Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Oxford Comma

For those not in the know, an Oxford comma (also called a serial comma) is a comma placed before a coordinating conjunction in a list. For example:
He went to the grocery store, the bank, and the mall.
The Oxford comma is a stylistic choice, but it is one that I am fond of because it helps eliminate ambiguity. For example:

In this screenshot, the information from Sky News lacks the Oxford comma, and ends up being guilty of amphiboly by making it sound as if Obama and Castro have set the date for their same-sex marriage. Without the comma the sentence is ambiguous and can be interpreted in several ways. With the inclusion of an Oxford comma the sentence would read as follows:
Top Stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake, and same-sex marriage date set...
With the inclusion of the Oxford comma it becomes clear that these are three, distinct news stories, not two stories, one about the Mandela tribute and one about the Obama-Castro relationship. Because it helps avoid these kinds of ambiguity, I am a fan of the Oxford comma.

h/t to George Takei

Friday, December 13, 2013

Are all American wars sold the same way?

I blogged previously about the circular argument made by Dick Cheney to garner support for the US invasion of Iraq. In that example, Vice-President Dick Cheney leaked information to the New York Times, and then cited the Times reporting as evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now we are seeing the current administration (particularly Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain) try to pull a similar scam. 

This time the story begins with an op-ed by Elizabeth O'Bagy published this week in the Wall Street Journal. The thrust of the op-ed was to argue that the rebel forces in Syria are not all allied with Islamic fundamentalists and that were they to gain power they would oppose those forces and support democracy in Syria. This op-ed was then quoted by Sen. McCain as part of a question directed to Sec. Kerry in an attempt to alleviate concerns that bombing the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad would inadvertently assist Al Qaeda:


Secretary Kerry then later endorsed that op-ed and recommended it to other members of Congress to help them make a decision about whether or not to support attacks on Syria.

What the Wall Street Journal, O'Bagy, Kerry, and McCain all neglected to mention (that is until some actual reporting from folks at The Daily Caller and the Huffington Post) was that O'Bagy is actually paid by the US Government to advocate on behalf of the Syrian rebels. As a result of this reporting, the Wall Street Journal has since added the following to the original op-ed by O'Bagy:
In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O'Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition.
To summarize, O'Bagy is paid by the US Government to provide aid to Syrian rebels. She then writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal advocating for increased aid to the Syrian rebels. Agents of the US Government then cite her op-ed as part of their argument for increasing aid to the Syrian rebels (in this case by damaging the military capabilities of the Syrian government)! This is an excellent example of a Circular Argument in that the government is basically paying someone to advocate for policies. This advocacy is then cited as independent evidence of the wisdom of pursuing those policies. Once again everything moves in a giant circle, and those of us who paid attention during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq are struck with the most disturbing sense of deja vu as we see the same tricks and lies used to sell that war trotted out just a decade later to try and sell America on another war.

UPDATE: It turns out that O'Bagy is also a liar. She doesn't have a PhD and has been fired from the Institute for the Study of War.

UPDATE II: Despite the lies and misinformation that she has spewed, Elizabeth O'Bagy (like many conservative commentators) keeps falling upwards. Though she was unsuccessful in getting the US to attack Syria, John McCain has recognized her valiant efforts on his behalf and has gone ahead and hired her as a legislative assistant. Apparently in conservative circles no bad deed goes unrewarded.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Obama's Katrinas (Yes, there's more than one)

This looks like a failed website right?
So far we have seen Obamacare compared to Hitler and to Slavery, events that took place before most people in the US were born. Now I want to look at a more contemporary comparison in which the Affordable Care Act is seen as Obama's Katrina. Here is the New York Times:
The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.
This is a completely mistaken analogy as it utterly misses why Katrina was such a disaster for President Bush. As Digby put it, "The reason Bush was tarred with his Katrina response is because he acted like he didn't give a damn. And it came out of a long series of problems in Iraq and after revelations that his administration had blown off warnings about 9/11." By contrast, Obama clearly cares about the Affordable Care Act as it is the defining piece of his presidency, and will likely be remembered decades after he has left office. In addition, it is unclear how problems with a website can be legitimately compared to a natural disaster that destroyed a city. Furthermore, Obamacare appears to be at least the 8th Katrina that Obama has weathered. From Think Progress
1. BP Oil Spill
“[I]t’s getting baked in a little bit in the media that BP was President Obama’s Katrina.” [NBC News, Brian Williams, 8/29/10]
2. Bank Bailout
“A CHARMING visit with Jay Leno won’t fix it. A 90 percent tax on bankers’ bonuses won’t fix it. Firing Timothy Geithner won’t fix it. Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed. It would be foolish to dismiss as hyperbole the stark warning delivered by Paulette Altmaier of Cupertino, Calif., in a letter to the editorpublished by The Times last week: ‘President Obama may not realize it yet, but his Katrina moment has arrived.’” [New York Times, Frank Rich, 3/21/09]
3. Benghazi Consulate Attack And The IRS
“When House Republicans decided to reopen investigations into the White House and State Department response to the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, few thought it would inflict any serious damage to the president. Then came an admission from the IRS that it had unfairly singled out conservative groups for scrutiny during the 2012 campaign…This is President Obama’s Katrina moment. If he cannot regain control of the narrative, he will face the same loss of public confidence suffered by President Bush.” [Baltimore Sun, 5/19/13, Todd Eberly]
4. Hurricane Sandy
“I want to show you this report by our own David Lee Miller of a public housing unit in New Jersey, and — I’m sorry, in Brooklyn — devastated. This is Obama’s Katrina. And now the people are seeing that the gas lines and the suffering and the millions without power, the millions without heat, the millions — the ten and thousands that have lost their homes, and the cries for help.” [Fox News, Sean Hannity, 11/5/12]
5. Unemployment
“‘Will The Unemployment Crisis Be Obama’s Katrina?’ There’s a Category 5 storm about to make landfall, and the president and the officials in charge of preparing for the approaching disaster don’t seem to be particularly worried. Sound familiar? Just as Katrina exposed critical weaknesses in the priorities and competence of the Bush administration, the unfolding unemployment disaster is threatening to do the same for the Obama White House.” [Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, 11/23/09]
6. The Underwear Bomber
“To the list of phrases it may be best for political leaders to avoid after a major security incident, add ‘the system worked’ right after ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.’ Just as the public did not really share President George W. Bush’s assessment of how things were going after Hurricane Katrina, so too was there a good deal of skepticism when President Obama’s homeland security secretary declared faith in a system that failed to stop a guy who tried to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day.” [New York Times, 12/29/09]
7. Haiti Earthquake
“‘Haiti: Obama’s Katrina.’ Four years ago the initial medical response to Hurricane Katrina was ill equipped, understaffed, poorly coordinated and delayed. Criticism of the paltry federal efforts was immediate and fierce. Unfortunately, the response to the latest international disaster in Haiti has been no better, compounding the catastrophe.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/25/10]
8. Obamacare
“‘Health Law Rollout’s Stumbles Draw Parallels to Bush’s Hurricane Response.’ President Obama is now threatened by a similar toxic mix. The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.” [New York Times, 11/14/13]
At some point, journalists need to stop trotting out these tired cliches. They don't really shed any insight into the issue, and just serve to confuse the readers and watchers of these various media outlets. Clearly the Affordable Care Act has problems, but these problems can't be effectively addressed if people continue to make historically inaccurate comparisons that just obscure the real problems. Then again, maybe that is the point of all these false analogies. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Many False Analogies around Obamacare

A small tax penalty is clearly equivalent to the extermination of 6 million jews, homosexuals and other "undesirables."
Today I thought I would do a roundup of the some false analogies related to the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as "Obamacare." As a quick reminder, a false analogy is when one makes a comparison that isn't really apt or correct. The examples I am going to look at below are all versions of hyperbole in which the comparison is inappropriate because it is wildly exaggerated. 

The first comes from an interview between Steve Inskeep of NPR and conservative political columnist George Will. In discussing the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act Will makes the following comparison:
I mean I hear Democrats say the Affordable Care Act is the law, as though we're supposed to genuflect at that sunburst of insight and move on. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law - lots of things were the law and then we changed them. And this is a part of the bruising, untidy, utterly democratic technique for changing laws.
For those who don't know, the Fugitive Slave Act was a law passed in the US in 1850 that required that all captured slaves (even those captured in states where slavery was illegal) had to be returned to their owners. Furthermore it enacted various penalties for those who harbored escaped slaves or failed to return them to their owners. Overall it was one of the more shameful pieces of legislation passed in the US. Will, naturally, compares this law to a law that gives everyone access to healthcare. That this comparison is completely hyperbolic should be fairly obvious. What is surprising is that other conservatives have made the same analogy.

This story from Salon gives another example, this time from Rep. William O'Brian of New Hampshire. In an interview with the Manchester Union Leader he made the following comment, “Just as the Fugitive Slave Act was an overreach by the federal government, so too we understand that Obamacare is an assault on the rights of individuals.” The author of the Salon story, Steven Lubet, does a very nice job of explaining why this analogy is so bad, writing:
So let’s get this straight. The Fugitive Slave Act facilitated one of the greatest wrongs in human history, while the Affordable Care Act imposes a small tax penalty on individuals who choose to forgo health insurance. There is no “just as” relationship between the two statutes, other than in the fevered imagination of Tea Partyers like William O’Brien [or conservative commentators like George Will - Ian]. Even if one philosophically opposes Obamacare’s individual mandate, the imposition on personal liberty is minimal. Nobody who truly understands slavery – or who cares about honesty in American history – would ever compare the rendition of slaves to national health insurance.
The upshot of all of these is that in order to compare the Affordable Care Act to slavery or Hitler requires a willful ignorance of history. And that is why these analogies are false.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Audio Pareidolia: "All wrapped up like a douche" Edition.



The video above does a nice job of demonstrating the phenomenon of audio Pareidolia in which our brain tries to impose meaning on what would appear to be random noise or stimuli. In the case of these examples, unlike more traditional examples of pareidolia, there are actual words and sentences being sung, but the way they are articulated and modified in order to be "musical" makes them ripe for misinterpretation.

This video is also a nice example of another phenomenon, which is the way our brain processes stimuli from different senses in order to create a unified picture of the world. I talked about this before in my discussion of the McGurk Effect. In the case of this video, the visual cues from the subtitles prime our brain to interpret the lyrics to fit the subtitles. This can create a bit of a disconnect in the viewer, particularly when confronted by a song with which one is very familiar. In these cases, it become much harder to "mishear" the lyrics. By contrast, for songs with which I am unfamiliar, all I can hear are the incorrect lyrics. In either case this is a nice demonstration of the fact that humans are not passive receivers of perceptual stimuli, but rather actively modify that stimuli in order to create a coherent and unified picture of the external world.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Concentration of Local Media


Bill Moyers has published a map that shows how media concentration has increased dramatically since 1996. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the graphic to embed well on this site, so you will have to be satisfied by this link.

This is an excellent illustration of the first component of Chomsky and Hermann's Propaganda Model of Media.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Anamorphis

Anamorphis is a distorted image that, when viewed from a particular angle or perspective appears normal. The following video, which I believe is an ad for Ray-Ban sunglasses, gives an impressive example of anamorphis.



This again demonstrates how much our perception of reality is a product of our particular perspective or the angle from which we view the image. Special thanks are due to one of my students at Cuyamaca, who found this example as part of a homework assignment in my Critical Thinking class.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Power of Barking


Saw this on Facebook and I couldn't resist. This is a great example of a Post hoc fallacy. The dog thinks that because she barks and then the mailman doesn't murder the family that the barking causes the mailman to not murder. The post hoc in a nutshell.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Another great example of change blindness.

While reading Cracked.com the other day, I came across another great example of change-blindness. For those who don't know, this is a psychological phenomenon in which people fail to notice some change that has taken place around them. The basic explanation for this phenomenon is that we have a limited amount of attention. Thus, when we are paying attention to one thing, we often don't notice other things that are going on around us because all our attentional energy is already in use. Furthermore, when we aren't paying attention to something, our brain will fill in the details surrounding that thing we are focusing on. Thus, when a change occurs and we are focused on something else, we often don't notice it. This, for example, helps explain why texting while driving is such a bad idea. When we are focused on a text message we don't notice what is going on around us, and can miss changes in the driving environment (such as a car stopping in front of us) that demand attention.

In the following video we can see a great example of change blindness.



The basic explanation here seems to be that because the person in the video doesn't think he will see the person asking for directions ever again, the brain no longer pays attention to him, and basically "forgets" what he looks like. Thus, when a new person appears many people don't notice that a change has occurred. This is another fascinating exploration of human psychology and perception, and should once again lead us to a little epistemic humility about what we think we have seen and what we think we know.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Climate Change, Arctic Ice, and Statistics


As some of you may know, 2012 was a record low for Arctic sea ice. This year, Arctic sea ice has increased by 60%, and some are using this fact to argue that global warming is not real. However, those making this case do not understand how statistics work. In particular, they fail to understand a statistical phenomenon known as Regression to the Mean. The basic idea here is that if one has a measurement that is particularly extreme, then the next measurement will be much closer to the average or mean. In the case of Arctic sea ice, since 2012 was a record low, we would expect that in the next year we would see an increase. As Dr. Steven Novella puts it in reference to the image above:
Dana Nuccitelli at The Guardian has a nice graphic showing Arctic sea ice trends from 1980 to this year.  In this graph you can see the background fluctuation year to year, but also the clear downward trend overall. Another trend is also apparent – following any year with a record low Arctic ice measurement, the following year is likely to have increased total ice. This is simply regression to the mean. In any fluctuating system, extreme values are likely to be followed more average values. [sic]
The upshot of this is that when we are looking at a complex phenomenon like climate change, we need to look at the whole picture to understand what is going on. If we simply pull out a small segment of the entire picture, say by just focusing on the years 2012 and 2013 (an example of Cherry Picking) it can seem like global warming is on the wane. However, if we pull back and take a broader look we can see that the trend for Arctic sea ice clearly shows that the amount is decreasing over time. And this provides further evidence that global warming is a real phenomenon.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This is not photoshopped!


This neat image is not photoshopped, or digitally manipulated in any significant way. It is merely a trick of perspective created by the photographer Bela Barsodi as an album cover for the band VLP. If we shift our angle slightly, we see that it looks like this:


This again demonstrates how easily our perceptions of reality can be tricked by something as simple as the perspective from which we view. Looking at the image from one angle we see something that looks completely fake and artificial. Moving slightly to the left we can see that what we originally saw was just a trick of how our brains process visual images. There are numerous similar examples of these sorts of things, and I will feature more of them in future posts.

In closing, here is a nifty little video of the shot being composed:


h/t to Cracked.com

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How healthy is "healthy"?

Mmmmm Donuts
The above picture is a real product, recently announced by Dunkin' Donuts. As you can see, it is an egg and bacon sandwich served on a glazed donut sliced in half. It's quite brilliant really, but I don't want to evaluate this on it's culinary merits. Instead, I want to take a look at some of the efforts made by Dunkin' Donuts to help their customers make "Better-for-you choices that keep you running." Now the Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich is not one of these "better-for-you choices," but what is surprising is that, at 360 calories, the Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich has 30 less calories than one of these DDSmart choices, the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, which has 390 calories. Furthermore, the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich is advertised on the Dunkin' Donuts website with the following copy:

Turkey Sausage Done Right

Eating right can still taste great. Our Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich is under 400 calories, and big on taste.
The clear implication here is that the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich is "right" and is a "smart" choice (or at least "DDSMART"), but it is, in many respects, a less healthy choice than the Glazed Breakfast Donut Sandwich. We can certainly argue about what counts as "healthy." The Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich has less fat and sugar and more protein and fiber, but it is also higher in sodium and cholesterol than the Glazed Breakfast Donut Sandwich. The point is, it is very misleading for Dunkin' Donuts to identify one item as "smart" or "right" (as near as I can see they don't ever use the words "healthy" or "healthier"), because this creates the impression in an uninformed consumer that by eating this piece of junk food they are being healthy. This highlights the importance of applying critical thinking to all aspects of our daily life, as well as the importance of understanding how words are defined and used. The folks at Dunkin' Donuts (or their ad agency) are purposely using deceptive language and Weasel Words to create the impression that eating some of their products is part of a healthy lifestyle; a claim that is controversial at best.

h/t to the New York Daily News

Friday, September 6, 2013

Nicholas Kristof: Dumb or Dumber?

In his column today New York Times resident moron Nicholas Kristof "argues" in favor of a military strike by the US on Syria. I use quotation marks around argument because, as we will see, Kristof doesn't really have anything intelligent to say on this topic, and instead must resort to a bunch of False Dilemmas, Straw Men, Inconsistencies, and Non Sequiturs. Let's take a look.

Kristof begins by suggesting that the only alternative to fully supporting the Obama administration plan for military strikes on Syria is to do nothing. He writes:
To me, the central question isn’t, “What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?” I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It’s this: “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?” [Emphasis added]
This is a clear example of a Straw Man combined with a False Dilemma. The Straw Man occurs when he suggests that people who are opposed to a US strike on Syria are in favor of doing nothing. This is complete nonsense as many people have suggested other options for dealing with the ongoing civil war. Here are two: one from a former diplomat named Robert A. Pastor, and another from columnist David Sirota. One may disagree with the effectiveness of these approaches, but it is a false dilemma of gross proportions to suggest that the only two options are drop bombs or do nothing.

Kristof continues by suggesting that a limited bombing campaign would stem the violence in Syria. Ignoring the almost certain civilians casualties from these strikes, Kristof's claims make absolutely no sense on their face:
In Syria, it seems to me that cruise missile strikes might make a modest difference, by deterring further deployment of chemical weapons. Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.
By Kristof's own estimates, 165 people are killed daily in Syria, and the death toll from the Syrian conflict has been estimated at around 100,000. By contrast, the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria killed about 1500 people (I say "alleged" because we still don't have strong evidence other than reports from US officials that a chemical attack occurred, much less that the Syrian government was responsible). Following Kristof's logic, even if we could magically eliminate the Syrian government's chemical weapons capacity without harming any innocent civilians, this would have almost no impact on the magnitude of human death and suffering caused by the civil war. As others have noted, the Obama plan would not do anything to resolve the conflict, but would merely be a "face-saving" exercise for the US government.

Kristof does suggest and support the possibility of a more robust attack on the offensive capabilities of the Syrian government writing:
The Syrian government has also lately had the upper hand in fighting, and airstrikes might make it more willing to negotiate toward a peace deal to end the war. I wouldn’t bet on it, but, in Bosnia, airstrikes helped lead to the Dayton peace accord.
Missile strikes on Assad’s military airports might also degrade his ability to slaughter civilians. With fewer fighter aircraft, he may be less able to drop a napalm-like substance on a school, as his forces apparently did in Aleppo last month. [Emphasis added]
In his own comments he admits that he doesn't think a military strike would achieve the goals he wants to achieve in Syria! If so, why is he advocating such an attack? Furthermore, if we were successful in degrading the military capability of the Syrian  government, we would then be actively promoting one of the biggest concerns Kristof has about Syria:
The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die.
Kristof seems to fail to understand that one of the major forces opposing the Syrian government are folks allied with Al Qaeda. Thus, weakening and degrading the Assad regime would only strengthen Al Qaeda in Syria! Thus, Kristof's own argument in internally inconsistent! As Atrios notes, Kristof's plan seems to boil down to:
  1. Bomb
  2. ????
  3. ????
This means Kristof's logic is sub-underpants gnome.



And for this reason I ask again, "Is Kristof dumb or dumber?"

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syrian False Analogies

John Kerry having dinner with future Hitler Bashar Assad in 2009
With public opinion strongly opposed to a US intervention of any sort in Syria, government officials who back a US attack are turning to ever more strained analogies in an effort to drum up public and Congressional support. Coming as no surprise, Secretary of State John Kerry has gone ahead and invoked Godwin's law by comparing Syrian President Bashar Assad to Hitler, and has claimed that anything less than a military strike on Syria would be comparable to the 1938 Munich Agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain. As reported by Politico:
Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats that the United States faced a “Munich moment” in deciding whether to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
In a 70-minute conference call on Monday afternoon, Kerry derided Syrian President Bashar Assad as a “two-bit dictator” who will “continue to act with impunity,” and he urged lawmakers to back President Barack Obama’s plan for “limited, narrow” strikes against the Assad regime, Democratic sources on the call said.
As noted by Scott Lemieux, this is clearly a False Analogy:
Here’s the thing: for this to be a “Munich moment,” Assad would have to, you know, have both the desire and capacity to conquer most of the region. Since in fact it’s far from obvious that Assad will even be able to maintain power in his own country — let alone have the ability to overrun the Middle East — Assad isn’t a new Hitler and whatever he does Obama won’t be Chamberlain. And in this particular case the analogy goes beyond stupidity to being self-refuting — if Assad poses a threat comparable to Hitler in 1938, why only “limited” “surgical” airstrikes? Really, let’s leave these dumb analogies to fourth-tier winger bloggers, please. 
I couldn't have put it better myself.

h/t to Atrios

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Scientific American on Perception

In a story from Scientific American republished on Salon.com, Psychologist Keith Payne discuses some of the latest research on how our brains filter out information in constructing our view and perception of the world. In particular, he focuses on research that explores how our brains select what to focus on and how this focusing leads us to ignore other aspects of the world around us:
When you first learn about these studies they seem deeply strange. Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us? Is there some mysterious force screening what we see and what remains hidden? According to Neisser the answer is yes, we are constantly overlooking much of the world around us and no, there is nothing mysterious about it. The key is to realize that this is just what attention is: selectivity. For a brain with finite computing power, zooming in to focus on one thing always means picking up less information about everything else. That’s how we are able to concentrate on anything at all and leave behind the blooming, buzzing bundle of distraction that is the rest of the world. It is also why being absorbed in a basketball game renders us blissfully oblivious to all requests to take out the garbage. Prioritizing one thing and neglecting everything else are two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps even more disturbing, Payne and his research team conducted a number of studies looking at how the brain decides what to ignore and what to focus on:
Simple selectivity cannot be the end of the story, though, because recent research suggests that we miss some unattended things more than others. That’s right – the brain is selectively selective. In new research my colleagues Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, Sophie Trawalter, Kelly Hoffman and I pushed the idea of selective selectivity further by asking whether the unconscious screener might have priorities of its own. Scads of studies have suggested that the unconscious mind is riddled with stereotypes and biases, even among people who are consciously well intentioned. We asked whether the unconscious screener is prejudiced.
The answer to this question is, of course, yes. Our unconscious biases and prejudices dramatically structure our consciousness in ways that we are completely unaware of:
This simple two-step comparison can explain why emotional events like dangerous and sexy things break through, because goals as basic as having sex and not being eaten are always relevant. It is not yet clear how sophisticated the screener can be. Our findings of racial bias, however, suggest something new about the assumptions the unconscious makes. At a minimum, our findings imply that the unconscious can represent social goals such as looking for a friend, a date, or a co-worker. And it seems to have opinions about which kind of people are suitable for each. These kinds of distinctions are more sophisticated, and perhaps more disturbing, than we had assumed.
The upshot of all this is that we must constantly question many of the assumptions we make about the world, and realize that our personal experience of the world may be highly unreliable because of all these unconscious biases that structure how we perceive it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Paula Deen is MLK?

Note: This post was originally scheduled to go up in July, but for some reason it failed. I am posting it know unchanged because there are some good points in it.

For reasons that remain unclear, this seems to be a Glenn Beck kind of week. Yesterday I talked about some fallacious comments Rand Paul made on his show, and today I want to focus on some comments Beck made about the Paula Deen controversy.



I am particulalrly interested in two points that Beck makes. The first concerns his comment about how Paula Deen losing her Food Network show amounts to McCarthyism. This is a great example of a Slippery Slope as Beck is essentially arguing that a boycott of Deen will lead to something akin to the blacklists of the McCarthy era. Such a claim is, on its face, ludicrous as the McCarthy era was so disturbing because the government was using its powers to silence debate and punish individuals. By contrast, Deen is not having her contracts renewed because a private company, in the wake of a public backlash, no longer wants to be associated with her.

The second fallacy arises when Beck compares Deen to Martin Luther King Jr. This is clearly a False Analogy. In fact, the analogy is so false that I have difficulty even understanding what motivated the comparison in the first place. MLK was a civil rights leader who was assassinated for standing up for equality and civil rights. Paula Deen is a chef who said some nasty things and is not having some of hr contracts renewed as a result. One was killed, the other is inconvenienced. To even try to compare the two is hyperbolic and completely over the top. It also suggests that Beck is not really interested in having a conversation, but rather in making inflammatory comments to inspire and rile up his viewers. Surprise, surprise.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day from some A-hole at Fox News

On August 29, Fox New's The Five ended with this:


This clip is particularly interesting in that it appears the commentator Eric Boiling, while expressing concern for the free market, apparently has no idea how free markets work. This is an excellent example of Missing the Point. What Boiling fails to understand is that in a capitalist economic system, labor is also part of the free market economy, and is subject to the same forces. When workers go on strike for better wages, they are using their collective power to pressure employers to increase wages. If there is no demand for jobs at the current minimum wage or workers refuse to do those jobs at those wages, free market forces dictate that employers will have to raise wages until they are high enough that people will be willing to do the jobs at the wages being offered. Rather than being a threat to the free market, this demonstrates exactly how free markets are supposed to operate.

As many commentators to the Media Matters post noted, it is interesting that the conservative (perhaps that should be modern-day Republican) vision of the free market seems to consist entirely of the view that corporations should be allowed to do whatever they want and take whatever they want with no accountability. Oddly enough, this is a view that is diametrically opposed to how truly free markets actually operate.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Terrorism" as a concept grows more meaningless by the day.

In my class today we talked about vagueness, and by sheer coincidence I came across two stories in the news that show just how vague and meaningless the terms "Terrorism" and "Terrorist" have become in US and international discourse. In both cases it becomes clear that the word now means, "anyone who does something the government doesn't like, or who might possibly do something the government doesn't like at any point in the future."

The first story, reported by Germany's Der Spiegel, and picked up by Reuters, continues the series of revelations of the extent of the US government's spying apparatus. In this case the reports show that the US has successfully bugged over 80 embassies across the world, as well as bugging various UN facilities and organizations. According to Der Spiegel, "The surveillance is intensive and well organised and has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists..." Despite this, the US government continues to justify its wide ranging spy apparatus as responding to the threat of terrorism. Given the actions of the UK toward David Miranda and the US complicity in them as well as the massive scope of domestic spying in the US, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US and the UK governments literally regard every single person on the planet (and possibly those orbiting in space) as a terrorist or terrorism suspect.

Looking internationally, the second story I want to discuss notes that other governments (in this case the current military regime in Egypt) are taking note of how the US operates and are using the same techniques to suppress dissent and control their own populations.
Ten days ago, the police arrested two left-leaning Canadians — one of them a filmmaker specializing in highly un-Islamic movies about sexual politics — and implausibly announced that they were members of the Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group backing the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. In Suez this month, police and military forces breaking up a steelworkers strike charged that its organizers were part of a Brotherhood plot to destabilize Egypt.
Here we can see quite clearly that the Egyptian government is using the threat of Islamic terrorism to crack down on individuals and groups engaging in actions that are perceived as injurious or damaging to the current regime--a regime, it should be noted, that recently overthrew the democratically elected president of Egypt.

The one thread that unites these disparate stories from across the world is that the term "terrorism" is being exploited by governments to consolidate power over their populations. And this is because a word that was vague and undefined to begin with has been expanded in order to provide a rationale for these governments to do whatever they want without being held accountable by the people who are ostensibly citizens of the countries in question. Orwell proves to be more prescient by the day.

h/t to Digby

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

JAQing Off

Today I would like to talk about a special version of the Loaded Question fallacy, one which some commentators have taken to calling JAQing Off. This fallacy was coined by a message board commentator at the JREF forums and is defined as:
1. the act of spouting accusations while cowardly hiding behind the claim of "just asking questions." 2. asking questions and ignoring the answers.
This is a favorite tactic of many political commentators, with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh being two of the most notorious practitioners. The idea is that one asks a bunch of leading questions, perhaps with a suspicious or conspiratorial tone, all intended to imply that there is something seriously wrong. There is never any positive argument given, just innuendo. Then, when the person is challenged on his assertions, he is able to fall back on the statement, "I'm just asking questions." As is often the case, the fine folks at South Park give us the clearest articulation of this issue:


Now let me be clear, asking questions is one of the best ways to increase one's knowledge and understanding of the world and there is nothing wrong with asking lots of questions (even very nitpicky ones). My classes are most interesting when the students ask lots of questions and challenge the claims I make. The problem with JAQing off is that one isn't asking questions in order to learn more about a topic. Instead, one is asking lots of questions in order to imply that there is something wrong or to make a nasty claim about a person. The key difference is that when one is JAQing off, one doesn't really care about the answer to the questions asked. The person JAQing off is not trying to learn anything about the world, and will likely ignore the answers given. Again, this is because JAQing off isn't about inquiry, it is about satisfying one's own desires to smear and attack others without being held accountable for one's actions.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vaccines and Science

In reading my usual daily blog posts, I came across a link to this excellent article summarizing the reasons to get vaccinated and to vaccinate one's children. I particularly liked it because it runs through all the evidence (with links) and provides responses to some of the standard anti-vaccine arguments. In so doing the author, Dr. Jennifer A. Raff (with doctorates in Anthropology and Genetics!), does a very nice job of summarizing how science functions and why scientific experiments are really the only way to figure out how the world actually works.  You should read the entire piece, but I want to focus on the following:
Science operates based on the philosophy that the truth is knowable if we design experiments correctly, and we do enough of them to rigorously test our hypotheses. And I hope that you know by now that anyone with a keyboard can make stuff up. Peer review is how we test that someone isn’t making things up. Experts in your field have to agree with your conclusions.
To me, this is the essential point about science and why science is so valuable and important. In this day and age anyone with access to a computer can write and say anything he or she wants. This blog that I write on costs me nothing and I have total freedom to post anything I want. I try to be accurate and I try to ensure that my claims are true, but basically you only have my word (and your own independent analysis) to go on. Science, by contrast, won't accept anything based on someone's say-so. Instead, science consists of a rigorous set of practices and a methodology to eliminate, as much as possible, human bias and human error. In addition, science has peer review whereby other people examine claims and evidence, and retest to ensure that the results are as accurate as they can be. It is often the case that scientists or doctors are accused of being elitists, or in the pocket of this or that special interest group, but even when these claims are true, the methodology of science and the peer review process can weed out these conflicts of interest and get us as close as possible to the Truth. There is simply no other method that we have that can achieve the same results. And this is why, as Dr. Raff writes, "Your physician knows more than the University of Google."

h/t to Pharyngula

Monday, July 8, 2013

Greenwald and the Media; Flak, Jingoism and Loaded Questions

In talking about the media, I like to use Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model of the media as it does a really good job of helping me to understand why we get the media coverage we do. A very nice illustration of many of the filters Chomsky and Hermann discuss can be found in this revealing exchange between journalist and blogger Glenn Greenwald and Meet the Press host David Gregory. The following exchange occurred during an interview in which Gregory was questioning Greenwald about the leaks on national security provided to Greenwald by Edward Snowden:



There are several point worth unpacking here. First, let's take Gregory's defense of the question in which he argues that the question was legitimate because other people had raised it. In effect, Gregory is just JAQing off, and this is clearly an example of a Loaded Question. This is, of course, when one asks questions that contain significant assumptions buried within them such that one can't answer the question without acknowledging the assumption buried in the question. In this case, Greenwald can't answer Gregory's question without admitting that he committed a crime by aiding Snowden. Greenwald responds to this question in the only effective way by actually looking at and making explicit the assumptions buried in the question. It is this unpacking of assumptions that reveals many of the filters that are at work on Gregory.

To begin, we can see a really nice example of Flak. This is criticism aimed at the media by powerful elites in an attempt to discipline the media. In this case, Gregory is attempting to minimize the character of Greenwald in the hopes that this will minimize the impact of the story. By calling into questions Greenwald's status as a journalist (and he is more clearly a journalist than Gregory), Gregory is attempting to minimize the significance of the story. He accuses Greenwald of being an "activist" with the implied assertion that we don't have to listen to Greenwald because he has some political axe to grind. We can clearly see how Gregory's demeanor towards and questioning of Greenwald are designed to minimize the significance and importance of the revelations he has been reporting.

A second filter that Gregory is operating under is what I have been calling Jingoism. This is a reflexive and unthinking patriotism that presents everything our government does as good, and anything opposing our government as bad and evil.  We can see this is Gregory's knee-jerk criticism of Greenwald as someone who is unAmerican and "bad" for leaking these secrets and revealing the criminal misconduct of the government. Gregory would apparently prefer that all this information remain secret so that he doesn't have to bothered by it.

Lastly, we can see the media's desire to only listen to and talk with "approved" sources. Gregory was essentially forced to have Greenwald on his show because the story is so big, but one can see Gregory's discomfort at having to interview Greenwald as well as his attempts to marginalize Greenwald by suggesting that he isn't a "real" journalist and thus need not be taken seriously.

It is important to stress that I am not trying to argue that Gregory is receiving special instructions from his government paymasters. It doesn't work like that. Rather, Gregory is just echoing the mindset of his employers at NBC, and the general mindset of the Washington Press elite. Gregory is close friends with the people who are implicated by this story. Furthermore, the story makes him look like a lousy journalist since someone outside the Mainstream Press has managed to break the most important story of the decade, so naturally he is a little prickly about it. The story implicates people he is close to and it makes him look bad, and this, I think, sufficiently explains his treatment of Greenwald in the interview.

h/t to Digby

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sen. Rand Paul Doesn't Understand What Marriage Is

With the recent Supreme Court case striking down some provisions of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), it is no surprise that many opponents of same-sex marriage have come out with the standard arguments that they deploy against it. Unfortunately for the opponents of same-sex marriage that aren't really any good arguments available so they tend to resort to fallacies. As a case in point, here is Senator Rand Paul committing the classic same-sex marriage Slippery Slope argument:


Here is a transcript of the relevant portions:
I think this is the conundrum and gets back to what you were saying in the opening — whether or not churches should decide this. But it is difficult because if we have no laws on this people take it to one extension further. Does it have to be humans?
Though not phrased as an argument, Sen. Paul is obviously JAQing off, and his clear implication is that same-sex marriage is a bad thing because it might lead to people marrying animals. This is a classic Slippery Slope argument in which one assumes that change in one direction (allowing same-sex couple to marry) will lead to further disastrous change in the same direction (people will marry animals). I am always amazed when people make this argument because it demonstrates a level of ignorance and stupidity that is difficult to believe (or alternativley a malevolence and lack of respect for one's audience that is almost as difficult to fathom). Apparently Paul has no understanding of the fact that marriage is a contract, and as such can only be entered into by entities capable of entering into contracts. Since no non-human can enter into a contract (and many humans can't either such as children or the severely mentally disabled), no non-human could ever get married. Thus, there is no way that same-sex marriage could lead to people marrying animals, and Sen. Paul demonstrates that he has no idea what he is talking about.

h/t to Atrios

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Senate Intelligence Committee Suppresses Relevant Data

Brian Beutler is reporting in TPM about the Senate Intelligence Committee prohibiting a former aid, Vicki Divoll, from being interviewed. The background here is that as the former general counsel for the committee (from 2000-2003, prior to that she was general counsel for the CIA from 1995-2000), Divoll is bound by various non-disclosure agreements. Furthermore, as revealed in the article, it is standard practice for her to generate interview responses and then run them by the committee for approval to make sure that she doesn't disclose anything that might impact national security.
The ground rules for the interview were that it would be conducted off the record, but only temporarily, to give Divoll an opportunity to review the accuracy of the quotes she provided, and that those would be placed back on the record. 
While Divoll remains legally barred from disclosing classified information, she is also still subject to a non-disclosure agreement with the Senate Intelligence Committee that bars her from discussing committee-sensitive business. Out of an abundance of caution, Divoll also conferred with the committee on Friday about her interview with TPM. She anticipated that the committee would approve the interview, noting that in her post-government career, both the committee and the CIA had never done more than request minor tweaks when she brought them pieces of her writing for pre-publication review. 
This, she believed, would be a similar process. 
But for the first time in her career, the committee took the extraordinary step, on a bipartisan basis, of declaring the interview’s entire contents a violation of her non-disclosure agreement and effectively forbade her from putting any of it on the record.
It is important to note that the material in question was not about any matter being investigated by the Committee, but was instead material related to how the committee functions and how it deals with the various secrecy mandates it is subject to.
At issue isn’t classified sources and methods of intelligence gathering but general information about how the committee functions — and how it should function.
This is a good example of the Suppression of Relevant Data. In the past few weeks, the country has been shocked by revelations about the mis- and over-use of the national security apparatus to collect information on every person in the United States. In effect, the federal government is treating every single citizen of the US as a potential terrorist. Questions are raised about the legitimacy of this, and various news organizations are scrambling for more information to give their readers so that the public can have an informed debate about these policies. And the response of the US government? Do everything possible to suppress this information and keep it hidden from the American public. If we can't know what our government does in our names, we can't meaningfully call ourselves a democracy.

h/t to Digby

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why Politico Doesn't Like Snowden

This image from the dead tree edition of Politico basically says everything there is to say about the relationship between the government and the media:


Though I am sure they would claim independence, it is impossible to imagine that the large amount of advertising money Politico receives from ATEC doesn't influence the content. For those not in the know, ATEC is a unit of the US Army responsible for testing and evaluating equipment. So, Politico takes some amount of advertising dollars from a company funded the US Government and then publishes a story that essentially takes the government line on Edward Snowden, namely that he is a traitor. Furthermore, if one looks at Politico's coverage of Snowden, it generally seems to be consistent with the position taken by the US Government.

All in all, this is a great illustration of the second and third filters in Chomsky and Herman's Propaganda Model of the Media.

h/t to Digby

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What is it with Republicans and Making Up Facts?

What is it with Republicans and bad science? They seem to invent justifications for whatever political position they have already decided on, and then dress these rationalizations up in sciency sounding language. Unfortunately for these politicians, reality often does not conform to their worldview. As a case in point, we can take former OB/GYN Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX):


So, according to Rep. Burgess, fetuses feel pain, and male fetuses masturbate as early as 15 weeks, and this is evidence that abortion should be banned much earlier than the 20 week ban under consideration. He further notes that, "There is no question in my mind that a baby at 20-weeks after conception can feel pain." Unfortunately  despite his experience delivering babies, Rep. Burgess's views are well outside the mainstream scientific consensus and have no basis in reality. According to this systematic review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, fetuses lack the ability to feel pain until the beginning of the third trimester, which is about 24 weeks, and significantly later than the 15 weeks suggested by Rep. Burgess.

So, what is going on here. I think we have a combination of Wishful Thinking and Pareidolia. Burgess has faith in the truth of his conclusions, so he goes out and looks for evidence that he thinks confirms his beliefs. When he sees sonograms of male fetuses with their hands between their legs, he interprets this as the fetus masturbating (why his mind goes there and why he doesn't think female fetuses masturbate is a question for the psychiatrists to answer). He sees the vague and random movements of an early term fetus and interprets those movements as purposeful because he wants that to be true because it supports his conclusions. The key here is that his beliefs about fetal pain perception are not formed on the basis of evidence, but rather he has decided that early term fetuses do feel pain, and then looks for evidence to support that belief. Someone who had a genuine interest in crafting effective legislation would develop positions on the basis of evidence rather than look for evidence that supports one's pre-existing biases.

h/t to Salon

Monday, June 17, 2013

When a Slippery Slope Isn't a Fallacy


I have discussed the Slippery Slope fallacy several times already on this blog, but today I want to think a bit more deeply about when something is and is not a Slippery Slope. This is an issue that arises with many of the informal fallacies because occasionally one will make an argument that superficially appears to commit a fallacy, but on closer inspection turns out to be a legitimate argument. As a case in point, we can look at a recent blog post by Marc Lynch concerning President Obama's decision to increase US military aid tot he Syrian rebels. Lynch's post is provocatively titled, "Sliding Down the Syrian Slope."

Lynch's basic thesis is that the US decision to increase military aid to the Syrian rebels will be ineffective, and will just open the door to a larger and more robust US intervention in the region.
I don't think anyone in the administration really has any great confidence that arming the rebels will end Syria's civil war or work in any other meaningful way, though many likely feel that it's worth trying something different after so many months of horrors and want to believe that this will work. Obviously, I am deeply skeptical. I hope I'm wrong, and that against the odds the new policy can make a difference, and help to resolve the Syrian catastrophe. But more likely it just drags the U.S. further down the road to another disastrous war -- one which has just become harder to prevent.
On its face, this looks like a clear example of a Slippery Slope where action A (increasing military aid) will lead inexorably to action B (US invasion of Syria), but on closer inspection, this is not so clear. The major error in a Slippery Slope fallacy is that one merely asserts that A will lead inexorably toward B without any explanation of the intermediate steps. This is not something that Lynch does in that he does detail what he takes the intermediate steps to be:
The real problem with Obama's announcement is that it shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate push for "robust intervention" makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition's spokesmen and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
By outlining what he takes the intermediate steps to be, and by providing a provisional conclusion of what he sees as the likely outcome of the administration's actions, Lynch avoids committing the Slippery Slope fallacy although he uses language very reminiscent of it. The major takeaway here is that just because someone claims that A will automatically lead to B does not mean that the person is automatically committing a Slippery Slope fallacy. As critical thinkers, we need to dig more deeply and look at the actual argument we are presented with before drawing conclusions about whether or not fallacies have been committed.

h/t to Digby

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Senator Dianne Feinstein Weighs In

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) weighed in the Surveillance State scandal on ABC's This Week. As should be no surprise for anyone who follows Senator Feinstein, the focus of her appearance was to defend the various programs that have been revealed by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian. The core of her defense is that these programs are legal, and they have played an important role in keeping us safe from the terrorists. Also, 9-11. Let's take a closer look at her defense and unpack some of the fallacies she commits. After some preliminary remarks, she begins:
So here's what happens with that program. The program is essentially walled off within the NSA. There are limited numbers of people who have access to it. The only thing taken, as has been correctly expressed, is not content of a conversation, but the information that is generally on your telephone bill, which has been held not to be private personal property by the Supreme Court.
This first statement actually appears to be false. According to the Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked this information in the first place, all this data was quite accesible to a large number of people.
As Snowden told The Guardian in a videotaped interview: "When you're in positions of privileged access, like a systems administrator, for these sort of intelligence community agencies, you're exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee ... Anybody in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I had could, you know, suck out secrets."
Let's remember, Edward Snowden is a 29 year old high school dropout, and he had access to all this classified information after just 3 months on the job with the defense contractor Booze Allen Hamilton. This is not intended as a criticism of Snowden, but merely to put the lie to Sen. Feinstein's comments about the limited access to this program. As Julian Sanchez put it:
Feinstein then goes on to discuss a few cases in which the program has been used:
So, the program has been used. Two cases have been declassified. One of them is the case of David Headley, who went to Mumbai, to the Taj hotel, and scoped it out for the terrorist attack.
The case of David Headley is quite interesting and there are a few things worth noting. First, Headley was a DEA informant.  Second, the Mumbai terrorist attacks Feinstein mentions were successful  Thus, one example of the program in action was to track down a DEA informant who had slipped through the cracks to successfully commit a wide-scale terrorist attack in Mumbai. Needless to say, if the best example of this program in action is finding a former informants who went on to successfully commit acts of terror, I am unclear what benefit the program is supposed to serve. If it can't even be used to prevent an attack, I am not sure what the point of trading away my privacy was.

Feinstein's second example involves a terrorist plot to blow up the New York Subway. I won't go into to many details about this example, but there are definitely some suspicious aspects of this case.

Feinstein concludes her defense of this program with the ultimate Red Herring/Appeal to Emotion when she remarks:
Here is the point. And this is why this is so difficult. I flew over World Trade Center going to Senator Lautenberg's funeral, and in the distance was the Statue of Liberty. And I thought of those bodies jumping out of that building, hitting the canopy. Part of our obligation is keeping Americans safe. Human intelligence isn't going to do it, because you can't -- it's a different culture. It is a fanaticism that isn't going to come forward. And so, this kind of strict, strictly overseen -- it's overseen by the Justice Department, by inspectors general, by audits, by a 90-day review, by the court, is looked at as a method. I'm very happy if there's a better way, we will certainly look at it.
This last argument is really quite shameful as Sen. Feinstein invokes the specter of 9/11 to justify this program. This strategy is ancient, and was one of the favorite techniques of the Bush administration. Whenever anyone raises questions about a policy, one simply repeats 9/11 over and over again as a way to shut down conversation. This is exactly what Feinstein is doing. If the best argument she can muster to defend this program is to get everyone worked up and frightened, this suggests that the program is probably indefensible.

h/t to Digby

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Palate Cleanser

With all this talk about the Surveillance State, I thought it might be fun to post a little palate cleanser in the form of a nifty optical illusion. Let me go ahead and quote the original source:
This optical illusion street art was placed on the road outside of Universal Studios: Japan to promote their new Flying Snoopy ride. The characters can only be seen properly crossing the road from the right perspective and then voila! Peanuts-Abbey Road parody! What a creative and cute way to advertise a new ride!
Here are the pictures!



Pretty cool eh?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

More Gold from the Surveillance Scandal

The revelations of the scope of the Surveillance State keep coming from Glenn Greenwald. This time the subject is the aptly named "Boundless Informant" program. This is a program that maps and details by country the amount of data that has been scooped up by the NSA. Of particular interest is the following picture and that bright yellow country on the left.


As with many of these stories, while the revelations are important and worth discussing, I want to focus on the responses. At the end of the Greenwald article cited above Greenwald quotes from Judith Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman interviewed by the Guardian. My favorite comment is her last one:
She added: "The continued publication of these allegations about highly classified issues, and other information taken out of context, makes it impossible to conduct a reasonable discussion on the merits of these programs."
I find this to be an incredible example of doublespeak.  Basically, Emmel is claiming that the disclosure of the existence of these programs interferes with our ability to reasonably discuss these programs. If we think about this for a second, we can see that this is a clear Non Sequitur that completely Misses the Point. How can we have a reasonable discussion on the merits of programs that are hidden from us and which we don't know exist? If Emmel (and President Obama as discussed in a previous post) were genuinely interested in having a reasonable discussion of this issue, they would welcome these disclosures.

In fact, it is as a result of these disclosures by the heroic whistle-blowing of Edward Snowden that we are finally actually having a discussion about the surveillance state. I realize that Emmel and President Obama would prefer the general population to remain ignorant, and that the NSA would just prefer to do whatever it wants without any oversight or "interference," but, at the risk of repeating myself, this is supposed to be a democracy, and a democracy can only function effectively when the populace is well-informed about what the government is up to. This is why people like Snowden (and Bradley Manning and Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg) are heroes; they were willing to sacrifice themselves and risk their lives to further freedom and democracy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On National Security and Civil Rights, Obama is Bush (Or Worse)


Last week saw a fairly stunning series of revelations from Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian concerning the size and scope of the US surveillance state. If you haven't been following, the quick summary is that the government is collecting all the data on everything you do online, and monitoring every phone call made in the US. While this story is extremely important and concerning for anyone who believes in the idea of democracy or freedom, as a critical thinker I am far more interested in the official responses to these revelations  and the spin and fallacies that are employed by these individuals to defend something that should, frankly, be seen as indefensible (at least if one actually thinks the Constitution ought to apply).

Today I want to start with President Obama's response as revealed by Josh Voorhes at Slate. In reporting on Obama's answers to some questions, he records the following:
You can't have 100-percent security and also have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society.
If we think about this comment for a little bit, we can see some serious flaws in the reasoning presented here. Perhaps the most obvious issue is the claim that we could ever achieve "100-percent security" (or "100-percent privacy" for that matter). The simple fact is that we can never be completely safe, and the president is essentially committing a False Dilemma by claiming that. The implied argument is that we can choose between privacy or security, and if we want all of one, we need to sacrifice all of the other. This is a false choice because we can have both. Once we acknowledge that "100-percent security" is a chimera, then we can seriously explore how to balance privacy and security. However, Obama's use of absolutes here muddies this conversation in ways that are unhelpful and counterproductive (not necessarily to Obama's goals, but to our interestes as members of a democratic society).

This leads to a second aspect of the quote concerning the choices we will need to make as a society. This is a theme touched on in the second sentence of the above quote, but can also be seen when Obama says:

One of the things we're going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy. Because there are some trade-offs involved. I welcome this debate, and I think it's healthy for our democracy.
Obama is being particularly disingenuous here when he claims, "I welcome this debate..." because such a claim is obviously false. If he welcomed a debate he wouldn't have done everything in his power to hide and suppress this information. One can't have a debate if one has no idea what is going on. If Obama truly "welcomed" a debate, then he would have made this information public so that the American populace could actually debate it. This is a great example of Bullshit. According to Harry Frankfurt, a distinguishing features of bullshit is that one of its primary concerns is not the truth of what is said, but the attempt by the bullshitter to create a certain impression of himself in his audience. In this case, Obama is trying to appear as if he cares about civil rights and privacy. His actions clearly indicate that he doesn't care about any of this, and this is why we can label his words as bullshit. Despite his assertions to the contrary, he doesn't welcome a debate and he doesn't care about civil rights and privacy. If he did, then he wouldn't be acting the way he is.

This is enough for now, but this is such a massive story with seemingly more revelations to come that I will be blogging about this for quite some time.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Round and Round It Goes. Where It Stops, Nobody Knows.

Apropos of the stunning, but ultimately not very surprising, revelations of the scope of government spying on innocent citizens, I present this Tom Tomorrow cartoon from over a year ago, which nicely summarizes and anticipates many of the responses we have heard and can continue to expect to hear from President Obama and various other security state apologists:


As illustrated, this is a nice example of a Circular Argument. That is, an argument in which the conclusion is stated or assumed in one of the premises. This particular argument is one that really bothers me as I don't understand how someone can defend something they don't know anything about. Those who defend Obama's expansion of the security state are really like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand (I know ostriches don't really do this, but it is too good a metaphor to let factual considerations get in the way). If one doesn't know what is happening, then one can't defend it.

Furthermore, the appeal to terrorism (a sub-category of the Appeal to Emotion) begins to make less and less sense when one realizes that, from the perspective of the US government, every single man, woman, and child in the US is a potential terrorist. If the state really is genuinely afraid of every one of its citizens, then we need to seriously rethink what we mean by democracy and what we mean when we call ourselves one.

h/t to Digby

UPDATE: I just realized that I blogged about this topic over a year ago. That post can be found here.