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.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Road to Anti-Amnesty is Paved With Fallacies

Atrios's worst person in the world for today is Ying Zh-Ye. This was bestowed upon her in honor of her editorial titled, "Immigration Reform 2013: The Road to Socialism is Paved With Amnesty." The thesis of this essay, though obviously clear from the title, is nicely summarized by Zh-Ye as:
By legalizing 11 million unlawful immigrants, the amnesty would likely have negative long-term impacts to this nation financially and politically.
Let's dig in to her argument, which is riddled with numerous fallacies. Her first argument for this conclusion involves citing at a Heritage Foundation report that claims that Amnesty would cost the US $6.3 trillion because all these immigrants would suck up $9.4 trillion in benefits (welfare, food stamps, etc.) and only pay in about $3.1 trillion in taxes. This is, right off the bat, a nice example of an Appeal to Authority. I don't know enough about how these numbers are calculated, but the assumption that every single immigrant will use more in benefits than they pay in taxes doesn't seem very reasonable. Furthermore, the Heritage Foundation is a right-wing think-tank that has a history of coming up with conclusions first, and then seeking data to support those conclusions. In any case, this report is then immediately contrasted with a reprot from the Cato Institute that comes to the opposite conclusion, namely that amnesty will be a net benefit to the economy. Zh-Ye dismisses this report, arguing:
It is true that overall GDP may appear to be bigger if currently under-the-table business activities are included, but it is not a healthy and sustainable growth, as it is associated with enormous government expenses. The purpose of a pro-growth theory is to promote an immigration policy which would make fiscal costs public and keep the corporate profits private.
As  one can see, Zh-Ye simply asserts that this is true, without providing any evidence that this is the case. Furthermore, I am unclear why a pro-growth policy would make the costs public and the benefits private, nor how this relates to the broader criticism of the Cato Institute. This would appear to be a nice example of a Non Sequitur.

Zh-Ye's next argument for her thesis concerns an imagined future conflict between all the newly legalized immigrants on welfare and the newly retired Baby Boomers who are collecting social security.
As the Baby Boomers retire, Social Security and medical costs will go up. At the same time, an exploding population of green-card-carrying immigrants would become eligible for welfare benefits in 2023. Hence, there is likely going to be major conflict between these two populations. Both retirement and welfare systems may start to default if politicians stretch younger taxpayers' ability to pay and support both of these enormous programs at the same time.
This passage clearly demonstrates Zh-Ye ignorance about these matters. In particular, she seems to be unaware that Social Security is separate from other Federal Budget items and does not contribute to the deficit. Furthermore, Social Security is self-funded, and is completely solvent through 2033. Thus, this predicted conflict between newly legalized immigrant welfare recipients and Social Security recipients is entirely a fiction invented by Zh-Ye that has no basis in reality.

Zh-Ye's final argument is the strangest and most incoherent of the three, and is summarized in the following paragraph:
Many immigrants have deep scars from socialism. They know how their home countries turned into one-party communist countries many years ago. They also learned, as a part of Asian history, how elite people were humiliated and tortured, little by little, begging for their rights, dignity, and properties. Unfortunately, America is not immune from turning into a socialist country if it imports large numbers of low-income immigrants to change its political landscape.
If I understand what she is saying, the argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. Many immigrants come to the US fleeing the horrors (as they have experienced it) of Socialism.
  2. In the US they will try to recreate the very thing they are fleeing from. 
  3. Thus, increasing immigration will lead to Socialism
Ignoring for now the question of why Socialism would be a bad thing, it is clear that this argument is guilty of an Inconsistency. Why would people fleeing Socialism establish it in the place they are fleeing to? There is an additional inconsistency in that the article is ostensibly about Amnesty, meaning the immigrants in question are the ones who are already here illegally, but now Zh-Ye is talking about new immigrants who are fleeing Socialism with the apparent goal of establishing it in the US. The entire argument is self-contradictory, and really doesn't make any sense. In addition, it also appears to commit a Slippery Slope, arguing that the legalization of people currently in the US illegally will somehow (this is never explained) lead inevitably to Socialism.
Zh-Ye concludes, writing:
If this amnesty bill passes Congress and becomes the law, the U.S. may be at risk to lose a portion of its wealthy and upper-middle-class people, due to sharp tax increases and an unbalanced social structure. These people will take a good amount of talent, wealth, and jobs with them.
Again, if one thinks a bit deeply about this it makes no sense. Just where would these wealthy, upper-middle class Socialism-hating people go? To Europe? That is even more socialist than the US? China? Same problem with less freedom. The Middle East? Russia? Africa? An evil villain lair in Antartica? Again, the entire thesis of the piece is non-sensical, and once one thinks just a bit critically about the argument the entire thing just falls apart. This is a clear example of how a failure of critical thinking and analysis can lead someone to develop seriously wrong and incoherent opinions on an issue.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Parts and Wholes, Wholes and Parts Redux

I do enjoy the Facebook posts from "I fucking love science" but the following image is, alas, guilty of a fallacy. Here is the image in question:

So, what is the fallacy? To answer this, we need to first unpack the "argument" that is contained in the image above. As near as I can tell, it runs as follows:
  1. Physicists are trying to understand the nature of reality.
  2. One thing physicists study in this pursuit are a atoms.
  3. Physicists are made of atoms.
  4. Therefore, atoms (in the form of a physicist) are trying to understand themselves.
It is the move from premise three to the conclusion that is guilty of the fallacy of Division. This is a fallacy in which on makes an inference about the parts based on attributes of the whole. In this case, we are making a claim about the parts of a physicists (the atoms) based on attributes of the entire physicist (that she studies atoms). Thus, while in general a lovely statement, it is, unfortunately, fallacious.