One of my favorite parts of Robert A. Heinlein’s Expanded Universe is when he revisits the predictions he made in 1950 for the second half of the 20th century. He updated his predictions in 1965 and then again in 1980. I once wrote an article looking back at his predictions (Heinlein died in 1988 and never got to see how well he did) but it disappeared into the Spam Event Horizon. I’m going to write that post again before moving onto Part II, where I will revisit similar predictions I made in 2000. I’m obviously no Heinlein, as you’ll see. My predictions were stunningly mundane. But it was a fun exercise.
Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
So Hall of Fame ballots will be announced tomorrow. It’s going to be an interesting year. The Hall apparently purged a lot of writers from the voter rolls, hoping to create a more active and engaged electorate. This may change the dynamics of the voting; it may not.
Right now, the public votes are being compiled here. There aren’t a huge number of surprises but I think we are seeing what I predicted last year: a gradual reduction of the huge glut we had a couple of years ago as candidates are elected or drop off the ballot. The thinning of the herd is opening up opportunities for players who’ve been lingering around for a while.
They way I expect to break down is:
So: Griffey and Piazza in. Bagwell and Raines get close. Martinez, Mussina, Hoffman and Schilling take big steps toward eventual election. With a fairly uncrowded 2017 ballot (Rodriguez probably gets in immediately; Guerrero gets close, Ramirez goes into PED purgatory), Bagwell and Raines probably go in next year, with the others creeping a bit closer.
As I noted last year, the HOF balloting has moved toward some resolution of the so-called Steroid Era, with multiple players getting in, Palmeiro disappearing and Clemens/Bonds stuck in purgatory. I don’t think the issue is dead. We will have to revisit Bonds and Clemens at some point. But I think we’ve moved on for the moment to the point where the enraging idiocy of 2013 is unlikely to repeat itself.
The big debate I expect to emerge now is whether closers should be elected to the Hall and specifically whether Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner belong in the Hall. Joe Posnanski makes the case against but … this is a rare time where I disagree with him. Yes, it’s true that a lot of failed starters have been converted into effective closers and no closer has gone back to being a starter unless his name is John Smoltz. While I think a closer’s innings are more valuable than a starter’s, I don’t think they are three or four times more valuable. But here’s the thing: (a) not every failed starter can become an effective closer; (b) very very few closers can be as good for as long as Hoffman or Rivera.
Let’s expand on that last point. Jonathan Papelbon has been a very good closer for a decade. He’s still over 250 saves behind Hoffman and is very unlikely to get anywhere close to him. Francisco Rodriguez became one of the best closers in the game at age 23 and saved 62 games once. He’s over 200 saves behind Hoffman. Joe Nathan has been a great closer. He’s 200 saves behind.
It seems to be we are starting to develop a separation that I will call the Wagner line. We are seeing a whole bunch of Billy Wagners emerge — guys with 400 or so saves and amazing rate stats. We can’t start putting those guys in the Hall because it will mean inducting a couple of closers a decade. But beyond the Wagner line you see the very rare guys like Rivera or Hoffman who have 500-600 saves. The latter, to me, should be in the Hall of Fame. I can understand why someone would say none of them do. But you can’t pretend that there isn’t at least some separation between the two elite guys and the next half dozen lingering around the Wagner Line.
I’ve actually thought about this issue quite a bit because I like to play computer baseball. In particular, I like Out of the Park baseball, which has long careers, minor leagues, an amazing statistical model and a Hall of Fame. One problem I’ve encountered after 60 simulated seasons is a raft of potential Hall of Fame closers. The computer has produced maybe a dozen guys with 400 saves and amazing rate stats, similar to what we’re seeing emerge from baseball right now in the persons of Papelbon and Rodriguez and others. I’ve probably put too many relievers in my fictional Hall of Fame, but the only way I’ve been able to avoid inducting a dozen is to limit it to guys with long careers who were also the best closers. And, like the real Hall of Fame, I do have a few, “Shit, I shouldn’t have elected him” guys from the early days.
I expect a similar paradigm to emerge over the next decade or two — maybe set at the Wagner Line, maybe elsewhere. Because we can’t elect everyone who managed to put 300 saves. But we can elect the best of the best.
That’s what the Hall if all about, right?
Politico has a silly article up from Michael Lind, claiming that the South skews all the statistics for the country and that, without the South, our country would be in awesome shape. A typical example:
Economic inequality? Apart from California and New York, where statistics reflect the wealth of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the South is the region with the greatest income inequality. Southern exceptionalism has helped to ensure that the American Dream is more likely to be realized in the Old World than in the New.
Yes … when we eliminate 60 million people from consideration, the statistics look good for our side! And let’s just ignore that whole Texas oil thing.
The thing is, the difference in inequality is something that you can measure. I looked at a population-weighted mean gini index for various subsets of states. States that voted for Romney in 2012 have a weighted gini index of .460. States that voted for Obama are way more equal at uh … um, actually, they’re higher at .464.
If you restrict that analysis to Southern States, you do get a higher index of .467. But then again, if you restrict that analysis to coastal blue states, you get .469.
God damn those coastal elites, ruining the country!
Crime is a little different, being higher in the red states (384 per 100,000 vs. 359 per 100,000) and higher in the South specifically (402), but the difference is not that dramatic and even the blue state crime rates would be very high (although both would be lower than violent crime rates in the UK). And all regions have seen a huge drop in violent crime rates over the last two decades.
He goes on to point out that the South is much more religious (which … is bad thing?) and has a higher rate of gun ownership (although even the North would still have one of the highest rates in the world. And again … gun ownership is not ipso facto a bad thing). He is right that the South has more executions but then fumbles the ball again, arguing that Obama’s poor showing in Southern states (except Virginia and North Carolina and Florida and strong showings in Missouri and Georgia) proves racial animus and not that the South vote Republican no matter who is running.
He also ignores basically anything that might that favor the South, such as 40% of our military hailing from the South. Or that most of the job growth in Obama’s presidency has been in the South (specifically in Texas). Or the fact that, over the last few decades, the American people have been voting with their feet, moving South by the millions.
South-bashing is in these days, I guess, so I can’t blame Lind for trying. Better luck next time.
Right now, the liberal blogosphere is erupting over Republican plans to not fund a program to give free IUDs to low income women:
Republican legislators in Colorado will not authorize funding for a program that gives free IUDs to low-income women — an effort that many believe was responsible for hugely driving down teen births.
Colorado has recently experienced a stunning decline in its teen birth rate. Between 2007 and 2012, federal data shows that births declined 40 percent — faster than any other state in the country.
State officials attributed part of this success to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, which provided free IUDs to low-income women seen at 68 family planning clinics across the state. Last year, state officials estimated that young women served by those family planning clinics accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado’s teen birth rate.
I disagree with the Republicans on this. But the idea that free IUD program cut Colorado’s teen birth rate by 40% or 3/4 of 40% or anywhere close to 40% is high-test nonsense.
Here is the data from the CDC on teen brith rates. From the first graph, you’ll see that teen birth rates have been steadily falling for seventy years. Like most positive social trends, it has many, um, parents, each of which are flogged by whomever supports that particular issue. Availability of contraception has certainly played a role. The legalization of abortion played a role (although abortion rates peaked in the early 80′s). As social and professional barrier have fallen, many more women are delaying pregnancy for college and jobs. And there is some evidence that teenagers are waiting longer to have sex (that would be the dreaded “abstinence”).
Since 2007, however, the teen birth rate has fallen off a cliff. But not just in Colorado. It’s fallen everywhere, by an average of 30%. If anything, it’s fallen faster in red states than in blue ones (see Figure 9 of the CDC’s report). Colorado has seen the steepest decline (39%), but just behind it are the red states of Arizona (37%), Georgia (37%), North Carolina (34%), Utah (34%) and Virginia (33%).
Is Colorado’s IUD program so awesome that it dropped the teen birth rate for the entire country?
Given the extent of the program and Colorado having the largest reduction, it’s very probable that the IUD program did play a role here. But I would ballpark it at maybe 10% at the most.1 That’s not nothing and it’s probably worth continuing the program. But let’s not pretend the reduction is due only to that.
So what is causing the large reduction? Availability of contraception is playing a role, yes, but there’s something else going on. Birth rates have fallen for all women since 2007, not just teenagers. I don’t think it’s coincidence (and neither does the CDC) that the teen birth rate plunged when we hit the worst recession since the Great Depression. If you look at historical birth rates, you’ll see a similar plunge in during the 1930′s. And that was long before almost the entirety of modern birth control, least of all free birth control.
I think that’s the story here. Colorado’s program was fortuitously timed in that regard and there is likely some synergy between the economic downturn and the IUD program (i.e., the program kicked in right when a bunch of women were more eager for birth control).
One of the difficult things about Mathematical Malpractice Watch is that I frequently end up attacking people I fundamentally agree with. I think Colorado should extend their IUD program (although I’m old enough to remember, in the 90′s, when Republican governors offering incentives for low-income women to use Norplant was denounced as eugenics). But the claim that it has produced a “huge” reduction in the teen birth rate is just not true.
Actually, there is a chance that the effect is 0%. Colorado had the sharpest reduction in teen pregnancy rates. It’s easy to go in, post facto, and identify a pet policy to pin it on while ignoring the thousand other factors occurring in fifty states. It’s called the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Colorado might just be a statistical outlier and we’re crediting a policy for that outlierness because we like the policy. Colorado’s barely two standard deviations from the mean. I think it’s likely the IUD fund had an effect, but I’d be pressed to prove it statistically.↩
How many non-citizens participate in U.S. elections? More than 14 percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote. Furthermore, some of these non-citizens voted. Our best guess, based upon extrapolations from the portion of the sample with a verified vote, is that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.
The authors go on to speculate that non-citizen voting could have been common enough to swing Al Franken’s 2008 election and possibly even North Carolina for Obama in 2008. Non-citizens vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
I do think there is a point here which is that non-citizens may be voting in our elections, which they are not supposed to do. Interestingly, photo ID — the current policy favored by Republicans — would do little to address this as most of the illegal voters had ID. The real solution … to all our voting problems … would be to create a national voter registration database that states could easily consult to verify someone’s identity, citizenship, residence and eligibility status. But this would be expensive, might not work and would very likely require a national ID card, which many people vehemently oppose.
The sample is very small: 21 non-citizens voting in 2008 and 8 in 2010. This is intriguing but hardly indicative. It could be a minor statistical blip. And there have been critiques that have pointed out that this is based on a … wait for it … web survey. So the results are highly suspect. It’s likely that fair number of these non-citizen voters are, in fact, non-correctly-filling-out-a-web-survey voters.
To their credit, the authors acknowledge this and say that while it is possible non-citizens swung the Franken Election (only 0.65% would have had to vote), speculating on other races is … well, speculation.
So far, so good.
The problem is how the blogosphere is reacting to it. Conservative sites are naturally jumping on this while liberals are talking about the small number statistics. But those liberal sites are happy to tout small numbers when it’s, say, a supposed rise in mass shootings.
In general, I lean toward to the conservatives on this. While I don’t think voter fraud is occurring on the massive scale they presume, I do think it’s more common than the single-digit or double-digit numbers liberals like to hawk. Those numbers are themselves based on small studies in environments where voter ID is not required. We know how many people have been caught. But assuming that represents the limit of the problem is like assuming the number of speeders on a highway is equal to the number of tickets that are given out. One of the oft-cited studies is from the President’s Commission on Election Administration, which was mostly concerned with expanding access, not tracking down fraud.
Here’s the thing. While I’m convinced the number of fraudulent votes is low, I note that, every time we discuss this, that number goes up. It used to be a handful. Now it’s a few dozen. This study hints it could be hundreds, possibly thousands. There are 11 million non-citizens living in this country (including my wife). What these researchers are indicating is that, nationally, their study could mean a many thousands of extra votes for Democrats. Again, their study is very small and likely subject to significant error (as all web surveys are). It’s also likely the errors bias high. But even if they have overestimated the non-citizen voting by a factor of a hundred, that still means a few thousands incidents of voter fraud. That’s getting to the point where this may be a concern, no?
Do I think this justifies policy change? I don’t think a web-survey of a few hundred people justifies anything. I do think this indicates the issue should be studied properly and not just dismissed out of hand because only a few dozen fake voters have actually been caught.
A couple of years ago, Mother Jones did a study of mass shootings which attempted to characterize these awful events. Some of their conclusions were robust — such as the finding that most mass shooters acquire their guns legally. However, their big finding — that mass shootings are on the rise — was highly suspect.
Recently, they doubled down on this, proclaiming that Harvard researchers have confirmed their analysis1. The researchers use an interval analysis to look at the time differences between mass shootings and claim that the recent run of short intervals proves that the mass shootings have tripled since 2011.2
Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with the article. But practically, there is: they have applied a sophisticated technique to suspect data. This technique does not remove the problems of the original dataset. If anything, it exacerbates them.
As I noted before, the principle problem with Mother Jones’ claim that mass shootings were increasing was the database. It had a small number of incidents and was based on media reports, not by taking a complete data set and paring it down to a consistent sample. Incidents were left out or included based on arbitrary criteria. As a result, there may be mass shootings missing from the data, especially in the pre-internet era. This would bias the results.
And that’s why the interval analysis is problematic. Interval analysis itself is useful. I’ve used it myself on variable stars. But there is one fundamental requirement: you have to have consistent data and you have to account for potential gaps in the data.
Let’s say, for example, that I use interval analysis on my car-manufacturing company to see if we’re slowing down in our production of cars. That’s a good way of figuring out any problems. But I have to account for the days when the plant is closed and no cars are being made. Another example: let’s say I’m measuring the intervals between brightness peaks of a variable star. It will work well … if I account for those times when the telescope isn’t pointed at the star.
Their interval analysis assumes that the data are complete. But I find that suspect given the way the data were collected and the huge gaps and massive dispersion of the early intervals. The early data are all over the place, with gaps as long as 500-800 days. Are we to believe that between 1984 and 1987, a time when violent crime was surging, that there was only one mass shooting? The more recent data are far more consistent with no gap greater than 200 days (and note how the data get really consistent when Mother Jones began tracking these events as they happened, rather than relying on archived media reports).
Note that they also compare this to the average of 172 days. This is the basis of their claim that the rate of mass shootings has “tripled”. But the distribution of gaps is very skewed with a long tail of long intervals. The median gap is 94 days. Using the median would reduce their slew of 14 straight below-average points to 11 below-median points. It would also mean that mass shootings have increased by only 50%. Since 1999, the median is 60 days (and the average 130). Using that would reduce their slew of 14 straight short intervals to four and mean that mass shootings have been basically flat.
The analysis I did two years ago was very simplistic — I looked at victims per year. That approach has its flaws but it has one big strength — it is less likely to be fooled by gaps in the data. Huge awful shootings dominate the number of victims and those are unlikely to have been missed in Mother Jones’ sample.
Here is what you should do if you want to do this study properly. Start with a uniform database of shootings such as those provided by law enforcement agencies. Then go through the incidents, one by one, to see which ones meet your criteria.
In Jesse Walker’s response to Mother Jones, in which he graciously quotes me at length, he notes that a study like this has been done:
The best alternative measurement that I’m aware of comes from Grant Duwe, a criminologist at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. His definition of mass public shootings does not make the various one-time exceptions and other jerry-riggings that Siegel criticizes in the Mother Jones list; he simply keeps track of mass shootings that took place in public and were not a byproduct of some other crime, such as a robbery. And rather than beginning with a search of news accounts, with all the gaps and distortions that entails, he starts with the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports to find out when and where mass killings happened, then looks for news reports to fill in the details. According to Duwe, the annual number of mass public shootings declined from 1999 to 2011, spiked in 2012, then regressed to the mean.
(Walker’s article is one of those “you really should read the whole thing” things.)
This doesn’t really change anything I said two year ago. In 2012, we had an awful spate of mass shootings. But you can’t draw the kind of conclusions Mother Jones wants to from rare and awful incidents. And it really doesn’t matter what analysis technique you use.
2. This is less alarming than it sounds. Even if we take their analysis at face value, we’re talking about six incidents a year instead of two for a total of about 30 extra deaths or about 0.2% of this country’s murder victims or about the same number of people that are crushed to death by their furniture. We’re also talking about two years of data and a dozen total incidents.↩
“The Cold Equations” is an expression I lifted from the short story of the same name. I have not read the story, so can not comment on its style. Frankly, the plot has always crossed me as a great idea but, when you think about it, a bit stupid. No one designs a spaceship with no margin for error.
But I like the expression because I think it is a good distillation of how problems usually need to be addressed: with less emotion and more cold facts.
There are many applications of the cold equations, but I want to focus on just one: issue advocacy. In recent weeks, two very prominent victims of sex trafficking have been revealed to be frauds. Their horrifying stories — which sex workers had been poking holes in for years — turned out to be mostly or completely made up. The organizations and people who trumpeted them are now backing away and claiming that while these stories might be problematic, the issue is important. That’s debatable but I’m not going to get into that for the moment.
What struck me was this review of how the principle purveyor of tragedy porn — Nick Kristof — has built so much of his career and his advocacy around these stories:
The disconnect inspired Kristof to delve into social science studies on the psychological roots of empathy, which led him to an emerging body of work based on what inspires people to donate to charity. In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is “desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.” Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the “identifiable-victim effect,” they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the “limits of rationality” in reporting on human suffering: “One death is a tragedy,” he told the students, “and a million deaths are a statistic.”
In other words, people won’t donate to causes because they hear a million people are dying. But they will if they see one cute little girl suffering. Kristof has therefore built a career on finding these cute victims to bring attention to things like genocide and human trafficking.
That sounds noble. But it isn’t. Because what happens is that attention, money, volunteers and even military intervention flow not to the most important causes but to those that have the most compelling victims. So enormous amounts of attention are given to human trafficking in Cambodia, a problem which now appears to have been massively exaggerated. In the meantime, far larger ills — the lack of access to clean water for billions, the crippling micronutrient deficiency that affects billions, the indoor pollution from burning wood and dung that harms billions — goes unaddressed. Because we have yet to have the photogenic victim with a horror story of how she pooped her guts out due to drinking contaminated water.
Looking for victims with compelling stories that goad your audience into emotional reaction is the wrong way to go about healing the troubles of the world. That’s where the cold equations comes in: we have to make decisions not based on emotion but on facts, data and reality.
I can’t find the article, but I remember reading a long time ago that one of the reasons the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has such a strong track record is because they carefully identify that most important causes and the ones were money can make the biggest difference. The author attributed this to Gates’ geekiness — i.e, he’s more comfortable with numbers and data than pulls on the heartstrings. Maybe that’s true; it seemed a stretch to me. But the overall thrust was correct: we need to pick our issues based on data, not sensationalism.
Look at overpopulation. Forty years ago, Paul Ehrlich started his book “The Population Bomb” with the harrowing story of a trip through Delhi and used a series of emotional appeals to call for mass sterilization and abandoning foreign aide. He got lots of attention but nothing happened. In the meantime, Norman Borlaug carefully looked at the problem and went with the unsexy non-photogenic option of breeding better strains of crops. In the end, Borlaug saved a billion lives. And Ehrlich is still a raging fool known for his hilariously bad predictions and even worse policy advocacy.
(Bjorn Lomborg has talked about this in the context of the Copenhagen Consensus, arguing that we would ameliorate a lot more human suffering by focusing on large more solvable environmental problems other than the current sexy of global warming.)
I don’t expect or want people to be robots. And sometimes emotional reactions are a good thing. The wave of people donating blood after 9/11 did little to help with the actual tragedy but it did help the Red Cross build up their donor base, providing a big long-term benefit. But emotion is in a haphazard guide to action at best. It’s not nearly as effective as using the cold equations. It’s worth noting that Kristof’s emotion-based advocacy, in the end, accomplished nothing in the Sudan and even less on sex trafficking. Imagine if that attention had gone to something useful, like cleaning up people’s drinking water.
In the end, you have to be guided by the cold equations. In the end, you have to look at the problems of the world objectively, figure out which ones give you the most benefit for the least effort and do them. That’s the only way real progress is made.
I recently discovered that I have been blocked on Twitter by LOLGOP. I’m going to guess it’s because of one of two tweets, since I’ve only tweeted at them twice.
Once was when they were slamming home-schooling. I replied:
.@LOLGOP Half the home schoolers I know are liberal hippy types. You have no idea what you’re babbling about.
The second was when they published an article detailing a bunch of lies about Obamacare. I deconstructed their claims here and posted:
A few of these “lies” from @LOLGOP aren’t. Obamcare unfavorability ratings almost always higher than approval. http://t.co/Jc9grz1Oo6
Neither of those crosses me as a blocking offense. The first one’s a bit snippy but not anything particularly egregious. But I did a bit of googling and found that LOLGOP tends to block quite, um, liberally.
My policy on blocking people on Twitter is that I don’t unless they are spammers. Granted, I only have about 250 followers right now. But I’ve gotten some feedback a lot harsher than what I wrote above and a couple of week ago, an anti-vax type wouldn’t shut up on the subject. But I’ve never blocked because of this. On one or two occasions, I actually followed someone because we got into a debate and they made some interesting points.
Twitter doesn’t tell you who has blocked you but I know Neal Boortz did, as I mentioned before, also for very lame tweets. I discovered this one because LOLGOP actually said something funny (it does happen, occasionally). Maybe someone with a big Twitter account is going to have to block more people or be deluged but I’m extremely dubious of that. I’ve tweeted harsher things to people with more followers than LOLGOP and haven’t been blocked.
Seems someone with a satirical Twitter account also has a thin skin.
Linkoramas are getting rarer these days mostly because I tweet most articles. But I will still be occasionally posting something more long-form.
My review of The Desolation of Smaug will necessarily be spoiler-y. To protect those who have not seen the movie yet, I will warn of the worst spoilers with bold text and put those sections in white text so you have to swipe to read (note this may not work in RSS. Hell, it may not work in HTML. One of my goals in life is learn the minimum amount of hypertext I have to).
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I was when I was younger and more impressionable. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned two immutable facts of life. First, people in power aren’t that bright. Oh, they can be book smart and even cunning. They can be crafty. But inevitably they are not smart enough to outwit everyone. The mad genius who outsmarts the world is a Hollywood creation. And even if he did exist, conspiracies involve a lot of people. The more people they involve, the more likely it is that they will involve someone stupid who blows the whole thing.
Second, human beings are defined by their inability to shut up. People are simply terrible at keeping secrets. They want to talk; they need to talk. So if a conspiracy actually existed, we’d have constant leaks and first-hand information. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely it would involve someone who just could not keep his trap shut. Think about how difficult it is to keep a surprise baby shower quiet; now imagine trying to keep people from talking about alien bodies at Roswell.
(The latter was partially informed by Dave Barry who said he knew the Roswell conspiracy was garbage because, were it true, we’d have constant leaks and Congressional arguments about whose district the dead alien storage facility would be built in.)
No. Cracked calls them “conspiracy theories that turned out to be true” but they were actually conspiracies that wound up being discovered. First hand evidence surfaced, people admitted what was done and no one really questions the conspiracies. But you will not find a conspiracy that was kept quiet for decades and cracked by some nut peering at photographs and spinning yarns. In each case, they were discovered either by devoted investigation that uncovered first-hand evidence or an admission by the parties involved.
So how do we know real conspiracy theories from bogus ones? When it comes to conspiracy theories, I evaluate them by three criteria. I’ll list them below and then illustrate them with some examples of conspiracy theories that are garbage (9/11 was an inside job, the moon landing was faked) and conspiracy theories that were actually true (Tuskegee experiments, the streetcar conspiracy). And in the end, I’ll apply these to the most common JFK conspiracy theories to show why I don’t believe them.
The One Tooth Fairy Rule: One of my professors at UVa used what he called the “One Tooth Fairy Rule” when it came to theoretical astrophysics. The idea was that a theory was allowed to have one aspect that was, at the moment, unexplained. It was allowed one ad-hoc “well, if you assume X, then our theory works”. But once you needed two tooth fairies, your theory could no longer be considered worthwhile. It might be an interesting speculation, but it wasn’t really a viable theory at that point.
As applied to conspiracy theories, this means that the theorists are allowed one “we can’t really explain X” but no more. Going beyond that means the theory isn’t worth thinking about. If you have numerous holes in your theory, that’s probably a sign that the theory is garbage.
What you quickly find is that almost all garbage conspiracy theories are a veritable Tooth Fairy convention. 9/11 conspiracy theorists, for example, have no real explanation for what happened to the hundreds of passengers on the planes that supposedly didn’t hit the Pentagon, they have no explanation for why remote-control planes were used in one attack and missiles in another, they have no explanation for the frantic phone calls from passengers on the planes. They make wild conjectures about these things, but you pretty much have to assume, for example, that passengers were disappeared with zero evidence to support it or dozens of phones calls were faked well enough to fool family members (or that all the family members were in on it).
The moon landing fails this test as well. They don’t really have an explanation of why NASA would go the trouble of building all the pieces of a moon shot without actually doing it. They have no explanation for the moon rocks that had different chemistry than Earth rocks. Oh, they have wild-eyed theories. But in the end, you just have to assume that NASA was just an ounce shy of a moon shot and faked the analysis of dozens of scientists who investigated the lunar rocks.
By contrast, the streetcar conspiracy and the the Tuskegee Experiment theory have no tooth fairies and never did even before they were proven. The first is a straight-forward conspiracy to buy up trolleys and trash them in favor of highways and buses. The streetcars were bought, the streetcars were trashed and the companies that did it turned out to be shells for automotive interests. Had you been hypothesizing about this before the government’s investigation, the only tooth fairy would have been the financial records.
As for Tuskegee, that is also a straight-forward. You had black men supposedly treated for “bad blood” dying of syphilis and they all saw the same group of doctors. The only tooth fairy was the actual medical records. And it was broken because one of the men who knew about it went public.
Basically, garbage conspiracy theories tend to be Rube Goldberg contraptions involving a lot of assumptions, a lot of bizarre decisions by the conspirators and a hosts of completely silent participants. This is because they are not built from the ground up by primary evidence but from snaking around the primary evidence to fit holes (or perceived holes) in the conventional explanation. By contrast, real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight-forward. Look at Cracked’s conspiracies that turned out to be real. All of them are straight-forward and simple. Contrast “we’re not going to give penicillin to black men and see what happens” or “we’re going to blow up Parliament” with the paragraph after paragraph needed to explain your typical Truther theory.
No Bullshit: A conspiracy theory can not have elements that are complete garbage. It is common for conspiracy theorists, when called on one piece of bullshit, to say, “well, yeah, but you can’t explain the rest of it!” Even though that is not usually true, the fact is that the conspiracy theory was rested on a foundation of lies and misunderstandings. Once you pull out one card, the rest collapse. Finding multiple pieces of bullshit in a conspiracy theory is an indicator that the theorists haven’t done their homework. It’s a sign that they have built their conspiracy from the top down (assume a conspiracy, look for evidence of it) than from the bottom up (gather evidence, find a conspiracy).
Truther conspiracy theory rests heavily on a series of falsehoods: false claims that plane debris was not found at the Pentagon, false claims that steel doesn’t warp at high temperatures, false claims that no plane was seen hitting the Pentagon. Moon hoaxers claim that movie props are labelled with letters, that flags flutter, that stars should be seen on the moon. These are easily verifiable claims that are easily proven to be false. A theory can’t possibly be considered reasonable if multiple elements of it are completely bogus. And they indicate a casual disregard for systematic approaches to information as opposed to simply grasping at straws.
By contrast, nothing in the Tuskegee Experiments contradicts known science or facts. People get syphilis. The symptoms can be a bit unclear. It can go untreated and be spread or kill people. Black men were treated by Tuskegee doctors and they actually died. The theory was never implausible nor contained any implausible elements. The same thing is true of the streetcar conspiracy: trolleys were bought up, trolleys were destroyed and highways were built. Even before the clinching proof was found, nothing in the conspiracy theory was a lie.
Again, real conspiracies tend to be straight forward involving a small set of easily testable facts. Bogus ones tend to be complex involving a host of often incorrect assumptions. The evidence of a real conspiracy is like a house made of stone, built brick by brick with irrefutable evidence; the evidence for a bogus one like a house made out of cards, laid delicately once against the other.
Some Positive Evidence: To be reasonable, a conspiracy theory has to have some positive evidence that distinguishes it from conventional explanations. In other words, it must falsify the non-conspiracy explanations. This can not be speculation. It has to have some piece of evidence that supports that theory and only that theory. Nor can it be based on taking the same evidence and simply re-interpreting it in a counter-intuitive way.
What original evidence to the Truthers present that isn’t complete garbage? What facts do they dig out that distinguish it from the conventional explanation? For moon hoaxers, what original evidence do they produce that isn’t garbage?
Tuskegee had positive evidence — a series of black men who had been signed up for a treatment of “bad blood” and had died of syphilis or its complications. The trolley conspiracy had streetcars purchased by new companies and immediately junked. These facts were primary evidence that supported the idea of a conspiracy and belied claims that nothing funny was going on.
You’ll notice that my criteria are heavily influence by my background in science: theories of any type need to be consistent, simple and, above all, testable. Real conspiracies meet these criteria; crackpot ones don’t come close.
That brings us around to today’s 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Polls show that most people do not believe that Oswald acted alone. So conspiracy theories about this straight-forward murder abound.
The first type are the Grand Conspiracy Theories — that JFK was killed by his own government, the mafia, the Freemasons, whatever, in an ambush by multiple shooters. We should be immediately suspicious of such theories because they are not built from the ground up by primary evidence. They snake around supposed “holes” in the single-shooter theory.
These Grand Theories easily flunk the conspiracy test. You can look for some detail here. They involve numerous tooth fairies — extra shooters that were never seen, a conspiracy of silence involving hundreds of people, including the dozens needed to create Oswald’s “fake” background. They involve tons and tons of bullshit: the “magic bullet” which wasn’t magic at all, the jerking of his head toward the shot. And they present no positive evidence: no original discovery ignored by the initial investigators that proves their theory and no other.
A subset of this propounded by a number of people, including some I have a lot of respect for like Bill James, is that Oswald tried to kill the President but the fatal shot was actually delivered by Secret Service agent George Hickey, who stumbled while reacting to the shots and accidentally discharge his AR-15, killing the President.
This conspiracy sounds reasonable until you realize that it is just Grand Conspiracy Lite. It still involves a massive cover-up involving dozens if not hundreds of people. It still violates my rules above, many of which are covered in this debunking. It has tooth fairies — the spectacularly unlikely one in a million accidental shot itself, the conspiracy of silence from the Secret Service and any direct evidence that Hickey even fired his weapon. It fails the bullshit test because it relies heavily on conjectures about bullet trajectories and misinformation about bullet wound sizes. And it fails the no positive evidence test. The bullet-hole is not inconsistent with Oswald’s rifle and the trajectory only fingers Hickey with certain assumptions. There is no record of a missing bullet, no record of a discharged firearm, no witnesses that ever claimed that a shot came from the Secret Service detail. What you have is the image of a stumbling agent, the difficulty of Oswald’s shot and highly conjectural speculation about bullet trajectories.
Howard Donahue came up with this theory because of the difficulty marksmen had in recreating Oswald’s shot (although other have found it not so difficult). But he ignores the difficult of recreating Hickey’s one-in-a-million shot. Which is more likely? That Oswald got “lucky” and hit the target he was aiming at on the third try? Or that Hickey had the most spectacularly unlucky firearm accident ever?
Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “I am Scottish, and put sugar on my porridge.”
Person A: “Then you are not a true Scotsman.”
I first encountered the No True Scotsman fallacy when I was in college. This was in the early 90′s, right after the collapse of communism. Most people accepted that 70 years of failure had disproved communist ideology. But a few holdout professors insisted that the Soviet Union didn’t really practice communism … real communism had never been tried.
It’s a tempting argument because it allows people to maintain allegiance to a dogma while ignoring its problems. And it is more pervasive than you think. The War on Drugs is an extension of the NTS fallacy because its defenders will always tell you that it hasn’t succeeded only because we haven’t tried hard enough. We haven’t had a true War on Drugs. Problems in public education … or any public program for that matter … are always attributed to underfunding (“we haven’t really funded our public education system”). And Republican stalwarts insist that they haven’t won an election recently because they aren’t nominating “real conservatives” for President.
It is also tempting because it allows soi-disant movement “leaders” to apply ideological purity tests to their own causes and purge views that they don’t like. It allows them to stifle debate on subject that sometimes need it. So “no true conservative” believes in raising taxes. “No true liberal” believes in restricting abortion. “No true libertarian” supports the War on Terror.
The thing is that the No True Scotsman Fallacy, like most fallacies, is a twisted version of a legitimate argument. That argument is, to extend the metaphor, “don’t tell me what Scotsmen are like”. Or, if you prefer, “don’t pretend that Welshman is actually a Scotsman”.
The metaphor is getting away from me, isn’t it? Let’s be more detailed.
People often apply completely inappropriate labels to views they don’t like. As a libertarian-conservative, I find that the libertarian movement is one of the most common victims of these attacks because, to lazy commentators, libertarianism is defined as “whatever it is I don’t like”. Here, for example, a Guardian writer tries to describe the UK Independence Party as “libertarian” despite their anti-immigrant, anti-gay and pro-police stances. These are stances that few knowledgable people would ascribe to the libertarian movement in this country, which specifically calls for ending the War on Drugs, not jailing people for nonviolent crime, open borders and marriage freedom. Last month, the government shutdown was blamed on libertarianism. To be fair, some libertarians supported it. But the chief architect of the shutdown — Ted Cruz — is not a libertarian and would not describe himself as one, being a staunch culture conservative and supporter of the surveillance state.
Balloon Juice has frequently been one of the worst at ascribing bizarre views to libertarians, hilariously bashing Libertarians for ignoring the problems of mass incarceration while Reason was running a full issue on the subject (in fact, libertarians and some conservatives are pretty much the only ones talking about the problems of mass incarceration). Salon has now taken up the hardcore anti-libertarian meme, recently describing libertarianism as
a right-wing political party that opposes all gun control laws and public healthcare, supported the government shutdown, dismisses public education, opposes organized labor, favors the end of Social Security as we know it, and argues in its formal political manifesto that “we should eliminate the entire social welfare system” while supporting “unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.
Libertarianism is a broad movement. But that description is a cartoon version that isn’t even close to what most libertarians believe. Many support some gun control laws, many opposed the shutdown, most oppose the public education monopoly not the existence of public schools. Libertarians don’t oppose unions; they oppose the political empowerment that has left governments hundreds of billions in debt. Unrestricted competition among banks mainly means ending bailouts and special dispensations (and many think unrestricted competition may mean breaking up the big banks). And there are many libertarians — including me — who do not oppose the existence of basic social safety net. In fact, many libertarians — most notably Milton Friedman — support replacing the existing welfare system with a negative income tax or guaranteed basic income. The highly successful welfare reform and EITC of the Clinton Era came from these ideas.
We’re not the only victims of this, of course. It has unfortunately become de rigueur in political discourse to take the most extreme views of a movement (or the most extreme views one feels they can lump into a movement) and claim they represent the whole. So when Todd Akin says something stupid about rape, that represents the secret views of a hundred million conservatives. If Rick Santorum opposes birth control, that means all conservatives do. If Cynthia McKinney or Van Jones is a truther, that means a hundred million liberals think Bush conspired to create 9/11. And if you disagree with this assessment and point out that these guys don’t represent the bulk of the movement, “No True Scotsman” is trotted out.
One of the most common subjects about which I get into this is … wait for it … climate change. My feeling is that, while we can debate our response to global warming, conservatives should not pretend that AGW is a hoax. Conservatism is rooted in prudence and basic prudence says we should address a potential global problem even if we’re not 100% sure it’s real. But I’m frequently told that “no true conservative” would believe in climate change because of Algore or Climategate. This, of course, reflects a deeper problem in the conservative movement which is splitting between conservatism — defined as a prudent suspicion of powerful government — and radicalism — defined as an intense opposition to almost all government. This became very visible during the recent shutdown as conservatives called for the shutdown to end while the radicals wanted to keep it going (keep in mind that I don’t regard “radical” as a slur; our Founders were pretty damned radical).
In any case, when one tries to defend a movement from the more marginal views incorrectly attributed to it, the NTS fallacy is frequently thrown down. In short, the “no true Scotsman” fallacy is in danger of becoming a duck blind for making inaccurate ad hominem attacks on political philosophies. It is itself becoming a fallacy.
My professors were wrong about communism. They were not wrong because of the NTS Fallacy. They were wrong because the Communist countries did pursue the policies advocated by Marx and Lenin. They were wrong because Communism did require Gulags and thought control, as Lenin stated. They were wrong because George Orwell — himself a socialist — recognized Communism for what it was and warned us about what it was and what it would do. They were wrong because the policies they were advocating were those that had been pursued in communist countries. And they were wrong because many of them either ignored or sugarcoated the horrific abuses of the Communists (and many still do).
There are Republicans who oppose legal birth control. This does not reflect the majority of the conservative movement. Not because “no true conservative” opposes birth control but because almost all Americans, including vast majorities of conservatives, believe that birth control should be legal. There are libertarians who supported the War on Terror or restrictive immigration laws (Neal Boortz, in particular). But most do not and only a few subscribe to anything close to the racial views promulgated by such as Lew Rockwell.
Politics needs to be about ideas, not identity. To return to my opening quote: who cares if “no true Scotsman” put sugar in his porridge? What matter is if sugar in porridge is a good idea (note: it is). What matters is that people stop dismissing the ideas of Scotsmen because one happens to put anchovies in his porridge.