Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I Don't Know What to Say

I have come to terms with the fact that some people will always believe it is "I could care less", and even make up paper thin -- and usually nonsensical -- arguments to justify this mistake. I even manage to control myself and not mock those who write "rediculous"  - -though every so often I do ask if the "redicule" people, I just can't help it. I can even manage to ignore -- with great effort -- those who "mix and mash" or believe it "takes two to tangle". But now I am beginning to wonder if my efforts at reluctant tolerance don't just inspire even more idiocy.

Here are a few quotes I discovered while sampling at random from IMDB comments:

"has it down pack"
"fall by the waste side"
"lose her innocents"

Now, obviously, these are not characteristic of everyone who writes on the site, but sadly, they seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Nor can they be excused by youth, inexperience, or even foreigners learning cliches phonetically. No, these are grown, mature native speakers, who still manage to completely mangle the language.

And thus, I have decided to rescind my efforts at tolerance. I am, at heart, a spelling and grammar Nazi anyway (despite my frequent typos, and frequent sentence fragments -- at least I know it is wrong). And thus I am returning to my argument in "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards" and elsewhere. Rules exist for a reason, we need them to make sure our messages are communicated clearly. Just to take one example, if you "could care less", does it mean you do still care? Or that you mangled an old cliche? If you knew how the cliche was used, and used it properly, we would know which you meant As it is, I can't tell if you have unplumbed depths of apathy or simply sloppy writing habits.

Nor is it an excuse that it is "just the internet" and "an informal place". Precision is even more important with strangers. Friends know you well enough to guess at your meaning and intentions, strangers do not. And, on the internet, there are two other factors arguing for precision. First, without nonverbal cues, the words are all we have, and thus the meaning must be absolutely clear. Second, with users coming from all over the world, many with limited comprehension of English, it is vitally important to make our meaning clear. Writing "informally" and misusing words is more damaging on the internet, not less.

Thus, I am once again throwing down the gauntlet and refusing to allow such atrocities to pass unchallenged. It may make me a "Nazi", but at least I will be a Nazi who is easily understood.

POSTSCRIPT

We need to be careful in our arguments, however. I was once criticized for "not knowing" a cliche. I was arguing with someone who I believed was making absurdly inaccurate caricatures of my arguments, and I told him I would not longer "bother tilting at straw men". He informed me I was wrong, and it was "tilting at windmills". I explained I was well aware of the common cliche, and its origins, but I was simply applying it in a new context, invoking an image of a man jousting with figures of straw. His lack of reaction made it clear why he had criticized my words, he had no idea what "tilting" meant, and imagined its only use was in this single formula. So, it may be a good idea, before we criticize, if we are certain we understand what cliches mean, and where they originate. (If people understood the simple meaning of "I could not care less", for example, they would not try to justify the improper version gaining currency at such an alarming rate. This is also why we so often see "free rein" written as "free reign", as the writers fail to understand the equestrian origin of the cliche and imagine it has something to do with rulership.)

POSTSCRIPT II

I am trying to find a term for a particularly unusual mistake I found in one of these reviews. It is not precisely a mixed metaphor, as the terms actually relate quite well. The problem is, if we take the metaphorical terms literally, they make nonsense of the argument. In other words, the metaphor is getting in the way of the meaning. In this case, the phrase is "...keep the script from sinking due to its lack of depth." Now, on the surface, I suppose it is a fine sentence, but since "sinking" and "depth" are both metaphors (though we use "depth" so often in this sense we often forget it is metaphorical), and "sinking" implies an excess, not lack, of "depth", this metaphor actually seems to be arguing the complete opposite of what the sentence intends. Is there a proper term for this? It is not a mixed metaphor, but rather a metaphor getting in its own way, a metaphor stumbling over its own toes, something along those lines. But for the life of me I can't think of a proper term for it.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sex and Gender

I know seeing this title, people are probably expecting some conservative rant against all the many sexual identities, but I plan to go against the grain and instead rant a little bit about language*.

Way back at the dawn of time -- actually, probably in the era before the second World War and maybe a bit after -- the word "sex" referred to the division of humans and other living things into male and female, while "gender" was used to describe the linguistic practice of dividing words into masculine, feminine and, sometimes, neuter. "Gender" did not apply to living things in any sense other than a linguistic one.

Along come the social sciences, and the academic tendency to coin copious jargon. The field of sociology, and related disciplines, need a way to describe the roles adopted by one sex or the other, even when those roles might be displayed by members of a sex not traditionally associated with them. (Eg. Men wearing clothing traditionally considered female, or women engaging in hunting or fighting, traditionally male roles.)  As is often the case, this new area of investigation was at first a bit chaotic, with some using the bland old terminology of "sex roles" and "sexual identity" and such, while others tried to coin new terms to describe these dull old concepts. At length, through whatever process decides such things, the profession -- and allied fields such as psychology -- settled on the use of the term "gender".

In this context, it is usually stated that "gender" is not simply a synonym for "sex", rather it is a specific and very precise term, describing those elements of sex -- or sexual identity -- unrelated to physical aspects of human sexuality. In short, it should be used to describe the societal, malleable aspects of one's sexual appearance and behavior. Sex organs, facial hair and those sort of things are still sexual aspects, not gender**, while clothing, affectations, profession choice and so on, those are aspects of gender.

Now, I am not a great fan of this terminology, as it is basically a needless neologism, or, rather needless redefinition of an existing word. We could do perfectly well discussion "societal aspects of sexuality" rather than "gender roles", but, much as I dislike it, it is not so bad as to be unacceptable. It is somewhat pointless, and a bit confusing since there is a bit of overlap with the linguistic use, but it is not one of those word choices that are so confusing I argue that they should be abandoned.

No, what bothers me about the term is, once it was adopted as this precise bit of jargon, the general public adopted it, but forgot the technical meaning. And so, now we have "gender" being used as a synonym for "sex", and we hear about "societal gender roles" or "non-physical aspects of gender", which are redundant at the very least, if we were to use the formal definition.

And that is my objection to gender, not that the new definition was pointless, but rather, that as a result, we are now saddled with the public tendency to use "gender" as nothing but another word for "sex", meaning we now have twice as many words, but still need to use special modifiers to make clear our meaning. In a way, it reminds me of the war against the word "actress" (cf "A Question About Language"), which led to the silliness of advertising for "female actors", where once one simple word would do. And we are in the same place now with "gender", having popularly made it mean nothing more than sex, we now have to use all those modifiers that "gender" was intended to replace.

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* Actually, for me it is hardly out of character, given my numerous spelling and grammar Nazi posts. See "The Most Unnecessary Neologism", "Biggest Spelling Nazi Laugh of the Day", "Quick Grammar Nazi Note", "Return of the Grammar Nazi: Faux Latin Plurals", "Always Something Worse", "Crimes Against Language and Logic", "Try and Listen to the Grammar Nazi", "A Brief Visit From the Grammar Nazi", "Beyond Grammar and Spelling", "The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas", "Ye Olde Grammar Nazi", "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time", "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards", "Short Grammar Nazi Post" and "The Spelling Nazi Begs to Differ".

** Well, in a way, modern science has made this not quite true. Thanks to hormone treatments and surgery, we can now manipulate the physical aspects of sex, as well as societal. Thus sex is more fluid than it once was.

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POSTSCRIPT

There is one other aspect of "gender" that has made this term more trouble than it is worth. Since "gender" is taken to be a social construct, people feel content to invent many, many new "genders", adding asexual, transgender and more and more. It seems every minute shading of attitude toward sexual roles is now dignified with being declared an entirely new "gender". This is absurd. One can have a nonstandard attitude toward sexual roles without being a whole new sex or gender. Are we eventually going to get to the point where we each are a sui generis gender? "What gender are you?" "Tom." "Oh, I am Stacey gendered." I am happy people are willing to feel comfortable with their own perspectives, but that does not mean we have to elevate every minor shading of perspective into a "gender". (It reminds me of every minor ethnic group fighting to have its dialect declared a "language". At some point, trying to lend people "dignity" and "worth" can lead to absurd results)


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Heroes

In the past, I pointed out that most on the left joined, at least in past, out of a juvenile desire to be part of a "heroic struggle"*, that the left appeals especially to the young as it gives young people what they crave, the ability to be part of some melodramatic, "big", "important" struggle, to "make a difference" and so on. And, in general, those conservatives I know who read my arguments have agreed, seeing the immaturity in the need to be part of some titanic struggle, rather than simply being part of the "dull and boring" day to day life of productive work and family life.

The problem with this is that the right sometimes does the same. Where the left devalues everyday life by venerating those who struggle to overturn the way things are, the right has adopted a more "establishment", but every bit as melodramatic, view. For the right, the adoration is not for rebels, but rather for soldiers and police. In other words, they decided to reserve hero status for those who risk life and limb.

Now, I understand, in part this is a reaction to the left's tendency to denigrate both groups, and also because, these people really do risk life and limb, but still, if we look at it with objectivity, there is some of the same immaturity in the right's choice as the left's.

I am not trying to take away from the jobs done by soldiers and police (my father was a police officer, and most of my relatives have served in the military, some for their entire lives). They do important work. But there is something juvenile in holding forth as heroic and valuable only those who engage in life and death struggles, in praising only those who engage in an obvious struggle. In a way, it is simply the flip side of the left's veneration of the rebel**.

I would argue, those who deserve praise most of all are those who make our life possible, and as comfortable as it is. I mean by this, those who hold down a daily job, as well as those who found and run the businesses, who create the inventions and sell the products. In short, pretty much all those who do their part to keep things running. And yes, this includes police and soldiers, who play an important part, but not the only one.

This is not meant to denigrate soldiers or police, I believe both play an important role. Rather, I am trying to point out the role played by everyone else, a role the right tends to forget when praising only those engaged in some obvious and dramatic struggle. Yes, without police and soldiers, life would fall apart. But, I am willing to wager, if every store closed tomorrow, farms stopped growing and factories producing, society would collapse even more rapidly. Domestic criminals, and foreign aggressors, both can cause serious problems, but it would take time, much more time than would be required for the shut down of our economy to begin taking lives.

And thus, I think when we on the right are handing out laurels, it may be useful for us, at least sometimes, to stop praising exclusively the soldiers and police (and for a moment after 9/11, the "first responders"***), and maybe give a little praise to everyone else, all those engaged in running our massive, complex economy.

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* See "The Path of Least Resistance", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Deadly Cynicism", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom", "An Immature Society", "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?", "Pushing the Envelope", "Look Out It's the End Times!", "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" and "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative".

** In a way, it is akin to the habit of the very young to think only of very visible figures who engage in obvious conflicts, soldiers, police, firemen and athletes. The very young cannot see anything interesting in the accountant or the physicist, and so he does not take an interest in them. Similarly, because there is no obvious struggle, or single dramatic achievement in accounting or on the assembly line, the right tends to forget the crucial role they play in our society.

*** Odd how this list so often sounds like a very young child's list of "what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Monday, December 19, 2016

In Defense of Democracy

Ever since Trump was elected, I have heard quite a few comments upon the shortcomings of democracy1. Not that it is anything new -- well, except that criticism is coming from both sides of the aisle -- whenever a new president is elected, the opposite side tends to portray the election as a "failure of democracy" or a sign of "the low level of public intelligence" and such. Oddly, even such staunch defenders of the electoral college and popular vote as the ardent conservative wing tends to come down on the anti-democracy side, at least in terms of rhetoric, when the public elects some very liberal candidate.

Then again, I suppose there is some unique elements to the recent comments, since the Trump election is not just criticized because it shows the public is foolishly committed to "the wrong side", but rather, both conservatives2 and liberals are taking the election to show that the people are prone to electing stupid representative, or perhaps that name recognition and fame matter more than competence. And on this basis, it seems even more people than usual are disillusioned with popular government. Not that they are suggesting we eliminate elections3, rather they seem to be at their wits' end, as they still believe democratic systems to be the best possible, but the outcomes are forcing them to question that belief.

I would argue that the Trump election, much as it disappoints me, is a sign the system works, as are the wins of all the past presidents. While I was not happy about Trump, nor about Obama, both definitely represent the will of a large voting block, a voting block which could have created considerable turmoil if it felt itself permanently disenfranchised. And that is the purpose, the sole purpose, of popular government. It is not guaranteed to select the best, despite claims to the contrary. (Cf "Misunderstanding Democracy") Even over time it can produce progressively worse results, there is no promise things will move from bad to better. All popular government does is promise those who live under that government that their voice will be heard, and if enough agree with a given position, at some point they may come into power. Thus, if there is a popular vote in favor of someone we think stupid, that simply means those who would riot in favor of a stupid ruler without popular government are now content, as their man has been placed in office.

There are three other simple facts we need to understand. First, democracy is imperfect. But that is not as important as some think, mainly because of the second fact, that being that there are no perfect systems, all possible forms of government are imperfect.  Which leads to the third fact, that, among the imperfect forms of government, popular election is probably the best possibility. I will grant, popular election is severely flawed, and limited. Most problems arise from the simple fact that the results depend on the public. if the public is strongly in favor of limited government, and understands the principles of economics and government, then results will be generally good. On the other hand, a foolish or impulsive public, ignorant of proper economics or following a number of misguided beliefs will produce disastrous results. On the other hand, other systems can produce bad outcomes every bit as poor, depending on who rules, and does not allow for the stability of democracy, or give the possibility of replacing a bad ruler with such ease. Thus, popular government, weak as it is, is still the best of all the flawed possibilities.

Which brings me to my final point. For all the talk of the flaws of popular government, the tendency to  elect bad rulers periodically, the tendency for ideology to swing like a pendulum from side to side over time, and so on, it is not the system itself which is to blame, but rather the people4. We do not need a new system, we do not need to "fix" or "adjust" popular government, manipulating the electoral college is not necessary, term limits are no benefit5, my suggestions to achieve federalism are not necessary (Cf "Minimal Reforms"), even my own proposal to modify the primaries -- though I think it might even out some of the worst excesses -- is not needed either (cf "Fixing the Primaries"). What we need to do is to educate citizens, to teach them the value of small government, of predictability, of limited power and the true principle of economics and politics. Until we do so, no system will save us, and once we do, the system will not matter very much. Our problem, in short, is not that we have a flawed system -- every system is flawed to some degree -- but that our fellow citizens are not aware of many important principles. That is where we should direct our efforts.

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1. I am aware many argue "the US is not a Democracy", arguing we are a republic, not a democracy. However, even the founders often used "democracy" to describe our state, distinguishing between "pure democracy" (what modern political science would call "direct democracy") and "democracy" in general, as a term for all popular government, including direct "pure" democracy, as well as indirect democratic systems, such as our republic. Thus, it is not incorrect to call our government a democracy, if used in the sense of "one of many forms of government where representatives are selected by popular vote." (Cf "No More!".)

2. Just to be clear for those who have not read my posts before, Trump is NOT a conservative. He is a populist, with some conservative and (usually more) liberal ideas, but he has no controlling principles, no theoretic understanding of government, nor even consistent principles, apparently driven by nothing but populist dedication to popular whim, combined with his belief that his ever whim or musing is utterly brilliant insight to be followed immediately. This does not make a conservative, but rather a position somewhere between populist demagogue and despot. (See "The Trump Plan", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "Not Sour Grapes, Rather a Matter of Principle","A Trump Analogy","Look Out It's the End Times!", "Misunderstanding Conservatives", "The Trouble With Tough Talk", "Odds and Ends Concerning Trump", "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism".)

3. As usual, many, especially on the left, are critical of the electoral college, calling it -- as they seem to do every presidential election -- an "anachronism", and suggesting it be replaced with the popular vote. (See "Does Your Vote Count?".)

4. See "The Single Greatest Weakness", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "I Am Going to Say Something that Doesn't Make Sense", "Follow Up to "The Single Greatest Weakness"", "Antibiotics, Automobiles and the Free Market", "The Futility of Blame", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause" and "Impractical Pragmatists".

5. See  "Why Term Limits Will Fail (And Should)", "The Double Edged Sword of Term Limits", "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True "Ousider" Candidate", "Critique of a Congressional Reform", "The Presumption of Dishonesty" and "Vote Them Out".


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It Never Fails, or, P.T. Barnum Was Right

I should never underestimate how foolish people can be. In my essay "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", I wrote about the silly theory that the number of the best, 666 (or sometimes 661), was some sort of hidden message pointing to Nero as the Beast. I argued quite strongly that the theory made no sense, that it misused gematria and was just generally a foolish theory.

In the course of discussing this theory, I mentioned Anthony Burgess' book The Kingdom of the Wicked, where Burgess had Roman era Christians explaining the number of the beast, DCLXVI in Roman numerals, as an acrostic for the message "domitianus caesar legatos xti violenter interfecit", meaning "Domitian Caesar is violently slaying the legates of Christ". However, I made clear in my discussion that I was certain Burgess meant it as a jest, as it was, first of all, improbable Latin -- using the X for chi, rather than writing Christi -- and second, since the Revelation was written in Greek, not Latin, using Roman numerals seemed just plain ludicrous. Burgess was clever enough to know this, and thus I was sure he meant it in jest, not as a serious proposition.

But, never assume anything is too ludicrous for the internet. After all, we have people arguing for legionnaires playing hopscotch ("The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'"), real ships of fools sailing through the seas of the middle ages ("Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously"), the beepocalypse than never was ("The Beepocalypse that Never Was - CCD, DDT, Alar, Saccharine, GMOs, Gamma Ray Bursts and other Catstrophes that Weren't or Won't Be"), towering Napoleons ("The Problem with Internet Revisionism") and the belief "gallic" has no relation to "Gaul" ("Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!") among other far fetched beliefs, so I should not be surprised to find that, as absurd as this explanation is, someone would reproduce it in all seriousness as a possible explanation of the number of the beast.

Now, it does appear this absurdity actually does have some "academic" backing, in the form of the support of Robert Graves*. However, even a little thought should show that it is quite improbable that a Greek author would take a Roman acrostic and then translate it into Greek numbers, thus losing all possibility of anyone figuring out its meaning. But common sense and the internet are often strangers, and so I found countless sites promoting this absurd claim.

As I say in the title, though I often thought the man far too cynical, the more I read on the internet, the more I come to realize, Barnum was onto something.

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* It is possible Burgess actually lifted this from Graves, as he did tend to draw on a wide range of sources, and Graves would hardly be unknown to him. Though even if he did, I have a feeling Burgess was not taking it all that seriously, even if it is not presented as an obvious joke. If you doubt his ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek, while appearing to be dead serious, read the introduction to End of the World News, supposedly written by the executor of his literary estate. (Needless to say, he was quite alive at the time of its writing.)


Friday, November 25, 2016

Does Your Vote Count?

I recently saw an episode of "Adam Ruins Everything"* discussing whether individual votes count. Now, in part, this was the usual post election nonsense trying to denigrate the electoral college as an "antidemocratic anachronism" and all the other common complaints, but in another sense, it was an effort to argue that, despite the common claim "every vote counts", to argue individual votes do not make a difference. And, I suppose if one is predisposed to seeing elections in the terms used by the show, it makes sense, but as I hope to show, the assumptions sued in the arguments by this show (and elsewhere) are just not right.

Now, what does it mean for your vote to "count"? Sadly, it seems in our modern, narcissistic age, this has often come to mean, "could my single vote sway an election?" And, to prove this is not the case, all those arguing against the importance of voting need do is show how infrequently the margin of victory is more than one. Fortunately, that silliness is not yet a majority position, so more often we see two other arguments. First, the argument that, despite winning the popular vote, various people lost the electoral college, thus somehow claiming to demonstrate individual votes don't count. Or else the argument will be made that various states have always gone to this or that party, or that incumbents win with such and such a percentage, and thus individual votes don't count.

However, all of those claims are nonsense.

Let us first look at the electoral college. Some sports have rules establishing rankings and playoff positions where rank is based not just on wins and losses, but on points scored. In such situations, it is completely possible for the top ranked team to have fewer wins than a lower ranked team, yet do we then claim it does not matter how anyone played in those games? Of course not! Similarly, though the electoral college means winning the popular vote does not equal presidential victory, it still depends on individual votes to assign those electoral votes, and thus, every vote still counts, even if the results of popular vote and electoral vote differ.

The second argument is equally foolish. First, because even if a given side wins more frequently, those times when they do lose, were there fewer opposition votes, those defeats may not have taken place. Second, and more significantly, even if X always loses, if Y wins by a small margin, it gives Y less certainty in the exercise of power than were Y to win by a larger one. Some dismiss this argument, as they think politicians routinely disregard this factor, but it is not so. If I win by 80% of the vote, I am comfortable I can lose a large segment of my support and still secure reelection (or election for my successor). On the other hand, if I win by only a few percentage points, I am well aware I am living on borrowed time and need to take into account not just my base, but those who opposed me, since I may need to pick up a few new voters to be reelected. Thus, even if you side always loses in a given election, say for your state's senators, your vote can still effect how that senator will govern.

A somewhat more sophisticated final argument, though no less foolish, is founded on the electoral college once again. (And is part and parcel of the many efforts to eliminate this most visible remnant of federalism**) This argument is that, thanks to differing numbers of voters determining the assignment of individual electors (states with 3 electors having fewer voters per elector than the largest states, for example), shows that individual votes don't have the same value. Now, first of all, this in no way shows individual votes "don't matter",  just that in one limited sense votes count differently. On the other hand, by completely failing to understand the purpose of the electoral college, and the whole idea of federalism, this argument makes itself complete nonsense. Of course individual votes may have differing effects on electoral representation, that is inherent in using electors, not popular vote. Does that make the election invalid? Nonsense!

Allow me to offer a counter example. If you live in Baltimore City, there are hundreds of thousands of voters deciding local issues, and thus your vote is only a tiny voice. if you live in a much less populous county, your county might have 10s of thousands of voters, making your voice count ten times more. Or, in laws that are decided in townships, where there are only hundreds of voters, your voice counts thousands of times more. Does that mean the votes are invalid, since township voters are more powerful than city voters in local affairs?

Well, the electoral college is much the same. Electors are assigned by state, and each state is assured at least three electors. So, in states with a small number of citizens, the votes will count for more electoral representation than in larger states. The same is true in all state matters. But does that in any way make the presidential elections based on those state votes invalid? Of course not.

So, yes, your vote does count. Is it likely to be the single deciding vote? Not unless you are discussing a family decision where to eat or what the vacation should be this year. It is rare even for small local elections to be decided by a single vote. On the other hand, your vote can be one of those hundreds or thousands that do decide the election, and, even if it is not you alone deciding, you are still part of that decision. And so, in any sense that I can that is meaningful, yes individual votes count.

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* This show is something of a mixed bag, some of the statements are correct, some are judgment calls, and some seem rather dubious or exaggerated. Like many "fact check" sites (eg PolitiFact or Snopes) it seems best at cut and dried purely factual issues and seems to falter whenever there are multiple opinions or judgment calls to be made. Unlike PolitiFact that tends to break left whenever there is uncertainty, Adam seems to favor the "revisionist" or contrarian position whenever there is wiggle room. In addition, even on facts, there is a degree of cherry picking and exaggeration. Thus, I have a feeling, I will be mentioning this show again. (The show also seems to have not learned the Snopes lesson of admitting when things are unclear. Snopes wins a lot of points from me for admitting when something is impossible to decide with certainty, while Adam and others seem to favor a singular answer, even when it is difficult to support choosing one over others.)

**  Federalism seems to be one of the most maligned beliefs we have left. As I argue in "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction" and "The Civil War". Then again, I believe it is also one of the most direct means of restoring limited government as well. (Cf "Minimal Reforms")


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

The true believers in Trump have adopted a new strategy. Whenever there is an accusation, from pandering to the alt-right, to Bannon's beliefs, to Trump's ties to Russia, the defense is "it's biased media", and, sadly because the right has become far too comfortable using "media bias" as an all purpose argument against any news report, some are accepting it.

But that is not the reason I wrote this blog post. Instead, I am writing to talk about two other common arguments, made not by Trump supporters, but by more conventional conservatives, that help support this foolish argument.

First, there is the very silly idea that "if it upsets liberals, it must be good." I have seen this used any number of times to justify a Trump decision. "I don't know the guy he is appointing, but if it upsets liberals..." The problem here is, liberals are not 100% wrong on everything, they are also humans and have feelings and beliefs they share with the rest of us. For example, a proclamation ordering the execution of every black person, or of all under 18 years old would upset liberals, but would be bad for everyone as well. Or, to be less dramatic, appointing David Duke to the cabinet would upset liberals, but would still be a bad thing. In short, just upsetting liberals is not enough, a decision needs to be good as well.

The second argument is probably the more serious, as it is used to deflect a lot of legitimate criticism of Trump, and also happens to bolster his fans' "biased media" argument. This is the claim that the media has "played the race card" too often. And, to a degree, this may be a valid argument. Some on the left, and in the media, seem to buy the old saw that there is some affinity between conservatism and Nazis, or else accept the Democrat premise that somehow conservatism means closet racism. It is a belief that has been disappearing slowly in recent years, but it still made the rounds from time to time, and thus, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the role of racism in conservative policy. For example, opposition to welfare* was often argued to be founded on racism, while in most cases it was actually based on purely economic and political beliefs. So, yes, the media has made excessive allegations of racism.

On the other hand, that does not mean every such allegation is false. In "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", he may have lied, but remember, in the end, the wolf did eat him. He told the truth in one case. Similarly, the press may exaggerate their charges of racism, but that does not mean every such charge is without foundation. Thus, do not allow the past history to blind you to real problems with Bannon, or some of Trump's other followers. Not every allegation is unfounded, and not every story told by the press is a lie. Do not allow the Trump supporters to use the conservatives' lazy habit of dismissing media out of hand to immunize Trump from criticism.

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* I have never understood this. if I were to say blacks received more welfare than whites, I would be accused of racism. But if a liberal says I want to get rid of welfare out of racism, because more blacks than whites receive it, it is not. I am sometimes puzzled at the ability of people to hold completely contradictory beliefs.

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POSTSCRIPT

I fear my footnote may lead to a mistaken impression. I am not saying that I claim more blacks receive welfare than whites; in absolute numbers, clearly whites are the largest group of recipients. As percentages relative to percentages of population, those numbers are different, but that is neither here nor there. My point is, claims of blacks benefiting disproportionately from welfare are dismissed as racism, but claims associating ending welfare with racism are not. They seem mutually contradictory positions, yet are often held by the same person.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Let Us Be Honest

It has long been a claim of conservatives arguing against charges of racism that "the KKK was Democrat". And, apparently building on this throw away claim, inspired by Dinesh D'Souza's recent film, the claim has now arisen that Democrats have always been the party of racism, all the way back. Now, in a sense, I suppose one could make this claim, but it is based upon very dubious historical approaches, and, even if it were true, it really means nothing. After all, what does it tell us about modern Democrats that various members were once segregationists? (For that matter a number of Dixiecrats are now Republicans, does that prove the GOP is racist?) However, before going into the reasons why this claim is meaningless, as someone who once wanted to teach history, let me point out why this historical claim is so absurd*.

First, let us look at the reality of antebellum politics. By the early 1800s, the US party system had settled into a fairly stable two party system. The Democrats were the party of small, decentralized government an state sovereignty. By extension it was opposed to central banking, protective tariffs and trade regulation. And, since slavery was allowed by some states and not others, it also appealed to slave states. On the other hand, the Whigs (and later Republicans) were the party of centralized, powerful government. It also was the party of soft money, of protectionists, of trade subsidies, and, because the Democrats were the party of the south, it became the abolitionist party.

However, this does not tell the whole story. The western Democrats and their small northeastern contingent often contained abolitionist elements. Thus, it is a bit absurd to claim the Democrats were the party of slavery. Yes, the slave owners were almost entirely Democrats, but not all Democrats were pro-slavery.  Also, if we look at the northeastern Whigs and Republicans, the party contained a fair number of merchants who traded in slaves (to the degree it was allowed), and others who either supported slaver, were ambivalent about the issue, or thought the freeing of slaves not worth the cost**, so obviously it was not a consistent moral principle for everyone. Slavery, in truth, cut across party lines. It was why there were a number of races where third parties made a fair showing, or a single party ran more than one candidate. Slavery was an issue which cut across party lines.

Now, let us look at the post-war era. Here is where the claim "the KKK was Democrat" comes into play. Granted, the KKK was Democrat, but that was largely because it was southern. Most KKK members in the south were Democrat. So were most teachers, most ministers, most chefs, most cotton growers, most poor people, most everyone. The south remained solidly Democrat until the 1980s or thereabout. So it only makes sense a southern movement (be it the KKK or Dixiecrats) would be Democrat. It is akin to looking at Nazis and blaming it on Lutheranism. Of course all Nazis were German, and Germans were predominantly Lutheran.

Nor is the post-war Republican party very appealing. Ever wonder why Irish, Italians, Jews and other are historically Democrat? It was because the Republicans had a strong nativist wing that opposed not only immigrants, such as those mentioned, but also had a lot of hostility toward Catholics and other non-Protestant groups. And, though the KKK is most famous for racism, there were also a number of smaller, less famous groups in the northeast and west opposed to the integration of newly freed blacks, and in the northeast, of necessity, they were predominantly Republican.

I could go on and explain the party shift, how the Democrats went from small government to populism to liberalism and so on, or how the Republicans stopped being the party of protectionism, nativism and big government (until recently, anyway)***, but that does not address the question of race. A point I think I have explained well enough. Yes, by being small government, Democrats appealed to slave owners, on the other hand, by being willing to force states to "do the right thing", the Republicans became abolitionists (and also prohibitionist, moral reformers and trust busters later). But that does not make the Democrats the "party of racism" any more than the nativist, anti-Catholic history makes Republicans the "party of intolerance".

And, in the long run, none of it should matter anyway. I offered up all the preceding as I cannot stand bad history, but the truth is, even if the Democrats had an unbroken history of racism, it says nothing of modern Democrats. Does the current Republican party represent the protectionist view of the 19th century? Or the Democrat the free market views of the same period? No, what matters are the actions and beliefs of the present party, and calling them "historically racist", referring to past actions, but not the present members, is largely meaningless. History can sometimes help understand where ideas originated, but they do not prove the present party will inevitably act in certain ways.

Well, I have done my good deed for the day, debunking a myth of a party with which I disagree. But, since I can't stand bad history or absurd claims, I could not do otherwise.

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* I discussed this to some extent in "Noble Goals".

** Recall there were draft riots in New York City , Boston and elsewhere, so obviously there were a fair number of northerners who felt freeing slaves was not worth the cost of the war. (I would include Baltimore, which earned the nickname "mobtown" in this era, but Maryland was a slave state, and Democrat, so it does not prove much.)

*** See "The Trump Plan", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You..." and "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism".

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POSTSCRIPT

For those curious about my view on the history of the parties in the US, see "A Timeline Part One" ,"A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", "The Political Spectrum", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "Four Elections", "A Passing Thought", "The Best Historical Example", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution" and "Rethinking the Scopes Trial".

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sick of Godwin's Law

I do not know if I am alone in this, but I am sick to death of hearing about "Godwin's Law". First of all, because it is nothing of the kind, not being a law by any measure. Second, because it is so often misused. (The supposed "law" states that the longer an internet debate continues, the more likely one side will be compared to Hitler, nothing more.) And third, because it is so often used to cut off valid points by those who think they are being clever.

I will grant, Hitler has often been over used as a rhetorical device. Atheists and Christians both claim he represents their opposite numbers. Politicians on the left love to claim he is the exemplar par excellence of conservatism run amok. And Conservatives love to point to him as a proponent of gun control. And so on. Yes, Hitler and Nazis have been over used. But that does not mean there is never a time when a comparison is valid.

And yet, that is how invocations of "Godwin's Law" are inevitably used. The snarky law itself is bad enough, but in common parlance, whenever it is mentioned, it is almost inevitably implied that the one who mentioned Hitler or Nazis has somehow lost the argument simply by making the comparison, or, at the very least, that, by being the product of "an inevitable law" the comparison is somehow invalid or out of bounds.

All of which is nonsense.

For example, recently I have been on a number of discussion boards where Trump's promise to "immediately" deport 2 to 3 million illegal aliens were discussed. In pointing out the fact that he is underestimating the logical difficulties, I frequently pointed out that, despite having no concern for rights, or even safety, of those being moved, it took the Nazis several years to identify and move only 6 to 7 million. Now, so far, I have avoided hearing mentioning of Godwin's law, but I still felt the lash of  few who seem to assume any Nazi comparison is somehow invalid.

And yet, in this case, it seems perfectly apropos. Excluding Pol Pot, as his circumstances were quite different*, the Nazis are the only other group who had experience in recent times of moving comparable numbers of unwilling people mixed into, and difficult to identify and separate from, the general populace, and thus the comparison, even if it carries unfortunate emotional connotations, seems perfectly valid. If a brutal dictatorship, unconcerned with human rights and safety, took years, how can we expect to move half as many people in days? Yes, it is unfortunate the mention of Nazis brings unwanted emotional connotations to the argument**, but it is the best comparison I have.

And that is my principle objection to Godwin's law. Well, that and the fact that is far too much a relic of the age of the snarky internet know-it-all (cf "The Era of the Cocky Know It All"). But other than embodying an age where "one upping" others is seen as the highest goal, it simply does not help debate. Instead, by placing certain topics in a suspect category it actually makes some debates more difficult. And thus, I would suggest, though probably intended as a remedy to rhetorical excesses, it actually makes debates less honest, rather than more. And thus, I am sick and tired of it.

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* Pol Pot effectively moved the entire urban population. This is a much easier task, as there is no requirement to identify and separate the target group. Also, he did not gather the population but dispersed it, which is also a different and easier task. Finally, he was operating under much different conditions than one would find in the US, and thus I think provides a poor analogy. So, though another example of mass movement of populace, it is not comparable.

** I am sure there are others who argue those connotations are unavoidable if you are going to forcibly remove huge numbers of people, and I am sure such comparisons will inevitably be made, but my only purpose was to highlight the logistical nightmare it represents.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Opposing Sides, Uniformity of Views

I had an interesting experience recently. While riding in the car with my mother, who I have previously described as politically liberal, if not entirely conventional in her beliefs, the discussion turned to the current election. It struck me as particularly interesting when my mother began to speak about third party votes. In her mind, she thought the third party voters were a problem, because, so she said, they were mostly those who would never vote for Trump, but who could not vote for Hillary, and thus, by voting third party, they risked letting Trump win.

What makes this interesting, is it is the opposite of what I have been hearing for a long time on conservative sites, where conventional wisdom is that Democrats always close ranks, and thus present a unified front, while conservatives are divided, and third party votes are mostly taken from Trump's side, making it easier for Hillary to win.

All of which reinforces something I have been noticing for a long time, that those who identify with one side of the political debate or the other tend to have unrealistic, but oddly similar, views of their opposite numbers. Both seem to think the other side is united, while theirs is divided. Both think the other side is unthinking in its support of candidates. Both think the other side is unprincipled and will do whatever it takes to win. And both think the other side is ideologically unified and extreme, while theirs is vacillating and inconsistent.

Now, I am not speaking here about the politicians, or the party leadership, we can debate the relative merits of those another time. Nor am I discussing ideology as such*. What I am discussing here is the rank and file, great masses of conservatives and liberals, and their general behavior. And it amuses me to think that both groups see one another in such similar ways.

And it is informative to see that each group is deluded about the other, and in the same ways. Neither side is any more unified than the other, nor do the rank and file seem an more or less prone to unprincipled behavior. Admittedly, differences in beliefs do make for differences in those principles, but within those limits, it seems both are about equally principled in terms of the rank and file.

I mention all of this because I want to destroy one of the most harmful illusions that have sprung up in modern times, that being the belief that the opposite side in political disputes is somehow completely alien, completely unprincipled and completely unlike us. (See "The Futility of Blame", "Technophobes and Conservatives -- The Risk of Assumptions", "In Defense of Civil Debate", "Both Sides Now") This is dangerous for two reasons.

First, as I mentioned before, believing the other side to be not just mistaken but actually evil, leads us to believe they are also beyond redemption. If the other side is confused or misled, they can be persuaded, and we will spend time to win them over. If they are evil, then we will not. And, as we have seen, a lot of modern contests do seem to shy away from trying to persuade the other side, spending almost all effort on either winning over a small handful of independents, or, more often, simply maximizing turnout. And these are valid goals, but we must not forget that, in the long run, we can also gain votes by changing minds, and, once we give up the illusion of our opposite numbers being evil, we can spend some effort on this worthwhile goal.

The second mistaken belief, and worse, as we have seen this election season, is the way that belief in an immoral, unprincipled and corrupt opposition leads some to suggest we must behave in the same way. Thanks to this belief, we see many suggesting we should give up our principles, forget our ethics and do whatever it takes to win regardless of consequences. Forgotten is the fact that in so doing, we simply end up electing unprincipled representatives who do not share our beliefs, which seems pretty far from victory, but, thanks to the belief our rivals are doing the same, some are willing to do so, regardless of the cost. (See "The Trouble With Tough Talk", "Look Out It's the End Times!", "Odds and Ends", "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism")

And thus, though it goes contrary to many popular ideas in recent days, I want to emphasize again and again that, whatever the politicians may believe, most rank and file liberals are not much different from us, share many of our goals in broad outline, and are open to persuasion, and forgetting this can have disastrous consequences.

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* I believe that liberalism, in general, is founded on a number of arrogant assumptions. This does not mean the vast majority of liberals are aware of that arrogance. In fact, most likely accept the basic premise that their beliefs are based on compassion and similar motives. But when one looks at the basis of those beliefs, there is definitely an arrogant set of beliefs underlying them. (Cf "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "Right Thinking and the All Encompassing State", "Ideological Entanglement", "Intellect and Politics") On the other hand, conservatives are a more mixed bag, both because the term is used in such confused ways (cf "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "No More Double Standards") but also because the motives for endorsing those beliefs vary from a philosophical commitment to freedom, a belief in tradition or various religious views. To a degree, those reasons for believing correspond with the variety of conservatism one embraces, but not always, there is quite a bit of overlap between them all. Still, as I said, we are here discussing general practices, not overall philosophy.


Monday, October 31, 2016

The Worst PC Name Yet

I am not a fan of politically correct terminology, as I have stated a few times*. First, because it basically changes nothing, people still think "black", they just do a last minute translation to "African-American" (or whatever the term of the moment might be). If you doubt me, explain people saying things like "British African-Americans", or "Native Americans born in other countries", both terms that torture logic quite badly. Secondly, because the terms continually change. And for obvious reasons, once a term enters general use, say "gay", those who tend to use such terms in derogatory ways will pick up the new term, forcing the word police to find yet another term, say "queer", which will, in its turn, also become an insult, and so on and so on. Finally, because such terms often become less precise, and less useful as they become more PC. "First nations" or "native American" tells me less than "Eskimo" or "Indian", and certainly less than "Cherokee" or "Lakota". But, because PC terms tend to be overly broad, they also tend to carry less information and white wash (no pun intended) any differences, to create the necessary big blocks of minorities**.

However, for all my dislike of politically correct terminology, I am generally willing to go along, at least to a degree. I admit I tend to use "black", mainly because I cannot recall what the current term is (and having grown up thinking "colored person" was rude, "person of color" sounds funny to me). I also worked with the mentally retarded when that was the clinical term, so I cannot remember to call them anything else. (What is the current term for the condition, anyway?) But in many other cases, I will go along with whatever the current fashion is in nomenclature, though I likely am a revision or two behind the cutting edge of PC terminology.

But there is one PC term I simply cannot use, and I cannot because it simply sounds rude to me. OK, "people of color" sounded a little too much like "colored people" for me to use, but this one is a hundred times worse.

What is this offensive PC term?

"Little people".

If I were a dwarf or midget, I would want be called "dwarf" or "midget", I would want to be called "shorty" or "dinky" or even "half pint" or "squirt" before I would let anyone call me a "little person". Have you ever heard a more condescending, twee name? "Little people"? What are they, leprechauns? Fairies? "Little people"? It is the most offensive term I could imagine to call someone. It is as if someone told me black people were now to be called "nappy heads" or Jews were properly called "hook noses", or fat people "lard asses". I cannot imagine what demented mind decided that "midget" is a term too rude for public use, yet "little people" was a term showing respect. It is absurd.

Worse still, of all the PC terminology, with its tendency to change on a monthly basis, this term seems to be the one that persists. For decades I have been hearing this term bandied about, by people who think using it is the height of enlightenment. And I cringe every time I hear it.

I know we have become used to viewing all PC terminology as nonsensical, and dismissing it all as sterile, pointless word play, but for a moment, ignore that, accept the PC mindset, and then answer this: Even if you accept the idea that we should change the language to remove any term that might offend, and replace them with terms preserving the dignity of everyone***, would you possibly imagine that the term "little people" could ever be seen as even acceptable, much less the term of choice?

I cannot understand it at all.

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* See "Badly Chosen PC Words", "Slurs", "Very Funny, If a Bit Pathetic", "The Trouble With Tough Talk" and "The Power of Words".

** Politically motivate changes to language almost always result in phrasing that is less precise, uglier and horribly awkward. For example, because "gender neutral" language became the cause du jour, the word "actress" disappeared. Unfortunately, acting is one of those areas where sex is actually a relevant characteristic, so now we need to advertise for the awkwardly phrased "female actor", rather than the simple "actress", in order to somehow avoid offending.. I'm not sure exactly who is offended by recognizing that females are females, but apparently someone is. (Cf "A Question About Language")

*** I have no problem with trying to use terms which are not offensive and insulting, the problem is that (1) there are people who are terribly sensitive [and emphasizing their sensitivity tends to exacerbate this] making it impossible to avoid all offense, (2) which means PC terms need to change pretty often, not to mention that (3) as I said before, whatever term you pick will be repurposed into an insults so (4) there is simply no way to create acceptance and tolerance by language manipulation alone. In the end, PC verbal games end up frustrating many, distracting us from real problems and making any sort of struggle for equality seem silly by association, and thus I cannot endorse it. I might agree in general with the overall goals (in a very broad sense), but the means are simply either futile or absurd or both.

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POSTSCRIPT

What is even more interesting to me is a realization I had as soon as I finished writing. Doubtless there are some out there who DO find "little people" less insulting, and would find my position offensive. But that just makes my point in a different way. If what is and is not insulting can vary so widely form person to person, is it not futile to try to come up with one "correct" set of verbiage? Won't some be well served and others forced to use terms they find offensive or uncomfortable? Is it not better to simply let things sort themselves out?

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Problem with Internet Revisionism

In the past, I wrote about the spread of the absurd myth that Roman legions played hopscotch, and a number of other internet myths (eg, the origins of "gallic")* that seem to have gained currency, spread far and wide thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and the obsession with posting "surprising revelations".

Well, I found another bit of information that seems to be making the rounds, and one which I am greeting again with skepticism. This is the rebuttal of the belief Napoleon was short.

Now, the theory is that Napoleon was "normal height for a French man of his age" and that the "myth" of his shortness was the result of British propaganda. Unfortunately, he was also described as short by French and others unlikely to be subject to British propaganda, so the other excuse is that his guards were tall, making him "look short" or that his nickname "the little corporal" misled people.

Pardon me, but this strikes me as a bit suspect.

Well, I put a little effort into looking for the source of this "conventional wisdom" that Napoleon was "not really short". And it turns out that the source is the testimony of his valet and personal doctor given on his death that he was 5 foot, 2 inches and 4 lines. According to those pushing this line, the pre-revolution foot and inch were larger than imperial measures (why they did not use revolutionary metric measures, I do not know...), so he was "really" 5 foot 6 inches.

Well, it is possible. But then again, why did EVERYONE imagine he was short until suddenly in the 21st century, some genius discovered he was not? It would seem, had he not been short, someone would have mentioned it in writing somewhere, as it is such a pervasive impression. Yet, until a few revisionist historians stumbled on this one quote, and the internet picked it up, everyone seemed content to imagine he was short.

So, let us try another thought. Maybe Napoleon was truly short. Maybe he was 5 foot in old measures. But, upon his death, rather than confirm this, his valet and doctor released a measurement with a few added inches, bringing him up to average. Perhaps, just perhaps, the reason there is no recorded objection to descriptions of him as short, is because he was short, and the single measure upon which this story rests was not entirely accurate.

It is not certain, but given the fact that no one noticed he was average height until two centuries later, it seems to fit historical records better.

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* See "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast" and "Amusing 'Truths'".

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POSTSCRIPT

Portraits are not the best evidence, I grant, but since important figures are usually depicted larger than they truly were, it is interesting in at least two portraits I found depicting Napoleon with others, he seems to be shorter than those around him. Not tremendously so, but certainly enough to be noticeable.


UPDATE (2016/11/2): I have discovered there IS a lot of dispute of this conventional wisdom on the internet. Apparently, once again, a single position is being treated as true since it produces supposedly "surprising" outcomes. Even Wikipedia (hardly a good source for real unbiased information) only presents the alternate view in a note. The argument often used, and quite a sound one, is, since St Helena was under British control, the autopsy would have used imperial measures, so he was 5 foot 2 inches British, not French. But the counter argument is his physician despised the British and wold not have "polluted" his emperor using a British measure. But, I find that pretty implausible given (1) the incredible prevalence of the short image throughout history until now and (2) the fact the British had total control over both the body and doctor and could easily have insisted on imperial measures. So, apparently once more the internet is presenting a single view as if it were the only view. So much for "all the world's information in one place".

By the way, there is a simple solution. I discovered a number of Napoleon's uniforms are preserved in various museums. It would be relatively easy to measure them and determine if they were more consistent with a man 5 foot 2 inches of five foot six or seven inches. But all we hear is that there is "confusion" over units and British propaganda and this single autopsy. That makes me skeptical about this revisionism, as it would be a much stronger case to simply give sleeve length and anthropometric data and have done with it. I suspect doing so would tend to result in something much closer to the old conventional view. I am going to see if I can find some measurements for his existing uniforms and if so, will be presenting them here, whether for or against my conclusions.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Right Thinking and the All Encompassing State

I was thinking about skeptics recently, as I have just written a rather uncomplimentary article about CSICOP, and it struck me that they are a particularly interesting example of a phenomenon I have spent quite a bit of time pondering. In a number of posts*, I tried to figure out one of the aspects of liberalism I find most puzzling, that being the imperative so many liberals feel to force people to do what they think is best. Now, some would say this is nothing new, many political movements try to force others to behave in certain ways, and in a sense that is true, but in most cases, those behaviors are enforced because of some form of self interest. For example, the need to maintain order is behind many behavioral constraints, which is clearly beneficial to those enforcing the rules. Or, in the case of many religious rules, the people enforcing those rules believe that salvation depends upon universal observance. Or, in the case of many colonial powers, bringing good government and modernization to natives around the world, they also saw the action as beneficial in providing new sources of resources and labor, as well as a new market for goods**, and, in many cases, a boon to national prestige. In short, in every case I can imagine, there is a selfish motive to apparently benevolent actions.

Liberalism puzzles me in that regard. Oh, of course many people use liberal idealism as a mask for simple selfish power seeking, so that is explanation enough for some, but for those who truly believe, especially among the rank and file, the justification for liberalism simply makes little sense.

Allow me to explain. As I described it in many places***, liberalism is founded on three ideas. First, that there are right and wrong answers to all political problems. Second, that most are ignorant of those answers (and cannot learn from mistakes to eventually discover them). Finally, though it is rarely stated explicitly, that certain individuals do know those answers. From this, they conclude that those knowing the "right way" should use the power of government to protect the poor benighted masses from their own ignorance (or exploitation by others based on that ignorance), and force people to behave properly. What puzzles me is, unlike many more fully statist theories which see misbehavior as weakening the state, liberalism does not claim any justification other than preventing others from making mistaken decisions. And that is what puzzles me.

To be blunt, why does it matter if other people make mistakes? What is the reason for forcing others to do what we think is right, rather than what they want? For example, even if eating transfats is dangerous, what is the benefit form forcing others to avoid them? Or, if others knowingly fail to plan for retirement, what is the harm in letting them do so? In short, what is the justification for liberalism's missionary practices?

It is a hard question to ask, as having lived with it all our lives, many of think it natural we would want to "help" others by preventing them from making mistakes, but it becomes a little less clear when you think about it. After all, in many cases, "helping" others takes the form of forcibly preventing them from doing what they want, even imprisoning them if they persist (eg drug users), all in the name of making their lives better. Looked at in light of, say, preventing the religious from teaching creationism in school****, or stopping loans between willing lenders and borrowers because someone thinks the interest "too high", it becomes obvious that even the case for "helping" is a bit weak, and we are rather forcing one set of values upon everyone in the name of helping.

Which brings me back to my original subject, those who hold themselves forth as skeptics. They are of interest, in this context, because they are especially ardent about convincing people to hold only what they believe to be correct beliefs. And while they also repeat the more general, nominally altruistic arguments for forcing beliefs on others, they also sometimes make statements that reveal a second motive, one which I believe gives us insight into why the left is so strongly motivated to ensure everyone holds the right beliefs.

And what is this more revealing motive? We hear it when they say that if people hold unscientific views, they might force schools to teach them, or might force insurers to cover quack cures, or licensing bodies to license quack doctors, that they might oppose sound laws, or might force passage of laws that are harmful. In short, they want to force a single, uniform belief on everyone so everyone will support the right sort of government.

And that is the real purpose behind at least some, perhaps most, liberal dedication to uniformity of belief. Having dedicated themselves to big government, a government which touches every aspect of life (oddly, mostly justified by the fact so many hold the wrong ideas), they want to ensure everyone holds the "right" ideas, so that government they envision is not undermined.

Think about it. In a free market, with a minimal government, what does it matter what I think? I cannot force your children to attend a school matching my beliefs. I cannot force you to do anything. Granted, if I hold peculiar beliefs, it may inconvenience you slightly if I refuse you service, but no more than had I not been there at all. And there are countless others with many different beliefs offering their services.

It is only when government becomes all pervasive that majority beliefs, or even beliefs of a significant minority, can shape policy, creating conflict. (Cf "The War of All Against All", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Chaotic Government", "The Road to Violence", "Power and Disorder") And that is why so many who endorse big government are interested in ensuring others believe properly. Without proper beliefs, it is likely government will not take the form they intend.

In a way, it is a rather circular argument. They justify big government because people do not know what is best for them, and so, to ensure that big government takes the right form, they have to be certain people believe the right things. But, then again, these beliefs have been around a long time, so some take parts of the argument (eg the need for big government) as a given, and thus do not see how the argument seems to reference itself.

Of course, I am not naive enough to think this explains everything. Some may be motivated by the need to ensure proper government function, but not all. Some doubtless simply want others to believe the "right" things out of a strange benevolence, one that imagines it is best to prevent others from mistakes, even if that means jailing or fining them. And then there, as with any movement, a number of opportunists, who see this whole issue simply as a smoke screen to justify their lust for power. But, even taking all of those motives into account, I still find myself at a bit of a loss to explain this missionary desire. But, if I cannot explain it all, at least I have now helped explain a bit more of this desire.


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* See "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great 'What If?' - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Some Thoughts on 'Summerhill'", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" , "Lawn Darts", "Social Issues and the Role of Government", "Hugging You to Death" and "The Right to Be Wrong -- An Uncomfortable Argument".

** This is largely a protectionist/mercantilist belief, but there were also a number of free market proponents who argued that closed markets were harmful to overall well being and thus needed to be forced open. The free market justification was different from the mercantilist in many particulars (and I believe it was a bit spurious), but in the end both led to the same outcome.

*** See "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", for the best examples. Also"The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Man's Nature and Government", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Intellectual Elite", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "The Essence of Liberalism","Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions", "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights", "The Road to Violence", "The War of All Against All", "In Loco Parentis", Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Arbitrary Choices" .

**** I am not e creationist myself, I have even written some critical essays on intelligent design ("Some Thoughts on Arguments for Intelligent Design"), but it does seem peculiar to insist you are helping parents by forcing them to send their children to schools which deny things they believe to be true. If we forcibly sent Jewish children to Catholic schools to convert them, liberals would be up in arms, but forcing the children of creationists to learn evolution is seen as beneficial. It seems a peculiar double standard. (The true problem is public education in general, as I shall soon discuss. See also "Reforming Education", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "A Few Thoughts on Charter Schools", "Did Deregulation Fail?", "The Glory of Eisenhower?" and "Podiatrists, Dentists and Public Education".)


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Swapping Cause and Effect

It is interesting sometimes to read the websites of self-proclaimed skeptics, such as CSICOP. While they often have a host of apolitical, reasonable arguments, they also seem prone to dabbling in politics, and it seems inevitably when they do so, they veer hard to the left. From the assumption skeptics must be atheists, to the belief that anyone who does not accept every premise of the latest AGW theory is a "denier" and conspiracy theorist, they seem strangely prone to left wing beliefs. (I noted this before in "My Irritation with Supposed Skeptics", "A Thought on Intelligence" and "A Bit Disappointed in CSICOP - The Difference Between God and UFOs".) Perhaps it has something to do with the popular, yet mistaken, belief that "smart people are liberals" (cf "Intellect and Politics", "A Thought on Intelligence") or maybe the tendency for academics to lean left. (cf "Some Thoughts on the Media", "The Press Versus the Nation", "The Path of Least Resistance") Whatever the reason, it is a strange phenomenon, yet one that I think would be obvious to any but the most partisan readers, for some reason, skeptics tend to unquestioning acceptance of left wing premises, often failing to view them with the same skepticism they would other beliefs1,2.

I mention this because I sometimes forget how far left skeptics tend to skew. Yes, I know they are completely in the most extreme AGW camp, but other than that, I often forget their political bias. And thus I am sometimes surprised when, reading through skeptical sites, I come upon evidence of skeptics completely accepting at face value the most dubious partisan hogwash without a second thought. As, for example, CSICOP accepting an essay on guns and the risk of homicide, which completely fails to take into account a host of confounding factors3.

The study in question made two claims which, though superficially damning, can actually be explained quite simply by some common sense argument.

First, there is the statement that suicide is more common among household with firearms. The assumption behind this, I suppose, is that firearms, by making it so easy to kill oneself, make it more likely someone will successfully kill himself rather than give time for others to talk him out of it. But this seems somewhat implausible. After all, poisons are also commonly available in most homes, as are knives and other sharp objects. Granted, knife wounds and poisons can be treated more easily than gunshots, but they still require someone to find and identify the suicide as such, and get help in time. This seems unlikely, as most suicides do not commit the act while others are present.

Is it not far more likely this is confusing, at least in a number of cases, cause and effect. That those who are contemplating suicide are more likely to purchase a firearm, making the number of those committing suicide who also own firearms higher? After all, despite the claims of the article that suicide is a spontaneous and impulsive act, many who commit suicide have tried more than once, and a large number have planned the deed in advance. So is it that unlikely they would buy a gun so that they would be sure of a quick demise?

Well, whatever one thinks of that argument, the other one is even less plausible. That is the claim that somehow guns cause homicides. That is, the claim that households with guns are also more likely to suffer a murder.

Now, this one is obviously a case where cause and effect can easily been switched. First, and most obviously, people who own guns for nefarious reasons are also often those who get murdered with guns. So, ignoring anything else, criminals who own guns dying of homicide is hardly a surprise. Second, and only slightly less obvious, many people who feel threatened, either because someone is threatening them, or because they live in a dangerous area or travel to dangerous places or work in a risky field, would also be more likely to both buy guns and suffer a death by homicide. In short, is it not possible that guns do not increase the risk of homicide, but rather those at an elevated risk of being a victim of homicide are also more likely to purchase guns?

These are the sort of questions one would expect skeptics to ask. However, oddly enough, they seem to be the ones that are rarely if ever even considered by professional skeptics. Instead, they present a very partisan picture, accepting the study at face value, never asking questions that are terribly obvious.

So much for self proclaimed skeptics.

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1. You can see this in part by looking at the credentials of writers on skeptic sites. A surprising number come from openly partisan journals, such as Mother Jones.

2. A perfect example is their attachment to atheism. As I have argued in "Atheism's Circular Reasoning", "Is The Flying Spaghetti Monster From Canada?", "Materialist Arrogance" and "A Bit Disappointed in CSICOP - The Difference Between God and UFOs", there is not rational proof for or against religion, and thus, if one is being purely rational, religion is a non-issue. You can no more disprove God than prove him, and thus, strictly speaking, there should be no official skeptical position on religious belief as such. Yes, one can dispute doctrinal points, such as young earth beliefs, or creationism, but not the belief in God itself. However, despite that, skeptics tend, by and large, to assume every skeptic must be an atheist.

3. This is hardly unusual in politicized science. Many times I have seen a study on the latest health scare which either fails to take into account autocorrelation (eg the fact smokers also tend toward other behaviors which can exacerbate health effects) or which use sample groups which are not comparable (eg the US lifespan effect of trying to save premature children rather than writing them off as stillborn, giving a number of infantile deaths which are nothing but a statistical artifact). Other than exaggerating the significance of small statistical changes, this seems to be one of the most common ways to skew data.



Sunday, October 16, 2016

Usefully Vague - How Vague AGW Terminology is Abused

How many times have you heard the term "climate change deniers"? And how often have you really thought about what it means, and realized exactly how stupid that term truly is? No one I know denies "climate change". In temperate zones climate changes every year, and even in more tropical or arctic climes, climate still changes somewhat with seasons. Not to mention the even shorter term changes we see with the rising and setting of the sun. Of course, no one denies the climate changes.

Even the larger changes, over a longer term, are not denied by many. We all hear talk of La Nina and El Nino and the effect they have on climate. And history records any number of more dramatic climate events. Ice ages, tropical eras, and, within more recent times, the Medieval Warm Period -- when villages were built now found under glaciers, and the Norse colonized parts of Greenland no longer inhabitable -- as well as the more recent "Year without a Winter". Obviously the climate changes, whether in a cycle or via a series of discreet changes, there is clearly no set and fixed climate that persists immutable.

Of course, that is not what is meant by the term. Rather, when the term "climate change denier" is tossed about, what is meant is that one has challenged one of the many claims made about man-made global warming. The one calling names is upset, not that someone said climate does not change, but that someone doubted a specific thesis relating to -- usually catastrophic -- man-made global warming --most often anticipated to result in disaster in the short term.

However, those parts between the dashes actually highlight the problem with this accusation. Even ignoring the complete foolishness of calling objections about Anthropogenic Global Warming "denying climate change" (a bit of hyperbole if ever I heard one), it also can mislead those who believe in various theories relating to AGW, as there are a whole host of theories, running the gamut from "man is contributing somewhat to a natural warming cycle and may produce some unexpected results in a century or two" all the way to "it is all man's fault and the seas will boil next Labor Day!" And therein lies the problem. Theories of "global warming" cover a wide range of beliefs, resting on better and worse evidence, with a massive number of different predictions, and various claims about how reliable those predictions might be. And yet, when one challenges any one, from the most modest to the most extreme, it is likely he will be labelled a "climate change denier" and, since the term is so ill defined, many will assume the individual is denying everything, from the most extreme to the most modest.

Of course, this is a useful way to argue, especially for those making the most extreme allegations. After all, even those who are convinced that AGW will produce harmful results in a relatively short time frame often disagree with some of the most outrageous claims, and yet, when those claims are challenged, suddenly even those who are fully in agreement with many other AGW claims risk being called "deniers", and others will assume they have gone over to the the dark side. Thus, many of the most unfounded and outrageous claims find a way to safeguard themselves, and to blacken the names of critics, by using a deliberately vague term to confuse the issue.

Now, before we go on, I suppose I should put my cards on the table and give my own beliefs. I am probably, if I am honest, among the "deniers". I believe there are larger and smaller cycles, many solar related, that do seem to bring warning and cooling periods, and we do appear to be warming. Thus, I am not opposed to believing there is some generalized warming, I am just dubious of placing it all on man. It is likely carbon dioxide and water vapor are raising temperatures somewhat, but I do not believe in all the feedbacks and other amplifications many theorize to cause increased warming, above that normally called for by physics. I also have problems with many of the models, as they do not work well when run backward over historical data, making me dubious of their validity. And, finally, I am completely dumbfounded anyone accepts the "hockeystick" chart, since if tails to show many periods of warming and cooling we know happened historically, presenting an almost flat period from 800 to 1900, which does not correspond with historical data. (I also recall when global cooling was a certainty and discussed much the same way, though many now deny it ever happened, but I recall the worries, as a scientifically curious child, so I am not accepting that claim.)

On the other hand, I am neither a climate change denier in the sense of denying there is any climate change, nor that man has no role in it. I know enough to agree adding carbon dioxide and water vapor to the atmosphere can increase the retention of radiated heat. What I deny are the models which exaggerate the amount of heat it would trap, which do not recognize there is an upper limit to the effect in an atmosphere of our density, which postulate feedback and amplification which do not match historical data, and which ignore sinks for both heat and carbon, such as increased plant growth, oceanic solution, deposition in shells and so on. I just believe present models are designed in such a way as to maximize warming effects and as a result overstate those effects, which we can see if we try to run computer models backwards, as they deviate radically from historical values.

But, as I said above, saying this much is enough to make me a "denier", even though I do not disagree with a number of claims, only with a subset. However, since the term is used in such a nebulous way, it can be made to function as a means of effectively silencing debate. Since "everyone knows" "deniers" are conspiracy theorists, and crazies, denying any element is a sign that you are part of the vast, unenlightened mob of loons on the right.

Which is interesting, as, though I admit to disagreeing with a number of proposals, I am also open to proof that would contradict my positions. However, for my skepticism I am called a "denier". It seems a peculiar way to conduct science.