Monday, February 18, 2013

"Deer Crossing" signs aren't for the deer.

Kathleen O'Brian Wilhelm is a blogger for a news site that covers news in the samll town of Avon Lake, Ohio. One of her recent posts is so dumb and fallacy-ridden that at first I thought it must be a joke. As near as I can tell, it is not. Her post begins with the following:
Signs that read “Deer Crossing” and the like are going to continue to pop up throughout our country including Avon Lake, but who are these signs for? Deer cannot read, do not obey the law and probably will cross where they wish. Although adorable companions, it is hard to remember the last time that the news reported an animal talking, thinking or providing significant input for the benefit of society. Yet, these signs cost taxpayers like so much of government.
Yes, you read that correctly and this is not a joke. Wilhelm is objecting to "Deer Crossing" signs on the grounds that she sees no point in them because deer can't read. Aside from asinine stupidity, this is also a nice example of the Fallacy of Missing the Point. Wilhelm seems oddly ignorant of the fact that such signs are not there for the benefit of the deer, but for the benefit of drivers who should take special care to avoid hitting a deer (for those unfamiliar, deer are very heavy and basic physics tells us that if you hit a deer going at even a moderate speed you will total your car and likely seriously injure yourself in addition to killing the deer). That Wilhelm seems to ignore this obvious point is...bizarre.

However, the bizarreness continues. A bit later Wilhelm writes:
They are on this earth like trees to make humans’ lives better. As humans we must be kind to them, eat them when hungry, feed them when they are, but remember they are here to enhance our lives. 
In this passage she makes a pretty big unargued assumption about the role of animals. I assume this belief is a product of her religious background, but it is really Begging the Question to just assert this without providing any justification for it. 

Lastly, Wilhelm commits a pretty significant Non Sequitur when she writes:
Besides, it appears that this gesture of kindness to animals does not extend human to human. This President’s  Obamacare appears to welcome abortion of innocent babies. It is painful to think that there are those who  cry for seals while Obamacare  never blinks an eye at abortion.
The movie from a discussion of animals to a discussion of abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act makes no sense, and one doesn't really have anything to do with the other. This is a classic example of a non sequitur as the comments about abortion do not follow from the earlier comments about our duties and responsibilities towards animals.

Upon first reading this article, I was fairly disturbed and disappointed that someone could get away with writing something so obviously moronic and ill-conceived, but much of my faith in humanity was restored by reading the comments. It appears that Wilhelm's readers, at least, are much more intelligent than her.

h/t to Pharyngula

Friday, February 15, 2013

Corporations aren't Religions

In the wake of the passage of the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare), many groups and institutions have sought to have themselves exempted from various provisions of the law. One of the most common concerns is the requirement that large companies that offer healthcare to their employees must also cover birth control. Many religious groups (Catholics in particular) have sought exemptions from the law on religious grounds, claiming that their First Amendment right to the free-exercise of religion is violated by a law that requires them to do something they consider immoral.

Now in the case of churches, this exemption to the law is generally granted, but many other non-church groups have sought a similar exemption. In a recent case in the Federal Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit, the justices ruled against Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, who had sought an exemption from the ACA on the grounds that it violated the religious freedom of the organization. In effect, the Plaintiffs were arguing that because their organization was owned by religious individuals, the private, for-profit corporation was itself a religious entity and therefore entitled to an exemption from the ACA on First Amendment grounds.

I don't want to go into all the details of the case, but I am particularly interested in the concurring opinion (PDF) written by Judge Leonard Garth. There, Judge Garth makes the following argument:
Conestoga further claims that it should be construed as holding the religious beliefs of its owners. This claim is belied by the fact that, as the District Court correctly noted, “‘[i]ncorporation’s basic purpose is to create a distinct legal entity, with legal rights, obligations, powers, and privileges different from those of the natural individuals who created it, who own it, or whom it employs’ . . . . It would be entirely inconsistent to allow the Hahns to enjoy the benefits of incorporation, while simultaneously piercing the corporate veil for the limited purpose of challenging these regulations.” Contestoga, 2013 WL 140110 at *8 (quoting Cedric Kushner Promotions, Ltd. v. King, 533 U.S. 158, 163, 121 S.Ct. 2087, 150 L.Ed.2d 198 (2001)).
In effect, the Judge is arguing that Conestoga is guilty of committing the Fallacy of Composition. This is a fallacy in which one argues that something true of the members of a group is also true of the group as a whole. Here, the Hahn family, owners of Conestoga, are arguing that because they are all religious, that therefore the corporation formed by them is also religious. And the court rejected that argument by noting that religiosity is not a property that crosses the corporate veil.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Gun Advocate Lies to Make His Case

One of the common characteristics of many right wing commentators is that they have a tendency to simply make-up facts to fit their view of the world. This tendency is summed up by Stephen Colbert's quip that, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." As a case in point, let's look at this exchange between David Barton and Glenn Beck. In the clip, David Barton, who claims to be a historian, is trying to make a case about the attitude of the Founding Fathers towards guns and firearms. In particular, he wants to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers felt gun ownership was important for purposes of self-defense. As evidence he cites a letter from John Quincy Adams to his brother Thomas. Let's look at the exchange:

So, according to Barton, the reason Adams wants his sun trained in the use of a firearm is not for sporting purposes but for personal defense. However, if we take a look at the actual text of the letter we can see quite clearly that Barton is guilty of Eduction, that is, he is guilty of taking the quote out of context in order to change its original meaning. Let's look at the actual text of the letter:
One of the things which I wish to have them taught, and which no man can teach them better than you, is the use and management of firearms. This must undoubtedly be done with great caution, but it is customary among us, particularly when children are under the direction of ladies, to withhold it too much and too long from boys. The accidents which happen among children arose more frequently from their ignorance, than from their misuse of weapons which they know to be dangerous. As you are a sportsman, I beg you occasionally from this time to take George out with you in your shooting excursions, teach him gradually the use of the musket, its construction, and the necessity of prudence in handling it; let him also learn the use of pistols, and exercise him at firing at a mark. “In general let him have as much relaxation and sport as becomes his age, but let him be encouraged In nothing delicate or effeminate. [Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, vol. 3, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914), 497.]
 As the parts in bold show, Adams was clearly thinking of firearm use in the context of hunting or sporting, not, as Beck and Barton would have us believe, about self-defense. The only way Barton can make the claims that he does is by actively misrepresenting the contents of the letter by taking excerpts from the letter out of their original context. And this is a textbook example of eduction.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

NYTimes and WaPo cover up for the Government

In a story reported in the UK Guardian yesterday and repeated all across the interwebs, we can see another example of how the mainstream media in the US is increasingly little more than a propaganda arm of the US Government. The story in question concerns the existence of a "secret" base in Saudi Arabia from which the US launches many of its drone attacks in the Middle East. As we all know, there are many situations where a journalist would rightly withhold information from her readers. The obvious example is where a reporter has information about US troop deployments but refrains from publishing that information because it would be very helpful to our enemies and damaging to US troops. But, what is the rationale for hiding the location of this base from the American public?

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post made the usual claims about withholding this information for reasons of national security, but as David Sirota reports, a close look at these rationalizations reveals some important truths about the collusion between these media outlets and the government. The New York Times public editor discussed the decision to withhold the information with the editor of the paper, Dean Baquet. The key part of the discussion is as follows:
The government’s rationale for asking that the location be withheld was this: Revealing it might jeopardize the existence of the base and harm counterterrorism efforts.  ”The Saudis might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” he said.
Mr. Baquet added, “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.”
As Sirota notes, this amounts to the editor admitting that he withheld information from the public because reporting that information might have led citizens to demand a change in governmental policy. He is literally saying that they withheld that information because an informed public would have been inconvenient to the US government! As Gawker's Adrien Chen noted:
The Washington Post and the New York Times revealed today that they were among a number of news organizations that participated in a blackout regarding the location of a "secret" CIA drone base in Saudia Arabia at the behest of the Obama Administration. But it turns out that base had already been reported months earlier—including by Fox News. In the case of the Saudi drone base, the Times and the Post weren't protecting a state secret: They were helping the CIA bury an inconvenient story. 
All of this nicely supports the Propaganda Model of Media described by Noam Chomsky and E.S. Hermann in their seminal work Manufacturing Consent. In this work they discuss five "filters" that shape the content of much of the media in the US. One of these filters concerns the limited range of sources that the media relies on. In this case, the media is essentially only relying on governmental officials, and in order to get those government officials to talk to them, many reporters will be very deferential in allowing those sources to dictate how and when that information can be used. And this is exactly what we see on the part of the New York Times and the Washington Post who deliberately buried an important story and important information so that they wouldn't piss off their government sources.

As always, Glenn Greenwald has a great deal more to say on this important topic.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A short history of "blog"

In my classes this week we have been talking about different types of definitions. I have looked at several types such as persuasive and theoretical definitions, but today I want to look at Stipulative Definitions. A stipulative definition is a proposal to assign meaning to a newly introduced word or symbol. This happens quite often in technology and science, though it is by no means limited to those two domains. One of the interesting features of many of these types of definitions is that although they start off as a proposed label for a particular concept or idea, the particularly successful labels will eventually migrate into the dictionary, and take on the status of a lexical definition.

An example of such a word is "blog." This is what is known as a portmanteau word, which is a word that is made by squishing two previously existing words together. In the case of "blog" the two words were "Web log." The term "Web log" was first coined by Jorn Barger on December 17, 1997. Then, in April or May of 1999 Peter Merholz jokingly shortened the term to "blog." The term then became popular with the public when Pyra Labs named their new web application Blogger, which was the precursor of the software I am using to write this very blog. At some point in the last decade, the word "Blog" became so popular that it was incorporated into almost every dictionary. I actually couldn't find an exact date because a Google search for blogs and dictionaries tends to turn up blogs about dictionaries rather than the specific information I was looking for.

In any case, this is a nice example of a word that started out as a stipulative definition, and then was so popular that is became a lexical definition.