Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz Reads the Entirety of "Green Eggs and Ham" while Filibustering the ACA; Destroys Irony-meters

As part of his filibuster against the Affordable Care Act ("ACA," "Obamacare"), Senator Ted Cruz read Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. Completely without any irony. And completely not understanding the irony of his reading it as part of his filibuster against trying out Obamacare.

Here is his Senate-chamber rendition of that Seuss classic. At 4:15, you can - hopefully - understand the irony.

No, Ann Arbor is not "A Small College Town," but a "Medium-Sized Midwestern City with a Large Public University"

The Ann Arbor News posted the following statement by the newest member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority:
Ann Arbor is not a metropolis. Ann Arbor is not a small Midwestern college town. There is no model for Ann Arbor because it is truly unique in our country.
I'll accept that statement. But apparently, one person felt that this statement was wrong on the facts, writing:
But Ann Arbor is a small college town. Whats wrong with that? Sorry, Ann Arbor, this may not make you feel special. It's a great city, a fantastic place to live, and a wonderful place to raise a family.. Why can't that be enough?
Sorry, but this is nonsensical on the facts. Do you know what IS a "small college town" that is also nearby (so you can go and make a comparison)? Albion. Albion is a (relatively) small town with a small college (which it actually calls a college and is actually a college) in it.

In contrast, Ann Arbor has a population of ~115,000. That's not a "town" in any definition, save for a comparative one against places like NYC, London, and Tokyo. We have a larger population than that of Lansing, which most of us (I'd imagine) would consider to be a "city."

Furthermore, the University of Michigan is not a college; it's a university (it's right there in the name). It is also among the largest universities in the US. Furthermore, the student population of the University of Michigan is ~43,000, which is almost eleven times larger than the nearby village (aka town) of Dexter (~4,000) and roughly double the resident population of the City of Ypsilanti (~19,000).

If this person had stated, "Ann Arbor is a medium-sized Midwestern city that houses one of the largest public universities in the country," then I'd agree with the entirety of your comment (because I do agree with the rest of what you state). Of course, *that* statement wouldn't have held as much rhetorical clout as the non-factual statement they chose to write (which I'm guessing is why they wrote what they did).

The Rhetoric of the Scientific "95%"

When scientists say that they are "almost certain" or "virtually certain," this does not mean that the scientists are not sure. Just like "theory" doesn't mean the same thing in scientific discourse as it does in public discourse, the idea of certainty is also not at all the same in science as it is in public life. Take the following sets of statements; the first is written in a more regular manner of speech, and the latter is written with scientific recognition of contingency, but they mean the same thing:

Regular speech mode: This is going to be the best weekend party, ever!
Scientific speech mode: This will likely be the best weekend party that we have yet gone to.

Regular speech mode: John is a fireman.
Scientific speech mode: All the available evidence indicates that John is a fireman.

Yes, it sounds robotic. Yes, it sounds kind of annoying. Yes, it is overly pedantic. But it is also more accurate and more precise. The party this weekend cannot literally be the best weekend party throughout all of time. Unless you have objective information about the quality of parties in the future and in the distant past, you are likely to be able to project the likelihood that this upcoming party is better than similar ones from your past experiences.

Well, what about "John is a fireman"? If he works at a fire station, he is certified to be a fireman, is in a union for firemen, and actually goes out and fights fires, what more evidence is needed to prove that John is a fireman? Well... it's not about proving that he is a fireman. It's about whether there is evidence to show that he isn't a fireman. So far, we have no credible evidence to show that he isn't, which means that we can only say that the available evidence is indicative, but not proof-positive, that John is a fireman.

Yeah, it's annoying to have to deal with positivistic statements in regular day-to-day life while simultaneously having to recognize that scientists - when speaking scientifically - often appear to prefer speaking in terms that indicate the possibility that the statement in question can be falsified. (See what I did there?)

Anyway, with the latest IPCC report on climate change coming out, remember that it's a science-based document written (primarily) by scientists and to be based on the justifications surrounding the practice of science itself. In other words, it's chock-a-block full of apparently uncertain statements. But what is publicly meant and what is scientifically meant by the same words are not the same thing. Check it out:
Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill.

They are as sure about climate change as they are about the age of the universe. They say they are more certain about climate change than they are that vitamins make you healthy or that dioxin in Superfund sites is dangerous.

They'll even put a number on how certain they are about climate change. But that number isn't 100 percent. It's 95 percent.

And for some non-scientists, that's just not good enough.

There's a mismatch between what scientists say about how certain they are and what the general public thinks the experts mean, experts say.

That is an issue because this week, scientists from around the world have gathered in Stockholm for a meeting of a U.N. panel on climate change, and they will probably issue a report saying it is "extremely likely"—which they define in footnotes as 95 percent certain—that humans are mostly to blame for temperatures that have climbed since 1951.

One climate scientist involved says the panel may even boost it in some places to "virtually certain" and 99 percent.
Some climate-change deniers have looked at 95 percent and scoffed. After all, most people wouldn't get on a plane that had only a 95 percent certainty of landing safely, risk experts say.

But in science, 95 percent certainty is often considered the gold standard for certainty.

"Uncertainty is inherent in every scientific judgment," said Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Thomas Burke. "Will the sun come up in the morning?" Scientists know the answer is yes, but they can't really say so with 100 percent certainty because there are so many factors out there that are not quite understood or under control.

George Gray, director of the Center for Risk Science and Public Health at George Washington University, said that demanding absolute proof on things such as climate doesn't make sense.

"There's a group of people who seem to think that when scientists say they are uncertain, we shouldn't do anything," said Gray, who was chief scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration. "That's crazy. We're uncertain and we buy insurance."
With the U.N. panel about to weigh in on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of oil, coal and gas, The Associated Press asked scientists who specialize in climate, physics, epidemiology, public health, statistics and risk just what in science is more certain than human-caused climate change, what is about the same, and what is less.

They said gravity is a good example of something more certain than climate change. Climate change "is not as sure as if you drop a stone it will hit the Earth," Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. "It's not certain, but it's close."

Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss said the 95 percent quoted for climate change is equivalent to the current certainty among physicists that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

The president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, and more than a dozen other scientists contacted by the AP said the 95 percent certainty regarding climate change is most similar to the confidence scientists have in the decades' worth of evidence that cigarettes are deadly.

"What is understood does not violate any mechanism that we understand about cancer," while "statistics confirm what we know about cancer," said Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist. Add to that a "very high consensus" among scientists about the harm of tobacco, and it sounds similar to the case for climate change, he said.

But even the best study can be nitpicked because nothing is perfect, and that's the strategy of both tobacco defenders and climate deniers, said Stanton Glantz, a medicine professor at the University of California, San Francisco and director of its tobacco control research center.

George Washington's Gray said the 95 percent number the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will probably adopt may not be realistic. In general, regardless of the field of research, experts tend to overestimate their confidence in their certainty, he said. Other experts said the 95 percent figure is too low.

Jeff Severinghaus, a geoscientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that through the use of radioactive isotopes, scientists are more than 99 percent sure that much of the carbon in the air has human fingerprints on it. And because of basic physics, scientists are 99 percent certain that carbon traps heat in what is called the greenhouse effect.

But the role of nature and all sorts of other factors bring the number down to 95 percent when you want to say that the majority of the warming is human-caused, he said.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Racial Identity and Me

On federal employment forms, I am (now) allowed to choose any and all races that I belong to. It used to be that I had to choose "Other" and then write in the various races that I claimed. Why the federal government is asking me about race is something that I can understand - at least I think I can understand, given the steep historical imbalances between Whites and not-Whites. However, the racial categories puzzle me:
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White
Sometimes, "Alaska Native" and "Native Hawaiian" are their own unique categories, but at other times they aren't. (This makes me wonder whether there is actually any functionality in separating these groups, since these two categories don't always exist as separate in all government forms.)

Even when I was a kid, growing up in the 1980s, I always had problems with this set of pigeonholes, since the pigeonholes all seemed ... wrong. Even now that I can check more than one box (yeah, that "other" box was also problematic), why do we as a nation continue to use such heavily outdated definitions of "race"? I mean, an American from Easter Island would be classified as "Other Pacific Islander", right alongside a person from Papua New Guinea, but what similarity could be drawn from that? Nothing!

But - depending on how you define the association of Easter Island - this person could also define themselves as American Indian. Why? According to the Office of Management and Budget:
American Indian or Alaska Native refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
So the Easter Island-American would have the option of claiming to be an American Indian or an "Other Pacific Islander." Confusing.

And what about Russian Aleuts? Would the fact that they aren't from Alaska mean that they wouldn't count as "Alaska Native" and therefore have to call themselves "Asian"? Does the fact that movement between Western Alaska and Eastern Russian occurred since before the European "discovery" of the "New World" qualify Russian Aleut-descended people to claim that they are as much Native Alaskans as their closely related kin who happened to live on the other side of the Bering Straits? Or does the fact that Alaskan Aleuts are on the East side of the Straits mean that they are somehow the same "race" as the various Athabaskan tribes that lived in the interior of Alaska?

And what about my "Black" friends who are as bi-racial as me? Why were they supposed to check "Black" and couldn't instead choose "White," even though I was given the option of choosing between "Asian" and "White"? (This was before even the "Other" option.)

And then someone told me that race was about culture. (I later learned that this wasn't technically true, even though race and culture and ethnicity are often conflated around the world, since a distinct culture is often held by a distinct ethnicity, which is often - but not always - perceived to be of a distinct race from other, neighboring populations.) But - even then - I had to wonder why my Japanese mother was the same "Asian" as my friend's Pakistani mother. And why was my naturalized-American friend from a Senegalese family considered to be the same "Black" as my friend who could trace his ancestry to slavery? So the culture definition didn't make sense to me, either.

When I was about 9, I came to realize that the construct of "race" - that thing that so many think is simple and by which racialists and racists both ascribe with pride - isn't really that simple at all. Indeed, when I read in high school about the changes to the concept of "White" to expand to include the various non-Anglo Saxon European ethnicities (so now even Italians, Spaniards, Irish, and Russians are as "White" as WASPs), this whole notion of "race" showed itself to be about as solid as shifting sand.

So now federal and state forms don't really cause me to re-evaluate my racial identity every time I fill them out (and make me try to remember what I chose last time, since I didn't want to be accused of lying on a government document). Now I can just choose a whole bunch of things to which I can stake some sort of ancestral claim, and then let some clerk sort it out to make my notion of my ancestry fit into their arbitrary constructs of race. I'm not a big fan of the "race" part of the form, because I think that it's a question based on a fundamentally inconsistent assessment of a culturally derived concept based on a historical condition that itself is no longer valid.

But I'll just be happy in checking multiple boxes and letting the government try and determine what I meant by my selection.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Bad Argument Remains a Bad Argument, Even when it FEELS Right

I recently saw this page (written in Spanish, but with lots of captioned pictures that make it pretty clear what the position of the author is), and the anti-war position that it espoused. While reading through the article, I was struck with how bad the argumentation was in this article. I mean, it's titled, "Siria, la Gran Mentira y la Inminente Guerra" ("Syria, the Great Lie and Imminent War"), and so I'd expect to see something to prove that there is some "great lie" being told about Syria, followed by an argument about whether to use military force in that country or not to use military force in that country.

What the page actually shows, though, is a really good example of confirmation bias and commitment effect. Specifically, it channels an anti-US narrative (which is a rather populist narrative outside of the US, one must admit, thanks to the decades of rather muscular and militant US activity around the world) to "explain" why all the information we are getting about Syria is a lie, that the US has no moral position to speak about the morality of war crimes, that there is no such thing as "the Syrian rebels," and why the proposed US invasion of Syria is actually a plot by the Rothschilds and other world-financial organizations to control this last, hold-out nation

... and (cue the scary music) the New World Order.

I don't know where the best place would be to start addressing the crazy, but I'll start with the issue of national culpability for historic, unjustifiable military actions.

The Problem with the "Sins of Former Presidents" Argument
If a country must continue to pay for the sins of their forebears long after those forebears are voted out of office, have died, or otherwise been rendered irrelevant, then all countries will be rendered impotent. But this is not the case. Spain is no longer judged by the genocidal actions of Franco. China is not being judged by the genocidal actions of Mao, nor Russia that of Stalin. (At least not by credible people.) I'm surprised that the article didn't talk about the US's history of slavery, it's genocide of the native population, or its 18th century military imperialism. Or maybe actions that took place more than 60 years ago are - to this author - no longer relevant? Or maybe the author is saying that Obama - who was a child during the Vietnam War - is the same president as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, even though that position is similarly ludicrous.

Just as we are not the same people as our parents and grandparents, so too are the countries of today not the countries of 40, 50, or 60 years ago. If your father did something wrong to a neighbor when he was a young man, do you inherit that wrongdoing? No. That would be ridiculous, and (apart from revenge dramas from the middle ages) not a part of what we would normally view as modern civilization.

Indeed, the only people who wish to keep the torch burning to relive, remember, and not accept that change in the world has happened over intervening decades are those people, organizations, and governments that need to sustain an "enemy at the gates" mentality in order to justify their position. Don't get me wrong: it's a useful technique, because it relies on a narrative and is maintained by carefully choosing evidence that reinforces that narrative, even if it has to simultaneously discard all evidence that doesn't fit the narrative. Such techniques ultimately become increasingly unwieldy as the narrative spins ever farther away from reality. Any attempt to render a complex situation simple by forcing it to fit into obviously false molds does not help one's argumentation, but merely proves the argument - and its proponents - to be unwilling to address the entirety of reality.

Okay, so that should explain the otherwise simple-to-understand concept of countries change over time, and therefore it is illogical to judge a current government by the actions of a government several decades in its past. There is - of course - one exception to this otherwise simple-to-understand concept: when a government actively attempts to retain the trappings of that decades-long-gone government. You know, kinda like what North Korea does with its government and espoused worldview, and kinda like what anti-American populists try to do when rewhipping that already decades-long-dead carcass of the horse that they think still represents the country.

The Problem with the "There's No Syrian Rebels" Evidence
But that's just one piece of the anti-war-couched-in-anti-US-narrative. There's also the simplistic idea that only natives of a country ought to fight in the wars of that country. Ummm... If that were the case, then the Spanish should disown all the "Brigadas Internacionales" that fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. If that were the case, then most of Latin America would need to disown many of their revolutionary heroes that fought for independence from Spain. (And the US would also have to disown the aid from the French, Spanish, Dutch, Oneida, and Mysores against the British during the Revolutionary War.) If that were the case, then we should condemn the non-French who joined the French Foreign Legion throughout the years. But we know that foreign nationals will fight in civil wars, because there is no such thing as a purely civil war. Sympathizers of one side or another will provide aid - either in the form of materiel or in the form of bodies - to the side they support. Merely pointing out what should be yet another simple-to-understand concept of foreigners often choose to insert themselves into national conflicts is not evidence of a great lie; it's evidence that the world continue to be as it has long been. Indeed, the argument about their being non-national fighters is usually the one that you hear from the government against whom the civil war is being fought, and it was the position of Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

The Problem with the Rothschilds Evidence
And then there's the WTF-level of crazy that is the invocation of the Rothschilds. The who? The Rothschilds. You know: that really rich Jewish family empire that has long been the foundation of a conspiracy theory that they control all of the world's media and financial institutions of the world and get governments to fight wars against each other? You know, that family that was the basis for that anti-Semitic drivel known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Yes, seriously, this article invokes the Rothschilds - and tangentially one of the most infamous anti-Semitic texts in history - as a foundational reason as to why the media is lying to you and why financial institutions want this war: because it's being controlled by Jews. Bleaugh. I'm not going to waste my time (or yours) in debunking the stupidity of this piece of evidence crap. I'm sorry, but this isn't evidence of a great lie, except the great lie that is being increasingly aggrandized in the writer's own head. Again ironically, citation of the Jewish conspiracies was what Franco believed.

The Problem with Citing the "New World Order"
Okay, I'm sure you're getting pretty tired of reading by now, but whenever I see the "New World Order" - or any other wildly debunked conspiracy theory - being used as evidence, I'm like, "WTF?" In short, if you want to read about why the NWO is a conspiracy theory that ought to be taken about as seriously as the existence of Cthulhu, I'll let you skim through the rather good article on the "New World Order" over at RationalWiki. Again ironically, Franco believed in a Masonic conspiracy, and - to the extent that the Masonic conspiracy is an analogue to the NWO conspiracy, this doesn't help this Spanish-language piece.

Why Agreeing with the Article Undermines the Validity of your Position
I'm not saying that I support military action in Syria. I'm saying that the argument presented here is not based on an assessment of the reality that we actually are living in. Instead, the article bases its argumentation in a specific set of narratives that are logically inconsistent, factually wrong, and disconnected with reality. The USA of the 1960s and 1970s is not the USA of today. The presence of foreign fighters in a civil war is not - by itself - evidence of a lie, The Protocols are still lies, and the reality of the NWO is only in your head. So there you have it, "Siria, la Gran Mientra" is itself a fatuous lie, based on a narrative of anti-Americanism, a naive narrative of national purity in civil wars, a "Jews control the media and the finances of the world" narrative, and "the modern-day Illuminati control the world". False. False. False. False. (I'm surprised that this guy didn't invoke lizard people.)

No matter how much one might wish these things to be true in order to force the facts to fit into these non-factual narratives, the only things that such a wild tale will sooth are the sensibilities of those who buy into these fatuous narratives. The article is, in this way, intellectually lazy and is itself in greater danger of telling "la gran mentira" due to inherent confirmation bias and the commitment effect, and if you base your anti-war position on these utterly false narratives, then you are undermining the validity of your own position.

If you're going to be against military conflict, okay, but at least find a better argument than this dross.