"If it stops a couple of people from getting HIV... brilliant."
This seems to contradict his previous point, since it appears that he is saying here that he does support the pink-condom-covered pillar. But in his next statement, he jumps back to stating that he's against it:
"[pointing to statute] No. That is so... wrong."
So, if he is a person who wants to save the lives of others, then his logic is self-contradictory, since his final stance - that he's against it - runs counter to his position that it could save lives. However, the fact that his final position is to be against it because it is offense to his sensibilities - despite his recognition that it could save lives - then he's saying that he places his personal sensitivities ahead of the lives that could be saved.

To me, it seems like he added his apparently self-contradictory statement as a means of saying, "I'm not really that bad of a guy." It's another example of the "But I'm not a bigot" mentality that I wrote about back in 2010 (and also discussed back in 2012):
In their recently published paper "But I'm no Bigot: How Prejudiced White Americans Maintain Unprejudiced Self-Images", Laurie O'Brien, Christian Crandall, April Horstman-Reser, and Ruth Warner delve into the means by which white Americans can harbor racial prejudice while still viewing themselves as "unprejudiced".
That the case here is of an Englishman in Sydney commenting on a monument covered over with a pink condom to raise awareness about a disease that overwhelmingly affects homosexual men, who (as a population of infected individuals) comprise a vanishingly small population within Australia, makes it slightly different in the performance of the individual's rationalization the he's not a bigot, that he's not prejudiced, etc. However, the same processes are effectively taking place. Putting in phrases like, "If it stops a couple of people from getting HIV... brilliant," appears (to me) to be evidence that this man understands that HIV/AIDS primarily is a disease that affects a group of people that are accorded minority protections (and - by many - special consideration), and this man appears (to me) to be using his phrase as stating that he's not there to be a bad guy. Even though his overall position is to remove the item that he finds so offensive that - even "if it stops a couple of people from getting HIV" - he's against it.

So, in sum, the second individual uses two flawed arguments to state his position that he's against a pink-condom-covered column (in a city and country in which he's not a citizen). I don't know whether he understands why his arguments are logically so flawed, but in my opinion, his position would have been far more logically consistent and - at least to me - valid if he had simply stated, "I find it offensive. [pointing to statute] No. That is so... wrong." All the other false justifications and attempts at self-rationalization merely serve to undercut his entire position. At least in my eyes.