Thursday, January 24, 2013

Michael Shermer is an important figure in the atheism and skeptical community, but of late he appears to have gotten a wee bit...grumpy. In a recent screed for Scientific American he goes after what he sees as a liberal war on science. Rebecca Watson and PZ Meyers have done a great job of attacking the substance of the claims Shermer makes, but I want to look at the many fallacies he commits over the course of his article.

The first fallacy is the enormous Straw Man contained in the title of the article. Shermer is claiming that there is a liberal "War" on science, but the first major piece of evidence he cites is the fact that 41% of Democrats appear to believe that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago and 19% deny anthropogenic global warming. These statistics are certainly disturbing, but it is unclear how they constitute a "War." As Rebecca Watson astutely notes:
Does this equal a “liberal war on science”? Hardly. A lot of people believing something inaccurate does not mean there’s a war – a war requires action, and conservatives are the people who are performing the actions: namely, introducing and sponsoring antievolution bills. While I’m sure that some Democrat must have introduced an antievolution bill, my Google skills have failed to turn one up. Bill after bill in state after state, conservative Republicans are the ones who are attempting to legislate their religious beliefs.
The next major fallacies arise when Shermer discusses liberal attitudes towards energy policy: liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”
First, Shermer seems to be guilty of Missing the Point, because for each of the sources of energy on the list, the objections raised are legitimate and significant concerns. No one is denying the reality or effectiveness of these energy methods, but there are clear, scientifically documented side-effects for each of them. There is a waste-disposal problem for nuclear power, fossil fuels do contribute to global warming, etc. Any sensible energy policy should needs to take these scientifically proven problems into account when figuring out how best to provide for the nation's energy needs. That people point out that these problems exist is clearly not anti-science as Shermer would have us believe. Shermer is also guilty of a serious Inconsistency when he mentions global warming. A few paragraphs before he had criticized liberals for their anti-global warming attitudes, and now he is criticizing them for their concerns about global warming. So, according to Shermer, one is engaged in a war on science if one ignores global warming and one is engaged in a war on science if one acknowledges global warming and seeks solutions to mitigate it. Finally, the passage also commits a straw man in accusing people who seek a more sustainable energy system of committing the naturalistic fallacy.

The last topic Shermer address concerns attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and it is here that his argument makes the least sense. He writes:
Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. Comedian Bill Maher, for example, on his HBO Real Time show on October 19, 2012, asked Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg if he would rate Monsanto as a 10 (“evil”) or an 11 (“f—ing evil”)? The fact is that we've been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection. It's the only way to feed billions of people.
This one is a bit subtle, but Shermer appears to completely miss the point. First, he claims that liberals are anti-science about GMOs, but all the examples he provides are not of people being opposed to GMOs, but of people being opposed to the activities of a particular corporation, Monsanto.  Shermer seems completely ignorant about the difference between these two sorts of criticisms, and thus his entire attack in this paragraph is a massive Straw Man. This is quite surprising because there is a great deal of incorrect information about GMOs that often gets repeated by folks on the left, but Shermer doesn't discuss any of this, instead presenting arguments that address completely different points.

I must say that after reading Shermer's post I am, frankly, disappointed. I have read and liked Shermer's work in the past, but when I see an essay like this that commits so many logical fallacies in such a short space, I am forced to rethink my earlier opinions of the man and his work.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sometimes you forget how outrageous some people can be.

In a previous post, I had argued that the comparison of Obama to Hitler on gun regulation was a false analogy and a slippery slope. In that post, I took it for granted that Hitler had instituted some form of gun regulation during his tenure, and my objection was really based on the illegitimacy of comparing that action to what Obama is trying to do today. It turns out that that was a mistake because the story of Hitler and gun control isn't even true! Writing in Salon, Alex Seitz-Wald discusses the history of this false claim and exposes it as the lie it is.

The myth apparently began when it was cited by the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, in his 1994 book, Guns, Crime, and Freedom. There he wrote, "In Germany, Jewish extermination began with the Nazi Weapon Law of 1938, signed by Adolph Hitler. In fact, this law actually did exactly the opposite of what LaPierre claims it does. To understand this, we need to step back a few years in history. At the end of WWI, the Germans were defeated, and as part of their punishment, numerous laws were imposed by the Treatise of Versailles on the German people of the Weimar Republic (the name given to the German state during the interwar period). One such law, passed in 1919, outlawed private ownership of firearms, and the government undertook to confiscate all guns currently in circulation.

The 1938 law, then, did not restrict firearms (they were already illegal), but instead did just the opposite, relaxing restrictions on the ownership of guns. As Bernard E. Harcourt documents (PDF) in the Fordham Law Review:
The Nazi gun laws of 1938 reflect a liberalization of the gun control measures that had been enacted by the Weimar Republic with respect to the acquisition, transfer, and carrying of firearms.
Thus, the claim made by LaPierre and others is false, and a good example of Bullshit. In particular, LaPierre is only concerned about keeping guns as legal and accessible as possible, and he is willing to make up or repeat stuff without confirmation so long as it supports his position. This is the definition of bullshit, and it raises an interesting political question: How does one engage in a political debate when one side of that debate just makes up facts to support its position? This is a problem that is not just limited to gun control debates, but also issues like anthropogenic climate change, or the economy. I have no solutions to this dilemma, but I think it is the greatest challenge to progress and advancement currently facing the US.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The gun control opponents go there.

In the wake of the horrors at Sandy Hook, many gun owners in America have gone off the deep end. Not wanting to acknowledge the clear correlation between gun ownership and gun violence in the US, these individuals have taken to arguing that even a modest attempt to limit the accessibility and availability of drugs guns is tantamount to a fascist takeover of the US. This phenomena is, oddly enough, not just a product of folk on the right wing (as evidenced by the Drudge Report headline) but also folks on the left. For example, Mike Adams, the "Health Ranger" has made a similar claim in a blog post titled, "Obama to follow in footsteps of Hitler, Stalin with 'executive order' disarmament of the American people."

In both cases these authors are guilty of a variety of fallacies. First up is the Slippery Slope fallacy. All these authors are explicitly arguing, "Restrictions on guns today, totalitarian dictatorship tomorrow." In fact, Mike Adams begins his post by making the following claim,
It's official. President Obama is going to march America down the dark halls of history by following in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and all the other gun-grabbing madmen who have exploited fear to achieve the total concentration of power in the hands of dictatorial government.
Adams further goes on to suggest that the Government wants to take everyone's guns so that they can then exterminate the entire population. Lest you think I am strawmanning Adams, here are his own words:
It's all coming out. This is their true agenda: mass murder and / or genocide. Those who support gun disarmament of the American people are supporting mass murder: Michael Moore, Piers Morgan, Biden, Obama, Cuomo... they are all proponents of mass murder. They are the very same kind of people who once supported Hitler and Stalin, and now they're creating a new Hitler in Barack Obama, the would-be dictator who is thrusting America straight into a new civil war.
If we think about the claim here for just a second, it should be clear how absurd it is. Why would the government need to take guns in order to kill the populace (ignoring for a moment the question of why the government would want to eliminate its tax bases)? The US military spends more money than every other military in the world combined. The military has no shortage of extremely powerful weapons (far more powerful than anything even the most hardened gun lover might have). If they wanted to exterminate the population, they could just do it. Why would they need to confiscate guns first? What use is an assault rifle against a tank or a predator drone? For these reasons and others, it is clear that this larger argument is a good example of a slippery slope.

Moving on, these articles are also nice examples of Straw Men in that they seem to be grossly misrepresenting the gun control position. As far as I know, the gun control debates are not about handguns or hunting rifles. The debates are about assault rifles with high capacity magazines. The government is not trying to take everyone's guns away, they are merely debating the possibility of limiting access to devices whose only purpose is killing large numbers of people very quickly. This is obviously a contentious issue for many people, but it is unclear to me what purpose making such weapons available to the general public could possibly serve other than ensuring that people are killed by them. In any case, to claim, as Adams does that the government wants to get all your guns is a straw man.

I will conclude by noting the obvious False Analogy of comparing Obama to Hitler or Stalin. Not much needs be said here, but the situation Obama is confronting today is radically different from the situations confronting Stalin and Hitler. To suggest that there is a similarity between the two is to commit a false analogy. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

TARP: The scam that keeps on giving

I am currently reading through Matt Taibbi's article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone about the lies and deceptions used to sell the bank bailout four years ago to the American people and Congress. Though I haven't finished the article yet, very early on it, Taibbi discusses one of the tactics used by then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to convince Congress to support the bailout. As Taibbi describes it:
Paulson needed at least a film of congressional approval. And much like the Iraq War resolution, which was only secured after George W. Bush ludicrously warned that Saddam was planning to send drones to spray poison over New York City, the bailouts were pushed through Congress with a series of threats and promises that ranged from the merely ridiculous to the outright deceptive. At one meeting to discuss the original bailout bill – at 11 a.m. on September 18th, 2008 – Paulson actually told members of Congress that $5.5 trillion in wealth would disappear by 2 p.m. that day unless the government took immediate action, and that the world economy would collapse "within 24 hours."
The argument presented by Paulson here is a classic example of Scare Tactics or the appeal to fear. The basic idea here is that rather than make a reasoned argument, one just tries to scare people into believing what one is saying. Paulson is trying to get Congress to support the bailout by making them very afraid about what might happen otherwise. Note the sense of urgency Paulson invokes. He is basically saying, "Pass this legislation now or the world will suffer financial Armageddon." Needless to say, history shows that this was a very successful tactic as the legislation was in fact passed very quickly with almost no debate or discussion about it. This was important because there were many alternative voices suggesting other solutions, solutions that would not have been as beneficial to the bottom lines of the banks as TARP was. As just one example, here is Paul Krugman suggesting another plan, one which he thinks is better, but probably not politically feasible. The key point here is that none of these alternatives was even considered (why is a good question, I will hypothesize greed) because the scare tactics employed by Paulson were effective in shutting down debate and getting Congress to support the plan that Paulson had already decided on. Had we had a more robust debate in September of 2008 perhaps we could have avoided some of the worst impacts of the recession, and pursued an economic policy that benefited everyone, not just wealthy financial elites.