Thursday, December 27, 2012

This ad for 5-Hour Energy drinks uses a pretty classic advertising technique that shows up in a lot of places (I am pretty sure Trident gum ads used the same trick). This particualr trick is a version of weasel words in which one makes a bold claim, but then inserts words into the claim that make it appear weaker than it initially appears. Here is the ad, after watching it I will deconstruct it:


The key claim is that of 3000 doctors surveyed, 73% would recommend 5-Hour Energy to their patients. The weasel words are that little bit tacked on at the end qualifying that this endorsement is only for a low calorie version of the drink and only, "to their healthy patients who use energy supplements." In other words, 73% of the doctors surveyed think that if you are going to consume an energy supplement, it might as well be a low calorie version. This is, of course, common sense in a country that is seeing increasing problems from overweight and obesity. However, this is in no way a medical endorsement for these product, though clearly the ad is trying to suggest that it is.

Things become even more problematic if we examine the fine print. At the 17-second mark, the fine print reveals that of these 3000 doctors, only 47% (less than half) would recommend 5-Hour Energy. This makes the commercial even more deceptive as the clear implication throughout is that the doctor's are actually looking specifically at this product, when in fact their recommendations seems to apply only to a generic low calorie energy supplement. This is just another in the long list of ways that advertisers seek to manipulate language so as to deceive their customers.

h/t to Cracked.com

Friday, December 14, 2012

Media Consolodation Continued

Very busy grading this week, but a friend on Facebook posted this nice image that directly relates to discussions about the failures of the Mainstream Media.

Click to embiggen
 
As this chart nicely demonstrates, the number of media outlets in the US has been shrinking steadily for decades, and this results in a lack of alternative voices and viewpoints in the media. Those of you who have taken my class (and probably many more) can understand why this is such a big problem.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Justice Scalia: Towering Intellect or Homophobe?

In a lecture series at Princeton promoting his new book, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was asked about his opinion on homosexuality. In answering this question, Justice Scalia commits an excellent example of the False Analogy fallacy. This is a fallacy in which one makes a comparison that isn't really apt or appropriate. As reported by the Associated Press, Scalia responded in the following manner:
 “It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the ‘reduction to the absurd,’” Scalia told Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”
Regarding the first part of Justice Scalia's comment, I must admit I am a bit confused as to what he is actually claiming. I am familiar with the reductio ad absurdum or reduction to the absurd as a style of argument. It involves showing that commitment to a particular belief or position will ultimately lead one to a contradiction, but I fail to see how it applies in this instance. I guess Justice Scalia is trying to claim that supporting homosexuality generates the contradiction, but I am not sure what the contradiction is or how it is generated by support for homosexuality.

Regarding the second part, here we have a nice example of a False Analogy. Justice Scalia seems to be arguing that there is some sort of equivalence between the bans on murder and homosexuality. I must say, try as hard as I can, I really can't see Justice Scalia's point. As near as I can tell, these two activities have almost nothing in common. One involves the permanent taking of another person's life and the other involves two people having consensual sex. In the question that Scalia poses, it seems that a perfectly reasonable answer would be, "Yes, we can have moral feelings about murder and other stuff." The fact that Justice Scalia seems unable to recognize this difference between laws against homosexuality and murder is deeply disturbing and raises serious questions about the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Yes, the news hides information from its viewers.

I am feeling a bit lazy today, so I will just repost a nice report from Media Matters for America demonstrating CNN engaging in the Suppression of Relevant Data. As a quick reminder, the suppression of relevant data is a fallacy in which one hides or obscures information that would be relevant to establishing the truth or falsity of the conclusion. So, let's watch the video, then discuss it:


The key suppression of relevant data occurs when Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) says, "the American people have clearly said, we don't want our taxes to go up." As Media Matters notes, when the host, Candy Crowley fails to follow up on this point, she is guilt of the fallacy. Media Matters writes:
On December 6, CNN reported that a majority of Americans support raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 per year as part of a deficit reduction deal.
Furthermore, national exit polling from the 2012 election revealed that six in ten voters favor increasing taxes. That echoed an October 12 Pew Research Center survey finding that 64 percent of Americans support increasing taxes on households making more than $250,000, and a December 2011 survey concluding that 57 percent of Americans feel the wealthy don't pay their fair share of taxes.
The Washington Post, citing a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll, reported that "nearly 2 to 1" of Americans will blame Republicans, not Obama, if a deal to avoid the automatic tax increases and spending cuts scheduled for January is not reached.
All of this makes clear that Rep. Blackburn's statement was false, and Crowley failed in her journalistic oversight role because of her failure to cal out Rep. Blackburn's statement for what it was: a lie.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why the Media hates Ron Paul.


As this video incisively illustrates, the media hates Ron Paul, and they hate him more the more popular he gets with the electorate. As John Stewart notes in the clip, Ron Paul is the original Tea Partier, and given the love shown by the media to the Tea Party it is odd that the intellectual founder of this organization does not get more attention. However, the reason for this disconnect is actually quite clear when we adopt and analyze the situation using the Propaganda Model of the Media developed by Chomsky and Herman in their seminal work, Manufacturing Consent

In this work, Chomsky and Herman identify five filters that they argue shape media coverage in the US. One of these filters is Flak, which is criticism aimed at the media by popular elites for statements or comments that question the established media narratives. Ron Paul is popular because he raises powerful criticisms about US foreign and domestic policy; criticisms that are completely ignored by the major political leaders in this country and by their opponents. There was literally zero difference between the foreign policies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Since Ron Paul's criticisms fall outside this range of establishment opinion that is tolerated by the Mainstream Media, they must be attacked, and the bearer of these criticisms must be marginalized.

For more on this topic I recommend this excellent article by Glenn Greenwald.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Media Consolidation


In a recent post on The San Diego Free Press, Jim Miller discusses Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. One of the main points Herman and Chomsky make is that a major source of the media system we have in the US is a result of increasing consolidation of the news media with fewer and fewer corporations owning more and more of the media outlets in the US. When Herman and Chomsky first published their book in 1988, there were about twelve companies that controlled all the media. As this image nicely summarizes, today that number has shrunk to just five.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fox News: At It Again

I was very busy the last few weeks with Thanksgiving and then recovering from Thanksgiving so I haven't had a chance to post. As my critical thinking classes transition into a discussion of the media, I am going to try and post more media related posts in the upcoming days.

I want to begin by looking at a post by MediaMatters discussing one of the latest atrocities committed by Fox News. The following interview with J. Christian Adams on Fox and Friends from December 1 concerns a report recently issued by the Government Accountable Office on the feasibility of relocating detainees from the Guantanamo facility in Cuba to the US. The report (PDF) basically says that the US does have sufficiently secure prisons to house these detainees if it so chooses. Needless to say, this report is seen as an enormous threat by Fox, and Adams, through the use of a number of fallacies, tries to argue that this report is actually evidence of a grand conspiracy to smuggle terrorists into the US so that they can be released onto American streets (for what reason is never made clear, something to do with Obama being a Muslim, but nothing more detailed than that). Let's take a look at the video, and I will then discuss some of the major fallacies that it commits.


Perhaps the most obvious fallacy comes at the end when Adams suggests that:
I think the long-term plan here is to integrate them into the regular prison population where they can radicalize the other prisoners. And eventually, these people -- some in the administration -- want to just release them into the United States.
This is a clear an unambiguous example of a Straw Man. There is literally not a single person in the entire US who thinks that terrorists should just be released into the United States, so for Adam to claim otherwise is to just invent a position that has no relation to reality in order to scare and frighten people.

A second major fallacy is the Suppression of Relevant Data that occurs during Adam's discussion of the Uighurs. For some quick background, the Uighurs are Chinese Muslims who were picked up by the US during the early years of the war on terror. These individuals (15 in total) were determined to pose no threat to the US or its citizens, and in 2003 were scheduled for release from Guantanamo. This 2005 story from the Washington Post nicely summarizes their plight:
In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that 15 Chinese Muslims detained at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released. Five were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for U.S. payoffs. The other 10 were deemed low-risk detainees whose enemy was China's communist government -- not the United States, according to senior U.S. officials. 
For Adams to describe these individuals as "terrorists" is extremely misleading, and really does a disservice to viewers of Fox News by withholding important information about the case from them. This is because if Adams were to accurately explain what is going on, he wouldn't be able to engage in the scaremongering he does, and Fox News would have one less way to attack and criticize the Obama administration.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Electoral Denialism on the Left: The Case of Proposition 37

This will be a long one. Though I have written many posts in the past few days looking at Right-Wing denialism regarding the election, I want to pivot a bit and look at some denialism from the Left. In particular, I want to focus on a series of articles written by Jon Rappoport and posted at NaturalNews.com which claim that the election results for Proposition 37 (a proposition that would have mandated labeling of food with GMO ingredients) in California have been fixed. The articles in question can be found here and here, and I intend to unpack them in some detail because they are a treasure-trove of factual errors, fallacious reasoning and conspiracy mongering, and they reveal how a failure to think critically can lead someone to make some rather absurd and nonsensical claims.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Republican Denialism: Paul Ryan Edition

Joining the ranks of Republicans who appear delusional about election losses is vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan. In an interview with WISC-TV, Ryan offers his thoughts on the reason for his loss. As quoted in The Hill:
GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) on Monday said he was “surprised” by the outcome of the election, but did not believe his defeat signaled the electorate’s rejection of his budget plans.
“I think the surprise was some of the turnout, some of the turnout especially in urban areas, which gave President Obama the big margin to win this race,” said Ryan to local station WISC-TV in his first post-election interview. “When we watched Virginia and Ohio coming in, and those ones coming in as tight as they were, and looking like we were going to lose them, that's when it became clear we weren't going to win.”
Ryan, though, said that the election was not a referendum on his budget proposals and ideas on reforming entitlement programs.“I don’t think we lost it on those budget issues, especially on Medicare — we clearly didn’t lose it on those issues,” he said.
First, Ryan should not have been "surprised" at his loss. Though it was a fairly close election, all the polling data clearly indicated that Obama would at least win in the electoral college which would be sufficient for re-election. What would have been surprising would be if that polling data was wrong.

In addition to this factual error, there is an inconsistency in Ryan's claim that he didn't lose "on those budget issues." As Think Progress has noted, over the course of this election, Ryan explicitly argued that his candidacy was a larger referendum on budget priorities. Here is a short list of Ryan quotes to this effect (emphasis added):
– “The president, I’m told, is talking about Medicare today… We want this debate. We need this debate. And we will win this debate.” [8/16/2012]
– “We have a big choice to make. We’re not just picking the next president for a few years. We are picking the pathway for America for a generation.” [8/27/2012]
– “We’re entering what we call the debate and choice phase of this campaign. And we’re going to give the people of this country the right and opportunity to choose a different path.” [10/01/2012]
So, prior to losing the election, Ryan held up the election as a referendum on budget priorities and Republican policies. Having lost the election, he now claims exactly the opposite. This is a clear inconsistency, and is more evidence of right-wing delusions about the election. One can be sure that had Romney/Ryan won (even if the victory were tighter than Obama's), Ryan would be claiming a mandate for his policies.

h/t to Atrios

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Difficulties in the interpretation of data

This gif nicely shows how two people can look at the same data and come to radically different conclusions.


It comes from this website, and it raises a really interesting point about how science is conducted and how there can sometimes be a real art in moving from data to conclusions about that data.

h/t to Pharyngula

Monday, November 12, 2012

Karl Rove being Inconsistent? Who'd have thunk it?

George W Bush nicknamed him "Turd Blossom"
At some point it will get old, but for now it is enormously entertaining to watch the Republicans try and figure out why Romney wasn't elected even though they were all convinced that he would be (Hint: Americans, by a slim margin, didn't like what he was selling). Today, Media Matter for America has a nice summary of some of the comments made both before and after the election by Karl Rove in his Wall Street Journal column. The piece is titled, "Rove: Don't Blame Me Even If Everything I Said During The Campaign Was Wrong," and as the headline notes, these comments reveal a significant inconsistency in Karl Rove's thinking. The key summary comes in the last paragraph:
To sum up: Rove repeatedly used his Journal column to push his own financial interests by claiming that Obama was running a barrage of negative ads but predicting that Romney would still win because of the work Rove himself was doing. Then, after Romney's defeat, despite the hundreds of millions spent by Rove groups, Rove blamed a variety of factors other than himself for the defeat, including Obama's own supposedly negative campaign.
I recommend looking at the whole article, but the inconsistency should be clear: Rove claimed that Obama's negative campaigning would fail because his work would counter that and lead to Romney's election. However, when Romney was defeated, the fault lay with everyone but Karl Rove. One can't have it both ways.

Perhaps one good thing to come out of this election will be the end of Rove's political career once people realize that he doesn't have anything to offer. Keep in mind, Rove's Super PAC's took in roughly $300 million and delivered almost nothing for all that money. In fact, according to the New York Times, the best Rove could offer was, "without us, the race would not have been as close as it was."Small comfort for the donors who spent millions. If the best you can do is keep it close and still end up losing, there must be more productive ways to spend that kind of money.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Republican Delusions

Over the course of this election cycle I have written several blog posts looking at Right wing delusions about polling data. I focused quite a bit on Dean Chamber of Unskewedpolls.com and his attempts to "fix" polling data that didn't fit his desired outcome for the election. And now reports are coming in that th Romney campaign itself bought into these delusions, believing that the publicly available polling data (data collected and published by trained professionals with years if not decades of experience) was incorrect and was underestimating the Republican vote. From CBS:
As a result, they believed the public/media polls were skewed - they thought those polls oversampled Democrats and didn't reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night.
This report makes it increasingly clear that the Republican party, even at it highest levels is, quite simply, delusional. On a whole host of issues they have taken positions that have little bearing on reality, and in many cases contradict established facts. The classic example of this is Global Warming, but it extends to a whole host of issues ranging from female anatomy to the policies of Barack Obama. In effect, it appears that the entire Republican world-view is based on wishful thinking and the belief that something must be true because one wants it to be true. We saw this as well on election night with Karl Rove's now legendary refusal to believe that Obama had won the state of Ohio, thus winning re-election:


And this raises an important and disturbing question: What are we to do when one of the two major political parties supports policies and platforms and endorses beliefs that are delusional and have no relation to reality? How can a democracy survive when people are picking their own facts to fit their already established ideological views? If we can't even agree on what the problems are, how can we possibly come up with solutions to them? I have no idea what the answers to these questions might be, but it will be interesting to see if the Republican party modifies any of its views to actually correspond to reality. If history is any guide, they will likely just become more extreme and more delusional.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Vote!

Hello everybody,
Today is election day and I would like to urge all readers of this blog to please go out and vote. In particular, I would like to encourage you to vote yes on Proposition 30 and no on Proposition 32.
 
Proposition 30 is necessary in order to avoid massive cuts to education in the state of California. If proposition 30 fails, we will see significant reductions in the number of classes offered, increased class sizes, and many excellent teachers (myself included) will be out of work or significantly underemployed. Please vote Yes!
Proposition 32 is a deceptive attempt to silence Union voices in the state and give wealthy billionaires and corporations even more control and influence over politics in the state. Please vote No!

But, whatever you do, please vote!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Vote for my Dad because I have Cancer

Brian Bilbray is the Republican running for the 52nd Congressional District in California. Recently his campaign  released an advertisement featuring his daughter Brianna making an emotional appeal to voters to elect her father. Here is the ad in question:


This is a great example of the Appeal to Emotion, specifically an appeal to pity. Bilbray is leveraging the tragedy of his daughter's cancer to appeal to voters. He is not making any rational argument about why he would be superior to his opponent, Scott Peters. He is basically arguing, "My daughter has cancer. Vote for me." If we think a little more deeply about the ad is should be clear that this emotional appeal makes absolutely no sense. Are we supposed to believe that Bilbray's opponent Scott Peters won't make any efforts to fund cancer research? Are we supposed to believe that Bilbray has some special powers as a congressman that would make him more successful in curing cancer or funding cancer research? Is his mere presence in a lab looking over the shoulder of a researcher with a microscope supposed to somehow improve the speed and efficacy of that research? The exact mechanism here isn't very clear, but then it isn't supposed to be. Bilbray is hoping that our pity and sadness at his daughter's tragedy is sufficient to block a rational assessment of the ad.

I must also comment on Bilbray's boilerplate at the end when he says, "I approve this ad because some things are more important than politics." This is probably the most insulting part of the whole ad. How can Bilbray claim that some things are more important than politics when he is clearly using his daughter's cancer to try and win a political election! Frankly, I find the whole thing rather sordid and disgusting. If Bilbray's daughter is genuinely suffering from terminal cancer (A claim I have no reason to doubt), then perhaps he ought to suspend his political campaign and his congressional aspirations in order to spend more time with his daughter during her final days. To use her in a campaign ad, however, raises serious questions in my mind about the kind of person Bilbray is.

h/t to KPBS

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Antivaccine Post Hoc, Ignorant Reasoning

In a recent edition of BMJ Case Studies, Deirdre Therese Little and Harvey Rodrick Grenville Ward from Australia published a report in which they suggest that a 16-year old girl suffered early menopause as a result of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. Several anti-vaccine blogs including the Population Research Institute and Gaia Health and  have picked up on the story and run with it, presenting it as further evidence of the dangers of vaccines. Unfortunately, all these people miss the obvious point that the entire case against Gardasil rests on a Post Hoc fallacy in which a temporal correlation is assumed to be a causal relation and an Argument from Ignorance. Let's take a look at the actual case study and the reporting on it to see how this entire case is based on fallacious reasoning.

In the summary of their case study published on the BMJ website Little and Ward write:
Although the cause is unknown in 90% of cases, the remaining chief identifiable causes of this condition were excluded. Premature ovarian failure was then notified as a possible adverse event following this vaccination.
See what little and ward do here. They begin by noting that 90% of the cases of premature menopause have no known cause.  They then conclude that, because they eliminated the 10% of known causes the early onset menopause must have been caused by the vaccine. This is a great example of the Argument from Ignorance. We have no idea what causes this condition, therefore it must have been Gardasil. In addition, the reason for assuming Gardasil must have been the cause is that about a year before she became menopausal, the woman had received Gardasil. So, we have a Post Hoc fallacy combined with an Argument from Ignorance to reach the conclusion that Gardasil caused the amenorrhoea (fancy medical jargon for early menopause). Let's look now at how several antivaccine websites pick up and amplify these errors.

First, Population Reasearch Institute describe the case study as follows:
Dr. Deirdre Little, the Australian physician who treated the girl, has published a complete account in the British Medical Journal. (BMJ Case Reports 2012; doi:10.1136/bcr-2012-006879) Her report explains that the girl's menstrual cycles were regular until she received the Gardasil vaccination in the Fall of 2008. By January 2009, her cycle had become irregular. Over the course of the next two years, her menses became increasingly scant and irregular, until by 2011, she had ceased menstruating altogether.
Look at the reasoning here. In the Fall of 2008 the women gets the HPV vaccine. She then stops menstruating in 2011. We are looking at a roughly three year gap between the event and its supposed cause. I am sure that there were many things that this young girl did in 2008. Why are these not considered as causally related to her amenorrhoea? We need more than a remote temporal correlation to establish a causal relation between these two events. Later in the same post Mosher and Crnkovich write:
While Dr. Little could not confirm that Gardasil caused the destruction of the girl's reproductive system, she was able to rule out all other possible causes. The circumstantial evidence implicating Gardasil is strong.
As we know from the original case study, 90% of these cases have no known cause. Thus, by eliminating all known causes, we are still left with a gaping hole of ignorance. To try and fill that hole by asserting that is must have been the Gardasil is clearly an Argument from Ignorance. Furthermore, as I noted above, the circumstantial evidence implicating Gardasil is actually incredibly weak, amounting to nothing more than Post Hoc reasoning.

We see a similar error in a post by Heidi Stevenson at Gaia Health. She writes:
The girl has been thoroughly examined and tested. There is no known explanation other than the series of three Gardasil vaccinations she had.
This is, again, a classic Argument from Ignorance. Stevenson is arguing that because we eliminated a bunch of known causes it had to have been Gardasil. But, as I noted above, one can't base a conclusion on a lack of knowledge or information. Given that we know so little about what actually causes amenorrhoea, the most that we can conclude is that we don't know.

As a critical thinker, it is very disturbing for me to see such an elementary logical error used as the basis for a case study that was then accepted by a fairly reputable medical journal. These kinds of basic reasoning errors would be grounds for failure if they were committed by my students, yet here are actual medical practitioners committing them in a reputable journal, and these errors are then being amplified by various ideologically motivated bloggers. This point to a sad state of affairs for medicine and science.

h/t to Orac

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

If you don't like what he says, it must be because he's gay.

Dean Chambers of Unskewedpolls.com (a website I looked at in an earlier post) is very mad at the respect that Nate Silver of  FiveThiryEight.com gets for his predictive models about national elections. In a recent article he lays out his case against Silver. Unfortunately, Chambers doesn't have anything intelligent to say about Silver's methodology or record so he he is forced to resort to an Ad Hominem attack, writing:
Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he's made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.
Because Chambers has no argument against Silver he is forced to resort to personal attacks as an attempt to change the subject. This is a clear example of an ad hominem in which a personal attack takes the place of a reasoned argument. However, as several commentators to the article note, when you look like this:


it is probably not a good idea to attack someone's personal appearance. Glass houses and all that.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Disposition Matrix?

In a story published in the Washington Post last week, Greg Miller discusses how US counterterrorism policies have changed over the course of the Obama administration with a specific focus on US assassination policies. Of particular interest for my purposes are the opening paragraphs of the story in which Miller writes:
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
It is this Euphemism "disposition matrix" that I wanted to draw attention to. As the article notes, this is just the fancy term that the US has come up with for the list of people that it plans to assassinate. Like all good euphemisms, "disposition matrix" was designed to hide and obscure what is really going on. The US Government is vaguely uncomfortable with broadcasting the fact that the president is randomly killing people with no oversight and no due process, so rather than actually engage in a policy that is legal and is actually consistent with the expressed values of the US, the Government instead hides behind a euphemism that completely obscures what is really occurring.

h/t to Glenn Greenwald

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lies or Bullshit?

In my critical thinking classes these past few weeks we have been reading and discussing Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" (here is a link to an interview from The Daily Show where Frankfurt discusses his essay). In this essay he argues that lies and bullshit are different because a liar is concerned about the truth (so that he can more effectively deceive people) while the bullshitter has no concern for the truth (he just makes stuff up as he goes along). I was reminded of this when I saw the following clip of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) who is also Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee:


I was particularly struck by the fact that when she is asked about Obama's "secret" kill list, she claims that she has never heard of it, and has no idea what the interviewer is talking about. As Glenn Greenwald sees it, this is an example of stunning ignorance on the part of an elected figure:
Anyone who observes politics closely has a very low bar of expectations. It's almost inevitable to become cynical - even jaded - about just how inept and inane top Washington officials are. Still, even processing this through those lowly standards, I just find this staggering. Staggering and repellent. This is an elected official in Congress, the body that the Constitution designed to impose checks on the president's abuses of power, and she does not have the foggiest idea what is happening in the White House, and obviously does not care in the slightest, because the person doing it is part of the party she leads.
I, however, am not so convinced that Rep. Schulz is ignorant. I think the far more likely explanation is that she is simply lying. She knows the truth, she knows the issues involved here, but she pretends that she doesn't. As Greenwald documents, there is ample evidence for Obama's "secret" kill list in the media, not the least of which is this story from the New York Times published on May 29, 2012 with the headline, "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will." This isn't bullshit as Frankfurt defines it because she isn't just making stuff up, and I think, she is genuinely concerned with the truth, she just wants to hide it. Given all the evidence its existence, it is unfathomable that a person in Rep. Schulz's position would be ignorant of Obama's kill list. It is certainly the case that most politicians are guilty of bullshit, but they also do lie and I believe that this is an excellent example of a politician lying to the face of an interviewer.

h/t to Isaac Russell

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More dishonest Fox graphics

Fox News continues to use misleading images to mislead and deceive its viewers. A latest example, identified by Media Matters, is the following:


The misleading aspect of this image is that the numbers used to compare the unemployment rate in in 2009 vs. the present day were not derived in the same way. The 7.8% number is the official unemployment rate which represents the percentage of unemployed people who are actively looking for a job. By contrast, the 14.7% figure is the real unemployment rate and also includes people who have stopped looking for work and part-timers who would like a full-time job. By taking two numbers that were calculated using different methodologies and then pretending that they are actually the same, Fox is able to make it appear as if unemployment has almost doubled under the Obama administration. This is an example of a False Analogy (because they are comparing two things that aren't really comparable) and Suppression of Relevant Data (because we are not being told the truth about these numbers and how they are calculated).

In fairness to Fox, they did issue a correction, noting that the number that should have been used for the real unemployment rate in January 2009 was 14.2%.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cookie Monster in Space (err, on Mercury)!

Craters on the surface of Mercury that resemble the face of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster.

NASA has just released a photo of a crater on the surface of Mercury taken by the Messenger spacecraft. The image is of a large impact crater with two smaller impact craters that occurred later. The "googly eye" effect is a product of luck in that the image was taken when the shadows were positioned to produce what look like eyeballs. This is, of course, a great example of pareidolia; the psychological phenomenon in which vague or meaningless data are interpreted as meaningful. In this case, the image of a bunch of craters produce the impression of Cookie Monster in the eye of the viewer.

h/t to the AV Club

Monday, October 15, 2012

An ad baculum from a rich asshole

An Ad Baculum is a version of the appeal to emotion, and it is a fallacy in which one substitutes a threat of force for an actual argument. One might imagine that such a fallacy is uncommon because a brute threat seems like such an obvious error to recognize. Nevertheless, an excellent example of this fallacy can be found in an email that this man, David Siegal, billionaire owner of the massive timeshare company Westgate Resorts, sent to his employees.


In the email, Siegal threatens his employees with a loss of their jobs if they fail to elect Mitt Romney president of the US. Siegal writes:
As most of you know our company, Westgate Resorts, has continued to succeed in spite of a very dismal economy. There is no question that the economy has changed for the worse and we have not seen any improvement over the past four years. In spite of all of the challenges we have faced, the good news is this: The economy doesn’t currently pose a threat to your job. What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration. Of course, as your employer, I can’t tell you whom to vote for, and I certainly wouldn’t interfere with your right to vote for whomever you choose. In fact, I encourage you to vote for whomever you think will serve your interests the best. [Emphasis added]
This is about as clear a threat as one could imagine. Siegal then concludes the email by writing:
So where am I going with all this? It's quite simple. If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company. Rather than grow this company I will be forced to cut back. This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone.
[...]
You see, I can no longer support a system that penalizes the productive and gives to the unproductive. My motivation to work and to provide jobs will be destroyed, and with it, so will your opportunities. If that happens, you can find me in the Caribbean sitting on the beach, under a palm tree, retired, and with no employees to worry about. [Emphasis added]
Leaving aside the absurdity of someone actually claiming that a slight increase in the top marginal tax rate will have any effect on whether or not that person continues to work (if Siegal wanted to retire he could, he already has lots of money and doesn't need to work), the general Ad Baculum in this email should be obvious, and in fact the whole point of the email was to threaten his employees to vote a certain way. In fact, Siegal has employed similar tactics in the past. As Gawker notes:
The Florida-based Westgate Resorts is not a public company. It is the domain of David Siegel, a staunch Republican. In fact, Siegel has publicly claimed credit for George W. Bush defeating Al Gore, saying "I had my managers do a survey on every employee [8,000 total]. If they liked Bush, we made them register to vote. But not if they liked Gore."
So, once again we see wealthy individuals exploiting that wealth in an effort to sway elections in directions that they think will be beneficial to them, often using underhanded and deceptive tactics to do so.

h/t to Digby

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Strawmanning Telecom Immunity

On December 16, 2005 The New York Times published an article revealing that the US government, in collusion with all major telecommunications firms operating in the US, had engaged in a massive effort to illegally eavesdrop on the phone calls of US citizens. This article, already delayed several months to help Bush win reelection in 2004, demonstrated that for many years the US government had illegally eavesdropped on numerous calls (the exact number is not available since, like most of this stuff, it is classified). Despite this clear and widespread pattern of law-breaking, enormous efforts were made to immunize everyone who had participated in this lawless activity. In 2008, for example, a law was passed that retroactively immunized these telecom firms from lawsuits and criminal prosecution for their collusion with the US government in committing these illegal acts. Then, just yesterday, the Supreme Court blocked any possible legal recourse against these illegal activities by declining to review a lawsuit that had been filed against these telecom firms.

In much of the coverage of this issue, there is an enormous amount of straw manning. A Straw Man is a fallacy in which one intentionally distorts or misrepresents an opponent's position. We can see an excellent example of this in CNN's coverage of the Supreme Court refusal to review the issue. The headline for the article reads:

Court upholds U.S. gov't immunity in terror eavesdropping

And the first paragraph of the article says:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday left in place a law that allows the Justice Department to stop suits against telecommunications companies for participating in wiretaps of potential terrorists.
Both the headline and the opening paragraph completely distort the issue in question. Literally no one has ever suggested that the US government not spy on suspected terrorists. The issue here is that the government was not spying on suspected terrorists, it was spying on everybody regardless of any suspicion or evidence that the people being eavesdropped on were terrorists. To claim otherwise as CNN does in its article is to straw man opponents of illegal wiretapping as terrorist sympathizers when nothing could be further from the truth. The Supreme Court was not upholding the right of the government to eavesdrop on suspected terrosists, it was upholding the right of the government to eavesdrop on anyone for no reason. This is why this case is such a big deal because it demonstrates the further erosion of civil liberties that has occured since the terrorist attack of 9-11. That CNN so grossly misreports this issue is another telling sign of how broken the media system in the US really is.

Here is Glenn Greenwald discussing the issue and providing his, as always, insightful analysis.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More security, as long as I don't have to pay for it!

After the tragic assault on the US embassy in Libya which killed four Americans including the US Ambassador to Libya, there has been an enormous push to politicize the event. This is not surprising given that we are in the middle of a close presidential race and both sides seek to exploit this event for their own advantage. As should also come as no surprise the Republican effort to politicize this event involves claiming that embassy security was understaffed and underfunded and attempting to blame Obama for this. Unfortunately, as this video from Media Matters shows, there are some inconsistencies in the Republican argument:


So, Congressman Jason Chaffetz is arguing that Pres. Obama should have put more money and staffing into embassy security even though he himself voted to reduce funding for the state department. This is a great example of an inconsistency as Chaffetz's own political position directly contradict the claims he is making about security funding for embassies. It takes remarkable chutzpah to claim that the president should increase embassy security at the same time you are voting to reduce funding for it. This is a great example of inconsistency, and also an important lesson about the politicization of tragedy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

You feel what you see

In a blog post today, Dr. Steven Novella discusses an article recently published in the journal Perception. This article, titled "Visual influence on haptic torque perception" looks at how our brains integrate the inputs from our different senses to create a unified, cohesive picture of the world. In particular, in this study the researchers had subjects hold a stick that was weighted to one side or the other and the subjects were asked to determine on which side the stick was weighted (the weighting of the stick produces torque, hence the title of the paper). Not surprisingly, subject could generally tell by touch which side of the stick was weighted. The really interesting aspect of the study is that the researchers then projected an image of the stick to the research subjects. In some cases the image was veridical (accurately showing which side the weight was one), in other cases the image was flipped so that the weight appeared to be on the opposite side of where it actually was. In these cases, the flipped image cased many of the subjects to perceive the weight as being on the opposite of the side it was actually on. In other words, the subject's perception of the object influenced how the object felt! Proof that in many cases we feel what we see.

As Dr. Novella notes, there was a certain threshold such that the effect disappeared when using really large weights. In addition, the illusion persisted even when subjects were aware that they were being tricked. In other words, even when subjects knew the weight was on the right, if they saw a visual image of the weight on the left, it felt to them as if the weight was on the left!

This all reinforces the idea that our brains do not passively receive an impression of the world from the senses, but instead play an active role in constructing our reality. This is further evidence that we need to be wary about basing conclusion on our own experience or the experience of others because our perceptual faculties can lead us to be systematically deceived, even in situations where we are aware that a deception is occurring.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why texting while driving is a bad idea

Today I want to turn again to the issue of perception. Before I discuss the topic for today, I want you to watch this video. Then, below the fold I will discuss some of the interesting implications that this video has for our understanding of human perception.



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Reality has a well-known liberal bias

Wishful Thinking is a fallacy in which on argues that something is true because she wants it to be true. As should be clear, this is a fallacy because the universe is generally indifferent to what we want. Reality is objective and wishing things worked differently is not going to make them happen. In my daily reading of the news I cam across this story on Salon.com about a website, UnSkewed Polls which claims to correct for liberal bias in all national polls. According to the author of this site, all national polls are skewed towards the democrats due to liberal bias among the pollsters. The author then claims to be able to correct for this bias, and when he does so, it appears that Romney is leading Obama by 7-10 points, a significant margin.

The basic "methodology" if we can call it that, is to assume that the votes of Republicans are under-counted, so the author simply reweights the polls so that, in his opinion, Republicans are no longer under-counted. For example, the author assumes that 34% of voters are Republicans. So, if a poll shows that only 24% of the respondents are Republicans, then the data must be skewed. So, the author reweights the data as if those 24% of respondents actually accounted for 34% of respondents. Basically he just gives more weight to the polling data of people identified as Republicans. Unsurprisingly, this reweighting seems to always lead to Republican dominance in the polling. Basically he is counting each Republican vote multiple times, which naturally leads to Republican dominance in the polling. If you don't believe that this is what the author is doing, you can read the details of this "methodology" here.

As should be obvious, this is a classic example of wishful thinking. The author doesn't like how reality is structured, so he just wishes up a new reality and assumes that to be correct. The problem, of course, is that the people who conduct the polling are really quite good at it, and very good at correcting for various biases. As Nate Silver of the NY Times notes:
First, the polling by this time in the cycle has been reasonably good, especially when it comes to calling the winners and losers in the race. Of the 19 candidates who led in the polls at this stage since 1936, 18 won the popular vote (Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 is the exception), and 17 won the Electoral College (Al Gore lost it in 2000, along with Mr. Dewey).
If the author of UnSkewed Polls was correct that polls have a statistically significant liberal bias, then why are they accurate predictors of the winner of the popular vote 94% of the time? If such liberal bias was infecting the polls, we wouldn't see them as accurate predictors of the winner so often. Thus, the only way the author of Unskewed Polls can object to polling data is by making up his own methodology that tells him what he wants to hear. As Stephen Colbert famously remarked concerning George W. Bush's falling approval ratings:
Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias ...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Big Pharma Hides the Truth

The science columnist, author, and academic Dr. Ben Goldacre, has just written a new book about the pharmaceutical industry, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. In connection with the publication of this book, The Guardian has published an excerpt. In this excerpt, Goldacre discusses a number of fallacies regularly committed by the pharmaceutical companies in their efforts to get their drugs approved for use by various government regulatory agencies. We can see these fallacies clearly exemplified in Dr. Goldacre's discussion of the anti-depressant reboxetine.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Two Dimensional Eyes, Three Dimensional World

Having taken a break from perception to discuss some of the latest political idiocy, I want to conclude my posting this week with a little more discussion of perception. My comments here are taken from the excellent, interactive website on the brain published by McGill University. They have an excellent section on perception which discusses vision from the molecular level all the way to the social.

One facet of the site that really caught my attention was the discussion one of the major sources of visual ambiguity, which is the fact that our visual system, specifically our retina, is only capable of taking in information about a two-dimensional world, yet our brain is able to create the visual impression of living in a three-dimensional world. Let me quote the explanation from the website:
One important source of ambiguity for the visual system is that the world is three-dimensional, but the images that it projects onto your retina are two-dimensional. Hence differing objects, depending on their distance and orientation, may occupy the same amount of surface area on your retina. Your brain therefore becomes confused, and tries to use other indicators to clarify the situation. Two such indicators are your own past experience with the object in question and the experience of the human species, which is encoded in your genes.
 They even include a helpful picture which shows how three different objects could produce the same image on our retinas:


This ties in nicely with the waterfall illusion I discussed earlier. The key there was that the impression of an impossible object was created through perspective. The artist was able to create what appeared to be an impossible object in the real world by exploiting the fact that our retinas can only receive information two-dimensionally. Thus, when we observe these different objects from the correct perspective, they appear to be one unified, impossible object.

A further illustration can be found on this interactive webpage.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

They're coming to cut your throat! And they have Korans!

On the September 18th edition of the Fox News show Your World with Neil Cavuto filmmaker Michael Lynch was interviewed about his new movie about illegal immigration. In the course of this interview Lynch commits a number of fallacies:


The most obvious fallacy is the use of Scare Tactics. Note that the video start with a news report about a prison break on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border. Cavuto and Lynch then imply that all 130 of these prisoners are extremely violent and that they are making a beeline for the US. Note as well that we are told nothing about the prisoners. For all we know they may all have committed the Mexican equivalent of white collar crimes and are non-violent offenders. Even assuming that they are violent offenders, there is no evidence that every single one of them (or any of them) will head to the US. For all we know these escaped prisoners may make an effort to reunite with their families in Mexico. Furthermore, it is even possible that some of the prisoners are US citizens. We have no idea, the report gives us no information, but tries to scare us and make us afraid of all the murderous violent immigrants who are heading are way.

Lynch then almost immediately invokes 9-11, attempting to draw a link between illegal immigrants snaking across the US-Mexico border and terrorism. At this point it is worth noting that none of the 9-11 hijackers entered the US this way. All of them exploited legal means of entry. This is clearly an example of a False Analogy, as it is wildly inappropriate to invoke 9-11 when discussing the status of the US-Mexico border. Lynch doubles-down on this false analogy when he claims that someone is finding Korans and prayer rugs in the middle of the desert. I have no idea if this claim is true, but I find it highly suspicious. If in fact Muslim terrorists were sneaking across the US-Mexico border, I doubt that they would be scattering their holy book across the middle of nowhere.

From this Lynch then employs another Scare Tactic, claiming that not everyone is coming to the US to cut your lawn, some of them are coming to cut your throat. Again, no evidence or statistics are provided for this claim, Lynch just asserts it with the obvious intention of scaring the Fox News viewers into buying his movie.

We then see a nice example of Inconsistency when Cavuto asks Lynch why immigrants are coming to the US and Lynch responds, "Jobs," thereby directly contradicting his earlier assertion that at least some of the immigrants were coming to commit murder.

Lynch then transitions to an Appeal to Authority citing a positive review from some Fox News celebrity as evidence that his movie is worthwhile and important.

Finally he concludes with the classic huckster's pitch claiming that he has secret information that "They" (whoever "they" are) don't want you to see. In this connection Lynch implies that there is some large-scale conspiracy devoted to suppressing the truths that he, as a normal, hard-working American, is trying to expose. In general, when someone cites a conspiracy as the reason why no one will show their movie, we need to seriously consider the possibility that no one will distribute or screen the film because it sucks, not because it reveals some uncomfortable truth.

h/t to Media Matters

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don't go chasing waterfalls. You just run around in circles.

Most people are familiar with this very famous optical illusion designed by M.C. Escher:


This illusion works because Escher is exploiting the way our brains perceive perspective in order to create a visual paradox. Most artists use these rules of perspective to create realistic three dimensional images on a two-dimensional piece of paper, but Escher is manipulating these rules to create this famous illusion.

Despite the fact that this illusion has its origins in the exploitation of rules of perspective in drawing, it turns out that one can actually build such an object in the real world! A video is below the jump.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In the eye of the beholder

One of the coolest things about optical illusions is what they reveal about how human perception works. One of my favorite optical illusions in this respect is the Checkershadow illusion discovered and analyzed by Edward H. Adelson in 1995. Here is the illusion:


The trick here is to look at squares A and B. B obviously appears to be a much lighter shade of gray than A. However, if we isolate the two squares from the larger context, we can actually see that they are the same shade of gray. This gif below the jump illustrates that point:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pareidolia!

Last week I talked a great deal about audio pareidolia and audio illusions generally. This week I want to spend some time on the visual. As a reminder, Pareidolia is a phenomenon in which vague or random stimuli are perceived as significant or meaningful.

For some reason I have been running across many examples of visual pareidolia, so I thought I would share them on the blog. This first image is a nice example of pareidolia on a tree:


I assume everyone can see the owl face in the tree.
This next example of pareidolia comes from an overhead image of some flamingos, ironically in the shape of a flamingo:


This last image is one of the most common types of pareidolia, an image in the clouds:


So, there are three nice examples of visual pareidolia. I will post more visual illusions in the upcoming days.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The McGurk Effect

On the webpage were I found the example of audio pareidolia I discussed last time, there was also a video talking about something I had never heard of before, the McGurk effect. The video does an excellent job explaining the effect and what is going on with it:


There are a few interesting points from this video that I wanted to highlight. First, this effect really demonstrates the role our brains play in constructing our experience of the external world. The brain takes in stimuli from the various senses, and then seeks to integrate those stimuli into a cohesive whole which is what we then experience. We do not directly access the world through our senses, rather our brains construct the reality we experience. A second interesting feature of the McGurk effect is that it demonstrates the primacy of visual stimuli over auditory stimuli. When there is a conflict between the two (as when we hear the word "ba" but see the speaker moving his lips as if he were saying "fa") our brain privileges the visual and corrects what we hear to match what we are seeing. This is closely related to the audio pareidolia I discussed in my previous post where the captioning really assists one in hearing what is being sung. A third interesting feature of the McGurk effect is that this is a perceptual illusion that we can't avoid hearing. Even if we know that the word being said is "ba," when our eyes see the lip movement for "fa" we can't help by hearing "fa." This demonstrates that even when our perceptual faculties are functioning perfectly, we can still succumb to systematic unavoidable errors.

The take away from this (as with all perceptual illusions) is that we should recognize the unreliability of our experience and the experience of others. This is why when someone relates some incredible, unbelievable experience that they had, we should be skeptical about the veracity of that experience. This is also why anecdotes and eyewitness accounts are so unreliable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Green Chalk Can Taste Like Hippies

In a previous post I discussed the phenomena of pareidolia, which is when our brain interprets random stimuli as being meaningful or significant. This phenomena is most common with visual perception, but it also occurs with auditory perception. Here is a funny example:


The song in question is "O Fortuna" and you have probably heard it before in movies and other media. It is based on a Latin poem written in the 13th Century and then set to music by Carl Orff in the 1930's. What I find interesting about this example of pareidolia is the role that the captioning plays. I have heard this song numerous times, but I never really paid attention to the lyrics until I came across this video. With the captions in front of me it then becomes very hard to not hear silly things in the song. And this suggests how our brains construct reality for us, taking in information from all the senses and then processing it to create a unified, meaningful experience of the world around us. I will talk more about this in subsequent posts.

Here are some other good examples of audio pareidolia. If anyone has any other examples, or perhaps song lyrics that you have always misheard, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sen. Paul, perhaps you should educate yourself before you get angry.

We live in a very interesting time in American politics. We live in a time when people who are the most outraged about an issue are also the people who know the least about it. As a case in point, watch this exchange between Sen. Rand Paul and Paul Krugman about the number of public employees in the US under Bush and Obama:


Sen. Paul is very concerned about the size of the government, but as Krugman notes in the video and at his blog, the size of the government has shrunk dramatically under Pres. Obama. In fact, as Krugman argues, this is one of the major reasons the recession has dragged on for so long. Now in fairness to Sen. Paul, employment at the federal level has increased slightly from about 2.77 million in 2008 to about 2.8 million now, but that certainly isn't an "enormous" growth of government as Sen. Paul suggests. Furthermore, given that state and local governments have been slashing jobs at an enormous rate, the total number of government employees (Federal, State and Local combined) is down about 600,000.

Yet, despite these facts, Sen. Paul seems outraged at the size of the government. What are we to do when people become outraged about topics they appear to know nothing about? Our post-truth election continues.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Red Herrings in AP "Fact-Checking"

Fact-Checking is apparently a big thing these days (particularly in the wake of Paul Ryan's falsehood-filled speech at the Republican National Convention), with everyone trying to get in on the game. However, not all fact-checkers are created equal. In the AP "Fact-Checking" of Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention by Matt Apuzzo, there is a great example of a Red Herring:
CLINTON: "Their campaign pollster said, 'We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.' Now that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."
THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were "legally accurate" but also allowed that he "misled people, including even my wife."
As you can see, this comment on the speech really doesn't address the claim that Bill Clinton made, but rather tries to change the subject by introducing an irrelevant consideration, namely Bill Clinton's conduct during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. While it is true that Clinton has been deceptive and slippery in the past, that is completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the Romney campaign is being honest. The fact is, Romney's campaign manager did say the quote attributed to him, and for the AP to ignore that and instead start talking about the Lewinsky affair is a perfect example of a Red Herring.

h/t Alex Pareene

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage Lies and Distortions

On the Minnesota ballot in November is a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage by defining marriage as between one man and one woman. As is always the case when these issues come up a great deal of money is spent by people on both sides of the campaign. One group in favor of the proposed amendment is Minnesota for Marriage which has produced a series of web videos arguing in favor of the proposed amendment. In their latest video they have invoked a recent study that they claim shows that couples raised by homosexual parents do far worse on a variety of measures than children raised by heterosexual parents. Watch the video, and then I will discuss a fallacy committed by it.

The primary fallacy committed in this video is the Suppression of Relevant Data. In particular, the actual results of the study are seriously misrepresented in the video. In particular, what the video fails to mention is that the study does not actually compare children raised by heterosexual parents with children raised by homosexual parents. Instead, it is a study of children raised in families where one of the parents engaged in a same-sex affair, often resulting in the destruction of the that family unit. In particular, the study only looks at children born between 1971 and 1994, a period when gay marriage was illegal. The study then looks at marriages in which at least one of the partners had homosexual tendencies that they suppressed in order to lead a "normal" life. As is no surprise, for many of these people the burdens of a sham marriage and the pressures to hide their true desires led them to act out in various ways that were destructive of that marriage; a destruction that naturally had negative impacts on the children born of that union. In effect then, what the study shows is that children from broken households do worse than children from intact households, a conclusion that should surprise no one. The study is criticized in Slate by William Saletan who does a good job pointing out the methodological issues with the study that lead groups like Minnesota for Marriage to misrepresent the results of the study. Saletan concludes by suggesting that what the study really shows is that:
Kids do better when they have two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home. If that’s good advice for straights, it’s good advice for gays, too.
This seems accurate, but that is a point that Minnesota for Marriage ignores by suppressing the actual details of the study in order to draw their own ideological conclusions.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ryan's Weasel Words and Smoke Screen

It appears that the media narrative about Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican National Convention taking hold is that Ryan was a liar. When Matt Lauer of NBC is calling you a liar on the Today Show, this suggests that the Mainstream Media media has turned against you:


This may not mean much to the Ryan faithful since in our post-truth election environment, people just choose what they want to believe regardless of the facts, but it is still nice to see some in the media actually do their job.

I however, want to focus less on the lies (I have done that elsewhere) and instead focus on Ryan's response as it gives us a nice example of Weasel Words and Smoke Screen. Weasel Words are words inserted into a claim that make it weaker than it initially appears while a Smoke Screen is when one responds to a claim or issue by throwing out a bunch of facts and information that obscure the original point being made. It is a version of a Red Herring.

The first thing to note about Ryan's response to Lauer's question is that he doesn't directly address the point being made about the general dishonesty in the speech, but instead focuses on one particular claim of dishonesty, in effect trying to make it appear that the only falsehood he is accused of is the bit about the closing of the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan then references the Weasel Words he employed in the speech to suggest that he wasn't really blaming Obama for the plant closure, but merely offering it as an example of one of Obama's many broken promises. This is, of course, technically true, but that is the point of Weasel Words. They allow you to make one claim, but then if you are challenged, as Ryan was by Lauer, you can then hide behind those Weasel Words and claim you are being mischaracterized.

Lauer then challenges Ryan on this very point, but Ryan just ignores the charge and launches into a lengthy Smoke Screen about all the broken promises made by Obama. This is all true, but irrelevant to the question of whether or not Ryan lied in his Convention speech. This is exactly what one tries to do with a Smoke Screen: obscure the original point of the conversation (that Ryan is a liar) by throwing out a bunch of tangentially related information that subtly serves to change the topic.

h/t to Prachi Gupta

Monday, September 3, 2012

Paul Ryan's Inconsistent Address

Much ink has been spilled concerning the various lies and distortions in Paul Ryan's address at the Republican National Convention, but I want to focus on an Inconsistency he commits. As a reminder, Inconsistency occurs when one part of a persons argument contradicts another part of that argument. Let's look at the relevant passages (a transcript can be found here). First, Ryan attacks Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare (it is actually not a cut, but a plan to reform Medicare Advantage reduce reimbursement rates to doctors, thereby saving $716 billion). About this, Ryan said:
You see, even with all the hidden taxes to pay for the health care takeover, even with new taxes on nearly a million small businesses, the planners in Washington still didn't have enough money. They needed more. They needed hundreds of billions more. So, they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama. An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn't even ask for. The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it.
In Congress, when they take out the heavy books and wall charts about Medicare, my thoughts go back to a house on Garfield Street in Janesville. My wonderful grandma, Janet, had Alzheimer's and moved in with Mom and me. Though she felt lost at times, we did all the little things that made her feel loved.
We had help from Medicare, and it was there, just like it's there for my Mom today. Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it. A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my Mom's generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours.
Ignoring for the moment that Ryan's own budget plan makes nearly identical cuts, and that restoring such cuts would actually speed up the point at which Medicare would become insolvent and increase premiums for seniors, he goes in in the speech to argue for the need to cut entitlements:
None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.
So, he will defend entitlements like Medicare by restoring a cut made to it, thereby increasing its size, but at the same time will reduce entitlements.  I think Matt Taibbi summarized this argument best as:
My fellow Americans, whatever Barack Obama is doing with Medicare, it's bad, and we promise to reverse it!
(APPLAUSE)
And not only that, we'll go even further in cutting wasteful entitlements from our bloated government budget!
(APPLAUSE)
And here we can clearly see the inconsistency in the argument. On one hand he will defend entitlements, but on the other hand he will cut them.  So, which one is it?