Archive for the 'Politics' category

Does your vote count?

Nov 06 2012 Published by under Culture, Politics, Rant

This being election day, you're seeing a lot of people telling you to get out and vote, saying that if you think your vote doesn't count you're abdicating democracy, reminding you how many people who died so that you could vote, etc.

I have to admit I find these exhortations both facile and manipulative. If we're talking about the presidential election, sure, you can make an argument that "every vote counts". That argument is not really practical, however, because of the electoral college. Every vote for president counts only in a small number of battleground states. I used to live in California; everybody knows that California is going to go to Obama. The Obama and Romney campaigns certainly know it; how much time and effort did they spend trying to sway California voters? Now, strictly speaking, if everybody who would vote for Obama figured it didn't matter and as a result didn't vote, then, yes, Romney could pull out a surprise win. But, while that's a theoretical possibility, let's be realistic here about how likely that is. It's not going to happen. As a result, if you tell somebody in California that their vote for the president really matters, you come across looking either naive, or manipulative.

So should you vote anyway? Yes. Two reasons.

First, to stay in practice. The USA's current system of elections is horribly corrupt. Jimmy Carter has spent a lot of time overseeing elections in other countries, and he says that about our elections. Also, check out, a website related to Lawrence Lessig's book Republic Lost. It's easy to become cynical, to realize that everybody running for any office is dancing to the tune of large campaign donors, and to give up and not bother voting. However, you must vote, both because there are differences between candidates, and because you need to stay in practice, and we need to keep voting as "a thing" that we do in the USA, in hopes that we do manage to fix the corrupt system.

The second reason is: there are elections other than president. If you live in California, no, it doesn't matter who you vote for for president; Obama's going to get your electoral college votes, whether you like it or not. However, there are congressional districts whose representatives are not a foregone conclusion. And, in many states, the Senate seats may well not be a foregone conclusion. Congress matters. You need to vote there. Additionally, there are going to be state and local elections that matter. You need to vote there. With all of these other things, there isn't an electoral college making your votes irrelevant; in these other races, every vote does matter.

So, yes, get out and vote. But, please, let's stop pretending that every individual vote for president matters, because that's simply not the reality of the situation.

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Value Freedom of Speech? Donate to Wikipedia

Just in case you haven't been on the Internet in the last month, SOPA and PIPA are two laws that were working their way through the US legislature that would have brought sweeping powers to pretty much anybody to block sites on the Internet that they asserted were guilty of copyright infringement. These laws would have made the US into an Internet censorship regime that— even according to the backers of the law!— would be on par with Syria or China. You can read more about SOPA and PIPA here at the EFF and here at Wikipedia. They are now on hold (but, sadly, not dead), and the lion's share of the credit for that belongs to Wikipedia. If you care about this (and as somebody currently reading something on the Internet not produced under the aegis of a large media company, you really should!), you should consider donating to Wikipedia. Some may credit Google with part of getting this message across to Congress, and doubtless Google deserves some credit. However, it was Wikipedia that went fully dark, and it was immediately after that event on Jan. 18 that Congress stepped back. What's more, Google is doing just fine; they have a gigantic revenue from their advertising business. Wikipedia is much more dependent on donations. After you're done donating to Wikipedia, also consider donating to The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I just donated $100 myself. That's not very much. Indeed, I'm sure that I have received a lot more than $100 worth of value out of Wikipedia in the last decade. But, every little bit counts.

Defenders of SOPA and PIPA say that fears of the law have been overblown. However, if misinformation about the law has been spread, it's by the backers themselves. Their claims of "lost American jobs" have not been supported, and there is evidence that they overestimate the "lost revenue" to piracy by at least an order of magnitude. What's more, while the backers disingenuously state that the laws are directed against "rogue foreign websites" and not against legitimate US users of the Internet, already we see copyright laws routinely abused to take down legitimate content on the web— if not through the full mechanism of the law, through the threat of legal action. See the repository of information at for huge numbers of stories about this. It would be absurd to believe that tools like SOPA and PIPA, which would make this kind of squelching of the expression of soembody you don't like that much easier, would not only be abused more. For those who argue that intellectual property needs stronger protections: right now there is indeed an imbalance between laws that allow for copyright enforcement and freedom of expression, and that imbalance does not favor freedom of expression!

People like me were howling (well, tweeting, with the occasional signed petition or letter to a legislator) in rage about SOPA and PIPA at the end of last year, but Congress was by and large ignoring it. They had their Hollywood lobbyists telling them that it was all necessary... whether that was necessary for the "survival of American competitiveness", or whether it was just necessary for the re-election of legislators is not clear. Certainly the latter; in public they said the former, but my cynicism grows every day. (Indeed, very recently the head of the MPAA more or less admitted in public that he expects lawmakers to provide him with legislation he demands in exchange for his organization's campaign donations.) Indeed, Congress celebrated their ignorance about the Internet and completely refused to pay any attention to Internet experts telling them about the technical and security problems that SOPA and PIPA would bring. (Never mind fundamental issues of freedom of expression... which somehow doesn't seem to be a legitimate thing to bring up in the face of concerns about "jobs", "the economy", or "terrorism" any more.) I believe that the perception in Congress was that most of the public weren't really all that aware of copyright issues, and didn't care that much; indeed, they said that it was a "vocal minority" arguing against it. They evidently believed that just giving Big Media the laws that they wanted was a great way to secure a source of campaign funding without doing something that might torque off the general public. ("Oops!")

It was only after great public outcry, spurred on by the Wikipedia blackout (and several other sites) on January 18, that Congress woke up and changed its tune. It's ironic that the MPAA has accused Wikipedia of "abusing its power". Evidently Wikipedia is supposed to purchase legislation directly, the way that the MPAA does. Informing the public of what's going on so that they will realize that if they care at all about freedom, they need to make their voice heard, is somehow an abuse of power. If that's not an indication that large congressional campaign donors have completely warped the standard process of how laws are made in the USA, I don't know what is. (To read more about how bad the routine corruption in the USA is as a result of large campaign contributors having primary access to lawmakers, and the pipeline of legislators and their staffers getting cushy lobbying jobs after helping organizations get the laws they want, check out the Rootstrikers website. Also, although I have not read this yet myself, it's probably worth reading Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost.)

Donate to Wikipedia. Better, remember that SOPA and PIPA have just slowed down, not stopped. It's going to take vigilance to prevent them from passing later. It's likely that next time Congress and Big Content try to get them through, they'll do it in a more stealthy manner. It may well be attached to a routine appropriations bill, much as the reprehensible "infinite detention" clause was recently attached to a routine defense appropriations bill (passed by Congress and signed by the President). The fight is far from over, even if we came out ahead in the latest skirmish.

Indeed, next time you're about to buy a big-studio Hollywood DVD or go to a big-studio Hollywood movie, pause and think. Realize that the myopic leadership of the MPAA (the same group that decades ago fought tooth and nail against the VCR, fighting against their own interests as they would profit greatly from the new market that home video players would bring) is going to keep trying to push draconian laws limiting freedom of speech on the Internet in the name of "protecting intellectual property". Ask yourself if the value you will get out of that DVD or watching that movie really is worth more than the value you get out of Wikipedia. Ask yourself if you want to indirectly support an organization that is fighting to maintain a 20th century model where broadcast expression was practically subject to a small number of gatekeepers (only then it was practically, and now it would be legally), or if you would rather directly support an organization that has made an amazing (if imperfect) crowd-sourced knowledge repository available to the world for fully free access (in every sense of the word "free"). Then, consider not buying the DVD or going to the movie, and instead donating the money to Wikipedia.

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Pike vs. Pike : my contribution to the "Casual Pepper Spraying Cop" meme

The original story that goes with the casual pepper-spraying cop meme is really pretty horrifying. The Internet being what it is, though, it has become a fest of image manipulation (what many people call "photoshopping", but it is no more than than photocopying is xeroxing). Casual disregard for students who were the subject of unwarranted police brutality? Or biting social commentary pointing out the incongruity of students sitting and flinching while a completely unthreatened cop strolls by and deploys violence? Who knows. But once I figured out that the name of the cop who shows up in these images is Pike, I had to throw together my own image manipulation (using the Gimp, of course):

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The true tragedy of 9/11

The true tragedy of 9/11 is not just that thousands of people died in an evil and criminal attack. (Aside: I don't use the word "cowardly" like everybody else, because I have a hard time seeing how sacrificing your life in an attack on your perceived enemies is cowardly. Misguided, deluded, even evil, yes, but cowardly? Why can't we call these things what they are? Why is, somehow, "cowardly" a more stinging condemnation than evil?)

No, the true tragedy is how wildly successful those attacks were. What's more, they were successful not because of the death and destruction of the attacks themselves, but rather because of our reaction as a society to those attacks. The way the USA, in particular, has behaved in the last 10 years has served not to remember and honor those who lost their lives on 9/11. Rather, not only were they meaningless deaths, but the tragedy of their deaths have been magnified many times by our reaction and response to them.

What is the goal of a terrorist attack? I can't be sure, of course. However, the 9/11 attacks were targeted at the symbols of American power around the world: the World Trade Center, probably the largest single symbol of American financial might (our true imperialistic power at the moment); the Pentagon, the center of the American military; and the White House, the head of the American seat of government. When ideologues on our side talk about what it's for, it's because they "hate us for our freedom" and "want to destroy our way of life". I suspect on their side the more ambitious thought that these attacks would cripple the USA, undermining our imperialistic power, showing the world that we're not everything we say we are, and forcing us to further cripple ourselves by changing the way we live because we're living in fear.

Most of these goals, whether you take the ones that were perceived by the attackers or that come out of the rhetoric of those who think the attackers hate us for our freedom, were in fact achieved. Not directly as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but rather because of our response to them.

Showing the World the "True" USA

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, there was an outpouring of goodwill worldwide towards the USA. Yes, it was not universal; there were places where people were dancing in the streets celebrating that the USA had been attacked. And, doubtless, there was some snark from our allies in the form of "now you have on your soil what we've been dealing with all along". But, the world recognized this as one of the most major terrorist attacks, and recognized it as an attack on the modern civilized world, not just on the USA.

With a different presidential administration, I suspect that this goodwill could have been fostered, and used to help bring about changes in the world that made it a better place. Instead, what did we do? We completely squandered it. A few years later, it became embarrassing to travel abroad as an American. The USA became not known as the world leader of the great democracies who suffered a terrible attack, but rather as the jingoistic unilateral bully that was going to do whatever the hell it wanted militarily, regardless of what its allies thought. The 9/11 attacks were used as a pretext for an invasion of Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with them.

The outpouring of the "good" form of patriotism that happened right after 9/11 very quickly morphed into the ugly form of patriotism. The kind of patriotism that asserts you're completely for the USA and what it's doing, or you're effective aiding and abetting the enemy. The kind of ugly patriotism that makes people in other countries see Americans not as a proud people, but as an arrogant and ignorant people. Americans have always suffered this to some extent; and, to some extent, it's earned. But it's become much worse in the years since 9/11, as a direct result of our nasty reaction to 9/11. I'm talking about the invasion of Iraq, our open defense of torture, the Guantanamo Bay prisons, our doctrine of unilateral military adventurism and ignoring the protests of the other great world democracies... but also just the general behavior and rhetoric of so many individual Americans.

Losing our freedoms

On the evening of 9/11, George W. Bush gave a rather nice speech that was broadcast worldwide on television. Notably, he didn't refer to the terrorist acts as "cowardly"; that came later. Rather, they were "evil and despicable", much more apt descriptions. Most inspirationally, he said:

These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.

Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.

America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.

In an administration that was filled with a lot of misdirection, dissembly, and obfuscation of the truth, I believe that this, right here, was W's most egregious untruth. I do not call it a lie, because I think he believed it when he said it. But the years that followed showed that this was completely wrong. American resolve was in fact undermined, and changed from resolve into an ugly sort of aggression. The brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world turned into a bully that disgusted the world. And, freedom in the USA, while still greater than many (if not most) societies that have existed throughout the history of Western civilization, has been seriously curtailed.

Obviously, freedom of speech still exists, or I could not write this blog post. And, indeed, most of us effectively have no fewer freedoms than we had ten years ago. But those freedoms are much less secure now, and there are some who have less effective freedom than they did ten year ago. What am I talking about?

  • Airport "security". The fourth amendment of the Constitution ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,...") has been trampled upon and treated as toilet paper if you're anywhere near an airport. In many airports, you must agree to be photographed effectively naked, or, if you "opt-out", you are subject to official sexual assault (including groping of children that would lead to the kid being immediately taken away by child protective services if the parent were observed doing it). This would be inexcusable even if these measures were effective, but they're not. Indeed, as that Schneier piece points out, if our security is going to be insistent on identifying each and every potential weapon that goes on to an airplane, the only recourse is an escalation of intrusiveness that will completely destroy personal dignity (if there is, indeed, any left now), and/or make flying effectively impossible. (At which point, of course, terrorists will blow up trains, or buses! Indeed, right now, if they're going after air travel, the lines at security are probably the most juicy target.)
  • The PATRIOT act. This was a gigantic piece of legislation that was passed, with the legislators that passed it not having read it, or, in many cases, not even fully realizing what was inside it. Yet, it was passed overwhelmingly, because the politics of fear, and the fear that our country was feeling at the time, meant that they all had to be seen "doing something". Our legislative process was completely undermined. Supposedly, our congressmen talk about, debate, and argue about the laws being passed. The process fails a lot, I admit, but this failure was truly egregious. Measures were passed overwhelming that would have garnered tremendous controversy (both inside and outside Congress) at any other time. The act granted a huge expansion of the discretionary powers of law enforcement. Again, most of us haven't experienced the loss of freedom due to this, but it is always the people on the margins for whom the defense of freedom is most precarious, and most necessary. (If you're not worried about them, remember that the margins can move in over time, after all.) Among many, many other things, the PATRIOT act includes National Security Letters, that allow them to get private information about you from institutions such as libraries... and not only are these not subject to review, but the libraries (or whatever) are not allowed to even admit that they've received this request. This sounds to me like a very key tool of somebody building a police state!
  • Our general response to what is seen to be reasonable in a free society:
    • Many people have gotten in trouble for photographing public buildings. And, the rhetoric is such that that we now think, hey, wait, those people might be planning attacks! We need to be safe!
    • Many of us argued in favor of torture. Never mind that it doesn't work. Never mind that it's evil and we as a society shouldn't want to be doing this. It's effectiveness on the TV series 24 has lead us to think it's patriotic to want to torture those we suspect of being our enemies.
    • Warrantless wiretapping, something that would have been anathema on September 10, 2001, is always being pushed and expanded.
    • Because we're all so afraid of terrorists, we're happily allowing our state to turn into a surveillance state where we can expect that law enforcement is watching us and recording us wherever we go, whatever we do.
    • At the same time, people are getting in trouble for photographing or videotaping the police. Put "the state surveils you" and "you are not allowed to surveil the state to hold it accountable" together, and you've got the technological underpinnings of the state described in Orwell's 1984. Accuse me of hyperbole— I'm using it, after all— but seriously folks: do we want to keep this a free society or not?
    • The current administration, elected on promises of being different from the last one, of trying to undo the expansion of the power of the executive branch, is, in contrast to those promises, quietly pushing forward all of these measures.

9/11 was a tragedy. Many people lost their lives due to the evil and despicable acts of some religious fanatics. But the true horrors of 9/11 are how amazingly successful those attacks were, because of our response. We've handed the terrorists their objectives on a golden platter.

Let's go back to standing firm, to resolve, to freedom not being deterred. If we're to make changes in our way of life, let's not fall in upon ourselves, become ever more jingoistic and ever more afraid, and sacrifice our freedoms in the name of that fear. Instead, let's examine what it is, really, that makes people hate us so much, and ask if there are things we're doing wrong. Let's make changes in how we interact with the rest of the world that build goodwill. In the long run, having more goodwill around the world is going to make us safer than any security walls we build around ourselves. And, by maintaining and upholding freedom and dignity, we might begin to truly honor those who died on 9/11, instead of claiming to honor them while pissing on their graves by allowing fear to turn us into what we're becoming.

8 responses so far

Some other proposed bills for Tennessee

Apr 28 2011 Published by under Politics

You may have heard that Tennessee-- where I used to live-- had a "don't say gay" bill passed by the Senate Committee for Education, and will today be voting on it. This bill says human sexuality is a complex issue that is "best discussed at home", and as such "Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."

Now, while you might think, "well, hell, they shouldn't be teaching kids about sex in elementary and middle school!" Perhaps, although middle school is when puberty starts to hit and kids need to learn that stuff. But, also, this means that you can't talk about families with two fathers or two mothers, even though such families exist.

Anyway, as long as Tennessee is going down this road, I don't see why they should stop here. I propose the following additional bills for the Tennessee state legislature to consider:

  • Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any religion other than Christianity.
  • Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any gender other than male.
  • Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any skin coloring other than white.
  • Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any music other than Country-Western.
  • Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss anything that might run the risk of raising our kids out of an ignorant fog completely and totally unaware of the reality of the modern world and how that reality might actually not completely undermine the basis of human existence.

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The other horrors of 9/11

Sep 11 2010 Published by under Politics, Rant

(This is a repost from the post I made one year ago toady.)

Many people will consider this post to be in extremely poor taste.

But there are things that I think that we really need to keep in mind as we’re remembering the lessons that we learned, the tragedies and the horrors of 9/11. (And, this won’t be the first time I made a post that many considered in poor taste….)

To frame the whole thing, let’s start with what I call George W. Bush’s most egregious untruth— not a lie, for I don’t doubt that he meant it when he addressed the nation on the evening of 9/11, but what in retrospect turned out not to be true:

None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

What was the legacy of this moving forward to defend freedom, justice, and goodness?

  • The passage of the PATRIOT Act, rushed through in less than two months, voted on so fast in a political climate where legislators would be viewed in a light similar to how this blog post will be viewed if they voted against it. It was a massive piece of legislation that incorporated all sorts of expansion of powers for law enforcement and limitations in the checks and balances. Many of the things in there would have been the subject of vigorous debate and public scrutiny if they had been proposed individually. Yet, in the climate of “We MUST do something” after 9/11, it was rammed through, and public opinion would have had it no other way.

    And, yet, despite how controversial the authoritarian tenets of this act should have been in the “land of the free”, one senator and only 15% of the House of Representatives voted against it. Many (all?) of those who voted for it hadn’t read the act, and I wouldn’t be surprised of most of them didn’t really know what was in the act they were voting for.

    This kind of “must do something” response is the legacy of 9/11 that I hope we learn the most from. We open ourselves to manipulation from people who would love to pass all kinds of authoritarian laws when we respond in haste and in fear to a horrific event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

  • The Iraq war. Bush & co. were going to go into Iraq anyway. 9/11 made it easy for them. They could frame the whole war in terms of terrorism and defending America. A large proportion of American citizens were led into believing that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that. (The USA Today article I link to cites 70%; other numbers I’ve seen are closer to 1/3 or 40%. In any event, a significant fraction of Americans believed the lie.). 3,000 people died on 9/11. In Iraq, 4,200 Americans and something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. (And we won’t even talk about the cost of this war, rushed into, in comparison to, say, any potential cost of a much-reviled universal health care plan.)

    Was Saddam Hussein evil, and did his regime need to go away? Yes. Did the US make a complete mess out of the war, as a result of disastrous misplanning and lack of understanding about rebuilding after Saddam was ousted? Absolutely. I will say that over the last year or so, I’ve actually been almost optimistic that Iraq may be able to get back on its feet; I had not been for years before that. And, heck, the war in Afghanistan is looking scary now… I can’t help but wonder if much of that results from our redirection of focus from that war (which had broad international support) to Iraq long before the Afghanistan war was anywhere near complete.

  • Many US citizens and many US politicians have started to speak out in favor of torture. Why? Fear. Because 9/11 has convinced us that we have to do whatever it takes to fight back against those who would do those sorts of things. Never mind that torture doesn’t work and generates bad intelligence. Never mind that it sullies the image of America internationally, gives those who hate America a great reason to hate America, and will only make things harder on Americans who get captured by terrorists. Never mind that it makes us evil that we do it. We want us our revenge. We suffered from the horrors of 9/11, so we want to make sure somebody else suffers in kind. We have seen it be effective week after week in the TV show 24, so we think we’re being courageous and doing the hard thing to support it. It makes me sick. I have some hope that perhaps we’re going to hold those at the top accountable for the decisions they’ve made, but for the most part, we’re probably going to throw some lower-level scape goats to the dogs as a way of pretending “accountability” while we still debate whether or not we should continue this barbarous and ineffective tactic.
  • The end of due process. OK, that’s overstating it; due process still exists. And, as the link at the bottom of this paragraph shows, finally, years later, we’re reevaluating what we did and realizing that it was wrong. But there remain lots of ways for the government to work around it when they want to. Hoards of people picked up for the slightest suspicion have wasted away years of their lives in Guantanamo Bay as they are held without trial, without hearing. Yeah, they may not be American citizens, and thus not subject to protection from our authorities by our Constitution, but what of our ideals? What happened to defending freedom and justice? And, indeed, being an American citizen doesn’t stop you from being held without due process if the right part of the executive branch declares that you’re a material witness, without any proof whatsoever.

There are other things. The general paranoia we have about photography of public places, and how cops and security guards come down with unreasonable suspicion against those who are just taking pictures. The UK’s institution of universal surveillance and a lack of law enforcement oversight. The fact that anybody is still paying any attention to Dick Cheney as he tells us we should be torturing away as his administration always did. Folks’ laptops being seized, searched, and (effectively) confiscated at national borders without reasonable suspicion, in blatant violation of the spirit of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The complete squandering of the sympathy and goodwill that the US had in the international community after 9/11 as a result of our aggressive and self-righteous posturing.

I believe it’s just a matter of time before some nutcase— be it a terrorist of the 9/11 variety, or a homegrown white guy of the Oklahoma City bombing variety— is able to get his hand on a “weapon of mass destruction” and blow it off in some highly populated area. And, I’m talking something nuclear here (be it a “dirty bomb” or a small nuke or some such), not just an airplane full of jet fuel— because the N-word makes everything so much scarier. And, I have to admit, I despair in the authoritarian rules that will be passed by widespread popular demand, quickly, in response to that.

We should never forget the horrors of 9/11. But we should also never forget the terrible mistakes we made in response to 9/11.

Added 2010/09/11
: In the last year, I've noticed a lot more open anti-Islamic hate.  It's been pretty obvious in the USA for the last 9 years, but for whatever reason it's becoming more open, and more virulent.  I watch the Tea Party and their worship of know-nothingness, the willingness of Fox News to wildly distort the truth, and the growing of loud movements that want to treat Muslims the way that, and Godwin forgive me, Jews were treated in Germany during the years before Hitler came into power.  We are not so culturally different from Western Europe; if it can happen there, it can happen here.  I'm becoming sadder and sadder about how the USA, the supposed land of the free and home of the brave, is reacting as a whole to having been attacked by evil and reprehensible terrorists nine years ago.  I don't think we learned the right lessons; we think we need to get our own back and strike out, when in reality we need to be evaluating the world we live in and ask why it gives rise to the evils that it does.  We need to change the world so those evils can't fester, instead of trying to create our own personal mirror image of them.

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Some true statements about Palin, Limbaugh

Aug 27 2010 Published by under Politics, Rant

This editorial by Timothy Egan has inspired me to make the following true statements. We'll see if Fox News picks them up and repeats them with the sense of sky-falling urgency that they repeat other things.

  • I have not seen definitive evidence that Sarah Palin's husband wasn't a member of the KKK, dropping out only when she was invited to join John McCain's presidential ticket.
  • Rush Limbaugh has not given us proof that he wasn't secretly a member of the American Communist Party in his youth.

I mean, it's only American and responsible to ask the questions, right?

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Argument from Authority vs. Trusting Experts

Some folks who argue against anthropogenic climate change argue that folks like me who accept the evidence that it's happening and it's something we should worry about are guilty of bad science. Specifically, that we're accepting arguments from authority, rather than evaluating the evidence.

While argument from authority works in some lines of reasoning, it's anathema to science. Science usually proceeds by starting from a set of assumptions or postulates, and seeing what results-- but those assumptions and postulates are always subject to test, and if experiment or observations show that they're wrong, they have to be tossed out. We believe something is true in science because the experiments or observations have show it to be true, not because some designated authority has asserted that this is how things are.

However, if you perform reducto ad absurdum on this argument, most of us have no right to accept the vast majority of the scientific knowledge that the human race has amassed. Have you, personally, verified Einstein's theory of Special Relativity? OK, I have seen the moons of Jupiter making their way around Jupiter, so I've confirmed Galileo's observation disproving Geocentricity... but have you? And if you haven't... what right do you have to assert to Geocentrists that they're full of it, and that the center of mass of the Solar System is really close to the Sun? Huh? Huh?

Over at the RealClimate blog, a guest commentary by Anderegg et al. make this point in a way that struck me as rather nice:

We accept and rely upon the judgment and opinions of experts in many areas of our lives. We seek out lawyers with specific expertise relevant to the situation; we trust the pronouncement of well-trained airplane mechanics that the plane is fit to fly. Indeed, the more technical the subject area, the more we rely on experts. Very few of us have the technical ability or time to read all of the primary literature on each cancer treatment’s biology, outcome probabilities, side-effects, interactions with other treatments, and thus we follow the advice of oncologists. We trust the aggregate knowledge of experts – what do 97% of oncologists think about this cancer treatment – more than that of any single expert. And we recognize the importance of relevant expertise – the opinion of vocal cardiologists matters much less in picking a cancer treatment than does that of oncologists.

They don't even reducto to as absurdum a point as I did-- whereas I was talking about replicating the experiments yourself, they're just talking about reading the primary literature. Of course, in reading the primary literature, you're already taking some things on faith. (Little-f faith, not big-f Faith.) Specifically, you're trusting the ethics and competence of the investigators who performed and confirmed the experiments. You're trusting that it's not one big collusion and conspiracy amongst the writers of the primary literature to promulgate a falsehood on the rest of the world.

We do that constantly, every day, and it's only rational to do that. This includes climate change. The vast majority of people who know anything about climate change are convinced about the existence of anthropogenic climate change, and that it's a problem. The details and the severity of the problem remain under debate of course, but the consensus that there's something to worry about is very strong. Accepting and acting on their expertise is not resorting to an argument from authority; it's just trusting the experts to know their field of expertise. Saying that we shouldn't advocate national and global response to the problem of global warming without each of us individually verifying the evidence ourselves is tantamount to saying that it is unwise to get on an airplane without learning enough to verify the mechanical fitness of the plane first.

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Climategate is a tempest in a teapot, but it may lead to worst tempests

Dec 06 2009 Published by under Politics, Science, science & society

The Tennessean has been publishing numerous letters to the editor and editorial columns talking about how "climategate" supposedly shows that anthropogenic global warming is a fraud. It's extremely frustrating. That conclusion can only be drawn from a deep misunderstanding about how science works and the language of scientists used in the e-mails, but sadly it seems that newspapers are interested more in presenting "both sides" than getting to the truth of it. Today, there is an egregious column from David Lipscomb professor Richard Grant repeats the same tired arguments global warming denialists have already been using, and completely misunderstands the impacts of the supposed revelations from the leaked University of East Anglia emails.

It's very frustrating myself to watch this happen. The people who are trumpeting about this are ignorant about science. When I read the excerpts from the emails that are supposedly the smoking gun about climate change being a fraud, I do not see anything extremely alarming. What's more, even if I did, the evidence for climate change has not come completely from the University of East Anglia; it has come from all over the place. If it hadn't, scientists would not be accepting it as strongly as they do! And, yet, the newspaper coverage of this is covering the scandal, the controversy... it does not seek to illuminate the truth of the situation, to explain what is really going on. And, this of course lends fuel to the politicians who are exploiting global warming denialism for their own ends. (To be fair, there are also politicians who exploit the fact of human-caused global warming for their own ends! That doesn't make the conclusions wrong, however.) It is sad to me to see so many in our population being manipulated in a way that will allow us as a society to act in ways that may very likely cause us tremendous pain in future decades.

Here is the text of a letter to the editor I wrote to the Tennessean in response. I don't know if it will get published; I hope it does, of course, because many more people read the Tennessean letters to the editor than this blog.

The numerous letters and columns that have been written suggesting that "climategate" undermines conclusions about anthropogenic global warming are all getting it very wrong. There are two important points.

First, no matter what the researchers said when venting frustrations in private e-mail, their final actions in what data was published showed no misconduct. Nothing was suppressed, nothing was fudged. The impact of the supposedly revealing emails is vastly overstated by those who deny man-made global warming.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if we throw out all of the climate data and conclusions from the researchers in question, the conclusions still stand. This is an important point about how science works. Cold Fusion generated a lot of headlines in the 1980's when first reported, but ultimately didn't stand because no independent scientists could reproduce the results. With climate change, there are multiple independent teams who have data that all point to the same conclusions. Even if something were to cast doubt on conclusions of the University of East Anglia, that does not in any way affect the independent data of the USA's NOAA, for example.

The climate change data is still robust. The leaked emails only show informal communication using the jargon scientists use, and normal human frustration with how obstinate so many seem to be against accepting the fact of man-made global warming. Given how science works, these emails do not in any way undermine those conclusions. It is only at our peril that we use these leaked emails to further political ends.

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The problem with lawyer-driven society in a nutshell

Nov 30 2009 Published by under Politics, Rant, Technology and Society

This post on Boing-Boing includes the following quote that summarizes the pathological extreme of lawyer-driven society, a pathological extreme that we see too often in our current society:

The reason given was that the potential liabilities involved haven't been settled by a definitive SCOTUS ruling. Which is absolutely true, of course. Just as it is true that the risk of exploring the pyramids hasn't been conclusively settled until we've proven that we won't be attacked there by golden unicorns.

In my (admittedly limited) observations, corporate lawyers (which, I believe, represent the vast majority of legal work out there— far more than Perry Mason style courtroom lawyering) exist to do two things.

The first thing they do is try to write contracts and other similar things that grab absolutely as much control for their employer as possible. When dealing with other corporations, they have to battle other lawyers, but when dealing with individuals who can't afford their own phalanx of lawyers, they usually write egregious things like "Terms of Service" on software and severance agreements that include terms nobody who believes in the principles of the United States should agree to, but that we all agree to as a matter of course all the time just because it's become standard operating procedure.

The second, less sinister but just as harmful, thing that they do is sit around and play paranoid. They think of where their company might get into legal trouble, where there might be liabilities, and then they advise their company on policies that will hopefully avert any such potential liabilities. Here, they're doing their job; they're telling companies what could go wrong. The problem is, just as with our reaction to fears of terrorism, in our society we tend to hear about these things going wrong, and squeeze off all sorts of expression and creativity out of paranoia. Or, if sometimes those things do really go wrong, seemingly undermining my calling them "paranoia", they don't really evaluate the cost of the downsides of policies that stop that thing from going wrong again.

Yeah, lots of the things lots of us do, and lots of the things it would be really neat for companies to do, could potentially expose them to all sorts of liabilities. And, yeah, it's useful to have lawyers around to tell them what the laws really are (since, alas, we live in a society where it takes years of training to understand the laws) and where things might go wrong. But then, sometimes, you have to be willing to take risks. Sometimes, you have to say, yeah, there's no case law that says we'll be safe if we do that, but let's try it anyway because the potential benefits could be great.

Too often, though, we don't do that.

Kind of odd for me as a not-risk-taker to be saying this, but I've seen this happen enough times that it just makes me sad that we've taken what should be a service— the advice of lawyers about the state of the law— and have turned it into a gigantic ballast that prevents us from flying.

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