SO THAT'S WHAT "PEER REVIEWED" MEANS!

Posted in Rants on October 31st, 2007 by Ed

Just a couple of quick notes today due to spending most of Tuesday night celebrating my birth. First, if you're an academic (or any person who likes the rush of superiority that accompanies reading about creationists) please spend 5 minutes reading this. A blogger with some time on his hands accepts a Discovery Institute spokeswoman's challenge: "Maybe you should check out some of the peer-reviewed ID research." It turns out, to absolutely no one's surprise, that their idea of "peer review" is either A) "scientists" employed by the Discovery Institute itself and B) real academics…with PhDs in fields totally unrelated to the hard sciences. It might be a good idea to let the readers know that authors like "Dr. John A. Campbell, PhD" is a professor of communications at the University of Memphis. I can't wait to finish my Political Science PhD so I can start writing biology textbooks too.

Second, take a quick glance at this piece of news. Not only can you work up a healthy chuckle over the fact that our high-ranking military officers are being guarded by foreign private security firms, but take a moment to enjoy the fact that we have a Brigadier General named Jeffrey Dorko. I'm pretty sure I'd also submerge myself in a world of show-off masculinity and pomp if my name was Dorko.

ED VS. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 8: FALSE PRECISION

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on October 30th, 2007 by Ed

Mt. Everest, when first accurately measured by modern scientific equipment, was exactly 29,000 feet tall (the mean of recorded heights from 6 different measuring techniques). Assuming no one would believe that they actually measured it if they reported such a round figure, scientists called it 29,002 feet. The first figure was completely accurate but suffered from the fact that it sounded like an estimation. Being able to say that it is "exactly" 29,002 feet makes it sound so much more precise.

People are impressed by numbers. Numbers create the impression that an author has done "research" and possibly even math. Numbers that smack of tremendous precision are a common and often flawed form of argument. Consider two examples: one crude and easy to spot, another much more subtle and relevant.

One great example lies in the way countries report their oil reserves. A dirty secret among the Oil Will Last Forever crowd is that most of the world's major producers self-report their reserves and, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, refuse to allow outside verification of their fantastic claims. A cheap, lame way to cover for their hyperbole is to release incredibly precise figures to create the impression that they have very detailed measures. Note Venezuela's figures on this Department of Energy list. Rather than the correct answer of "about 80 bbl" they report figures of 79.721 and 80.012 bbl in separate reports. Not a single engineer on the planet would claim to be able to measure the exact number of barrels of oil in the ground so accurately – especially since Venezuela includes wildly unpredictable tar sands among its reserves. "About 80 bbl" really sounds like they're making it up; 80.012, which is every bit as fabricated, is intended to preempt skepticism.

Public opinion polls are another terrific example of false precision. The media give statistics that imply (but never explicitly state) that they have measured some public sentiment very precisely. Of course, no news organization is irresponsible enough to omit the margin of error (among other fine print) at the bottom of the poll. But they certainly don't do much to emphasize it. Instea they state exact figures when any measurement with a margin of error is really a range. Consider the caveat from the following recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll (via pollingreport.com)

FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Oct. 23-24, 2007. N=303 Republican voters nationwide. MoE +/- 6.

Plus or minus six percent. That's a range of 12%. Yet the figures are reported without that crucial bit of information included. Therefore you get something like this:

Rudy Giuliani 31
Fred Thompson 17
John McCain 12
Mitt Romney 7
Mike Huckabee 5
Duncan Hunter 3
Tom Tancredo 2
Ron Paul 1
Other 2
Unsure 16
Wouldn't vote 4

Typical.jpg

Wow, Rudy looks like he has a massive lead, and Fred Thompson is a clear second. Right? Well, here's the correct interpretation, which is the range represented by the green bars here (plus and minus 6% around the reported figure):

correct.jpg

The correct interpretation shows that, while Giuliani is in 1st place no matter how the data are sliced, any one of five different responses (Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Thompson, or Don't Know) could be second. The accuracy of polling data is intimately tied to the number of "don't know/undecided" responses, and once the MOE is taken into account that could be as high as 22% here – nearly one in four respondents. So this is a really accurate picture of the GOP primary as long as you don't care about who's in 2nd through 6th place. Or about the quarter of the electorate who have yet to make up their minds. Maybe they'll make Opinion Dynamics' job easier by distributing themselves exactly according to the "precise" poll numbers reported here.

Lying with numbers is so easy that it's almost remarkable when they're used to tell the truth.

(PS: I'm officially 29 today, showing no signs of mellowing with age)

KURDLED DIPLOMACY

Posted in Rants on October 29th, 2007 by Ed

True or false: the Kurds are the largest single ethnic group on Earth that do not have a country of their own.

That statement, of course, is true. Most people have no idea who or what the Kurds are, as they have no PR machine or deeply concerned Hollywood spokespeople encouraging the world to help them out. From the Bush administration's perspective the Kurds are in a position so precarious that it sums up Operation Iraqi Clusterfuck perfectly.

The Kurds were the "human rights" piece of the pre-2003 We Must Invade argument. Sadaam Hussein had a long, unpleasant history of trying to exterminate the restless Kurdish settlements in the northwest ("Kurdistan" comprises parts of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq) including the use of chemical weapons. So imagine how stupid we'd look if, for example, we started encouraging the Iraqi "government" to use its armed forces (read: ours) to suppress uppity Kurdish regions. Ha. Wow, that would be pretty hilarious.

The Kurds (via the PKK) are a subject that rasies Turkey's blood pressure to almost fatal levels. As most of the Kurdish people live in modern-day Turkey, the two parties have been engaged in a slow, simmering secessionist movement / civil war for the better part of 20 years. And now the Turks are claiming (correctly) that the Kurds are using the free-for-all that is Iraq to plan and supply attacks on Turkey. This practically makes that vein on Turkey's forehead throb. They've announced in no uncertain terms that they will attack and invade Kurdish positions within Iraq if the latter cannot do something to control the situation.

On the one hand, the sheer destabilizing insanity of Turkey invading Iraq is obvious. The U.S. wants nothing more than to avoid that outcome. Iraq can't even govern 12 blocks of Baghdad let alone enforce the sovereignty of its borders. Yet we are not exactly on Turkey's good side these days, what with our resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide that Turkey refuses to acknowledge. You might ask yourself why we give a shit what Turkey thinks given that we don't seem to give a shit what anyone else thinks these days. Well, those planes at Incirlik aren't going to station themselves. Half of our military supply material to Iraq and Afghanistan passes through that base. It's like the Cold War all over again – making decisions to support brutal, repressive governments based on their willingness to host the military facilities with which we surround our enemies and mark our territory all over the world.

So our options are:

  • 1. Curry favor with Turkey by letting them invade Iraq
  • 2. Curry favor with Turkey by using our military in Iraq to subdue the same Kurds whose treatment at the hands of Hussein was one of our invasion motives
  • 3. Enforce the status quo, piss off the Turks, and find ourselves a new forward air base in central Asia (remember, Uzbekistan already evicted us and we hang onto Manas by a thread)

    Hmm. I wonder which one of those scenarios will win out.

  • ALEXANDER SUPERTRAMP

    Posted in Rants on October 26th, 2007 by Ed

    So I'm curious about this film Into the Wild. It does not look good, nor do I particularly want to watch it. But I am interested to see how Christopher McCandless is portrayed. I've always found his story (which I picked up from Krakauer's book of the same name; everything he's written is gold) to be quite interesting, albeit probably not in the same way that most people do.

    I overheard some undergraduates talking about it, and of course they were breathlessly admiring what a brave, idealistic Walden-for-the-90s the protagonist was. There is a reason that both the book and the movie will make a ton of money – approximately 90% of America wishes it could abandon reality and run off to live in the middle of nowhere. And golly, this young rich kid from the East Coast did just that!

    Let me be (not) the first to say that McCandless was a fucking idiot. He bravely and romantically ran off into the Alaskan wilderness without the slightest idea of how to live off the land. Lacking even a basic understanding of direction or decent topo maps, this genius managed to starve to death (during the summer) 20 miles away from a paved highway that brings National Park tour buses on an hourly basis. Twenty miles of mostly flat terrain can be hiked in about 12 hours by a healthy adult, which McCandless was until he starved himself.

    To quote one of the park rangers who has to deal with this retard's legacy:

    "I am exposed continually to what I will call the 'McCandless Phenomenon.' People, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent … When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament … Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide."

    The book was a best-seller, and it's sad how many mentally challenged copycats it created. I don't know much about the film, but from what I hear ("Oscar buzz" and masturbatory reviews) I can only assume that another generation's worth of suburban white guys are about to dash half-assed into the wilderness to either freeze to death or require rescue…at taxpayer's expense, of course.

    ISLAMO-FASCISM: BE AWARE OF IT

    Posted in Rants on October 25th, 2007 by Ed

    Happy Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week! I've been celebrating the same way as most Americans: by asking questions like "Why isn't David Horowitz pumping gas for a living in rural Alabama?"

    There are so many things that are idiotic about this spectacle, I don't even know where to begin. Let's start with D-Ho's complete lack of understanding of the term "fascism."

    I believe his original intent was simply to combine two words that most people think are bad things. Islamo-Fascism sounded a lot better than Islamo-Herpes. On that end, mission accomplished. Fascism is bad. While it lacks a universally agreed-upon definition, according to folks like Roger Eatwell, Roger Griffin, Ernst Nolte, Robert Paxton, Juan Cole, and Stanley Payne, fascism is:

    (an) authoritarian political ideology that considers individual and other societal interests subordinate to the interests of the state. Fascists seek to forge a type of national unity through oppression and coercion, usually based on (but not limited to) ethnic, cultural, or racial attributes.

    They argue that fascism is related to, but distinct from, concepts like nationalism, populism, xenophobia, and totalitarianism. Just for kicks, Webster defines it thusly: "a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition."

    Now please tell me, does that sound like Osama bin Laden's philosophy? Or anyone in al Qaeda? Or any Islamic terrorist in the world? Does Horowitz's application of that term to Islamic terrorism make you wonder whether or not he has ever read a book? Yes, truly D-Ho has a magnificent grasp of the nature of terrorism in the Islamic world. Clearly what Osama and his buddies want is intimately tied to a state or national interests. Issues of national identity motivate them. They quite obviously subordinate all other interests for the good of….whatever nation or state they're nationalistic about.

    I could go on to point out that schools such as Yale, Harvard, and even Falwell's Liberty University have threatened legal action against Horowitz for claiming that they are participating in his pathetic week of attention-seeking. I could point out the number of schools who were shocked to find out that Horowitz was claiming that they were participating. I could note that the folks over at Blackfive (an excellent albeit very right-wing blog staffed mostly by military folks) mocked his opening event and think he's a total ass clown. I could point out that David Horowitz is a mental infant whose sole purpose is to promote himself and pander to the Republicans that all the other Republicans hate. But pointing out any of that would be redundant, as 5 minutes spent reading his nonsense are plenty to tell you all of this and more.

    ED VS. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 7: AFFIRMING THE CONSEQUENT

    Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on October 24th, 2007 by Ed

    I'm fascinated by denialism (if you've never been, please visit Denialism Blog), and all denialism is based on two things: manufactured controversies and arguments that affirm the consequent.

    Arguments that affirm the consequent infer conditions based on conclusions. This fallacy is easiest to explain by way of example. Quite simply:

    If I am having a stroke, my head would hurt.
    My head hurts.
    Therefore I am having a stroke.

    This type of fallacy, as you can see, is patently obvious to most observers who can apply logic to arguments. However, it is rarely as obvious as in the exaggerated example above. Take, for example, something that has the classic dimensions of denialism: the Teach the Controversy "movement." Step one – fabricate controversy where none exists. Step two – let the fallacies roll in a bald effort to lend legitimacy to the argument.

    What denialists such as Discovery Institute (the well-funded folks who bring us Teach the Controversy) or the Institute for Historical Review (Holocaust deniers) do is very basic but sufficient to fool the ignorant:

    Legitimate scientific theories are supported by scientists.
    (Insert theory) is supported by scientists.
    Therefore it is a legitimate scientific theory.

    Like all truly pernicious logical fallacies, this contains a kernel of truth. That is why it is so deceptive. Obviously, legitimate scientific theories are supported by scientists. But they are also supported by other things (data, research, and testing). Similarly, a denialist theory is supported by "scientists." But they are supported by only a small number of largely-discredited fringe conspiracists. Finding one or two scientists of questionable qualifications who will support a theory does not mean it is a valid one, especially when nothing else in the form of data/evidence support it. Leaping to conclusions based on half-truths and incomplete arguments is fun!

    The goal of denialism isn't to be proven correct; it's simply to muddy the waters and create doubt among those who aren't paying too much attention. Like a cheap infomercial seeks credibility by having men in white lab coats stand around, denialists know that plenty of (not-so-bright) people will see an "expert" and infer validity to the argument.

    NULL

    Posted in Uncategorized on October 23rd, 2007 by Ed

    Sorry folks, no update tonight. My 14 hour day, which featured the political science faculty rejecting my dissertation proposal, did not leave me with time to pick up much news.

    Entertain yourself with this link. I have a close friend who swears that the "undecided voter panel" is the highest form of televised comedy, but Fox News undecided voter panels on Republican primary debates take things to another level. Check out the quote about "long memories" of Clinton and "nobody wants to go through that hell again." Yes, remember those nightmare years between 1992 and 2000? Peace, prosperity, and budget surpluses. 2001-2007 has just been so much better. We truly are, to trot out an old campaign slogan, better off now than we were a few years ago.

    BEHOLD MY MAGICAL POWERS

    Posted in Rants on October 22nd, 2007 by Ed

    While reading Stanley Fish's latest rant about how College Professors Are the Dirty Liberal Enemy, I was struck by two things.

  • 1. Believe-it-or-fucking-not, academics are in fact paid to form opinions on subjects about which they know a great deal. One doesn't spend a decade or two studying the presidency to have no opinion about it – or to be told by some pitiful David Horowitz wannabe-pariah that said opinion is wrong or uninformed. Take, for instance, a professor of medicine. When one studies medicine for 30 years, the ability to point at a doctor and say "Look at this poor example, students; this is how not to be a doctor. Do not imitate." is implicit. Along the same lines (albeit without the decades of experience to lend weight to my opinion) I feel comfortable, knowing more than a bit about the presidency, to occasionally let my class know that George W. Bush is a particularly shitty one. If people support him ideologically, fine. I am required to be cool with that. And I am. What I am not required to do is to allow the students and right-wing hysterics to bully me into allowing all interpretations of the facts to be held equally valid (coming soon: the fallacy of false dilemma!). If you think he is a great president, you are entitled to that opinion. But you are not entitled to be told your opinion is correct. After all, some people are of the opinion that the Sun revolves around the Earth. To say that someone is entitled to that opinion (and they certainly are) is just a way of saying that people are free to be really fucking wrong if they so choose.
  • 2. Fish makes such a persuasive argument about the incredible indoctrinating powers of professors. And the students are all completely malleable and impressionable with no deeply-held opinions of their own. What an accurate depiction of the average university classroom. So riddle me this, Stanley – if I have such amazing powers to impose my will on these blank young minds, why can't I get them to read 30 pages a week out of a textbook? Or show up to class every day? Or hand in assignments on time? Or engage in classroom discussions? Yes, it makes perfect sense. I can indoctrinate them with an entire system of moral and political values, but I can't make them follow simple instructions or study for the final exam. Amazing, isn't it? How odd that my powers are so selective.

    The fact of the matter is that Academic Liberal Bias has become a Straw Man (not to mention a Red Herring) of tremendous popularity on the right. It is clearly inappropriate for professors to tell a student that his or her ideological beliefs are wrong; in every such example, I will side with the right-wingers demanding punishment. But a political scientist is required to accept all opinions on factual matters to be correct no more than a biologist. Opinions aren't inherently valuable simply because they exist. If they want respect, they have to earn it. But why do all that hard work? Wielding a gargantuan sense of entitlement is so much easier – almost as easy as trotting out tired, factually bankrupt arguments about liberal bias.

  • FRISKY FRIDAY

    Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2007 by Ed

    So are you all watching Frisky Dingo? I'm pretty convinced it's the greatest thing ever. The Season 2 plotline – Killface and Xander running against one another for President – culminated with the Haggar Pants ™ Presidential Debate live from Haggar Pants Arena. Killface's fund-raising plan is codenamed "Operation Meth Nazis." I think more of you need to be watching this. Season 1 is (mostly) available online gratis.

    Pardon today's entry. I am preoccupied. The mighty TremFu is buckling down in preparation for the two McLusky shows next weekend. If you live in Bloomington, come. I'm getting older, and that fact requires celebration. Of secondary importance (note sarcasm), I have to defend my dissertation proposal on Monday. Of tertiary importance (no sarcasm), I have to start teaching a course on Monday evening – with 2 hour, 50 minute class periods. Hold on while I swallow my tongue.

    Huzzah!

    A BRIDGE TOO FAR…FOR SOME REASON

    Posted in Rants on October 18th, 2007 by Ed

    OK. I'm going to try to say this while avoiding, to the greatest possible extent, coming off like I live in a compound in the Bitterroots.

    Ann Coulter's latest book (not dignified with link) is in the shitter; for reasons that strike most of us as self-evident, no one's buying it. Under those circumstances it should be absolutely no surprise that Coultergeist's latest tour of the talking head shows would feature some bat-shit insanity. Because really, that's all she is. She's a shameless self-promoter, and her only goal is to one-up herself and think of increasingly idiotic and "shocking" things to say so she can get 10 seconds of attention to plug the Ann Coulter Brand Name. The media, to its eternal shame, enables her. They bring her in under the guise of being a Serious Pundit when they're really just grasping for the same 10-second high of attention that her stupidity brings.

    So it is within that context and with an enormous grain of salt that I take the flap over her "Jews should be perfected" rant. It's no different than any other Coulter-on-TV moment. Camera rolls, Ann suggests killing a particular group of people, and cut to commercial. But this one was a little different. All of the sudden, Very Serious Media Types are having earnest "Gosh, has she gone too far?" talks and self-reflective "Gee, are we in some way enabling her by constantly inviting her onto worldwide television?" Even Tucker Carlson is using her as a punching bag and mocking the overpowering stench of desperation that cloaks everything about her. And vacant blow-dried types like Meredith Viera are starting to complain.

    My question, and I put this as delicately as possible, is "Why now?" Don't get me wrong, what she said is obviously offensive, racist, and idiotic. But….well, when wasn't she? To be blunt, I find it equally offensive that feet are being put down now that the issue is anti-Semitism. It was OK when she said we should invade every Muslim country, kill their leaders, and forcibly convert them. It was OK when she slandered the 9/11 widows. It was OK when she called John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and every other male Democrat on Earth a queer. It was OK when she said women shouldn't be allowed to vote, everyone at the New York Times should be killed, and so on. None of that precluded a return invite onto the talk shows (several hundred appearances on every network according to Media Matters). But now….apparently she's finally said something offensive.

    It's idiotic, and what's worse is that it plays directly into the worst backwoods Aryan Nations-type "theories" about New York, The Media, and The Establishment (which are codewords for Jews, Jews, and Jews, respectively). If Coulter's saga, and what's happening to her at the moment, are indicative of anything it's that talking about converting Jews is apparently far worse and more despicable that advocating genocide against Muslims.

    It's good to know that there are limits.