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.