Ghost Haunts Dumbells, Say Dumbells

September 27, 2008

Little needs to be said about this story, other than to wonder how this stuff manages to percolate up to top news sites like Fox, where a vague blob moving around in some security camera footage of a gym gets dubbed a “possible fitness phantom.”

Look: I know it’s too much to ask the news for “objectivity” or “balance” these days, but you’d think that the one thing news reporters should be good at is investigative skepticism. The FoxNews story says that a security company has ruled “out insects, dust and headlights from the outside” as the cause for the artifact (note that the original story doesn’t say any such thing.) How? It looks exactly like the standard “bug on the lens” effect: so how is that being “ruled out?”


McCain Suspends Campaign to Spend More Time Campaigning

September 24, 2008

What, seriously?

It gets even more bizarre when you consider what “suspending his campaign” means to McCain. It means, apparently, that he will temporarily, for about four days or so, stop spending money on television and radio advertisements. Because, you know, having staffers making media buys distracts him from finding a nice quiet spot to sit down and think hard about the economy.

The current economic meltdown (Katrina on WallStreet as I like to think of it) is not exactly the Cuban Missile crisis: it’s a long-term structural problem that’s been a long time coming and will take a long time to shake out. The various bailout plans being floated around look like anything from reasonable gambles to insanely scary power and money grabs, but so far McCain’s camp has failed to explain how having him and his campaign stomping around in Washington and giving press conferences is going to help.

Obama’s offer for the campaigns to take the issue off the political table was something that McCain should have lept at, frankly: it could have helped McCain look both nobly bipartisan and maybe given him some cover on an issue that obviously hurts him (a champion of deregulation floundering in a scandal of corruption, fraud, and abuse). This move, on the other hand, makes him look utterly absurd: even his most dogged defenders are admitting that the move looks more like a gimmick in response to his declining poll numbers than an actual substantive response to financial crisis.


The Playing the Race Card… Card

September 19, 2008

We all know that the hyper-media age is a brave and bizarre new place, where “meta-” counts for far more than meat. Marc Armbinder has the latest dispatch from the front lines: Playing The “Playing The Race Card” Card.

Once upon a time, the rules were simple. Republicans, who usually have to scramble to find one or two African American faces to highlight in their conventions (including having to resort to using stock photography of them), have the temerity to actually include African American politicians like, say, Barack Obama (coincidence? I think not!), in their political attack ads. Someone, somewhere (and just about anyone anywhere will do) complains that the usage was racist: meant to subtly play on racial discord and feelings of otherness. The Republicans would then lean back, hands in the air, eyes rolling, and accuse all Democrats and Presidential candidates everywhere, whether they had actually complained or not, of “playing the race card.” This response is devastatingly effective, primarily because it allows the very same people who definitely aren’t moved by subtle racist appeals to have the same response to the ad/controversy as if they were moved by them. You see, they don’t hate African Americans, they just hate how those African Americans are always whinily pointing out that they are African Americans, and having the temerity to exist in a universe in which some people find some things potentially racist.

Wait, did I say that the rules were simple? What I meant was that they were totally insane.

But anyhow, now we have another meta-layer to add to the whole thing: as Armbinder points out, there’s a possibility that Republicans could now be deliberately using African Americans in their ads so that they can start off the “race card” chain.

Case in point: a newly minted (and laughably implausible) attempt to link Obama for the current financial crisis by pointing out that he knows former and talks to Fannie Mae employees. Specifically, the ad uses a supposedly sinister African American as its example, despite the fact that a former Fannie Mae CEO, and noted white male, is far more closely connected to the Obama campaign. And then there is a sad, obviously pained, white woman thrown in for good measure.

Is the ad racist? Ye gods, I have no idea anymore!

But here’s the thing. It’s very hard to imagine the McCain ad-meisters who came up with this ad not having a very conscious discussion over how the ad would be perceived, and whether it would spark accusations of racism, and whether that would be politically advantageous. Dial us up a white granny and see if they’ll fall for it!

So are non-racist guys who consider exploiting people’s non-racist anger over allegations of racism… racist? Ye gods, I still have no idea, but now I have a headache!


Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

September 15, 2008

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.


Oprah Boycott: All Kinds of Stupid

September 7, 2008

Oh good grief. If you’ve been following drudge and a host of conservative pundits, you may have noticed an odd story crop up, seemingly out of nowhere, claiming that Sarah Palin had been denied a place on Oprah Winfrey’s show. The story then turned into drudge’s usual fallback: there had been anonymous debate behind the scenes as to whether Palin should be invited onto Oprah’s show. The whole thing appeared to be a bid to win Palin a free media spot.

But far from letting the sneaky bid drop once Oprah herself had denied the already substance-free rumors, people are actually serious about this. As in, they’re actually acting all outraged about it. The Florida Federation of Republican Women is even calling for an Oprah boycott.

The whole thing has a canny, stiffly staged air: an embarrassing spectacle of joiners playing to a campaign script, rather than people doing anything on principle. Oprah, for her part, seems to have a very reasonable and fair principle: no active, headline candidates during the campaign. She openly supports Obama, but since declaring so, has not invited him or his surrogates on to campaign. I don’t see any unfairness there. I see a media figure with a laudable policy of neutrality. Oprah owns her own show: if she wanted to use it to promote Obama constantly, she could have (within the limits of FEC regulations). But she hasn’t.

We’re 60 days out from the election. Sarah Palin is apparently going to spend the next two weeks in an undisclosed location, refusing questions from actual reporters, rejecting what would also be free media spots on countless news programs… but she’s somehow entitled to what amounts to a free campaign spot on Oprah’s (private) television show… when no other candidate, not even other female candidates like Hillary herself, is given such airtime. And that’s… unfair? Especially biased?

Nope. It’s all an act or profoundly cynical posturing: another out of the blue bid for attention. And the fact that people can promote it with a straight face, let alone use bombastic rhetoric about entitlement and desert, is simply astonishing.


Blessed Are the Peacemakers: For They Shalt Have .50cal Machine Gun Turrets

September 6, 2008

Missed this story when it first broke, but can you think of a reason for a local police department to have an armored personnel carrier with a mounted 50 caliber machine gun turret? Can you imagine them actually using such a thing in a residential neighborhood in the U.S.?

Probably not. The Sheriff claims that the vehicle will “save lives” and reasons that when “something like this rolls up, it’s time to give up.” I’m all for the police being appropriately armed, but give me a break. First of all, this thing is not going to have time to “roll up” unless the police are either conducting a pre-planned raid, or having a long standoff. And in either case, I very much doubt that an APC is going to intimidate criminals any more than twelve guys in riot gear and machine guns already can. .50cal machine guns are for closed firing ranges and war zones: places where you either want to have safe, human-target-free gun fun, or else turn real human beings into hamburger. They don’t belong in residential or urban police operations for anything short of Die Hard.

But wait: what if I told you that it all made sense because… because… Jesus!

Sheriff Lott stated that the name selected from the entries will be “The Peacemaker” because that is the APC’s purpose and the bible refers to law enforcement in Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God”.

As DrugWarRant points out:

In all my reading of the beatitudes, I never once imagined Christ astride an Armored Personnel Carrier complete with a turret-mounted .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun, surrounded by apostles in SWAT gear, as he said to the crowd “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”


Religious Freedom Under International Islamic Attack

September 4, 2008

Some American innovations are so deeply embedded in our psyches that it’s hard to imagine how any other country could forgo them. But reject them they do, and now the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) seems to be moving, with objections from around the globe, to further formalize U.N. resolutions against “defamation,” primarily against Islam. Critics have pointed out that the language gives further cover for the persecution of minority voices in already undemocratic and illiberal Islamic regimes.

“This [language] destabilizes the whole human rights system,” said Angela Wu, international law director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington. “It empowers the state rather than individual, and protects ideas rather than the person who holds them.”

We don’t really have a culture war in the U.S.: we have a impolite scuffle, mostly exaggerated for the benefit of political fundraising. The real culture war is between the liberal West and theocratic/ideological regimes who enforce conformity in their societies with the threat of violence and persecution.


God/Jews for Jesus to Palin: Terrorism is God’s Judgement on Jews

September 3, 2008

I’m desperately trying to find non-Sarah Palin subjects to delve into, and given that this one only tangentially involves her, maybe this is my way out. Two weeks ago, David Brickner, founder of Jews for Jesus, was invited to speak to Palin’s congregation by her pastor, Larry Kroon. Or rather, according to Kroon, the message was so important that God arranged to have Brickner speak to everyone there, including Palin:

But above everything, I want you to understand—when God set that date, August 17th, 2008, David Brickner in Wasilla Bible Church—God wanted to say something to us at this time in our congregational life, to us corporately and to us individually. And God has brought you here to hear it. David?

What did God arrange for everyone to hear? That the violence and death in the Middle East is God’s judgement of unbelief against Jews and other non-believers in the region:

“But what we see in Israel, the conflict that is spilled out throughout the Middle East, really which is all about Jerusalem, is an ongoing reflection of the fact that there is judgment.

Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It’s very real. When Isaac [Brickner’s son] was in Jerusalem, he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment — you can’t miss it.”

And here we are again. To non-believers, or even believers who don’t think that Christianity is the One True Ideology, these beliefs are about as morally repugnant as one can get. If violence and tragedy are a form of “judgment” upon humanity, then we’re talking about nothing less than spiritual terrorism. To many conservative Christians, on the other hand, these ideas are the quite logical implications of their beliefs.

So when this sort of rhetoric hits the mainstream, what happens? Fairly often, politicians seeking mainstream approval will seek to distance themselves from the full implications of such statements, without getting into the theological details (What do you deny about the Biblical basis of such statements? Where did they go wrong?). If this becomes an issue for Palin in particular, I have little doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more about theological uncertainty and humility.

But isn’t it time we started to confront these beliefs directly, instead of briefly shying away from them whenever they are cast in an uncomfortable spotlight? Countless Americans really do believe that it is God’s will that bulldozers crush people to death, that shrapnel would tear apart markets. And worse. Many, including all of Palin’s known spiritual advisors, believe it just and warranted that the majority of humanity will endure eternal suffering merely for having the wrong set of ideas in their heads at the moment of their death.

There isn’t a nice middle ground here. Either these sorts of conservative fundamentals are true, or these views are absolutely and unequivocally morally abhorrent. To worship and glory in such ideas is simply grotesque.

It might well be reasonable to say that we cannot know the mind and purposes of God, and so we should be unwilling to say whether this or that is righteous judgment. That position can warrant some respect. But people like Bricker aren’t saying that: they are going all in on the idea that death and destruction are worthy parts of God’s plan, with all blame falling upon the victims. Humble christians simply cannot toe the line of denying Bricker’s theology, but then failing to pass judgement on his open endorsement of atrocity. Either you’re with humanity, with more humane and loving ideas of God, or you’re with this image of a vengeful God. One can’t be for God, right or wrong, and still claim to have any principled moral code or feeling.


Sarah Palin’s Record as Mayor: Teeny Tiny Bush Administration

September 2, 2008

This is a truly startling little read, from one of Sarah Palin’s old constituents as Alaskan Mayor.

If she’s to be believed then Palin’s mayoral reign over the tiny town of Wasilla should sound startlingly familiar to anyone who’s watched the last 8 years of the Bush Administration deeply politicized mismanagement.

She fired experienced public servants because they won’t bow to bizarre ideology: including a librarian who refused to ban books Palin didn’t like. She sliced progressive taxes on the rich, raising regressive ones on the poor, and then spent lavishly: leaving the town in newfound debt. She hired a lobbyist who scored the tiny town almost 27million in federal pork. And in the face of management squabbles, she seems to have handed off the actual day to day administration to another person.

Pile this record on top of her support for ignorance-only sex education, creationist-seasoned science-classes, and a hearty round of theocratized historical ignorance and Christianist knee slappers and she sounds like the second coming of the Mayberry Machiavellis.

I’ve had a hard time getting too worked up about the thought of a McCain administration, but the idea of a Sarah Palin taking over wherever he finally leaves off is sounding less and less encouraging. Bush has gotten a worse rap than he deserves. Even still, I’m not eager to spend the next four to eight years sapping my forehead in everything from wearied exasperation to shock.


More Creationist Claptrap from Pawlenty on Palin

September 2, 2008

Hemant at FA points us to a recent interview with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in which he defends and expands upon Republican VP-pick Sarah Palin’s as yet unclarified support for teaching creationism (and not even necessarily with the veil of “ID” cast over it) in public school science classes.

Suffice to say, it’s not encouraging stuff.

GOV. PAWLENTY: In the scientific community, it seems like intelligent design is dismissed. Not entirely, there are a lot of scientists who would make the case that it is appropriate to be taught and appropriate to be demonstrated. But in terms of the curriculum in the schools, in Minnesota we’ve taken the approach that that’s a local decision, but I know Senator Palin, or Governor Palin, has said intelligent design is something she thinks should be taught along with evolution in the schools, and I think that’s appropriate from my standpoint.

This is, of course, all in line with the basic creationist gameplan: statewide “freedom” legislation and a standards-free permissiveness towards local attempts to introduce creationist talking points into science classrooms.

Note, of course, the ever present irony of the stance that kids should hear “all sides” when it comes to science: even complete psuedoscience… but when it comes to learning about basic realities of human sexuality and contraception, kids should remain as ignorant as possible.