Monday, December 28, 2015


Like lying—only better

Perhaps you have heard we are now living in a “post-truth” era, but it hasn't disturbed you too much because it's merely a manifestation of the low quality of today's politicians. Sure, Donald Trump spouts random nonsense all the time, but he's as undisciplined as a spoiled toddler, so no one is surprised. Carly Fiorina is, by contrast, a conscious liar, but she's an unimportant fringe candidate without credibility, so who cares? Ben Carson's relationship with truth seems pretty strained, but he's always a little spaced-out and detached from reality; besides, his star is fading.

I could go on in this vein, but I think the problem is worse than a simple matter of our candidates being worse than usual during this unfortunately prolonged election season. (It's not even election year yet, dammit!) The post-truth virus is spreading among us. I've seen this post-truth attitude affecting mere mortals, too. People I used to know as classmates, back when they seemed sane and responsible, are in its grip.

One of them posted an inanely patriotic meme from a website she follows. She was sharing a Facebook post:

It was clearly a specious quotation: “When government takes away citizens' right to bear arms it becomes citzens' duty to take away government's right to govern.” How could anyone take seriously a claim that George Washington ever sounded like a spokesperson for the NRA? I looked it up, verified it was false, and let her know with a simple declarative statement:
These words were never spoken or written by George Washington.
She soon replied with a charming lack of concern:
Ah, but they are so true!
I thought she was missing the point:
I think false attributions should be discouraged. Mainly because they're false.
She remained serenely unfazed:
But truer words were neer spoken, no matter by whom.
See? True or not, it doesn't matter. The fundamental lie at the heart of the statement is irrelevant because she agrees with the statement. We have a problem.

And that's the truth!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

'Tis the season

To be clueless

One of my family members posted (or, rather, re-posted) a cheery little Christmas manifesto: How dare anyone besmirch the holiday season by inflicting “Happy Holidays” on Yuletide revelers, thereby harshing their Jesus buzz.

The three exclamation points really clinch the argument, as I'm sure you'll agree. Except that I didn't. I offered a mild demurrer:
This is not something worth a fight over. If someone wishes you “Happy Holidays,” it might just be a polite Jewish person who is mostly left out of the whole Christmas business. It might be a store worker who is merely following instructions not to make assumptions about the affiliations of the customers. It takes away from the spirit of the season to get worked up about this and it's probably not good for the blood pressure.
If you're anticipating my relative's reaction, you may well be thinking I was instantly subjected to a barrage of abuse, denunciation, and name-calling. Well, that would be wrong. My relative promptly agreed with me. But check out the actual wording:
Feel the same way. It was meant for those who accuse those of us who are entitled to our beliefs & customs as causing discomfort to other groups when we are expected to be considerate of their celebrations.
Ah, yes. It was merely a mild-mannered belligerence in the service of Christian peace and love. How could anyone object?

I put this in the same category as people who wave their Confederate “heritage-pride” flags and pretend to be amazed when others take offense.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

NPR's memory hole

Dr. Google has a remedy

Although we now have more news sources than ever, we don't seem to be getting more information. In their eagerness to contribute to the news glut, media outlets generate increasing amounts of fluffy bits of non-news. It's extremely disappointing to find National Public Radio getting in on the act. On October 15, 2015, NPR's “lead digital reporter” Jessica Taylor posted a shallow item titled New Clinton Spanish Posters: Hillary or Evita? Although Taylor took the trouble to learn that Clinton's staffers disclaimed responsibility for the Spanish-language posters and images appearing in Texas, she used the rest of her short article to muse about resemblances to icons of Eva Peron, Madonna (as Eva Peron), fashion designer Carolina Herrera, and Shepard Fairey's 2008 Hope poster. The mystery of the poster's origin remained unsolved.

Perhaps it was too much trouble to do the minimal amount of research required to uncover something about the poster's origins. The earliest example I found with a quick Google search was in December 2012, when a site called “The Right Perspective” (not exactly friends of Hillary) ran a very similar image (only the background differs) with an article about Clinton's expected presidential campaign. Essentially the same illustration appeared in May of last year on the “Bearing Arms (Guns & Patriots)” site with an opinion piece mocking Clinton's position on gun control.

Who cobbled together the original image? Who switched the background of wavy red and white stripes to a burst of sun rays? These deep questions remain unanswered. The pictures have, of course, spread throughout the Internet, as memes are wont to do. Zazzle has it on posters and other paraphernalia. Politico reports that a copy was posted in Clinton's Brooklyn campaign office, although that falls a bit short of establishing it as officially sanctioned by the campaign, especially given its non-campaign antecedents.

Yes, it's a tiny little non-story. And it's something a “lead” reporter for NPR wastes time on—and not very well.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

They can't (don't) count

Fools or liars (or both)?

Panic-struck evangelistic Christians are desperate for solace in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision establishing marriage equality throughout the nation. Some of these narrow-minded people, like Kim Davis of Kentucky, are unsuccessfully asserting their right to “nullify” laws and court rulings with which they disagree. Others are less well-positioned to try to express their distress. They can flock to preachers like Billy Crone, who is well-prepared to speak untrue words to comfort them.

Crone was recently the featured guest on the radio program of Southwest radio church, giving a two-part presentation on A Christian Response to the Supreme Court Decision. It's unclear whether Crone is a fool or a liar, but he's at least thorough, touching on all of the most popular anti-gay tropes. For example, homosexuality is a “choice” and people cannot be “born that way” because not all pairs of identical twins grow up with identical orientations.
Nobody's born that way. It's a choice.... That's one of the lies that they say out there, that there's no way we can turn around and people are born that way. Well, that's another lie that we expose on this study. All right, because they say, ‘Just back off and leave us alone because, you know, we're born this way.’ Well, that's not true. And we know that's not true, folks, because you have the prime example with identical twins, okay? If genetics determine a person's sexual orientation, i.e., you're born this way, then it should manifest itself every single time, one hundred percent of the time, with twins, who by nature share the exact same genetic information. Well, guess what? It doesn't!
Apparently Crone embraces the notion that “genes are destiny” and remains ignorant of epigenetic issues (either because he's never heard of them or finds them inconvenient for his thesis).

Crone continues in this vein, pointing out the “logical” conclusion that gay rights must perforce lead to rights for other criminals. The reasoning is simple (like the reasoner):
A guy goes and he robs a bank—right?—he stands before the judge and says, ‘Hey, I'm sorry, judge, you can't prosecute me. You can't send me to jail. I was born this way! It's my civil right.’
I have to admit it's difficult to argue with statements this stupid, but Crone speaks with great assurance and authority. He keeps averring that his statements are “logical,” speaking to the degree that his sectarian blinders are firmly in place.

A familiar equation pops up in his rhetoric. He hates the word “homophobia” because it is used against his co-religionists.
Oh, and by the way, this term, homophobic. How is disagreeing on an issue automatically get you this label homophobic? There's plenty of people in the world who disagree with all kinds of behavior. People disagree about lying, or coveting, or stealing, or hatred, or mockery, or pedophilia. Does this mean we now label these people as liar-phobes, or covetophobes, or mockophobes, or theftophobes, or pedophilia-phobes?
See how smoothly he mixes in pedophilia with his jeremiad against homosexuality? It's all part of the same problem (in his mind).

Crone skips lightly through statistics on physical and mental illness in gay people, life expectancies, and other warped data. (At least he didn't cite Paul Cameron by name, but the stench of Cameron's fake research hovered over Crone's summary.)

But my favorite moment in Crone's entire presentation came early in the first installment, the moment six minutes into the broadcast when he offered comfort to his afflicted listeners. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Crone insists that opposition to same-sex marriage commands a huge majority in our nation:
When you look at the voting statistics, folks, on those who were against—in the states—that used the voting procedure, not one judge overruling the voice of the people in that state—that's not what our system is set up to be—okay?—and not only a handful of people on the Supreme Court, okay?—but when you look at the voting statistics of the states, the thirty-one states that voted against this, versus only three that did, you play the statistics there, and we are in the majority twelve to one. Twelve to one is the majority of people who are against this, so we are not in the minority; we're in the majority on this issue and so we need to stop listening to the media and thinking that you might as well roll over and play dead.
By what magic did Crone conjure up this cataclysmic landslide against marriage equality? It's simple, provided you ignore enough data! While he gave no citations of sources, it's clear that Crone must be clinging to outdated tallies of anti-gay victories at the voting booth. Various on-line lists identify thirty or thirty-one states with constitutional definitions of marriage that support the “traditional” version (where “tradition” in this instance means “one man and one woman,” and does not includes the various polygamous arrangements of several Biblical patriarchs and kings).  If we accept Crone's count of thirty-one state votes against same-sex marriage versus three votes in favor (or, at least, not against), we still do not get a ratio of twelve to one. It's more like ten to one. (And for all of you math pedants out there, yes, it's actually ten-and-a-third to one.) Crone is prone to exaggeration. But that's not the main point.

Crone's numbers are stale, well past their freshness date. The earliest state ban on same-sex marriage goes back to Alaska in 1998, when 68% of the voters placed the one-man-one-woman definition of marriage in the state constitution. However, Public Policy Polling found in 2014 that Alaska's voters favored same-sex marriage by a 47 to 46 plurality. This is a state that does not belong in Crone's anti-gay tally, especially since the national trend directly contradicts his claim about a massive majority being on his side.

So ... is Crone merely lying ... or is he a fool?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Perspective crash!

Looking too closely

The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, made it perfectly clear: The stock market had crashed. The headline “Plunging markets” was accompanied by an illustration that made the disaster graphically clear—provided you didn't read the fine print along the margin. The understated labeling of the vertical axis was, fortunately, reinforced by the actual numbers. The Dow Jones was merely down 588.40 from 16,459.75, a drop of 3.5748% (which the Chronicle over-rounded to 3.58%). Yes, that's a significant market correction in a market widely viewed to be overvalued. Not exactly an apocalyptic result. Nicely eye-catching headline, though.

A better perspective on the issue shows why the market chart would have been quite underwhelming if drawn to a scale that including the zero point. The grid lines representing 1000 points on a hard copy of the Chronicle were separated by 6 centimeters and ended at 15,500 along the bottom edge of the graph. To extend the chart down to its zero-line would have required an additional 93 centimeters (36.6 inches). That's right: It would have extended an additional yard below the printed chart and (since the newspaper isn't that long) more than two feet below the paper's bottom margin.

A fold-out extension would have attracted more attention to the front page, but ruined the message.

By way of comparison, a real economic disaster on the order of the notorious crash that ushered in the Great Depression involved a 13% drop on “Black Monday” (October 28, 1929) and another 12% drop on the immediately following “Black Tuesday.” The losses continued to accumulate and full recovery, as we know, took decades.

What about this week's “plunge”? The Business Insider published a report with an appropriate title: “After all that, the stock market finished the week higher.”

Saturday, July 18, 2015

All in this together

Denying individuality

We live in an age when everyone, whether enthusiastically or grudgingly, gives at least lip service to diversity. Most people acknowledge diversity as a strength, others may claim they find it excessively politically correct, but a surprisingly large number of people seem to forget all about it in certain venues. I notice it all the time, like when it happened multiple times at a series of seminars earlier this year. How often have you heard speakers address groups with remarks like these?
Sometimes you just need a beer, right?
No. Never. I belong to the approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population that eschews alcohol. The man extolling the virtues of beer had about one hundred people in his audience, so about a dozen people were left out of his all-encompassing declaration. He probably never considered saying, “You know, I really need a beer sometimes.” Even the handful of nondrinkers could have chuckled in sympathy with that remark.
Last night, of course, we were all watching the game!
No, I wasn't. I'm not even sure what game you're talking about. It's even worse when the speaker wants us to cheer for a particular team. Not everyone is fascinated by sports teams.
Just think back to your senior prom!
I didn't bother to go. I didn't bother with the junior prom, either. Not my thing.

Then there's funerals. Nothing beats the last rites for unleashing mandatory group-think, whether you're inclined to go along or not.
We can all take comfort in the thought that she's in a better place now. She and her late husband are together again.
People try to coerce you into prayer. They inflict inane pieties on you and prate about an afterlife. It is, of course, the maximally inappropriate venue to insist on dissent. No individuals are allowed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Confederate pseudohistory

The flag game

The most vigorous defenders of the flag always bring up “heritage” and “Southern pride.” They cite the bravery of fallen ancestors, whom they imagine fighting till their last breath and last drop of blood for states' rights beneath the waving Confederate flag. Ah, but which flag? Ironically, many of those revered rebels probably never even saw the flag that their descendants regard as sacred to their memory. Unless they were part of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which used the infamous banner as its battle flag, Confederate soldiers went to war under other colors—including even Lee's troops.

The official flag of the Confederate States of America was the Stars and Bars, first adopted and flown in the CSA's provisional capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. Its resemblance to the USA's Old Glory made its use in battle problematic, insufficiently distinguishing the two sides. The Stars and Bars acquired additional stars as the CSA incorporated (or pretended to incorporate) more renegade states and remained the Confederacy's official banner till it was set aside in 1863 in favor of a new design.

The so-called “Stainless Banner” was characterized by a now-familiar image embedded in a field of white. The white was described by the flag's designer as representing “the cause of a superior race.” Now a different problem arose. The generous use of white made the Stainless Banner appear in some circumstances to be a white flag of surrender. It was back to the drawing boards one more time, resulting in the third and final iteration of the CSA's national banner in 1865.

The “Blood-Stained Banner” never had a chance. Although the addition of a broad red stripe mitigated the problem of confusion with a flag of surrender, surrender was, in fact, at hand. The final CSA flag was adopted in March 1865 and General Lee conceded to General Grant in April. Most Confederate soldiers never saw the new national flag, which was defunct with the defeat and dissolution of the CSA.

Both the Stainless and Blood-Stained CSA banners featured a canton displaying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had adopted the starred saltire cross in late 1861 in preference to the confusing Stars and Bars. Despite the battle flag's role as the banner under which General Lee surrendered, it had a vigorous post-war life. Decades after the war was over, the battle flag (often in rectangular rather than square form) was favored as the official emblem of various associations of Civil War veterans in the South. It outlasted the official flags in its identification with the Confederacy and its Lost Cause.

Later the battle flag found favor with the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations that promoted “white power” and suppression of the civil rights of black citizens. It can hardly be mere coincidence that Georgia chose to revive the battle flag and incorporate it in its state banner in resistance to the desegregation mandate of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education.  (The illustration depicts the change enacted in Georgia's flag in 1956.)

The racist component of Southern heritage was there at the outset, as detailed in the constitution of the seceding states and the declarations of the Confederacy's officers, but it was compounded and exacerbated by the era of Jim Crow and the South's segregationist state governments. The Confederate battle flag can no more be purged of that association than the swastika of Germany's National Socialist Party can be restored to its pre-Nazi status.

It's time for the battle flag to fade away, the sooner the better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The buzzing B

And nonplussed

The end of each semester is a time for reflection and renewal. The school term is over, the new term has yet to begin, and the days are free for contemplation, consideration, and ... complaining students. You can always count on the student who learned the “squeaky wheel” adage better than he learned the subject matter. He imagines that his grade is negotiable and fails to note that no negotiating is actually occurring. It can take weeks for the spate of wheedling communiqu├ęs to peter out.
If ever there was a time to consider a grading scheme where if the majority of your exams are A's including the final you get an A. My dad said he got a math teacher to bump him up a grade by doing a card trick.  Are you game?
Family legends and Rudyard Kipling notwithstanding (“If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss”), skill at sleight of hand does not translate into grade points in my class. Sorry about that. He moved on to plan B:
My grandmother would give an A if you got an A on the final but maybe she gave harder finals or something.  
Not to criticize the young man's sainted grandmother, with whom I should never be confused, the old girl was offering her students the ancient “sucker bet” routine. I've seen it often enough before. It's deadly.

When an instructor tells a class at the beginning of the semester that grades will be based on either an overall average or the final exam score, whichever is best, a significant minority of the students immediately falls into the trap: I just need to do well on the final. That'll be enough! Of course it never is. Most such students begin slacking off in that class in order to concentrate on other courses or activities. More immediate concerns take over because I just need to do well on the final. They dig the hole deep, taking comfort in the thought that a single Olympian jump at the end will permit them to escape their subterranean situation, even as they neglect the exercises that would make the feat feasible (and, more to the point, unnecessary, because they would be earning the points that would put them into a position to pass without a miraculously redemptive performance on the final exam).

I never offer my students the sucker bet. My student was undeterred.
Just curious now; did anyone else get two A's on exams and an A on the final and still not get an A?  Is there anyone I can commiserate with or is this an anomaly?
Although misery may love company, privacy considerations intervened. I answered him:
Yes, there were two other students, so it wasn’t exactly an anomaly. It was a matter of getting relatively low A’s that were counterbalanced by lower grades, preventing the composite score from being in the A range. You’d be welcome to commiserate with them, but privacy concerns forbid me from sharing their names. —Z
My student kept harping on his “majority” argument and insisted on ignoring the relative strength of his scores. The semester grade was a weighted average of six scores: one for homework and quizzes, four chapter tests, and one final exam. The composite score was computed thus:

Comp = 0.15*HQ + 0.70*E_average + 0.15*Final

My diligent correspondent had a low A for HQ, a high C for E_average, and a low A for Final. His Comp result was 83.4. That's not A territory. Interestingly, he kept his focus on the exams and ignored the HQ result. Thus his argument was, in effect, three A's on five exams should work out to an A in the class. But here are the exam scores:

Exam 1: 90, Exam 2: 80, Exam 3: 95, Exam 4: 54, Final: 92

That's right: He outright flunked Exam 4. It's really tough to be an A student when you flunk an exam, especially that severely. This never figured into his arguments, for obvious reasons. He fussed over the weights. The final wasn't worth enough! Sorry, but short of going the “sucker bet” route it could hardly ever be worth enough to suit his purposes. Besides, I had already sweetened the pot by building some bonus points into the final exam's grading scheme, giving a perfect paper a value of 105 instead of a mere 100. In reality, his 92 on the final was 87.6%. I had already cut everyone as much slack as I intended to.

He had one more card up his sleeve:
Is there nothing that can be done... a test I can take to challenge?
Lord have mercy! Can you imagine? I tried to be nice:
No, there isn’t anything. If you think about it a little bit, you’ll realize for yourself there couldn’t be any after-the-fact exam that students could take to tweak their grades. Otherwise the college would spend the first several weeks of summer vacation giving the special exams to students who were unsatisfied with the outcome of the semester. Six of your classmates who earned B’s did better than you; ten did more poorly. You earned an unambiguous mid-range B in the class, a good solid grade. —Z
It did not satisfy him. I received one more lengthy message in which he noted his regular attendance, active participation, his “majority” of A's, and his work ethic. “It seems that for one reason or another, I end up coming up short somehow.”

The main reason, as best as I can tell, is that you're a B student whose grades range across the spectrum from A to F. It's not mysterious.
I'm sure you're tired of this by now.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

A balmy in Gilead

My modest proposal

When it comes to irrational right-wing extremism, Joseph Farah lives in a surreal bubble of his own special brand of derangement. He is the founder of WorldNetDaily, a Web-based journal almost impossible not to cite as WorldNutDaily. WND serves up regular heaping helpings of paranoia, propaganda, and crackpottery.

Farah has been wringing his hands over the fate of traditional biblical marriage. (Please note: “Traditional” marriage means the one-man/one-woman definition from the Bible exemplified by Adam and Eve—and not the one-man/two-women example of Jacob with Leah and Rachel nor the one-man/seven-hundred-wives/three-hundred-concubines example of good old King Solomon.) In his WND column of June 3, 2015, Farah proposes secession from the United States if the Supreme Court allows same-sex marriage throughout the nation.
Is there one state in 50 that would not only defy the coming abomination, but secede in response? The rewards could be great. I would certainly consider relocating. How about you?

The founders of this country found a place of refuge in America and shaped it into the greatest self-governing nation in the history of world. Just think what one state could do if it simply stuck to the principles that made this country great? Americans wouldn’t have to cross an ocean to rediscover what brought most of our ancestors here. We could simply drive.

Are any states so inclined?

I haven’t heard this question raised by anyone else. So I’m raising it now. We don’t have much time before the nine high priests in black robes decide to follow Baal instead of the One True God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Okay, that mention of Jacob is a trifle unfortunate, but at least his wives were of the opposite sex.

Farah calls his proposal an “Exodus strategy.” Commenters on sites like Crooks & Liars have been quick to suggest that Texas is the state that should secede (or be thrown out) to serve as a haven for Farah and his followers. I think this is much too generous. Abandon Austin? Dump Dallas? Leave Houston high and dry? (Actually, I guess they might appreciate that right about now.)

I have a counter-proposal. Let Farah and his crazies colonize the Texas panhandle. Let's carve out a nice rectangular space for an independent nation named Gilead. (There's a nice literary reference for you.) Amarillo and Lubbock would probably fit in just fine. While saner people might flee to the greater portion that remains as Texas, there should be plenty of opportunities to obtain good deals on the residences left behind by the flight of Farah's adherents (especially in Plano). A plebiscite could determine whether Oklahoma's panhandle should be included for good measure. (Those who think Panhandler would make a good name for this new nation should take into account that the imbalance between taxes paid and federal dollars received would no longer be an issue—unless the new nation demands a lot of foreign aid from the US, in which case Panhandler might be exactly right.)

There are other aspects to this win-win situation: (1) Texas goes blue more quickly. (2) Jobs are created in the border patrol and border-crossing stations will have to be constructed. (This would be true in New Mexico and Oklahoma, as well as in the new Texas. Possibly in Colorado and Kansas, too.) (3) Other parts of the United States would improve as their nutcases emigrated to Gilead. (4) Ted Cruz would lose his political base (unless he moves to the new country to become its Priest-King).

I'm not certain what would support the economy of Gilead, though it's likely that Lubbock's cotton industry and Amarillo's meat-packing would remain mainstays. However, opportunities to promote tourism might be sketchy. Would Americans be eager to visit a nation based on a Christian version of sharia law?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

How the crazy works

Capitalism in Bizarro world

Last month I briefly indulged my nasty habit of scanning the AM radio dial. As usual, the cesspit that is KSFO served up a memorable dollop of right-wing nonsense. The old stalwarts are gone now—Lee Rodgers to eternal silence and Melanie Morgan to the scandal-tainted Move America Forward—but Brian Sussman and Katie Green are doing their best to maintain the morning program's standard of irrational extremism.

Sussman, a weather man who thinks himself competent to pretend to be a climatologist, has apparently fixated on Hillary Clinton the way Cato was obsessed with Carthage. Although I suspect he will be disappointed with the eventual outcome, his overreach inspires a kind of head-shaking awe. Making money is usually honored by the KSFO tribe, but Sussman was willing to make an exception for Clinton's success. When Hillary makes money, it's evil and corrupt (two words you'll never hear Sussman use while discussing the excesses of the banking industry).

In this particular instance, Sussman was offended that Clinton commands top dollar for her speaking engagements:
Sussman: Hillary Clinton. Remember when she addressed the eBay summit? And we had asked this question: what did she make for this 20-minute talk? We literally asked the question. And now we find out: 315,000 dollars from eBay! Katie, that's your money and my money—because we use eBay.

Katie Green: Yeah, it is.
Welcome to the new KSFO theory of capitalism. Since Sussman is a customer of eBay, he shares ownership of the company's money. Sorry, Brian. When you patronize a company, your dollars become theirs, to do with as they please. Even if that means bringing in a nationally-known speaker to amp up attendance at one of their conferences. Your permission is not required.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for a correction or clarification. That would be fatal.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Pick a number

The art of data denial

The United States economy has climbed out of the hole created by the Great Recession and the Obama Administration has presided over an unbroken string of increasing job numbers lasting more than five years. I commented on this accomplishment and posted an illustration summarizing the data.

This did not sit well with one of my Facebook “friends,” who promptly took me to task:
Really, you are smarter than this BS!
It's a puzzlement how many people assure me I'm smart while insisting I'm also stupid. I asked my accuser how I had gone astray when my evidence-based conclusion was supported by the published numbers. She didn't hesitate:
Evidence that can be changed or tampered with. Too easy to make things look good for the moment!
Ah, yes. We must question authority and doubt the data. No doubt she took comfort in 2012 from the “poll correcters” who disdained the conclusions of the professional pollsters that President Obama was heading toward reelection. Remember them? (I'm sure folks in the Romney campaign do.)

I shared a story with my data doubter, explaining to her that data tampering in this context is a myth. It doesn't happen. Perhaps that sounds like simple-minded credulity, but I actually know what I'm talking about.

Once upon a time I worked for a state agency that was responsible for the annual computation and publication of the California Necessities Index. The CNI had been adopted by the legislature as the standard for indexing public assistance benefits (mostly because, at the time, it was lower than the Consumer Price Index). I was the person within the agency who was assigned to perform the actual computation, since I was the closest thing to a staff mathematician.

My father was amused by this situation and jokingly suggested it would be nice if I shaved off a fraction of a percentage point, thus denying full benefits to welfare cheats (most of the people on public assistance, in Dad's proto-tea-party view of the world). Contrariwise, I could have been a benefactor to California's destitute and downtrodden by judiciously rounding up the factors of the CNI, giving them an unexpected windfall. We could tamper with the numbers!

No. The very notion was ridiculous, as well as impossible. The components of the CNI were public information, factors selected from the published data for the CPI. Anyone could look up the factors that went into the CPI, apply the weights stipulated for the CNI, and derive the number. My role was simply a formality, providing the number that appeared in our agency's publications to make it official, pursuant to state law. Well before we published the number, the governor's Department of Finance had done its own independent calculation, as had the Legislative Analyst's Office and anyone else who needed the index number or was just curious about it.

The same thing is largely true of the numbers published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The worker bees of the federal government compile the monthly data each month, analyze the figures, and publish the summary information. The monthly unemployment rate, for example, is not vetted, suggested, or even approved by the White House. The faceless bureaucrats who crunch the numbers for the Obama Administration did the same exact thing when Bush was president (and, for some of these civil servants, they did it under both Bushes). They have no more control over the conclusions or final numbers than I did when I was a California civil servant. (It's popular within the right wing these days to decry unemployment data as unrepresentative of the “truth” because the usual unemployment number is deemed to have fallen when people just give up and stop seeking jobs. If they think the U3 measure published by the BLS is insufficiently informative, they are welcome to cite U6, which the BLS also publishes. You want numbers? Go to the BLS. They publish practically everything and the numbers aren't fudged.)

Data denial is a fundamental component of the refusal to recognize global-warming induced climate change. Data denial is also currently hard at work in California, giving aid and comfort to people paranoid about vaccinations, who pick and choose among an Internet stew of “research” and anecdotes to bolster their arguments that vaccines are more dangerous than now-rare childhood diseases (rare because of vaccines!).

If you want your conclusions to be rational and evidence-based, you have to avoid the denial of well-established data. We have seen, however, that even the most robust numbers are rejected when they get in the way of political ideologies.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Catholic denialism

Faith in anti-science

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church for less than two years, but that's been plenty of time to establish that he has a talent for sparking over-reaction. One expects this is in part due to the contrast between Francis and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, the Panzer pope still living in retirement in Vatican City. Pope Francis has raised exaggerated expectations simply because he comes across as milder and less doctrinaire than popes of recent memory, but no one should believe that he is likely to do anything significant with respect to women in the clergy, the ban on contraception, or the Church's medieval attitudes toward homosexuality. He merely avoids the condemnatory language that others in the hierarchy prefer to use.

In most respects, therefore, I expect little more from Pope Francis than a kinder and friendlier tone. His one potentially significant departure from past practice is not ensnared in hoary Church dogma, which perhaps gives him more freedom of movement. That is the pope's inclination to address humanity's responsibility toward the environment. Francis appears to be ready to go beyond God's exhortation in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” He is reportedly working on an encyclical on global warming and climate change. It doesn't take much to outrage the Church's lunatic fringe, and this was more than enough.

Church Militant TV was quick off the mark to condemn the pontiff. In its news report for February 2, 2015, Church Militant spokeswoman Christine Niles snidely commented on the pope's environmentalism:
In light of the pope's upcoming encyclical on climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency made a recent trip to the Vatican. Gina McCarthy, head of the agency, told papal aides that Obama wants to work with the pope to promote the president's “green” agenda. According to McCarthy, Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Bishops Conference have also offered their help, but many Catholics remain confused, wondering why the Supreme Pontiff would choose to base his next encyclical on a dubious, unproven theory, when the greatest threats to the faith today are attacks on marriage and the family.

Her comments occur at 1:32 in the video. What's next? Is vaccination a tool of Satan?