Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Cold Equations

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

“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.

Blocked by LOLGOP

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

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.

The Return of Linkorama

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Linkoramas are getting rarer these days mostly because I tweet most articles. But I will still be occasionally posting something more long-form.

To wit:

  • A fascinating article about how Vermeer used a camera obscura to enable his paintings. Yet another example about how people were pretty damn clever in the supposedly unenlightened past.
  • This is a couple of months late, but someone posted up Truman Capote’s christmas story. The recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this little gem.
  • This is the second and by far the largest study yet to show that routine mammography is basically a gigantic waste of money, being just as likely to precipitate unnecessary treatment as to discover a tumor that a breast exam wouldn’t. Do you think our “evidence-based” government will embrace this? No way. They already mandated mammogram coverage when the first study showed it to be a waste.
  • I don’t know even know if this counts as mathematical malpractice. There’s no math at all. It’s just “Marijuana! RUN!”. Simply appalling reporting by the MSM.
  • This on the other hand, does count as mathematical malpractice. The gun control advocates are hyping a Missouri study that shows a rise in murder rate after a change in the gun control laws. However, in doing so they are ignoring data from 17 other states, data on all other forms of violent crime and data from Missouri that showed a steep rise in the murder rate before the laws were changed. They are picking a tiny slice of data to make a huge claim. Disgraceful. And completely expected from the gun-grabbers.
  • I love color photos from history. Just love them.
  • This is old but worth reposting: one of the biggest feminists texts out there is loaded with garbage data, easily checked facts that are completely wrong. This was a big reason I distanced myself from third-wave feminism in college: it had been taken over by crackpots who would believe any statistic as long as it was bad. In college, we were told that one in three women are raped (they aren’t) that abuse is the leading cause of admission to ER’s (it isn’t), that violence erupts very Superbowl (it doesn’t). I even had one radical tell me — with no apparent self-awareness, that murder was the second leading cause of death among women (it’s not even close). As I seem to say about everything: reality is bad enough; we don’t need to invent stuff.
  • Hobbit II: The Desolation of Editing

    Saturday, December 28th, 2013

    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).

    (more…)

    JFK and Conspiracy Theories

    Friday, November 22nd, 2013

    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 kept 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.)

    But conspiracies actually do exist, sometimes. Cracked has run two articles on real-life conspiracies. So there could be something to all this conspiracy mongering, right?

    Right?

    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 possible 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 the Tuskegee Theory 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. Not speculation, not re-interpretation. It has to have some piece of evidence that supports that theory and only that theory. It can not 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?

    The No True Scotsman Fallacy Fallacy

    Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

    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.

    Halloween Linkorama

    Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

    Three stories today:

  • Bill James once said that, when politics is functioning well, elections should have razor thin margins. The reason is that the parties will align themselves to best exploit divisions in the electorate. If one party is only getting 40% of the vote, they will quickly re-align to get higher vote totals. The other party will respond and they will reach a natural equilibrium near 50% I think that is the missing key to understanding why so many governments are divided. The Information Age has not only given political parties more information to align themselves with the electorate, it has made the electorate more responsive. The South was utterly loyal the Democrats for 120 years. Nowadays, that kind of political loyalty is fading.
  • I love this piece about how an accepted piece of sociology turned out to be complete gobbledygook.
  • Speaking of gobbledygook, here is a review of the article about men ogling women. It sounds like the authors misquoted their own study.
  • Mathematical Questions: Guns Yet Again

    Monday, October 28th, 2013

    I’m not going to call this mathematical malpractice because I don’t think it’s been reviewed or published yet. But the way the study is quoted in the press makes me highly dubious of its conclusions:

    There are approximately 7,500 child hospitalizations and 500 in-hospital deaths each year due to injuries sustained from guns. In an abstract presented Oct. 27 at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, researchers also identified a link between the percentage of homes with guns and the prevalence of child gunshot injuries.

    In “United States Gunshot Violence—Disturbing Trends,” researchers reviewed statistics from the Kids’ Inpatient Database (KID) from 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 (for a total of 36 million pediatric hospital admissions), and estimated state household gun ownership using the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data (2004).

    The study found that approximately 7,500 children are admitted to the hospital for the treatment of injuries sustained from guns each year, and more than 500 children die during hospital admission from these injuries. Between 1997 and 2009, hospitalizations from gunshot wounds increased from 4,270 to 7,730, and in-hospital deaths from 317 to 503.

    Several things that raise alarm bells:

  • The study is of five very specific years rather than of all twelve years.
  • The study using the KID database for hospitalizations. Looking over the details of this database shows that these five years are the only years in the database (which is apparently compiled every three years). However, the number of participating hospitals has increased over time. This could induce a variety of biases, not all of which are obvious. It could also be biased by an increasing tendency to hospitalize gunshot victims. It could also be biased because KID, after 1997, uses a larger age range, adding 18- and 19-year olds who are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity. I’d have to see the paper to see how they have accounted for these. I suspect the biases are very strong compared to the overall signal and the reliability of the result is critically dependent on how they account for the biases.
  • The press release does not specify an age range but KID tracks patients up to age 18 (in 1997) and age 20 (from 2000 on). This isn’t exactly what people think of with “kids” and this age range has been used before to inflate the number of kids who are victims of gun violence.
  • The trend of massively increasing violence is the complete opposite of what every study of criminal violence is showing. Murder is down, assault is down, gun violence is down down down according to crime states, FBI stats and victim surveys.
  • I’m not here to slander anyone’s work. They may already have addressed the points I raise above. My read is that this is an abstract, not a refereed paper. So all I can do is point out the obvious pitfalls that might be causing this abstract to contradict everything else we know about violent crime. The gun control side, as I have documented on this blog, has a history of twisting the stats, sometimes unintentionally. And the media have a tendency to exaggerate the results of tentative early studies when it suits their narrative.

    (The gun control side also has a history of outright fraud but I am very dubious that any fraud is occurring here because it would be too easy to check. They are using a public database, not proprietary data.)

    There’s also the Scientific Peter Principle to consider here. If you hear of a study with startling results, it is most likely to be erroneous. That goes doubly so for unrefereed abstracts presented at conferences. The reason is that errors and biases almost always give you unexpected results. For veteran scientists, that’s often how you spot biases but even the best scientists can be fooled. That this study indicates a massive increase in violence at a time when every other study indicates that violence is falling (as is gun ownership) causes me to be concerned that something is wrong.

    Two things I would place small bets on. Within a few months, this study will be shown to be flawed in some way and its conclusions toned down. And for the next ten years, the initial abstract will be quoted by gun control advocates as proof of their position (e.g., the selective quoting of Mother Jones).

    Mathematical Malpractice: Food Stamps

    Sunday, October 6th, 2013

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call out my favorite website again.

    One of the things that drives budget hawks nuts is baseline spending. In baseline spending, government program X is projected to grow in the future and any slice of that growth that is removed by budget-cutters is called a “cut” even though it really isn’t.

    Let’s say you have a government program that pays people to think about how wonderful our government is. Call it the Positing Thinking Initiative and fund it at $1 billion. Future spending for PTI will be projected to grow a few percent a year for cost of living, a few percent for increase utilization, etc. so that, in FY 2014, it’s a $1.2 billion program. And by FY2023, it’s a $6 billion program.

    Congress will then “cut” the funding a little bit so that, by FY2023 it’s “only” a $4 billion program. They’ll then claim a few billion in spending cuts and go off for tea and medals.

    This drives budget hawks nuts because it changes the language. It makes spending increases into spending “cuts” and makes actual spending cuts (or just level spending) into “savage brutal cuts”. This one of the reasons the sequester drew as much opposition as opponents thought it would. The sequester actually did cut spending for programs but everyone was so used to the distorted language of Washington that they couldn’t distinguish a real cut from a faux cut.

    So I can understand where Ira Stoll is coming from when he claims that the cuts to the food stamp program aren’t actually cuts. The problem is that he’s not comparing apples to apples:

    The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House bill would spend $725 billion on food stamps over the years 2014 to 2023. The Department of Agriculture’s web site offers a summary of spending on the program that reports spending totaling $461.7 billion over the years 2003 to 2012, a period that included a dramatic economic downturn.

    This is a great example of how and why it is so difficult to cut government spending, and how warped the debate over spending has become. The Republicans want to increase food stamp spending 57 percent. The Democrats had previously planned to increase it by 65 percent (to $764 billion over 10 years instead of the $725 billion in the Republican bill), so they depict the Republicans as “meanspirited class warriors” seeking “deep cuts.”

    Stoll acknowledges the economic downturn but ignores that the time period he’s talking about includes five years of non-downturn time. Food stamp spending tracks unemployment; the economy is the biggest reason food stamp spending has exploded in recent years. So this isn’t really a spending “hike” so much as the CBO estimating that unemployment will be a bigger problem in the next decade than it was in the last one.

    Here is the CBOs report. Pay particular attention to Figure 2, which clearly shows that food stamp spending will decline every year for the next decade (a little more sharply in inflation-adjusted terms). It will be a very long time before it is back to pre-recessionary levels, but it is, in fact, declining, even in nominal dollars. This isn’t a baseline trick; this is an actual decline.

    Spending (mostly for benefits and administrative costs) on SNAP in 2022 will be about $73 billion, CBO projects. In inflation-adjusted dollars, spending in 2022 is projected to be about 23 percent less than it was in 2011 but still about 60 percent higher than it was in 2007.

    In fact, long-term projections of food stamp spending are very problematic since they depend heavily on the state of the economy. If the economy is better than the CBO anticipates, food stamp spending could be down to pre-recession levels by the end of the decade.

    So with a program like food stamps, you really can’t play with decade-long projections like Stoll. That’s mathematical malpractice: comparing two completely different sets of budgets. CBO does decade-long projections because they are obligated to. But the only thing you can really judge is year-to-year spending.

    Food stamp spending in FY2012 was $78 billion. FY2014 spending, under the Republican bill, will be lower than that (how much lower is difficult to pin down).

    That’s a cut, not an increase. Even by Washington standards.

    August Linkorama

    Thursday, August 8th, 2013

    Time to clear out a few things I don’t have time to write lengthy posts about.

  • I’m tickled that Netflix garnered Emmy nominations. Notice that none of the nominated dramas are from the major networks. Their reign of terror is ending.
  • This look at Stand Your Ground laws look state by state to see if murder rates went up. I find this far more convincing than the confusing principle component analysis being cited. Also, check out this analysis of the complicated relationship these laws have with race.
  • Speaking of guns, we have yet another case of Mathematical Malpractice. Business Insider claims California’s gun laws have dramatically dropped the rate of gun violence. But their lead graphic shows California’s rate of gun violence has fallen … about as much as the rest of the country’s.
  • Mother Jones Doesn’t Know Data

    Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

    You know, you could probably cut out a career in responding to Mother Jones twisting and distorting of data from gun deaths. Today has another wonderful example. Hopping on the rather hysterical claim that gun deaths are close to exceeding traffic deaths, they look at it at a state by state level and conclude that “It’s little surprise that many of these states—including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Utah, and Virginia—are notorious for lax gun laws.”

    Look at the map. Then look at this one which shows the Brady Campaign’s scorecard for state laws on guns. The states were gun deaths exceed traffic deaths are Alaska (Bradley score 0), Washington (48), Oregon (38), California (81!!), Nevada (5), Utah (0), Arizona (0), Colorado (15), Missouri (4), Illinois (35), Louisiana (2), Michigan (25), Ohio (7) and Virginia (12). Of the 14 states, half have Brady scores over 12 and California has the most restrictive gun laws in the nation.

    Going by rate of gun ownership, the states are Alaska (3rd highest gun ownership rate in nation), Washington (33), Oregon (28), California (44), Nevada (38), Utah (16), Arizona (32), Colorado (36), Missouri (15), Illinois (43), Louisiana (13), Michigan (27), Ohio (37) and Virginia (35). In other words, the states where traffic deaths exceed gun death are just as likely to have a low gun ownership rate as a high one.

    Oops.

    Moreover, the entire “guns are killing more than cars” meme is garbage to begin with. Gun deaths, as I have said in every single post on this subject, have fallen over the last twenty years. The thing is that traffic deaths have fallen even faster. The gun grabbers might have had a point back in 1991, when we had a spike in gun deaths that caused them to almost exceed traffic deaths. But they don’t now because both rates are down, way down. Traffic fatalities, in particular, plunged dramatically in the mid-00′s.

    A real analysis of the data would look at both factors to see if better drunk driving laws or seatbelt laws or whatever are also playing a factor here. But Mother Jones isn’t interested in that (for the moment). What they are interested in is stoking panic about guns.

    (Notice also that MJ illustrates their graph with a picture of an assault rifle, even though these are responsibly for a tiny number of gun deaths.)

    The Worst of the Oscars: 1978-2012

    Saturday, July 13th, 2013

    One of the things that happens from this point forward is that action movies and cult movies begin to take over the IMDB ratings. We also, by the 90′s, begin to run into IMDB’s bias toward recent films. So the comparison of Academy to IMDB becomes steadily less useful.

    IMDB’s temporal bias is the result, in my opinion, of fanboys and excited audiences wildly over-rating pictures right when they see them and then not going back to revisit their ratings. There’s a sort of “observer effect” in films since the late 90′s where IMDB itself has become part of the process. So people, in the moment, think “Best. Movie. Ever!” rush over to IMDB and rate it a 10. Five years later, they’d probably rate it an 8.

    IMDB ratings have a predictable rhythm. New movies shoot up to the top, sometimes to #1, based on early fanboy ratings and deliberate attempt to raise the rating. Then they slowly sink down to Earth as general audiences catch up. I don’t think they are as bad as critics say nor are as manipulated as snobby websites like to pretend. But they do have issues.

    At some point, IMDB is going to have to tweak their formula to downweight votes that were cast (1) for movies that debuted since IMDB was inaugurated, and (2) in the immediate months after a movie was released. I think this would remove a lot of the bias, at least for anything less than ten years old.

    (more…)

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Et Tu, Reason?

    Sunday, June 30th, 2013

    Oh, no, not you, Best Magazine on the Planet:

    The growth of federal regulations over the past six decades has cut U.S. economic growth by an average of 2 percentage points per year, according to a new study in the Journal of Economic Growth. As a result, the average American household receives about $277,000 less annually than it would have gotten in the absence of six decades of accumulated regulations—a median household income of $330,000 instead of the $53,000 we get now.

    You know, I hate it when people play games with numbers and I won’t put up with it from my side. I agree with Reason’s general point that we are over-regulated and badly regulated and that it is hurting our economy. Even the most conservative estimates indicate that bad regulation is sucking hundreds of billions out of the economy — and that’s accounting for the positive effects of regulation.

    But the claim that we would be four times richer if it weren’t for regulation is garbage. As Bailey notes in the article, the growth in the US economy over the last half century has been about 3.2 percent. Without regulation, according to this study, it would have been 5.2, which is far higher than the US has ever had over any extended period of time, even before the progressive era. And because that wild over-estimate is exponential, it results in an economy that would be four times what we have now; four times what any large country would have now. The hypothetical US would be as wealthy, relative the real US, as the real US is to Serbia. Does anyone really think that without regulation we would be producing four times as much goods and services?

    Even if we assume that we could produce an ideally regulated society, regulation is not the only limit on the economy. Other factors — birth rate, immigration, war, business cycles, education, technological progress, social unrest and the economic success of other countries — play a factor. A perfectly regulated society would most likely move from a position where its growth was limited by regulation to a position where its growth was limited by other factors (assuming this is not already the case)

    The paper is very long and complicated so I can’t dissect where their economic model goes wrong. But I will point out that no country in history, including the United States, has ever had half a century of 5% economic growth. Even countries with far less regulation and far more economic freedom than we have do not show the kind of explosive growth they project. In the absence of any real-life example showing that regulatory restraint can produce this kind of growth, we can’t accept numbers that are so ridiculous.

    Other studies, as Reason notes, estimate the impact of regulation as being something like 10-20% of our economy. That would require that regulation knock down our economic growth by 0.3% per year, which seems much more reasonable.

    (H/T: Maggie McNeill, although she might not like where I went with this one.)

    Saturday Linkorama

    Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
  • This visualization of the Right of Spring is seriously seriously cool. Seeing the music like that, you start hearing the subtleties that elude you when you just hear it. This is one of the reasons I like to see classical music in performance. There is so much more going on than the ear can take in.
  • This map of linguistic divides in the United States, is something I could spend an entire post on. I match most of the pronunciations from Georgia except for “lawyer” and “pajamas”.
  • This story, about charities that just exist to raise money, should be getting national attention. It’s a disgrace.
  • I’ve used some of these.
  • Roman concrete was apparently better than the shit we’re using.
  • I think this is more or less true: the financial industry has stopped being about enabling economic progress and more about itself. When engineers can make more moving piles of money around than inventing things, we’ve got a problem.
  • Teenage boys killed the sex scene.