Politics Archive

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Are Evidence and Expertise Bad for Politics?

MicroscopeIf you've followed this blog at all, you'll know that my blog fodder typically comes from e-mails I receive directly, or sometimes from other sources when it's a topic I'm particularly interested in. My point is, I don't go out looking for cranks to rebut, because the Internet is so full of those that there's no way to respond to all of them. I usually stick to stories that have some type of personal connection. However, I just came across an article that I couldn't resist replying to.

A few days ago, there was a debate between Brendan O'Neill and Robin Ince. O'Neill posted a version of his speech on his blog in an entry titled Is science becoming a new religion?. Ince wrote his response to the debate on his blog in an entry titled The Fascism of Knowing Stuff.

O'Neill's article was exasperating. It wasn't so much about science becoming a new religion (an attitude I wouldn't agree with, anyway), but about the intersection of science and politics, and why politics is the worse off for it. His main point was that that democracy should be for the common person (which is largely true), but that expertise and evidence should NOT be that important in making policy decision. I'm not exaggerating. Here is one excerpt from his speech.

When politics and science mix in this way, both of them suffer, I think. We end up with evidence-driven policy and policy-driven science, neither of which is a very good thing.

Let that sink in. He literally said that evidence-driven policy is not a good thing.

Here's what he had to say in the very next paragraph.

Politics suffers because it becomes more rigid. It is hard to have a serious democratic debate about a course of action when that course of action is described as the correct, scientific thing to do. Anyone who challenges it is written off as anti-science, a heretic, a denier. Moral debate dies, or at least suffers badly, when authority becomes increasingly scientific and expert-led.

I'm sorry if reality is too stifling for you, but that is the world we live in. And now matter how much some people might like for this to be true, public debate will not change the nature of reality. For example, no matter how much denialists would like to ignore global climate change, it really is happening and we and future generations are going to have to live with the consequences. There are things we can do now to mitigate those consequences, and this is where the political debate should be, not doubting the science. And of course, science should be used to inform the debate on what to do about climate change, since that is how we can best determine the effects of our actions.

Here's another excerpt criticizing the involvement of experts in politics.

The more politics becomes an experts' pursuit, the less room there is for the public's ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views - they are unscientific and to listen to them is to play to populist sentiment, as David Nutt and others say.

And here's one final excerpt. This was one of the first in the article that really caught my eye, but if I'd made it the first in this post, it might have seemed that I was criticizing O'Neall out of context. But with the other quotes I've included above as a reference, there should be no problem believing that O'Neall wrote this as a complaint (although, unfortunately, not true enough).

What we have today is a situation where evidence and expertise are the main drivers of policy.

To be fair, O'Neill did make a few fair points about science becoming corrupted by politics, and politicians cherry-picking data to support their positions, but his overall message could almost have come from an Onion article. I just don't understand this type of anti-intellectualism, nor wanting to free public policy from that pesky evidence.

h/t: Pharyngula

Thursday, April 11, 2013

CSCOPE Conspiracy?

CSCOPEI subscribe to the Texas Freedom Network's e-mail list. I just got one warning of an upcoming fight in the making.

A witch hunt organized by far-right activists and pressure groups has created a new venue for the State Board of Education (SBOE) to politicize what Texas students learn in their classrooms. This spring a committee of SBOE members and educators will initiate a review of CSCOPE, a curriculum management system used in hundreds of Texas public and parochial schools.

For a good background of this case, go read the article, TFN's Kathy Miller: Politics Trump Common Sense in the Far Right's Manufactured CSCOPE 'Controversy'. The article lists some of the good and bad things about CSCOPE, and explained how CSCOPE officials had already agreed to institute many reforms after a hearing before the state Senate Education Committee.

The article also mentioned some of the more outrageous charges that have been leveled against the system. However, it didn't provide extensive quotes or list sources, so I thought I'd look into it a bit myself. I did a google search for CSCOPE, and followed one of the first results to a site called Texas CSCOPE Review. I skimmed through their home page a bit to find an example of what they considered to be a bad lesson from CSCOPE, and the first link I clicked on was to CSCOPE: Anti-Christian Authors. The writer of the article was unhappy that one of the CSCOPE lessons directed students to read an article on the BBC website, Christianity and the Roman Empire. Here's an excerpt from the Texas CSCOPE Review article.

Throughout the article, Christians are referred to as a cult. Following is an exert from the article:
"Contemporary pagan and Christian sources preserve other accusations leveled against the Christians. These included charges of incest and cannibalism, probably resulting from garbled accounts of the rites which Christians celebrated in necessary secrecy, being the agape (the 'love-feast') and the Eucharist (partaking of the body and blood of Christ). "

And then from later in the article:

I have not seen a TEKS that describes Christianity as a cult or Christians as cannibals, must [sic] less incestuous.

Why are our state education agencies presenting Christianity as a cult and worse?

My goodness. Is the writer for Texas CSCOPE Review that ignorant? If you go read that BBC article (it's pretty good), you'll see that it uses cult in the traditional sense, as Merriam-Webster would put it, of "a system of religious beliefs and ritual". The article referred to several cults from the ancient Roman world, with Christianity just being one of those. It's also surprising that the Texas CSCOPE Review could so misinterpret what was being said about the charges against Christians. The BBC article specifically said that they probably resulted "from garbled accounts of the rites which Christians celebrated in necessary secrecy". The BBC wasn't confirming the charges, but rather showing the type of outlandish charges that were used to justify persecution of Christians.

I know that fact checking one claim isn't very rigorous, but when it was the very first claim of an organization that I encountered, it doesn't bode well for that organization's reputation. And given most of the sources I've heard of denouncing CSCOPE are troubled by its 'liberal bias', and that its critics include the likes of Glen Beck, its probably pretty safe to bet that those particular criticisms don't have much merit.

Of course, this isn't to say that the program's perfect and couldn't use improvement, but let's give them a chance to institute the reforms that came out of the state Senate Education Committee hearing before starting a witch hunt.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win

Rabbi Steven PruzanskyA friend of mine recently sent me an e-mail forward. The subject line was, "Perspective of a Rabbi!". It was copied and pasted from an op-ed in the Israel Nation News, Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win, written by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky.

Like I so often do, I decided to write a response to my friend. I'd originally intended to keep the response shorter, but I just couldn't help myself. Every time I looked at the guy's article, I saw something else wrong with it. I eventually had to just stop going back to it, or my reply would have been even longer.

To given a sense of the article, here's an excerpt from a few paragraphs in.

Romney lost because the conservative virtues - the traditional American virtues - of liberty, hard work, free enterprise, private initiative and aspirations to moral greatness - no longer inspire or animate a majority of the electorate. The notion of the "Reagan Democrat" is one cliché that should be permanently retired.

Here's another excerpt that summed up much of the rabbi's argument.

The defining moment of the whole campaign was the revelation (by the amoral Obama team) of the secretly-recorded video in which Romney acknowledged the difficulty of winning an election in which "47% of the people" start off against him because they pay no taxes and just receive money - "free stuff" - from the government. Almost half of the population has no skin in the game - they don't care about high taxes, promoting business, or creating jobs, nor do they care that the money for their free stuff is being borrowed from their children and from the Chinese. They just want the free stuff that comes their way at someone else's expense. In the end, that 47% leaves very little margin for error for any Republican, and does not bode well for the future.

I agree with one part of the e-mail, that the leaked video of Romney was a defining moment in the election. But of course, I disagree with the writer's take. Here's a good article with stats on taxes paid in the U.S.

It's true that about 47% of people don't pay federal income tax. However, the vast majority of those people either pay federal payroll taxes or are retired elderly. To quote the article:

That leaves 6.9 percent of households which are non-elderly and have incomes less than $20,000 per year and aren't paying the payroll tax. These poorer households pay neither income taxes nor payroll taxes. Perhaps Romney thinks that they should all pay more in federal taxes. It's hard to say. But this is also a much smaller fraction of Americans.

There's also the small fact that federal income tax and federal payroll taxes aren't the only taxes that people pay. To quote another portion of that article.

Meanwhile, just as a reminder, the vast majority of Americans still pay state and local taxes -- in fact, these taxes tend to be more regressive. When you add up all the different types of taxes, most income groups in the United States tend to pay an amount that's roughly commensurate with their share of the national income.

If Romney actually believed his statements on the 47%, he was ignorant and out of touch. If he didn't believe it but still said it, he was dishonest and simply pandering in an attempt to win votes. Either way, writing off nearly half the country as lazy freeloaders, claiming "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives", definitely hurt his election chances, as it should have.

Actually, to discuss the economic state of the country just a bit more, I'd point out income inequality and wealth inequality. Both are increasing. In other words, even though the richest Americans already have a hugely disproportionate share of the wealth, that share keeps getting bigger. This is exactly opposite of what you would expect if the government were some type of bureaucratic Robin Hood, taxing the rich to give undue handouts to the poor.

Much of the rest of the article was based on that false idea that America has become a land of handouts, so I won't bother responding point by point. However, there were a few more statements I just couldn't resist commenting on. First was the idea that Romney was above running negative campaign ads. Just ask Newt Gingrich.

And I find it a little funny that he would bring up "The 'Occupy' riots" (as if they were riots), without even mentioning the Tea Party and their spitting on senators, toting guns at 'peaceful' protests, vandalizing the property of their opponents, and issuing threats of violence to politicians.

He mentioned the "economies that are collapsing today in Europe", as if the reason they're having trouble is because of liberal economic policies. In fact, they're having so much trouble recovering from the recession because they've abandoned Keynesian economic policies.

The first article noted:

Despite clear warnings that austerity isn't boosting growth, some of the continent's largest economies remain committed to deficit reduction. The United Kingdom, now on the precipice of its third recession in four years, has indicated that it will continue efforts to reduce the deficit, even as it has fallen far short of its past goals... The United States took a different approach to recovery, boosting the economy with President Obama's stimulus plan in 2009 and putting itself on a better path for growth than Europe has experienced. But it too has since embraced austerity.

The second article pointed out how bad the current situation is in the U.S.

In fact, the reduction in growth of spending under Obama is unprecedented in the last half-century, and government spending under Obama is growing at the slowest rate since Dwight Eisenhower was president... This reduction in spending, however, is not necessarily a good thing. This chart, flagged by Brian Beutler, highlights how perilous rapid fiscal contraction can be. As Investor's Business Daily notes, "The federal budget deficit has never fallen as fast as it's falling now without a coincident recession."

Since he complained that voters are unintelligent, I figured it would be amusing to point out this study.

To quote the article, "For example, among the American sample, those who identify themselves as "very liberal" in early adulthood have a mean childhood IQ of 106.4, whereas those who identify themselves as "very conservative" in early adulthood have a mean childhood IQ of 94.8."

And just to dig the knife a little deeper, even though it's not directly related to the article, but since I knew my friend is a fan of Fox News, I included two more studies.

To quote the first article, "According to a new study by Farleigh Dickinson University, Fox viewers are the least knowledgeable audience of any outlet, and they know even less about politics and current events than people who watch no news at all." To quote the second article, "the report found, among other things, 'regular viewers of the Fox News Channel, which tilts to the right in prime time, were significantly more likely to believe untruths about the Democratic health care overhaul, climate change and other subjects.' "

Finally, this statement from the article was just completely beyond the pale.

...the new immigrants to the US are primarily from the Third World and do not share the traditional American values that attracted immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Really? How xenophobic can you get? Even the majority of illegal immigrants snuck into this country so that they could find jobs. Or is hard work no longer a traditional American value?

The article was pretty over the top, but I made it through the whole thing. Guys like this are part of the problem with American politics. Instead of accepting that Americans honestly judged the candidates for president and came to the conclusion that they thought Obama was a better choice (the lesser of two evils for many of us), they denigrate their fellow Americans, ignore the many problems with Romney, and invent nonsense reasons for why he lost.

Image Source: El Paso Inc.

As a side note, I just found this article in Haaretz, U.S. rabbi faces dissent for slamming Obama. Apparently, many members of Rabbi Pruzansky's congregation are none too happy with his views and this article.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Progressive War on Science?

War on Science, Image Credit: Khairil ZhafriI subscribe to the Skeptic Society's Skeptic magazine and get their online eSkeptic e-mails. For the most part, it's a pretty good organization, and I enjoy reading their articles. However, nobody's perfect, and I find myself questioning their articles from time to time. This morning, I found a new eSkeptic in my inbox, with the title, The Progressive War on Science. It was a review of a book, Science Left Behind by Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, claiming that the political left is just as anti-science as the political right. The reviewer mostly just repeated the claims of the book without providing any counter arguments.

Now, I don't think that the left is guilt free in regards to abusing science. It's a problem in society in general, so it's going to cross party lines. The issue is which side is worse. And when out of the entire crop of potential Republican presidential candidates, only three of them supported both anthropogenic climate change and evolution, and then two of them later backpedaled on their positions, I think it's pretty clear which side that is.

The book conceded that Republicans are anti-science on some of those highly visible issues, but claimed that there were other issues where progressives were guilty. The problem, at least according to the examples listed in the article, is that when I was reading through the issues claimed to be problems for progressives, I recognized many of them from the Texas Republican party platforms over the past few years. For example, here's one paragraph from the review.

And despite studies showing conventional crops to be equally nutritional and both personally and environmentally safe (never mind vastly less expensive), "organic" foods--whatever that means in a shamefully unregulated industry--are somehow superior products. Ditto for raw, unpasteurized dairy products and juices left untreated for foodborne illnesses.

Here's what Texas Republicans had to say about that in 2010*:

Unprocessed foods - We support the availability of natural, unprocessed foods, which should be encouraged, and that the right to access raw milk directly from the farmer be protected.

Here's another quote from the article.

They accuse progressives of propagating a number of socially destructive myths, among them the assumptions that everything "natural" is good and everything "unnatural" is bad. Accordingly, homeopathy is just as good as or better than traditional medicine, vaccines actually harm children, and nuclear energy promises unprecedented sickness and loss of life.

In addition to the quote above about unprocessed foods, here are a couple more quotes from the Texas Republican Party Platforms, the first from 2010, and the second from 2012.

Health Care and Nutritional Supplements - We deplore any efforts to mandate that vitamins and other natural supplements be on a prescription-only basis, and we oppose any efforts to remove vitamins and other nutritional supplements from public sale. We support the rights of all adults to their choice of nutritional products. We strongly favor legislation recognizing legitimate alternative health care choices. [emphasis mine - JRL]
Immunizations - All adult citizens should have the legal right to conscientiously choose which vaccines are administered to themselves or their minor children without penalty for refusing a vaccine. We oppose any effort by any authority to mandate such vaccines or any medical database that would contain personal records of citizens without their consent.

This isn't the first time Michael Shermer and the gang over at the Skeptics Society have tried to paint the left as just as bad on science as the right. Shermer had an article in Scientific American earlier this year, The Liberals' War on Science . It was refuted briefly by PZ Myers in his blog entry, Shermer's false equivalencies. As Myers pointed out, and as I alluded to above, ignorance of science is a general problem in the country. However, when it comes to the leadership of the parties, i.e. the elected politicians, there's much more of a problem among Republicans than Democrats. Rebecca Watson has a more in depth rebuttal in her blog entry, Is There a Liberal War on Science?.

There's an interesting article in Mother Jones, It's Not Your Imagination: Republicans Really Don't Like Science. It lists the results of a study looking at trust in science over the years. While conservatives, liberals, and moderates all trusted science roughly equally back in 1974, in recent years, the level of trust among conservatives has plummeted.

Admittedly, the article in eSkeptic this week did list a few problems that do seem to be more of a problem with the left than the right, but when half of your examples don't support the point you're trying to make, then your point probably isn't a very strong one. And considering the points made in some of the other articles linked to above, it really does appear that the problem of anti-science is more of a problem in conservative leadership, not just the rank and file.

Anti-science attitudes are a problem for the whole country and cross political divides, but it's more pronounced on one side in particular, and it's not the progressives.

Related Entries:

Image Credit: Khairil Zhafri, Flickr

*As shown by the 'Related Entries' links above, I've reviewed the Texas Republican Party Platforms for the past few years. I skimmed through my reviews to find the quotes I included in this article. There may be relevant sections to each of the issues from the most current platform, but I don't feel like wading through that entire document again. Plus, it's not as if 2008 is the distant past. Showing that Republicans were supporting those issues as recently as 5 years ago shows that it's not a 'liberal' problem.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Sequester - John Stewart Beats Me to the Punch in Blaming Republicans

MoneyAs the title of this blog suggests, I only have a limited amount of time to write these entries. If there are a few ideas bouncing around in my head, I have to pick one to write about that day and postpone the other one till later. Yesterday, I wanted to write about both the sequestration and a TV show from the History Channel. I decided on the TV show, and postponed the sequestration post until today.

There was one main point I wanted to make about the sequestration, but after watching the Daily Show last night, I see I was beaten to the punch (and honestly, I'm sure others have already made this point, as well). Here's the video from last night's The Daily Show. Below that, I've pulled out the quotes concerning the point I wanted to make.

Now in the President and Speaker Boehner's statements, we do get a hint of why the sequester is happening. The sequester, the penalty for not finding a way to balance revenue and spending, consists entirely of cuts in spending. How do Republicans feel again about cuts in spending?

This was followed by the obligatory montage showing a series of Republicans calling for spending cuts, after which Stewart continued.

I wish I was there when Democrats said to Republicans, 'Look, if we can't come to a deal, there's going to be massive, across the board spending cuts.' I'm sure the Republicans were like, [mocking reservation] 'Okay...If that's what you want.' Basically, the sequester amounts to catching your kid smoking, and forcing him to smoke a whole carton of cigarettes. Only your kid is Dennis Leary.

This is exactly the point I had told some of my friends when the fiscal cliff law was first passed. Republicans never had any strong reason to try to fix the problem, because in many of their minds, there was no problem.

I know a lot of people are blaming Obama for a lack of leadership in this, and maybe there's something to that. But what can you do when many of your opponents wanted the sequester to take effect. Here are just a few quotes from Republicans expressing desire for the sequester to carry on and for the budget cuts to occur.

Rand Paul, R-Kentucky (source: Politix)

Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion.

Jim Jordan, R-Ohio (source: NPR)

The sequester should happen. That's going to happen in two days. That is good. First significant savings for the American taxpayer in a long, long -- since I've been here.

Scott DesJarlais, R-Tennessee (source: The Gavel)

Sequestration needs to happen...Bottom line, it needs to happen and that's the deal we struck to raise the debt limit.

That last one was from a page listing 22 Republicans politicians calling for the sequester.

And if the politicians don't get their heads out of their nether regions and fix this problem soon, it's going to hurt our still struggling economy. I mentioned a good story on the budget in a previous blog entry, Good Commentary on the Fiscal Cliff, which explained that right now is still not the time to balance the budget. You can't go on deficit spending forever, but in the short term, that's what the government needs to do to give the economy a boost. Just look at all the problems Europe is having with their austerity programs. And now, we look set to repeat Europe's mistakes and risk putting our economy back in a recession again. This isn't just me opining. The Congressional Budget Office has said that the sequester could cost 750,000 jobs by year's end (source: Buzzfeed).

This whole thing is just so damn frustrating. Why in the hell are Republicans being so obstructionist? And why can't politicians just get things done?

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Selling Out