Saturday, October 27, 2012

All That Science I Can't Understand

At Balloon Juice, DougJ notes that New York Times columnist David Brooks recently poo-pooed Nate Silver's now-infamous breakdown of the polls that included a prediction for a second Obama term.  One of the things he writes is important, and got me thinking, beyond the snark at some mainstream pundits:
It’s natural that establishment pundits would dislike Silver, of course. He deals in numbers, whereas they are quantitative illiterates. He made his bones in the grimy world of sports statistics, they made theirs doing respectable things like blowing Marty Peretz (Lane) or writing comedic books about yuppies (Brooks). So they come from different places than he does.
Two words jumped out at me - "quantitative illiterates".  In an election years where polls are popping up like mold in a junior high boys locker room, everyone and their brother can point to a poll that backs up their own treasured ideas of what's going on.  It's one of the things about Talking Points Memo I find annoying; at some point, someone needs to tell Josh Marshall that these polls are about as meaningful, in and for themselves, as reading tea leaves or goat entrails.  Since most of the people writing about the polls know as much about statistics as I do about metallurgy, I think it's fair to say we can chuckle and ignore them.

I think the same phenomenon is part of the problem we have talking about any scientific topic.  Consider global warming.  The whole idea makes sense.  The data both created and accord with the theory, both in the broad sense and in its particulars.  Yet, the theory, like all scientific theories, offers what seem to be contradictory ideas.  For example, while the global temperature will rise, this will also create far larger and more dangerous winter weather conditions in temperate regions.  Why?  Because winter weather systems, like those huge blizzards, require big masses of hot air meeting big masses of cold air to create all that snow. While temperatures in the temperate zones of the planet will continue to trend higher through traditionally colder months of the year, actual winter weather events will be more intense.  Because of global warming.

You know the argument that a fertilized egg cell, as the bearer of a unique DNA sequence, is alive and therefore deserving of legal protection? The average person sheds about 340,000,000 skin cells every single day.  Each of those has a unique DNA sequence.  Are they deserving of protection?

Consider all the talk about DNA and the relationship between genetics and certain diseases and character traits.  While it's true enough there are genetic determinants for things like eye color and hair color, and there are other genetic markers for things that range from diabetes to alcoholism, these tend to be more correlation that causation relationships.  The difference between causation and correlation is lost on most people.  For example, there is a correlation between smoking and diseases like lung cancer and heart disease.  Only about a third of smokers will develop lung cancer; about 60% will develop some kind of cardiac disease or weakness.  On the other hand, the vast majority of people who have lung cancer were smokers; the percentage of people who are diagnosed with particular types of coronary disease who were smokers is close to 90%.  That's correlation.  It's actually a simple concept.

Science is a marvelous tool.  Like all tools, however, it needs to be used properly; learning how to use it, though, is actually really easy.  Since we teach kids in elementary school about it, I don't know why educated adults suddenly become unable to understand it.

None of this is to argue that I agree with Silver's math.  Rather, it is to say that we need to be better educated about what science is and isn't, how it does what it does, so that when a nincompoop comes along and dismisses someone who actually knows what they're talking about, we can recognize the nincompoopery for what it is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My Prediction

Last night in a class at church, I predicted that while the popular vote will be close, probably no more than four percentage points, President Obama will win every state he won in 2008 except North Carolina, which will make the election look more lopsided than it was.

An Old Mountain

I was trying to embed a video, but it just didn't want to work, so click here to watch Jon Stewart describe the mountain upon which too many in our country live.

So I was checking out my posts from four years ago. Four years ago today was an interesting moment in the Obama-McCain campaign.
If you aren't old enough to know the name, click here. She managed to sucker not only the Rev. Al Sharpton, but Bill Cosby as well as other famous names, black and white. Unfortunately, like her body, her story was covered in feces from the very beginning. And, like her body, she did it to herself. Well, it seems that a young, white volunteer in Pittsburgh for the McCain campaign is skipping over the whole "tragedy" thing that happens when history repeats itself, and is going straight to farce. Unlike Duncan, I will admit that I thought the story a crock from the very beginning. The friggin' "B" was backwards, which told me she did it to herself in a friggin' mirror! C'mon people. . .
Four years ago yesterday, we had the drunken matron of Madison backtracking on her claim that, during a debate with McCain, candidate Obama was wearing an earpiece through which he was receiving information. When it became clear she was as wrong as she always is, she tried to salvage something for the sake of her poor, tattered ego:
You know, just because the thing I saw wasn't there doesn't mean there wasn't something there that I didn't see.
That's the nice thing about blog archives. It's so easy to go back and realize that the faces and names have changed, but not the style. No one should be surprised that Mitt Romney would run a campaign in which truth and reality were optional. No one should be surprised that Romney came out in the second debate and claimed the President never did something that he actually did. No one should be surprised that Mitt Romney insists Pres. Obama "apologized for America", then insisted his Administration would be different from the President, listing a series of actions and policies already implemented by Pres. Obama.

Because, you see, even before Pres. Obama was elected, there was this mythology building up around him thanks to the right. He was a socialist, a foreign born Muslim, a buddy with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. Obama was going to make us all socialist, set up re-education camps, even (if you watched the video you'll get the reference) outlaw cars. The dedication to absolute nonsense and Pure Grade "A" bullshit among the right in this country runs so deep and wide, extracting even "Moderate Mitt" from it would be well-nigh impossible.

That campaign manager John Sununu made clear they weren't interested in allowing "fact-checkers" run their campaign made clear the on-going belief that facts are irrelevant, reality is pliable, and it may yet be possible to carry along enough people who accept an alternate Universe where Pres. Obama is a clear and present danger to all things American. It won't end with the President's re-election, anymore than it ended with his election four years ago. In fact, it will probably intensify.

At some point, we are going to have to awake from our fever-dream and face the real consequences of allowing this to go on for so long. The Affordable Care Act didn't "take over" health insurance, let alone health care. The President respects the military. The President is a non-practicing Christian. Had he lived forty years ago, Pres. Obama would have been considered a moderate Republican for his policies. These things just are, whether anyone believes them or not. They aren't claims that are debatable, or things I'm saying without any substance. Denying them, the way both campaigns have denied global warming, won't make them any less real.

We need to come down off that mountain and face some reality, folks.  The results of doing otherwise will be far more harsh than any of the paranoid fantasies the right continually spews.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Surrealism, Part 2

The great disappearing issue of this campaign has been global warming.  I haven't heard either candidate utter a syllable one way or another about it.  Which is too bad, really, because some people think it's an issue about which we need to be concerned on a global level.  It's already causing increased tension between India and Bangladesh.  Right here in the United States, the town of Shishmaref, Alaska is looking to relocate as the Arctic Ocean claims it in chunks.

Of course, everyone seems to think there's "controversy" about global warming, in the same way there's "controversy" over which date the Declaration of Independence was signed and ratified, or controversy concerning the Holocaust.  Because "some people" refuse to recognize the reality doesn't mean there's controversy; it means these people, for whatever reason, deny reality.  That isn't controversial.  It might be insane.  It might be delusional.  It might be a whole lot of things.  Controversial isn't one of them.

So, yet again . . . the debate on foreign policy didn't touch on many actual issues except who would blow up more stuff and more people, or whether blowing up certain people was a good thing now or later.  All in all, it was just surreal.  Arguing over who our number one national security threat is at a time when it would take at least fifteen countries to field the kind of military the United States currently has strikes me as just odd.

Surrealism, Part 1

Last night's final debate between Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney was an odd affair, to say the least.  As I wrote in a comment elsewhere, Romney has been everywhere telling the world what a failure the President has been.  He's insisted, like much the rest of the American Right, that Pres. Obama goes around the world apologizing for the United States.  Last night, he agreed with much of the President's approach to foreign policy (with some notable exception that I'll get to), which makes me wonder: Is he going to be an apologetic failure, too?

While some of the debate certainly concerned itself with important matters of foreign policy, I was struck by a few things.  In response to Pres. Obama's answer to the first question, Romney said that "we can't kill our way" out of various foreign policy problems.  I pictured John Bolton, Romney's top foreign policy adviser, with his mustache catching on fire.  Considering Bolton's seemingly bottomless desire to go war any- and everywhere, having Romney sit on that stage and say that we can't kill our way out of problems must have been like kryptonite or something.

Also early in the debate, the matter of sequestration arose.  President Obama was categorical: Sequestration will not happen.  For those not paying attention, sequestration is the name given to legally binding automatic cuts in all federally funded departments, the result of Congress' failure to arrive at some kind of agreement on spending cuts and revenue increases after the debt ceiling increase vote in late summer last year.  While reassured somewhat by the President's statement, color me unimpressed with the whole matter.  To pretend this isn't a worry for those whose job it is actually to oversee how military appropriations are spent is to ignore reality in a very dangerous way.  It may well be the case that any across-the-board spending cuts won't pass, or the President will veto them and they'll die an ignominious death; all the same, it seems a very dangerous game, to say the least, while we still have thousands of American troops in battle in Afghanistan.

I have to admit I was more than a little saddened by Romney approving Pres. Obama's UAV air war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.  It might have been nice to hear someone stick up for the Constitution and say, you know, it's Congress's job to decide when we're at war and how to go about fighting that war.  Even if he didn't mean it, which I'm sure he wouldn't, such a bow in the general direction of Constitutional government would be nice.

Isn't it odd that at a debate that was supposed to be about foreign policy, most of the talk seemed to be about blowing stuff up, or buying more stuff to blow stuff up, or which weapon platform blows stuff up better?  And some folks wonder why the rest of the world is nervous.

While Romney certainly came across very poorly last night, it might have been nice to have a more thorough discussion of things like sequestration, the DoD budget in realistic terms, our real relations with countries rather than the paranoid fantasies of an Iranian threat or a Chinese threat or a Russian threat or some other threat (a Belgian threat, maybe?  Would certainly be original).  There wasn't a single word about Africa, the creation of an African Command and what role our troops on the ground are playing on that continent.  Shoot, the President didn't even tease Gov. Romney for failing to mention our troops in Afghanistan during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

All in all, it was an odd event.  Saying President Obama "won" is a bit like saying that at least one of the clocks in Dali's famous painting has the correct time.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Much Needed Threat

So the last Presidential debate is tonight.  The topic is foreign policy.  Since the Truman Administration, Republican politicians have tried to paint Democrats as weak-kneed defeatists who hate the American military and can't wait to turn the country over to whatever evil power exists outside our borders, whether it's the Soviet Union or Islam.  One of the most militant anti-Communist American officials, Dean Acheson, was called a traitor by Joe McCarthy.  For some reason, both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, for all they dragged us ass-backwards in to war in Southeast Asia, were considered weak.  Don't even get me started on Jimmy Carter.

Pres. Obama's record on foreign policy is, by and large, fair to partly cloudy.  Waging a quiet war using special operations troops and UAVs in distant places, while simultaneously going on the offensive in Afghanistan in a more conventional ground war (without any actual strategy or way of determining victory), Obama has also made clear our continued, and wrong-headed, support for Israel in the Middle East, a kind of multigenerational myopia that actually hurts us in the Middle East.  We have stood aloof, by and large, as Europe's "crisis" has dragged on for a couple years (here's a hint; if an event last longer than a few weeks, it isn't a crisis), while switching our larger strategic attention to "the Pacific Rim", which, really isn't much of a change.  For a hundred years, Administrations of both parties have insisted the future of American foreign policy lies in Asia.

Of course, there's the death of Osama bin Laden.  There was the raid, early in his term, on a group of Somali pirates holding Americans hostage.  The two of these events demonstrated Obama's commitment to a couple things.  First, he is quite willing to use American force to protect American lives and interests.  Second, he is committed to doing so in a way that's quiet, yet deadly to whomever the American military machine is pointing.

This hasn't deterred the fantasists among some on the political right to continue the drumbeat, year after year, of claims that Obama is soft on terrorism (which is little different than the claim that previous Democratic Administrations were soft on communism).  There are claims he goes around the world "apologizing for our values", yet I have never heard or seen any actual evidence of this.  There's the ludicrous, and more than slightly unhinged, claim that "the Muslim Brotherhood" has "infiltrated" the State Department because a high-ranking official is . . . a Muslim woman.

Individually, each of the above is hysterically funny.  Taken as a whole, it makes me wonder how people who insist these things are true do simple things like stand erect, or get food from their plate to their mouths.

Just to make clear how long people in positions of power and authority in the United States have been claiming we exist with the imminent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, just waiting for the opportune moment to strike, I typed "iran" in the search box at the top of my blog.  The results you can scroll through by clicking here.  I first wrote about the "Iranian threat" in February, 2007.  That's over five years ago.  In all that time, the rhetoric has been the same: At any moment, Iran will have a nuclear weapon they can use against Israel or some other country, and we have to stop them.

At some point, you'd think people would realize that the wolf really isn't there.

Look, I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I'm no fan of the Iranian regime.  That doesn't mean we should base our relations with them on the bloody fantasies created by people who have been demonstrably wrong about pretty much everything.  Just because we in the US don't support the form of government in Iran doesn't mean we have either the duty or the right to attack them, kill their people (which we've been doing, by the way, quite well over the past few years), attack their electronic infrastructure (that Stuxnet attack on Iranian computers wasn't carried out by the Mongolians), and threaten invasion and massive bombardment.  Whether we like it or not, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Iran isn't doing anything that France, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Argentina haven't done: they are researching atomic energy and possibly the ways to build thermonuclear weapons.  Of the countries listed previously, only Brazil and Argentina haven't gone all the way.  I for one am far more frightened by the existence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and India than I am by a nuclear-armed Iran.  Even if it were to happen tomorrow, there would be no real danger to Israel posed by a nuclear armed Iran.

The real danger are the war-mongers who create the thing they think we Americans need in order to have coherence in our foreign policy - a threat.  I neither know nor care whether all the people screeching about the horrors a nuclear-armed Iran believe the things they say.  If they do believe them, they're a whole lot less smart than anyone gives them credit for.  If they don't really believe them, which is far more likely, they are drumming up this threat . . . because they can?  I really don't know the reason.

For all I'm no fan of the Obama Administration's foreign policy, I am such for the exact opposite reason of his most vocal critics in the Republican Party: bellicose, too willing to use deadly force, too blase about the restraints allegedly imposed by the Constitution and International Law, and continuing the never-ending dream of America somehow magically a force in eastern Asia.  The ongoing nonsense about Iran is one of those things, in a slightly better world, that would just vanish like smoke.  Too many people with too loud voices, however, seem to have invested far too much in creating a threat where none exists.

That Romney has signed on to this fantasy should worry people who are paying attention.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Improbable Monument

Of all the men that have run for president in the twentieth century, only George McGovern truly understood what a monument America could be to the human race. - Hunter S. Thompson
I read the news today.  Oh, boy.  Five years ago, I wrote the following:
I believe that the failed 1972 campaign of South Dakota Senator George McGovern was as pivotal for the liberal, Democratic wing of the Democratic Party as the equally disastrous campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. More than the campaign, however, I believe the committee McGovern chaired, with its rules changes for the primary process and delegate selection and voting process were even more important than his campaign. I think it, like its mirror image eight years before in the Republican Party, laid the foundation for the direction the Democratic Party is moving, for the issues and policies they are highlighting, and, I think, for its success despite overwhelming odds in the previous election.
A decorated veteran of the Second World War - McGovern was a bomber pilot - McGovern would be reviled as someone who hate the military.  An elected public servant, serving in the US House of Representatives and US Senate from 1956-1980, McGovern was called anti-American.

While there have been many autopsies, both popular and academic, that have been definitive in their conclusions that it was McGovern that sidelined the Democratic Party to decades in the political wilderness, I think McGovern's legacy has won out.  While some prominent former Democrats, most notably former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, made clear it was McGovern's work overhauling the Party's nomination process that destroyed the New Deal Coalition, I think that work has paid dividends down the years.  While there are many who still consider McGovern's candidacy the worst thing to happen to the Democratic Party, I think it transformed the base of the Democratic Party.

In a column written on October 16, Charlie Pierce included long sections from McGovern's acceptance speech before the 1972 Democratic National Convention.  The closing section offers a vision of America that should resonate with those who have listened to Barack Obama over the past five years.  In order to make that clear, first, again from Pierce, are some words about the stakes in this election.
But who's out there now, spouting off about all he'll make the government do for us if we just put him and his zombie-eyed, granny-starving running buddy in charge of it? Who's talking about Five Point Plans and North American Energy Independence and all the things he'll do for us? And who's out there talking about the hard work we've already done, and the hard work we will have to do, together, over the next four years? Who's talking about freedom and independence the way they really were defined in Philadelphia, first in 1776 and then a decade or so later? Who's talking about pledging to ourselves, in mutual support, our lives and fortunes and sacred honor? Who is expressing in real, if occasionally stumbling terms, a real faith in our ability to build a political commonwealth?
Now, George McGovern:
From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America. From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of  the neglected sick — come home, America. Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward. Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this "is your land, this land is my land — from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters — this land was made for you and me." So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.
After the 1972 election, McGovern was treated with disdain by the party that had made him its candidate for President.  As the ensuing year and a half revealed the depth of corruption in the Nixon White House, there was no one who came forward to apologize.  As the Republican Party emulated Nixon in so many ways, from the Southern Strategy (Ronald Reagan began his Presidential campaign in Stone Mountain, GA, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan) to a pattern of corruption that repeatedly dogs Republican Administrations (at least they tend to keep it in their pants), no one who ignored McGovern in the wake of his loss has made a public statement admitting McGovern was right.

Thing is, though, McGovern was right.  He was right that the Republican Party in 1972 was a seething cauldron of corruption.  He was right that, at that time, we needed to come home, to work together to make our land, our nation, a great place again.  All we get from the opposition are empty promises and even more empty public treasuries.  We get division and rancor.  I'm not saying McGovern was the best candidate ever to lose the Presidency.  I am saying, however, that he was right and Nixon and his evil, twisted step-children that continue to wreak havoc and may yet have a chance to do so again was so very, very wrong.  That so many serious people in positions of influence cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this reality is very sad.

Rest in peace, Senator McGovern.  You have left a legacy that is worth remembering.  If there were enough people with both the will and courage to do so, the tattered banner of your vision of America being its best self could still be lifted up.

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