Obama-Fan Ruins the Moment

November 5, 2008

I know I’ve been silent for a while, but I have a good excuse… which I won’t tell you.  Suffice to say that the end of the election has something to do with it.

Nevertheless, after a one of the happiest nights of hugging strangers that I’ve ever had, I was driving home and listening to some woman on NPR going on about what the Obama victory means for America. It went a little something like this:

“Never thought I’d live to see, etc… and this is a victory against bigotry.  Against sarcasm.  Against….uh… against atheism.”

I almost drove off the road.  Leave alone the fact that that last comment doesn’t make a lick of sense politically (yeah, all us Sarah Palin-loving atheists!), but how exactly does your perception of reality become so twisted that you can possibly work waxing poetic against the evils of bigotry into the same speech that you smear non-belief and non-believers? Isn’t that a form of bigotry?

Anyway, I shouldn’t too hard on the woman: maybe, like so many others, words fail her in what is a tremendously emotional time.


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?”


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.


Public Support for “Fairness” Doctrine Disgusting

August 15, 2008

There’s just not a whole lot to say about it.

41% of Americans believe that the government should “require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary.” Many even want to extend the doctrine, which would essentially enforce points of view on the listening market rather than letting listeners decide, on the internet, which is even more absurd.

I find this poll result almost as upsetting as the high number of Americans who believe in old-school creationism, or can’t find their own country on a map of the world.

It is hard to know exactly how people interepreted the poll questions. Perhaps they didn’t entirely understand what they were agreeing with: perhaps they only meant that they wished media sources as a whole were more balanced and thoughtful. I’m all for that. But the way to achieve it is by promoting, recommending, and endorsing with your feet those voices that take the time to find reason, evenhandedness, and balance.

Forcing by regulation show by show, site by site balance, on the other hand, is as silly as demanding that two people having an argument in person each give equal time defending the other guys position. The whole point of the liberal scientific method, the whole point of free speech and open debate, is that we hash things out in adversarial contest. It isn’t that we try to artificially create balance: we find it in the midst of neverending debate. It’s a collective, society-wide process.

The other faulty assumption I suspect is at work here is the idea that there needs to be “balance” across every single medium of communication. But there’s nothing wrong with the fact that conservatives happen to prefer radio, and liberals newspapers, and so on. The point is the views expressed and people’s free access to them, not how those views happen to be transmitted.


Double Standard for SWAT Shootings: Police Need to Address It, Not Just Deny It

August 14, 2008

I’m not sure I approve of the choice of examples, but the basic point made by Stephen Littau in this post is worth making: there’s a huge double standard when it comes to the actions of police officers and ordinary citizens that honest members of law enforcement need to seriously address and explain.

When an officer in the midst of a SWAT-style “dynamic entry” points a gun at an unarmed woman holding a baby and pulls the trigger, killing her, the fear and confusion of the situation alleviate all legal and moral culpability. In fact, they would only face 8 months in jail even if they were to be found culpable. Likewise if an officer fires through a door and hits civilians: it’s okay. Stuff just gets hairy on the job like that.

But when a citizen fires a gun at what they think is an assailant through a door, they not only face the death penalty, but often get it.

It’s true, of course, that every situation is different. Oftentimes the officers are noble people, and the civilians in question are not. But there is an undeniable overall pattern in which the very same mitigating factors are cited to completely exonerate officers in the line of duty, but yet are denied any role at all in the treatment of civilians.

Officers can’t have it both ways: the whole point of their “shock & awe” SWAT warrants is supposedly to surprise people (many of whom are sleeping and never hear the muffled cry of “police” through their walls and closed doors). The inevitable and predictable result is chaos and confusion. The police cannot deliberately and thoughtfully create such a situation and then claim that the chaos justifies anything they (trained professionals) happen to do. And they certainly cannot claim that excuse for themselves, but then at the same time maintain that ordinary citizens who often have no idea what’s going on are fully responsible for everything they do.


Bigfoot Has Heart Attack, Dies En Route to Press Conference

August 14, 2008

Skeptics everywhere are waiting with perfectly normal breath for the imminent press conference: two professional Bigfoot hunters are claiming that they’ve finally bagged a specimen. There’s even a decidedly nasty photo of the find with what looks like an extra from Planet of the Apes stuffed in an ice cream freezer.

The hunters claim several Bigfoots were spotted walking upright in the area the body was found but won’t reveal the location “to protect the creatures”.

The proud caretakers of the alleged Bigfoot body are promising DNA evidence and more convincing documentation soon.

As we know all too well, the follow-up stories will rarely get bigger headlines than the original claims… even if these guys are later exposed as the most blatant of liars. The result is that the idea of Bigfoot will get another cultural “bump” (in internet message-board parlance). The specific content of the “bump” rarely even matters for such things: even the embarrassment of exposed fraud or ridiculous mistake won’t undo the interest generated.

For two guys with a business based around Bigfoot, that’s a pretty hefty motive for shenanigans. They’re going to have quite a burden of proof here.

Update: Looks like we won’t even have to wait. A “legitimate” Bigfoot research outfit makes a pretty open and shut case for “hoax.” All the guys in question have a history of outright hoaxing, and their story here doesn’t hold up either.

They even have a prediction on how everything will go down that sounds right to me:

But instead, here’s what you might expect from the press conference: Biscardi will waltz in with two smiling impostor Russian “scientists” … who will say whatever Biscardi has paid them to say about the “body” that he’ll never allow the press to examine in the flesh.


Charging For Obama/McCain Lawn Signs: Good! Obsessing About Them: Bad!

August 13, 2008

Via Dean’s World comes word of a story on a single disgruntled Obama voter, frustrated over the fact that campaigns are charging money for their candidate’s lawn signs.

Every year this happens, and every year people treat it as if it were something new and outrageous under the sun. If only the grumpy Mr. Norris understood what was going on behind the curtain…

You see, one of the most annoying thing about field campaigns is how overwrought and obsessed people get about big, glossy yard signs. Virtually every study conducted on the issue shows that they have little to no effect in an already media saturated national election, and yet nutty volunteers, activists, and voters not only demand insane amounts of them, but drive the campaign nuts with reports of “enemy” signs, complaints of too few signs at this or that street corner, some signs blocking other signs, pointless outrages about supposedly stolen signs (half of which just blew away), stealing enemy signs themselves in the dead of night, blanketing roadways with signs (often illegally!) and so on.

The median strip of Local Route 11 proudly supports candidate Smith!

In any case, the amount of precious organizing/voter contact time essentially wasted on these silly sign activities is legendary, and worse: it’s done by well-meaning people who passionately believe that they are doing the campaign a huge favor. The norm is that people come into offices and basically want to just take 50 signs, all for free, so they can put them up in the middle of nowhere on a disused highway median and then call the campaign constantly to report what’s going on with them.

The practical reality is, however, that the signs are in VERY short supply during the summer, and are paid for not by the national campaign, but local donations and groups. And most of the time, charges are either for online ordering and shipping, or actually just for any extra taken on top of the first freebie.

Charging people money is less a means of getting revenue than it is limiting people’s overenthusiastic insanity about signs: making them realize that they do cost money (quite a lot, actually) and are not an infinite resource. Because, of course, if the local campaign office ever temporarily runs out of lawn signs, people coming in get just as outraged and indignant about how poorly the campaign is being run.

The fact that people get upset about a few dollars a sign is just more of the same misguided madness.

It’s not for nothing that campaign vets quietly call bumper stickers, signs, and buttons “chum” (i.e. the smelly bait you throw in the water to attract fish). The fact that the stuff drives people come into campaign offices, potentially to volunteer, is far far more important than some guy plastering his Volvo with a thousand bumper stickers.


“Loss of Faith” Headline at CNN misleading

August 8, 2008

Amphiboly is a pretty common problem for newspaper headlines, and given the way in which people form psychological impressions, misleading first interpretations can often color people’s attitudes even after they’ve figured out the correct one. You’d think that headline scribes would be a bit more careful.

Not here: CNN has a headline that reads: “Mega-preacher’s wife sued over loss of faith” The way I immediately read this was that the preacher’s wife had lost her faith, and was perhaps being sued based on various production and marketing contracts that relied on an honest profession of belief.

But, nope, it’s much crazier: the wife of our old pal Osteen apparently elbowed a flight attendant on a plane, and the woman is suing, claiming that, amongst other things, the errant elbow made her lose her faith. And, apparently, that the shove also gave her hemorrhoids.

I’m not sure which is less plausible. Can you really sue for loss of faith? If so, who would I sue?