There’s a 73.6 percent chance of a sea battle tomorrow

I've said it a bunch here, but I'll say it again.  The textbook examples of fallacies have nothing on the actual fallacious arguments people make.  At this link is an add put out in favor of the Republican Party.  See if you can count the fallacies. 

And here is someone (I'm not going to link directly to him) taking on political odds maker Nate Silver:

Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he’s made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.

Apparently, Nate Silver has his own way of “skewing” the polls. He appears to look at the polls available and decide which ones to put more “weighting” on in compiling his own average, as opposed to the Real Clear Politics average, and then uses the average he calculates to determine that percentages a candidate has of winning that state. He labels some polling firms as favoring Republicans, even if they over sample Democrats in their surveys, apparently because he doesn’t agree with their results. In the end the polls are gerrymandering into averages that seem to suit his agenda to make the liberal Democrats candidates apparently strong than they are.

That's weird; if you think Nate Silver's methodology sucks, then you don't really need to comment on his stature, his voice, or whether or not he has testicles.  If you think that is bad, and I hope you do, then you'll appreciate the more serious commentary of MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (via Charles Pierce):

Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it's the same thing," Scarborough said. "Both sides understand that it is close, and it could go either way. And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes."

Scarborough makes too much money to confuse the principle of bivalence (i.e., every proposition is either true or false) with probability (e.g., you have a 1 percent chance of winning!).  Sadly, odds are that his salary depends on his not understanding that. 

What it takes to be a pundit

Outsourcing this week's blogging to Gawker.  Speaking of the value of political punditry, Hamilton Nolan writes:

But whereas the sports world, for example, boasts a class of professional commentators that have a legitimate claim to their positions—Jon Gruden can offer more genuine insight into football than your drunk friend in the Packers jersey—the same cannot be said for politics. The political commentator class is, for the most part, little more than a bunch of regular people like you and me who were lucky enough to land jobs writing down their thoughts on politics for money. It's not that there aren't truly insightful political experts in the world. Professional political strategists know tons about how elections are won, and philosophers and political science professors and economists at universities across the country can all offer fascinating and sagacious arguments on how and why various political positions are justified. But, with a handful of notable exceptions, these are not the types of people who compose our nation's political pundit class. Our political pundits are mostly just spitballing. You might as well just listen to yourself.

I'd take issue with the "regular people part."  Being charitable, I gather Nolan means "people with no special qualifications."  But that's not really true either.  They need to be confident that they have something to say.  And they need, most of all, to be immune from the tons of relevant, accurate, and devastating criticism.  That's what it takes.

He is the numerator and the denominator

Since it is now the height of fascism to call someone who lies a liar, I question whether I should refer to Paul Krugman, who calls the Romney campaign dishonest for saying it has evidence when it doesn't.  But I will anyway, because you'll see.  First, here's Krugman:

So when the campaign says that these three studies support its claims about jobs, it is, to use the technical term, lying — just as it is when it says that six independent studies support its claims about taxes (they don’t).

What do Mr. Romney’s economic advisers actually believe? As best as I can tell, they’re placing their faith in the confidence fairy, in the belief that their candidate’s victory would inspire an employment boom without the need for any real change in policy. In fact, in his infamous Boca Raton “47 percent” remarks, Mr. Romney himself asserted that he would give a big boost to the economy simply by being elected, “without actually doing anything.” And what about the overwhelming evidence that our weak economy isn’t about confidence, it’s about the hangover from a terrible financial crisis? Never mind.

To summarize, then, the true Romney plan is to create an economic boom through the sheer power of Mr. Romney’s personal awesomeness. But the campaign doesn’t dare say that, for fear that voters would (rightly) consider it ridiculous. So what we’re getting instead is an attempt to brazen it out with nakedly false claims. There’s no jobs plan; just a plan for a snow job on the American people.

Remember, Krugman sort of supports Obama.  Here is otherwise apparently smart (and therefore? unbelievably rich) guy Mark Cuban, who is a Romney supporter, on Romney's lack of specifics:

Which is the exact detail of the Romney Tax Plan that makes all the numbers add up. Governor Romney is the detail. He will take all the unsolved variables in the algorithm that is our desire to reduce the budget deficit , increase economic growth and thereby increase employment and negotiate them into the outcome that will solve this country's financial problem.

Which is exactly what Krugman said.  If you read the rest of the Cuban piece, it's a list of things he thinks Romney can or wants to do, not, as you might expect from a very large word problem, numbers and equations–or better, reference to actual specifics of Romney's plan. 

Logic counts, but so do facts

Michael Kinsley is on to something when he argues,  in a recent post at the Washington Monthly's Ten Miles Square Blog, that people ought to check the logic of arguments in politics.  He's completely wrong, however, to suggest they shouldn't also check facts (but maybe this was a title he didn't assign–"Check Logic, Not Facts").  He writes:

This political campaign has been a frustrating blizzard of numbers and studies.

One side says $344 billion over 21 years, then the other side calls that a desperate lie and says the real number is up to $1 trillion over the next decade. The first side then attempts to validate its number by saying it comes from a recent report by the authoritative Center for Boring Statistics, and the second side says that, by contrast, its numbers are based on the nonpartisan volume “Vicious Figures for Dummies, 3rd Edition” (1958).

How is a citizen supposed to know whom to believe?

Journalism might help sort out which ones are credible. Anyway, on to the importance of logic: 

There is an alternative. Many campaign thrusts and parries can be verified or discredited by reason and logic alone. They just don’t make sense (or, on occasion, they do make sense) without reference to any numbers or studies. Reason doesn’t require the approval of the Congressional Budget Office. It is available to anybody willing to take a minute and use it. And it is self-validating. You don’t need to trust anybody to decide whether reasoning is true or false.

For example, you don’t need any actual numbers to figure out that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, are talking through their hats about Medicare and Social Security.

Minor quibble: reasoning isn't really true or false, it's sound or unsound, valid or invalid, etc.  That distinction, between inferences and facts, is actually a critically important one to Kinsley's point.  And his flubbing up the correct terminology shows that he really doesn't have a grip on what makes his recommendation, admirable though it is, very difficult to implement.

For people hide behind inferences all of time as matters of opinion.  It's their opinion, they may argue, that A follows from B.  Kinsley needs to find a way to show that it is not a matter of opinion that A follows B.  But that's difficult to do.  It's way more difficult than checking facts.

Impersonal expressions

A new debate tonight. Here is a remark from Politico on the last one that almost perfectly captures the post-truth media environment.

It is clear that Biden's substantive high points — and there were several places where he took clear command of the debate on issues ranging from entitlements to taxes — will be partly shadowed by his nonstop succession of incredulous smiles, sneers, taunts and guffaws that were apparently intended to show self-confidence and fighting spirit but struck many viewers as undignified and rude.

"will be partly overshadowed" is needlessly impersonal.  The author might better have written: "Biden won the debate on substance, but I'm annoyed by his facial expressions, so I am going to deduct points from him.  But I'm going to make this a third person passive construction (sorry, I don't know the technical name), so it doesn't look like me who's doing it."

via Charles Pierce

 

You Lie!

In an article on why it's wrong to call someone whose accuracy is deeply questionable a liar is out of bounds, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal goes full Godwin:

The Obama campaign's resurrection of "liar" as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.

The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics. That's what is so unsettling about a David Axelrod or David Plouffe following accusations of dishonesty and lies with "whether that person should sit in the Oval Office." And that is followed by President Obama himself feeding the new line in stump speeches without himself ever using the L-word.

For those who are new to the idea, Godwin's law has it, on one corollary at least, that one loses an argument as soon as one compares one's opponent to Hitler.  What's ironic about this employment of it is that there is a much easier argument against the "liar" accusation: it's not true. 

Sadly, that is a road Mr.Henninger has not taken.  He can't, of course, because that road is closed.

[JOHN LAUGHS]

So much garbage to write about that can't decide.  So here's a classic hollow man heard on NPR's fantastic "On the Media"

BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you listen to, say, morning radio, one of the most popular shows is Morning Edition, substantive, informative. Would such a program exist, if it were as obsessed with the bottom line as so much of the rest of radio is?

NICK GILLESPIE: I am extremely confident that NPR’s nonprofit ethos would survive any cut in federal spending and, in fact, it might even grow stronger. The federal government is broke, and it’s only gonna get more and more broke. And, at this point, we need to say, what are the core functions of government? And I think most people would agree that defense is one of them, courts, maybe citizenship, things like that. The idea that we have an inalienable right to Car Talk or to Sesame Street

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

– on tax-supported airways, you know, that strikes me as a stretch. And it’s time to rethink that, not because those are bad programs but because they're not core functions of government, and they will be funded via other avenues.

I think that the analogous model here is religion and religious expression. We all want to live in a world where everybody can worship whatever God they want but nobody is forced to pay for other people’s belief systems, whether we're talking about Presbyterians and Baptists or Fox News enthusiasts and PBS tote bag-holders.

That's Nick Gillespie, from Reason.com, showing us how to assail an argument no one makes.  No one would argue that we have an inalienable right to PBS, no one serious at least.  Rather the argument is that it (a) costs very little, and (b) offers culturally valuable services and programming no one else would pay for on the commercial market.

Worse, of course, is Gillispie's suggestion that funding Corporation for Public Broadcasting informational programming is like funding religion [JOHN LAUGHS]. 

You’re hurting America

I missed the John Stewart-Bill O'Reilly debate.  But I did read Brett Lang's review of it in the Chicago Tribune.  The review of this debate is about as post-truth as the coverage of the Presidential debate.

Here is how Lang characterizes Stewart:

On "The Daily Show," Stewart's job is to skewer the media for not doing their own. He is best when looking at the hyper-partisan coverage that defines talking head program's like O'Reilly's and the political theater that both parties are guilty of deploying. But he is at his worst when he tries to be sincere. Case in point was his finger-wagging appearance on CNN's "Crossfire" a few moons ago during which he accused the rating-challenged show of ruining political discourse.

Argument for that?  That was a rather pivotal moment for "Crossfire."  And Stewart was right. 

Here's Lang's portrait of O'Reilly:

Over at "The O'Reilly Factor," the pugnacious Fox News host has a talent for boiling down the most complex geo-political issues into common sense stew, theatrically badgering those who deign to see the world in shades of gray. It may be intellectually dishonest, but it makes for good television.

That was Stewart's point about "Crossfire."  Jeez.  The President of CNN even cited that event as a reason the show was canceled (and Tucker Carlson fired).

This review gets worse when Lang addresses the substance:

The biggest problem was that both O'Reilly and Stewart seemed like two people who read The New York Times over breakfast and maybe TiVo "Meet the Press," yet believe that makes them well-informed enough to give policy prescriptions on the myriad issues facing the country, from failing schools to the Muslim Brotherhood. That said, it's not like the answers offered up by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney last week were any more substantive or any less pandering. The major saving grace was that at least the Stewart-O'Reilly rumble wasn't moderated by Jim Lehrer.

O'Reilly is a political pundit, who gives policy prescriptions all of the time.  Stewart's point is that he is an intellectually dishonest, uniformed blowhard.  I think he's made that point.

Sadly, Lang doesn't realize that. After all, for him it's about television:

So in the end how did it stack up? I'd say it was slightly funnier than Stewart's never-ending "Rally to Restore Sanity," and a smidge more intelligent than O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln."

Sadly, it was nowhere near as good as either of their shows.

They don't have the same type of show, you know.

 
 

 

Poe’s Law and the Press

It is very very hard to tell if this "News-in-Brief" piece from The Onion is satire:

DENVER—Following Wednesday's presidential debate, Mitt Romney’s performance was hailed as “dominant” and “potentially game-changing” by a near unanimous consensus of political commentators who were still trying to figure out where exactly the Republican nominee stood on the issues and what specific policies, if any, he espoused. “Mitt Romney was very strong up there, and there’s no doubt he made an effective, compelling case to the nation’s undecided voters,” said NBC News correspondent Chuck Todd, who was, if anything, more at a loss as to what health care, job creation, tax policy, education, deficit reduction, and financial regulation would look like under a Romney presidency after the debate than he was before it began. “Romney came across as very presidential tonight. If he can ride this momentum for the rest of the campaign, he has a real shot at taking the White House.” Analyzing President Obama’s performance, pundits agreed that the man who articulated a sober plan of measured steps and shared sacrifice to ensure the nation’s future prosperity had a “tough road” ahead of him if he hoped to match Romney in the next debate.

On this note, it's somewhat amusing to hear people wonder what effect, if any, fact checking will have on the outcome of the debate.  Here's Paul Glastris from the Washington Monthly:

the real question is whether, over the next few days, the story in the press remains Romney’s “superior” performance, or the mendacity behind that performance.

The real question is why this question is secondary.