Archive for January, 2012

BS and Anti-BS

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Kevin Drum talks today about the inherent silliness of people spouting bullshit economic theories, and other people debunking it, and how the whole process just goes on forever without actually getting anywhere. But he thinks it’s still necessary: Fighting the bullshit.

So sure, it’s kabuki. All of us who write about politics for a living understand that 90% (at least) of what we do is just shadow boxing. Controversies are invented, then debunked, then invented all over again, and debunked. Sometimes the inventors know perfectly well what they’re doing, while other times they’ve talked themselves into actually believing their own nonsense. In either case, these things are mostly just proxies for the issues that really matter.

But so what? The Reichstag fire was wholly invented too, and look what happened after that. As demeaning as it is, fighting back against bullshit is every bit as important as fighting back against the real stuff.

I think I was on-board with Mr. Drum all the way up to the last sentence, at which point I balked. “Every bit as important”? Really? I’m not convinced of that.

Which isn’t to say that fighting back against bullshit isn’t important. Case in point, the recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece claiming global warming is a sham. It’s exceedingly dishonest, and worthy of being fought back against. But is fighting back against it as important as fighting against the real stuff? I think maybe it’s only 38% as important. The real stuff, after all, is real.

Anyway, I know from The Debunking Handbook that I’m at risk of reinforcing the bullshit in your minds just by mentioning it, but so be it. I think that ship has already sailed, as least as far as is concerned. I’ll try to prominently flag it, at least, as they recommend.

For what it’s worth, then, here’s the (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS BULLSHIT!!) original WSJ opinion piece:

And here is the first in an ongoing batch of reasonable, well-informed, honest debunkings to fill the hole in your brain left by the removal of the previous bullshit. NOTE: NON-BULLSHIT:

The Great Media Conspiracy

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Speaking of alleged scientific conspiracies, I came across a cool item yesterday: A recent study published by the British Journal of Social Psychology: Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. Here’s the abstract:

We advance a new account of why people endorse conspiracy theories, arguing that individuals use the social-cognitive tool of projection when making social judgements about others. In two studies, we found that individuals were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they thought they would be willing, personally, to participate in the alleged conspiracies. Study 1 established an association between conspiracy beliefs and personal willingness to conspire, which fully mediated a relationship between Machiavellianism and conspiracy beliefs. In Study 2, participants primed with their own morality were less inclined than controls to endorse conspiracy theories – a finding fully mediated by personal willingness to conspire. These results suggest that some people think ‘they conspired’ because they think ‘I would conspire’.

I wonder if this is a factor in things like the Republican propensity to argue that we need poll restrictions (that just happen to benefit Republicans) because of voter fraud (that turns out not to exist), whilst the cases of actual voter fraud that turn up frequently involve Republicans rigging the game for their own benefit. In other words, they may be inclined to believe there is a Democratic conspiracy to cheat them at the polls precisely because they know that they themselves are willing to cheat.

I suspect this is a factor in the Great Media Conspiracy as well. You probably heard about that recent poll from Public Policy Polling (PPP) that gauged respondents’ trust vs. distrust of different media outlets. Kevin Drum ran a nifty chart last week that highlighted a key part of the results: that Republicans tend to trust Fox News and distrust every other media outlet, while Democrats and Independents believe the opposite, that media outlets are generally trustworthy except for Fox. I liked Kevin’s chart, but I wanted to see the Democrat and Independent numbers in the same format, so I made my own version:

The numbers show, for each media outlet and party affiliation, the percentage of respondents who trust that source minus the percentage who distrust that source. I’ve arranged them in descending order of Independent-voter trust. There are a few interesting things that strike me about this:

  • Independents really like PBS. Apparently Jim Lehrer’s reassuring drone really works for them.
  • Most Republicans these days apparently buy into the grand conspiracy theory of Sarah Palin’s “Lamestream Media”: It’s not just that a particular media outlet is biased against them; it’s all of them (except Fox).

All of which brings me back to that study I was talking about at the beginning: I wonder if Republicans are willing to believe that all those different media outlets, with their hundreds of nominally independent reporters and editors and producers, are engaged in a colossal conspiracy against them, mainly because Republicans themselves (or at least, the people who run their preferred media outlet) are so clearly willing to twist the truth in the service of ideology.

Warming vs. Cooling, Short-term vs. Long

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I came across a reference to this older item on the Skeptical Science site: Going Down the Up Escalator, Part 1. It discusses the difference between cherrypicking relatively brief intervals during which global temperatures have cooled (which is what climate-change deniers do), and looking at the consistent long-term upward trend (which is what climate scientists do). It includes this neat graph, which sums things up nicely:

See those descending blue lines in the “skeptics” version? Those represent the “cooling” that shcb likes to go on about. See that overall rising red line in the “realists” version? That’s the trend that matters.

Murphy on Torture, Then and Now

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

From Cullen Murphy writing in the Atlantic: Torturer’s Apprentice. Well-written, but heartbreaking, commentary on how little separates our enlightened selves from our Medieval ancestors.

Kate on Climate Models

Friday, January 20th, 2012

More interesting stuff that shcb will not read (Update: That he says he did read. Though he also says the planet isn’t warming, so take that for what it’s worth.): How do climate models work? This is by Kate at ClimateSight. It’s a very readable explanation of a subject she knows very, very well.

Roberts Interviews Hayhoe

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

David Roberts did an interview recently with Katherine Hayhoe, the Texan evangelical Christian and climate scientist. Hayhoe contributed a key chapter on climate change to Newt Gingrich’s forthcoming book on environmental entrepreneurship, only to have Gingrich reverse course and dump the chapter from the book. She has some really interesting insights into what’s going on with climate scientists and their interactions with those who have been misled by climate change denialists: Chatting with the climate scientist Newt dissed.

Communicating About (Climate) Science

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who have fought the long fight to keep creationism out of public school science classes, are expanding their focus to include climate change denialism. See this article in the LA Times: Climate change skepticism seeps into science classrooms, and this blog post from NCSE’s Josh Rosenau: NCSE takes on climate change.

Lately I’ve been reading Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Olson was a tenured science professor who left academia to attend USC Film School, and has since made a career of helping scientists do a better job of communicating. One of the things he talks about is the need to move beyond listeners’ heads, to try to engage their hearts, guts, and (if possible) sex organs. He mentions NCSE, and how the organization eventually just made a blanket recommendation that scientists not debate creationists publicly. They came to that position reluctantly, after realizing that in almost every case, the cerebral, fact-based presentations favored by scientists were losing to the emotional, intuitive, sexy presentations of their creationist opponents.

It’s very hard, Olson writes, for scientists to give up the idea that being right, having more and better facts on their side, should convince a lay audience. He talks about the years he spent attending science presentations, then coming back to them after film school and realizing how incredibly boring and ineffectual they were.

Most of the time. There are the occasional exceptions, though. Olson’s bloggish site recently had an item that I really loved, and meant to share, but then forgot about until Boing Boing reminded me. Anyway, here it is, as published in the British Journal of Urology: How (not) to communicate new scientific information: A memoir of the famous Brindley lecture.

This lecture was unique, dramatic, paradigm-shifting, and unexpected. It is difficult to imagine that a similar scenario could ever take place again. Professor Brindley belongs in the pantheon of famous British eccentrics who have made spectacular contributions to science. The story of his lecture deserves a place in the urological history books.

As someone who has sometimes struggled to communicate complex technical information in a way that is compelling and memorable, I’m in awe of Professor Brindley. I’ll never be in his league, but I’m inspired by his example.

The Coming Republican Assault on the EPA

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Man-crush David Roberts has a great article in the latest Washington Monthly on what it is that makes the EPA — and the Nixon-era environmental laws that underlie it — so special (The end of the EPA as we know it):

The core laws that shape the EPA’s mission — the Clean Air and Water Acts, passed in the early 1970s — are among the most dynamic and aspirational ever to issue from the U.S. Congress. It’s not that the standards in the original bills were all that strict, but that they were designed to evolve. The laws mandate that the EPA regularly revisit its standards and update them based on the latest science.

Take the Clean Air Act, the main target of recent GOP attacks. It not only establishes specific rules for an enumerated class of pollutants, it also instructs the EPA to set standards for “any air pollutant” that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” and to review and update those standards every five years. That makes the law a living, breathing thing. Congress or the president must intervene to prevent stronger and stronger clean air protections.

Environmental law, in other words, is one of the few federal domains where political gridlock can work in favor of science-based policy. All elected officials have to do is stay out of the way. Scholars David Sousa and Christopher Mc- Grory Klyza call this fitful but persistent advance of the law “green drift.”

Roberts goes on to talk about the TRAIN and REINS Acts, which the Republicans calling the shots in Congress would love to pass, and which would gut the EPA. So even given the disappointments that people like me are feeling about Obama, it’s important to realize that any of the current Republican would-be nominees (including Ron Paul, who believes that the right way to deal with air and water pollution is for the victims to sue the perpetrators) would be disasters if actually elected. At least for people who breathe air and drink water.

Republicans (!) in New Hampshire Talk about Climate Change

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

What it sounds like when Republicans talk sanely about the climate:

Dads and Their Daughters

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

I actually intended to include this video in the previous post about the whole gender-differences-on-the-Internet thing, but then forgot and was too lazy to go back and add it. But then my daughter Julia mentioned that I should post it, and I’m a pushover where she’s concerned. So here it is (if you haven’t seen it already, which you probably have; it was making the rounds):

If you find Riley adorable you should check out her puppet show, too.

Next up is a video that actually came up as a Public Service Announcement promoting fatherhood during a Lakers game I was watching the other night. Apparently there’s a whole genre of “homecoming soldier surprise videos.” (I originally wrote that as “homecoming soldier surprise porn,” but that just felt wrong, and then I realized that there’s probably lots of that, too, though I didn’t look.) Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days watching too many of these, but this one is still my favorite:

Finally, I wanted to conclude with this one. See what you get for encouraging me to post things?