Category Archives: Law and Order

The Law of BS

Some time ago, I talked about my Rule of Expertise. I’m in the process of catching up on old posts from Bill James’ website. The article I refer to is behind a firewall. It’s about the Jeffrey MacDonald case. But in the course of it, Bill says something utterly brilliant:

There are certain characteristics of bullshit, and there are certain characteristics of the truth. The truth tends to be specific; bullshit tends to be vague and imprecise. The truth tends to involve facts that can be checked out; bullshit is always built around things that you have no way of checking out. The truth tends to be told consistently, the same from one day to the next; bullshit changes every time it is told. Stable, responsible honest people tend to tell the truth; unstable, dishonest, unreliable people tend to bullshit. The truth is coherent and logical; bullshit is incoherent and illogical.

Almost everything I said in my Law of Expertise post could be considered a subset of that general rule. When an “expert” tells you what a great expert he is, he’s spewing vague bullshit. Real experts tend to be specific, consistent and verifiable.


I think the equation has changed a bit in the Information Age. The internet has a long memory and this has forced the bullshitters to be more consistent and more specific. The result is that BS now gets debunked faster than ever. However, it has also allowed BS to assume a facade of truth that fools some people.

Think about vaccine hysteria. The lies are specific, consistent and seem to involve facts. That makes people believe it, even after thorough and unremitting debunking.

(I should note, in passing, that the MacDonald case is of particular interest to me. My dad was — and still is, as far as I know — convinced that MacDonald was an innocent man railroaded by a biased judge, a vindictive prosecutor, a slimy writer and a vengeful father-in-law. I was convinced of that myself until I read Weingarten’s post, which pointed out that there is almost no evidence to prove MacDonald’s contention that his family was murdered by a bunch of hippies and that all the extant evidence — including recently tested tissue under the wife’s fingernails — supports the prosecution case. It’s kind of rare that I disagree with my dad on something like this, but … I do. The prosecution was able to put together a scenario consistent with the evidence (although I don’t buy the amphetamines angle). The defense wasn’t.

However, while I am mostly convinced that MacDonald probably did murder his family, I’m not as sure that he should have been convicted. The crime scene was not properly secured, for one and exculpatory evidence might have been destroyed. The judge did seem biased against MacDonald. And I do think Bill James (and Megan McArdle) make a good point about prosecutions — once they focus on a suspect, they develop a tunnel vision which sees everything in light of that suspicion. James’ makes what I think is the most important point: the prosecution’s case fits together extremely well … if you assume that MacDonald was the killer.

It’s an awful case and probably one of the reasons it fascinates so many people. On the one hand, you could have an innocent man convicted of one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit. On the other hand, you have a man committing one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit, including the deliberate murder of a sleeping toddler.

In any case, you should subscribe to James’ site if you have even a mild interest in baseball. Baseball analysis is only part of what he offers.)

Saturday Linkorama

  • A great letter on the situation at Penn State, from the former Paterno Chair.
  • This article, sent to me by several, argues that China will be a benevolent world power. I found it ludicrous. not only do I not think China will become a dominant world power (there are still massive areas of abject poverty and they are aging too fast); I find the historical analysis from this sinophile to be absurdly optimistic about what they would do with power.
  • Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • Heart-rending notes pinned to abandoned babies.
  • This article, about Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen, came out this summer. But I found it amusing and kind of touching.
  • This story, about the explosion of solitary confinement in this country, is a must-read.
  • I knew that music has sucked since the 1980’s (#1). #5 is one we explore in Music Theory class.
  • Copying is Theft

    You know, I really despise the argument used in this video that “copying isn’t theft”. As someone who has had work copied and plagiarized, I can tell you that it absolutely is. A book, a movie, a song — this is something someone worked on, invested their time, tears and often money in. It didn’t just fall from the sky. Intellectual property rights have gone too far, I agree. But let’s not pretend that copying someone’s work without their permission isn’t a violation.

    Note the deformed logic of the video. The portray people sharing with each other. But file sharers don’t share shit. They’re not putting their hard work up for free. They’re simply taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s a sharing caring rainbows and ponies lovefest. That’s garbage. That’s a thief claiming to be a secret socialist.

    Tuesday Linkorama

  • So my daughter has taken to watching My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic lately. I’m fine with it, since the show is a lot more sophisticated than the stuff she’s liked before. It’s also far less abrasive and ugly than most of the animation that dominates morning TV. Still, I do not understand the brony phenomenon. Really?
  • The best magazine articles ever?
  • The amazing thing about environmental fear-mongers it that they are never discredited by being totally and completely wrong. Thankfully, a handful will own up to it.
  • This story, about potentially innocent men not being informed about flaws in the evidence against them, is appalling and should be bigger. Where the anti-big-government types when it comes to getting innocent people out of jail?
  • The thing that strikes me about this photo essay about the poorest place in America is how relative poverty is. I’m not saying they are not poor or are facing few prospects. I am saying that if you saw the same thing in much of the world, you’d think you were looking at the richest part of the country.
  • Saturday Linkorama

  • Cracked is so awesome.
  • A thought-provoking cartoon about women’s prisons. Despite my support for ending the War on Drugs, I despise meth with all of my heart.
  • A simply dynamite interview with Bill James. I agree with him on Sherlock Holmes, even though I love the stories.
  • In general, I don’t care about the personal defects, craziness or silliness of artists: I separate the art from them. Hard to do with Alice Walker sometimes.
  • Wednesday Linkorama

    Thanks to Twitter siphoning off my political rants, you’re getting more … non-political links:

  • Cracked debunks the Twitter revolution. I’m forced to mostly agree. Social networking may have played a minor role in the upheavals in the Middle East, at best. But real activism involves risking your life, not turning your Facebook profile green.
  • I really really like this idea of the Billion Price Index as a complement to traditional inflation metrics.
  • Do you know … do either of you have any idea of how fucking glad I am I don’t have a big ass commute anymore? I can’t imagine how I did it for so long.
  • I really hope the anti-homework agenda catches on. What’s being done to kids these days is absurd busy work bullshit.
  • So do you think studies like this will, in any way, slow down those who want to ban fatty foods?
  • Political links:

  • Experts are once again stunned that poverty does not cause crime. They seem to be stunned by this quite a lot.
  • Want to stimulate the economy? Wonder how America can lead the world in innovation again? Repeal SOX.
  • Friday Linkorama

    Non-political links:

  • Was Travels with Charley a sham? Seems so.
  • Well, I’m glad to see that someone wants to take football concussions seriously.
  • Yes.
  • This piece by O’Rourke hits my reaction to Atlas Shrugged pretty accurately. It’s good. As a philosophy, it has its flaws. But it exposes the true villainy of collectivism and the virtue of self-determination.
  • Political links:

  • This is how conservatives should do justice.
  • No, no, no, no, no no, no. TARP did not turn a profit. No way. No how. They just moved money around to make it seem like they did.
  • The latest from the Obama conspiracy nuts: his knee was in NY while he was in Kenya.
  • It’s a good week: free trade is moving forward.
  • My political view are libertarian-conservative, not Republican. So I’m more than happy to praise a Democrat, even a Cuomo, when he’s doing the right thing.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Non-Political links:

  • This may be the most depressing thing I’ve read today — we were apparently 1.4 inches away from preventing the BP disaster.
  • I always knew Rachel Ray was a monster.
  • Political links:

  • Two from Glenn Greenwald today on how our President has, as I feared, decided that the November elections were not a call for reigning in government, but for expanding its reach. He’s now limiting Miranda rights for terror suspects arrested in this country and appointing the chief psychiatrist who designed the torture regime to a position of power.
  • For once, I’m going to disagree with Veronique De Rugy, who claims that nuclear power can’t compete with fossil fuels. This is true, technically. But fossil fuels have a massive cost — pollution, death and global warming — that is not being charged to its consumers.
  • Tax the rich? We already do.
  • This just in. Donald Trump is an idiot. So is Newt. Or, at least, they pretend to be because they think so little of us.
  • Wednesday Linkorama

    Mostly politics today, I’m afraid:

  • I’ve been hammering this over at the other site, but it’s worth repeating here. The Fukushima meltdown does not prove we need to give up on nuclear power. A 40-year old plant was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in the last century and is still very likely to end up with, at most, a few casualties. This is nothing compared to what fossil fuels cost us. And alternative energy just isn’t ready for prime-time. Nuclear — especially newer and safer nuclear — is the best option we’ve got. Not that cool heads are preventing stupid panic in this country.
  • You know, he does sometimes make it hard to dislike him.
  • In other news, Nanking-denying Shintaro Ishihara is still a jackass.
  • The latest from Arpaio’s banana republic.
  • I’ve suspected for some time that the supposed growth in equality was the result of tax code changes.
  • Yet one more reason not to live in Illinois. If only there were some prominent Illinoisan who could take a stand against this bullshit.
  • TNC argues that White Flight didn’t just happen.
  • Snowbound LInkorama

    Non-political links:

  • Now, this is fascinating. It turns out the seminal experiment that proved that men will go for casual sex, but women won’t — was asking the wrong questions.
  • Maggie McNeill strikes again, his time pointing out that oral sex was not invented in 1969.
  • Political links:

  • When you’re LIbertarian, everyone hates you.
  • The Florida Highway Patrol engaged in racial profiling and spending $32,000 to stop … $16,000 in counterfeiting.
  • How over-regulation is creating a shortage of medicine.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Non-Political Links

  • Jesus, what the hell is wrong with people?
  • For once, I agree with Richard Dawkins. Our society’s bizarre obsession with rules and the mindless enforcement therefore is bizarre and damaging.
  • A stunning picture of Christchurch after the earthquake hit. Christchurch is a lovely town and I had the best lamb vindaloo ever there. Hopefully, they’ll be back on their eet soon.
  • I have no idea if this is a reasonable response to Wired’s latest hysteria. But it’s something that should be looked at, right?
  • Political Links:

  • Rick Santorum: please just go away.
  • Remember: according to trial lawyers and their dog-washers, there is no such thing as defensive medicine.
  • I’m really starting to like Maggie McNeill’s blog on prostitution. Last week, she had a harrowing interview of a woman who endured horrific abuse. Today, she debunks the Dallas’ authorities self-congratulation on having stopped the non-existent wave of prostitution that didn’t hit the Super Bowl. Honestly, I think the biggest reason government exists is so that people can pat themselves on the back.
  • Things I like about Barack Obama: he waited until after the Americans had fled Libya to denounce the regime.
  • I always knew I hated corn ethanol, I just didn’t know how much.
  • The amazing Radley Balko has another dispatch on why mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea.
  • An Op-ed from one of the Koch brothers. My god, what extremists!
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Non-Poliical links:

  • This story, which make ominous noises about the dangers of eye surgery and cites a former FDA official, it noticeably lacking in fact. Frankly, Waxler sounds like a crank, claiming half of LASIK users suffer side effects while presenting no evidence to support this assertion. Maybe he’s right; but skepticism is warranted.
  • This talk on biomimcry, is fascinating, although I suspect that an ashes-to-ashes calculation will show it to be less amazing than advertised. But it does sustain my faith in human ingenuity and our ability to deal with the problems we are faced with. Nature is incredibly clever. And we are part of nature.
  • Political Links:

  • Holy shit: Texas is showing extreme common sense on sexting.
  • The thing is that a small minority of Republicans are virulent anti-gay bigots. But that minority has the floor. One of these days, some prominent Republican is going to stand up to these assholes. And the Religious Right will collapse overnight.
  • Glenn Greenwald makes a great point here. If we are to stop our government — whether it’s restoring civil liberties or balancing the budget or whatever — it’s going to take left-right alliances to do it. Both our political parties are useless. We need to start rallying around issues, not parties.