Category Archives: Lack of Evidence

You’re living in the past

This blog–I used to hate calling it that, but, as you can see, I've gotten over it–has a very simple purpose: we read the papers, we find some misbegotten inferences, and we point that out.  Sometimes, we do other, related things, like discuss general "logical" issues.  It doesn't take a whole lot of smarts.  As a matter of fact, that's the message.  Our intuition some four years ago was that the nature of public argument–especially that of the op-ed pages–was in a very sorry state.  The few people who actually engage in it–the ones listed in the categories here on the page–too frequently do it badly.  Even accounting for the natural limitations of the genre of the op-ed, there doesn't seem to be any excuse for this.  Most of these people have received the best educations (at the highest levels) money can buy.  And so they ought to know when they say stuff that's misleading, unfair, wrong, or just plain nonsense.

Having said that, by way of reminder I suppose, take a gander at David Ignatius.  Last week he was uncertain of Obama, he's gotten over it.  His critical faculty is now directed at Hillary Clinton.  He writes:

The experience issue will dominate the final weeks of the Democratic primary campaign. Hillary Clinton's only remaining trump card is that she has been in the White House before and will be ready, as she repeats so tirelessly, from Day One.

Notice the weaselly adverbial phrase.  This paints a picture of a droning, redundant and repetitive tedium to Clinton's argument.  But Ignatius, true to form, doesn't give us any reasons for thinking that.  Whatever her virtues and vices, Mrs. Clinton has a lot to say on a lot of issues and she differs significantly from Obama in a number of important, and to many voters, attractive ways.  More fundamentally, why would "the experience issue" dominate the final weeks of the campaign?  There is no justification for that claim–the central premise of this piece.  Before we say some words about that, let's see how this paragraph finishes:

But ready for what? For a recapitulation of the people and policies that guided the country in the past? That's an attractive proposition only if you think that the world of the 1990s — or '80s, or '70s — can be re-created.

Ignatius answers his own rhetorical question–"ready for what?" with another rhetorical question.  I suppose that means he's being both rude to himself and clueless about his own rhetorical strategy at the same time.  On top of that, this is just a silly inference.  Having experience, on any reasonable interpretation of that claim, does not obviously entail some kind of intellectual stasis or desire to repeat things over and over redundantly.

Maybe consistency is overrated, but this is what Ignatius said about Obama:

Obama's inexperience is not a fatal flaw, but it's a real issue.

This week he says that Clinton's experience is not a real issue, but it's a fatal flaw.

Kristolspeak

It's hard to see what William Kristol brings to the discussion on anything.  Today he analogizes the Republican and Democratic parties to the ruling and opposition parties in Britain, via, get this, a George Orwell essay on Kipling.  Kristol writes:

“In a gifted writer,” Orwell remarks, “this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality.” Kipling “at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.” For, Orwell explains, “The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.” Furthermore, “where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.”

If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.

The "vulgarization" overlooks the entirely unavoidable fact that the US government is designed with three branches.  If a party controls one of them–say, Congress–then that party isn't an opposition party.  Alright, so the premise of this piece is strained.  But what about the main point, someone may wonder.

Having controlled the executive branch for 28 of the last 40 years, Republicans tend to think of themselves as the governing party — with some of the arrogance and narrowness that implies, but also with a sense of real-world responsibility. Many Democrats, on the other hand, no long even try to imagine what action and responsibility are like. They do, however, enjoy the support of many refined people who snigger at the sometimes inept and ungraceful ways of the Republicans. (And, if I may say so, the quality of thought of the Democrats’ academic and media supporters — a permanent and, as it were, pensioned opposition — seems to me to have deteriorated as Orwell would have predicted.)

So this stuff Orwell–I can't believe he actually used Orwell–said about the opposition party was merely a means of saying the "quality of thought" of the "opposition" and its "academic and media supporters" has "deteriorated."  One would be curious to know how, in particular–or jeez even in general–the "quality of thought" of the academic and media supporters has "deteriorated."  Could Kristol at least give an example of this particular claim?

The freakish, yes freakish, thing about this article is that Kristol goes on to use this Orwellian premise to complain about the Democrats' obstruction of legislation aimed at protecting private companies from the legal consequences of their participation in   warrantless–and therefore illegal–surveillance:

But the Democratic House leadership balked — particularly at the notion of protecting from lawsuits companies that had cooperated with the government in surveillance efforts after Sept. 11. Director McConnell repeatedly explained that such private-sector cooperation is critical to antiterror efforts, in surveillance and other areas, and that it requires the assurance of immunity. “Your country is at risk if we can’t get the private sector to help us, and that is atrophying all the time,” he said. But for the House Democrats, sticking it to the phone companies — and to the Bush administration — seemed to outweigh erring on the side of safety in defending the country.

He should have worked Orwell into that paragraph.

Clinton or Obama Rules

Paul Krugman today writes about the visceral hatred among some Democrats for Hillary Clinton:

Why, then, is there so much venom out there?

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again.

This characterization of Obama supporters seems rather loopy, in particular because Krugman doesn't even bother with evidence.  That's a shame.  For even if you think that Krugman is wrong, he generally tries to be right.

Lower the bar

No surprise that Bill Kristol thinks the surge is working.  He cites the reduction in violence as well as the passing of a de-Baathification law as evidence.  First, the violence:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

Before he gets to the other point (the one about politics–the goal of the surge after all), he snidely asks:

Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

The second question has a kind of complex question flavor to it: it's not a matter of willingness to say the surge worked, rather, it's a question of whether the surge has worked.  One can hardly be surprised that Kristol takes the slimmest of evidence of success as evidence of glorious success (he thinks the invasion of Iraq ought to serve as a template for the invasion of Iran, so for him the whole experience has been awesome).  But even he ought to realize that the political goals–what were called benchmarks–were the goals of the surge, kinda like the war and violence has a political objective.  Those goals, by any honest measure, have not been met.  The one Kristol mentions:

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation.

hardly counts.

The tracks of my tears

We don't really do narrative analysis here–not because it's not worthwhile, quite the contrary, we're not equipped (and we're too lazy); for that, please visit the Daily Howler, Glenn Greenwald, and Digby.  I might borrow a few notions from them, however, in order to point out the completely strange way one columnist–Richard Cohen of the Washington Post–analyzes the results of Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary.  For Cohen (and many others, see the above links) the actions of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton can only be explained in a hypersexualized adolescent way:

Rick Lazio must have known what was coming. As Hillary Clinton's Senate opponent in 2000, he alarmingly strode across the stage during a debate and demanded that she sign a pledge to ban the use of soft money in their campaign. With every step, he lost more women's votes.

Now something similar has happened. I am not referring to the most famous cry since Evita's ("Don't Cry for Me, New Hampshire"), but to Barack Obama's patronizing dismissal of Clinton in the final debate of the New Hampshire campaign. After Clinton had good-naturedly responded to a question about what is sometimes called her "personality deficit" — "Well, that hurts my feelings" — she went on to concede that Obama is "very likable." Obama responded with a curt "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

Wince. Slap. A version of "nice personality" — the killer description of a girl from my high school days. It was an ugly moment that showed a side of Obama we had not seen and it might not have been characteristic. But it made for vivid TV, a High-Definition Truth, and probably more than a few women recoiled from it.

Obama could have remedied the situation — Lazio later recovered his standing with suburban women — but the Illinois senator continued to look disdainful on television and seemed to be acting for all the world as if his inauguration was a mere formality.

Was this the moment accounting for the gender gap that put Clinton over the top? Women, 57 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, went for her by 12 points. That was not the case in the Iowa caucuses, where she lost the female vote by five points. Something happened in New Hampshire, something that moved women. Obama would be a fool not to wonder where he had gone wrong.

You get the idea.  Notice that Cohen makes a couple of causal claims: Lazio lost women's votes because he approached Hillary on stage during a debate; Obama lost women's votes because he appeared to call Hillary unattractive.  Cohen, however, doesn't even bother to wonder whether these claims are true: he takes it that a change in the women's vote from one state to another must be accounted for by something that happened in the time between the two events.  That need not be the case at all.  Besides, Cohen hasn't done the minimal work necessary to establish that–nor has he shown or even referenced what might make the Lazio claim true.  More insulting–to all of us–is the idea that voters are motivated by the superficial crap that stirs the loins of pundit types like Cohen (and Chris Matthews, and the rest–again–see the other bloggers).  When I am sealed in the voting cubicle, I'm going to vote for the candidate I think will do the best job.  Until there is specific research showing otherwise, I think my fellow earthlings will be doing the same.

La femminista

Anne Applebaum gripes about how "feminism" cares not about issues that matter to real women.  She writes:

By contrast, the women of contemporary Saudi Arabia need a much more fundamental revolution than the one that took place among American women in the 1960s, and it's one we have trouble understanding. Unlike American blacks, American women have not had to grapple with issues as basic as the right to study or vote for a long time. Instead, we have (fortunately) fought for less fundamental rights in recent decades, and our women's groups have of late (unfortunately) had the luxury of focusing on the marginal. The National Council of Women's Organizations' most famous recent campaign was against the Augusta National Golf Club. The Web site of the National Organization for Women (I hate to pick on that group, but it's so easy) has space for issues of "non-sexist car insurance" and "network neutrality," but not the Saudi rape victim or the girl murdered last week in Canada for refusing to wear a hijab.

The reigning feminist ideology doesn't help: The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has written, among other things, that some American feminists, self-focused and reluctant to criticize non-Western cultures, have convinced themselves that "sexual terror" in America (a phrase from a real women's studies textbook) is more dangerous than actual terrorism. But the deeper problem is the gradual marginalization of "women's issues" in domestic politics, which has made them subordinate to security issues, or racial issues, in foreign policy as well.

American delegates to international and U.N. women's organizations are mostly identified with arguments about reproductive rights (for or against, depending on the administration), not arguments about the fundamental rights of women in Saudi Arabia or the Muslim world.

Until this changes, it will be hard to mount a campaign, in the manner of the anti-apartheid movement, to enforce sanctions or codes of conduct for people doing business there. What we need as a model, in other words, is not the 1960s feminism we all remember but a globalized version of the 19th-century feminism we've nearly forgotten. Candidates for the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, anyone?

In the first place, no one ought to be surprised that the National Organization for Women take issue with national issues, as they are are national organization.  Pointing out the "small" or "quaint" injustices with which they occupy themselves does not mean their members are not concerned or involved as women of international organizations with the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, or better, Afghanistan.  Those, however, are international issues.  

At the heart of Applebaum's astoundingly silly analysis, is the view that somehow concern for gender issues in America precludes one from being concerned about them in Canada or elsewhere.  Even dumber than that is the idea that one get a total picture of "reigning feminist ideology" from skimming the works of one "feminist" philosopher and clicking to the web pages of two different organizations.  Before she makes those claims, she should try a little harder, perhaps use the search function.

More on bias in academia

The New York Times and the Washington Post must be under some kind of obligation to run an “academia is biased to the left” piece once or twice a year (excluding, of course, the regular appearance of this theme in the columns of David Brooks and George Will, to give two examples). And yesterday’s Outlook section in the Washington Post has another one.

According to the formula, it begins with an unverifiable anecdote:

>A sociologist I know recalls that his decision to become a registered Republican caused “a sensation” at his university. “It was as if I had become a child molester,” he said. He eventually quit academia to join a think tank because “you don’t want to be in a department where everyone hates your guts.”

>I think my political views hurt my career some years back when I was interviewing for a job at a prestigious research university. Everything seemed to be going well until I mentioned, in a casual conversation with department members over dinner, that I planned to vote Republican in the upcoming presidential election. Conversation came to a halt, and someone quickly changed the subject. The next day, I thought my final interview went fairly well. But the department ended up hiring someone who had published far less, but apparently “fit” better than I did. At least that’s what I was told when I called a month later to learn the outcome of the job search, having never received any further communication from the school. (A friend at the same university later told me he didn’t believe that particular department would ever hire a Republican.)

>Now there is more data backing up experiences like mine. Recently, my Villanova colleague Richard Redding and my longtime collaborator Frederick Hess commissioned a set of studies to ascertain how rare conservative professors really are, and why. We wanted real scholars to use real data to study whether academia really has a PC problem. While our work was funded by the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, we (and our funders) have been very clear about our intention to go wherever the data would take us.

For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to look for a job in academia, the experience he mentions is completely common. Having been on both sides of hiring committees, “fit” considerations (not merely publications) can play a very central role. Besides, how can the author tell that he was rejected because he said he would vote Republican? He can’t read the minds of that committee, and no amount of research of the AEI is going to vindicate him. That anecdote, in other words, illustrates nothing other than the lazy way this guy reaches conclusions.

Of course, I’m just saying that because I’m biased.

There’s a better discussion of this piece (and this type of piece) at LGM.

What’s the big idea?

Sometimes op-eds can be entertaining for their emptiness. David Broder on Newt Gingrich:

>In the years since I first met him in 1974, I have learned that it’s wise to take Newt Gingrich seriously. He has many character flaws, and his language is often exaggerated and imprudent. But if there is any politician of the current generation who has earned the label “visionary,” it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House.

No, I don’t mean to question here whether Gingrich is a visionary. I just wonder what Broder thinks he’s talking about. Here’s his evidence:

>but his presence in the field would raise the bar for everyone else, improve the content of the debates and change the dynamic of the race.

I wonder how. Broder continues:

>The fact that he is prepared to say plainly that Republicans, if they are to have a prayer of electing George Bush’s successor, must offer “a clean break” from Bush’s policies sets Gingrich apart.

Bush is at 29 percent. That’s not visionary, that’s obvious.

>His personal history and the scars he bears from leading the 1994 revolution that brought Republicans to power in Congress for a dozen years would make it hard for him to mobilize the money and support needed in an already crowded field.

Still waiting for the “visionary” evidence.

>he is right in saying that when “10 guys are lined up like penguins” for TV debates in which answers must be compressed to 60-second sound bites, the “big ideas” he wants to promote would probably be lost.

Right, the “big ideas.”

>So he is opting for American Solutions for Winning the Future, a policy and advocacy group for the Internet age that will be launched at the end of this month from the west front of the Capitol, where Gingrich staged his “Contract With America” signing at the start of the 1994 campaign.

>This effort, which is nominally nonpartisan, is aimed at developing fresh solutions to the public policy problems that challenge the nation, from health care to immigration to inner-city education.

>Gingrich is brimming with ideas on these subjects, but he is realistic enough to suggest that it may be five years before public opinion — and other politicians — are ready to embrace some of them.

Mind sharing, Newt?

>At the news breakfast where I saw him, he was as pumped-up about his new venture as he was when we first had coffee 33 years ago. Then he was a college professor, engaged in a losing House campaign but blessed or cursed with grandiose ideas about how the Republicans might — after more than 30 years — become the majority in Congress.

>He works and travels at a frenetic pace, drawing fresh ideas from visits last week to a Michigan hospital, a Microsoft plant and a health-care complex in Spokane, Wash.

>If big ideas and big ambitions can bring Republicans back to life, Gingrich is ready to supply them. And I have learned not to underestimate him.

Gingrich’s big idea seems to consists in having big ideas, his plan is to have a plan, and he will win by victory.

Weird Science

Yesterday in my seminar on the philosophy of religion we had a discussion about burden of proof. Burden questions seem to be a tricky mix of psychology, politics, and epistemology–to name a few things. And this goes back to the second feature of critical thinking–at least the second one we came up with here (yesterday)–i.e., know where you stand. This doesn’t mean of course that you should know and defend where you stand, and be aware of the status of the questions before you (the first step–maybe). So, where do you stand relative to the burden of proof on any given topic? On some topics determining where the burden falls is hard, on others, it’s easy. Just ask the people who know better. Say, I don’t know, scientists on scientific questions.

So if your knee-jerk reaction to a scientific question is to question it, then you ought to know that you have a high burden of proof to overcome. Someone please tell George Will:

>Climate Cassandras say the facts are clear and the case is closed. (Sen. Barbara Boxer: “We’re not going to take a lot of time debating this anymore.”) The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets: 1. Global warming is happening. 2. It is our (humanity’s, but especially America’s) fault. 3. It will continue unless we mend our ways. 4. If it continues we are in grave danger. 5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming. 6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.

>Only the first tenet is clearly true, and only in the sense that the Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. We do not know the extent to which human activity caused this. The activity is economic growth, the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-beingóbetter nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet’s climate?

Hard to know what George Will, famous climate skeptic (see also here), could mean by “clearly true” in this instance. But I think it’s something like “not even I–who read Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel about global warming hysteria–can doubt that one any more.” I know that’s a little mean. But Will doesn’t bother even trying to support his claim–clearly at odds with current qualified scientific consensus–with any evidence (at all–not even bad evidence). Instead he changes the subject:

>We do not know how much we must change our economic activity to produce a particular reduction of warming. And we do not know whether warming is necessarily dangerous. Over the millennia, the planet has warmed and cooled for reasons that are unclear but clearly were unrelated to SUVs. Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there? Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?

That’s an argument from ignorance! Who knows–maybe global warming will be good for us. We could farm in Greenland. Since we can’t tell either way, let’s do nothing.