Monday, December 20, 2010

But some are more equal than others

I apparently need to get out more often, because it turns out that right under my own nose was proof that I spoke too soon the other day when I cautiously marveled that the conservative bloviation machine seemed to have tired this year of its annual fear-mongering story about "the war on Christmas."

Friday, December 17, 2010

You can always beat an honest man

In Walking the Tightrope of Reason, the philosopher Robert Fogelin relates that someone once drew a useful distinction between two kinds of skeptics: both accept the limitations of rationality and knowledge, the difference being that "East Coast skeptics" find this deeply troubling while "West Coast skeptics" find it liberating.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some of my best friends are Calvinists

Whenever I write about the environment on this blog, I get a lot of interest from the global warming skeptics, and judging by my NORAD-command-post-type situation room map that shows where in the world my readers are at any moment, a lot of them live in places where you'd think people would positively be praying that the global warming scientists are right:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some of my best friends . . .

Who says we won't have Nixon to kick around any more?

Nixon is indeed the gift that keeps on giving: From even beyond the grave that unmistakable voice periodically speaks with fresh fulminations about liberals, Jews, blacks, and (in the batch of new White House tapes released just the other day) even the Irish and Italians. (According to Nixon's deep sociological analysis, the Irish drink a lot.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sins of emission

Far be it from me to defend the capitalist system, but can't environmental organizations recognize that economic activity counts for something?

Invariably whenever the subject of carbon emissions, energy use, or other instances of mankind's global "footprint" arises, the standard environmentalist narrative is all about how big the average American's shoe size is.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hey, didn't you guys lose?

Back at the centennial of the Civil War, South Carolina, which one might think had a lot to answer for in the first place, got things off to a rousing start by holding the opening conference of the national centennial commission at a segregated hotel in Charleston, which meant the black member of New Jersey's delegation could not stay there. (After the intervention of the President of the United States, the meeting was moved to the nearby U.S. Navy base — which, as Federal property, was not subject to the state's segregation laws.)

It was a small symbolic point but it spoke to the larger fiasco of the entire centennial, which was imbued with the kind of mindless military pageantry, unstated but reactionary politics, and shallow antiquarianism masquerading as history that you can still see on display any weekend of the year where Civil War reenactors congregate. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Adult supervision required

God knows one should not kick a man when he's down, and no one is downer these days than the old-fashioned print journalist.

Still, it is hard to read even the old-fashioned New York Times these days without cringing at stories filled with slipshod and overheated writing, tone-deaf colloquialisms, and patently obvious questions left begging for answers and contradictions left unexplained.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Know thyself

If you don't have a mirror handy to hold up when the Republicans who are now forcing through their prized extension of the Bush tax cuts come looking for the cause of the unending deficits that so horrify them, here's a handy chart to hold up instead. (Courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; basic data from the Congressional Budget Office):

We're No. 1!

Perhaps because they've been too busy peering under the cranberry sauce in search of socialists or unmasking the homos running airport security, our conservative defenders of traditional values have been commendably quiet this year about the "War on Christmas" that they usually trot out at this festive season.

I always thought that coming out in favor of Christmas was the ne plus ultra of that particular species of political schmuckiness which consists of casting demogogic pandering as lonely courage. But then came the spate of Republican politicians (may of them presidential hopefuls) who spent much of this year staking out the even more daring position that, in the inimitable words of the Iowa GOP state platform, "America is good."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cage rattling for fun and profit

Interest groups have long known, of course, that there's nothing like a terrifying tale to loosen the grip of donors on their wallets. The NRA routinely announces that the government is coming for your guns; Greenpeace that the whales, tigers, oceans, or planet are being annihilated.

Still, the NRA and Greenpeace actually do something with the money they raise. A few enterprising spirits came to realize, however, that terrifying people about public policy could be a complete business plan in itself; no need to actually spend time lobbying congressmen, preparing position papers, consulting with experts, building political coalitions, or any of the other tedious business of public policy.

We have an excellent example of this entrepreneurial spirit alive and well here in my very own Loudoun County, Virginia, in the form of one of our elected county supervisors, one Eugene Delgaudio, whose day job consists of running an outfit modestly named "The Public Advocate of the United States," whose cash-flow plan consists in its entirety of sending out heavy-breathing fundraising appeals warning of the advancing "homosexual agenda."

Exactly like the flim-flam scientific and medical charities I remember doing some investigative stories on years ago when I worked at Nature, "Public Advocate" spends almost all of its operating budget on fundraising operations (though, also like those bogus charities, it tries to define fundraising as "education," which reminds me of nothing so much as the Reagan Administration's brief attempt to define ketchup as a "vegetable" to save money in school lunch programs).

In any case, business at Delgaudio's "small office of volunteers and low-paid staffers" is apparently good, because for 30 years it's kept him supplied with the necessities of life. "Radical homosexuals will terrorize day care centers, hospitals, churches and private schools . . . You'll see men hand-in-hand skipping down to adoption centers to 'pick out' a little boy for themselves," reads a typical Delgaudio fundraising message. Almost all warn of impending congressional action on "The Gay Bill of Special Rights," "The Homosexual Classrooms Act," or other legislative initiatives that he alone seems to be aware of.

Delgaudio actually managed to make "The Daily Show" with one of his utterances (regarding the county government's anti-discrimination policy), but the other day he truly outdid himself, discovering that the TSA's "sexual assault searches" and "homosexual porno scanners" are also part of the "Gay Bill of Special Rights" — as is the agency's non-discrimination hiring policy altogether:
"That means the next TSA official that gives you an 'enhanced pat down' could be a practicing homosexual secretly getting pleasure from your submission."
I am sure most of this is calculated; business after all is business. Still, you do wonder sometimes about the obsessions on the right with certain topics; like the evangelical anti-pornography crusaders who see sex everywhere, there's something about it all that makes even a confirmed skeptic about Freud such as I am wonder whether he wasn't onto something now and then, especially with that business about "projection."

"They want us to think about homosexuals," Delgaudio once indignantly complained (the particular occasion was his protest against the county's anti-discrimination policy, which he termed "freaky, bizarre, and fruity"). "It's freaky," he continued — with such admirable command that it did not betray even the merest hint of irony — "because most don't think about homosexuals."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bad dogs and other psychics

Writing in the New York Review of Books about Jimmy Carter's recently published White House Diary, Gary Wills observes: 
Jimmy Carter is a better man than his worst enemy would portray him as. And his worst enemy, it turns out, is himself. At least, I cannot imagine a more damaging blow to his reputation than he delivers in White House Diary.
Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing in the book than Carter's egomaniacal obsession with recording for posterity every passing thought and every flare up of the presidential hemorrhoids, Wills points out, is the ex-president's excruciating credulity regarding the abilities of "psychics" to "help us with sensitive intelligence matters."

Carter writes in the book:
We've had several reports of this parapsychology working; one discovered the map coordinates of a site and accurately described a camouflaged missile site. . . . We had a session in the Situation Room concerning a parapsychology project where people can envision what exists at a particular latitude and longitude. . . . The proven results of these exchanges between our intelligence services and parapsychologists raise some of the most intriguing and unanswerable questions of my presidency. They defy logic, but the facts were undeniable.
Anyone who's seen a carnival fortune teller at work or who has a passing acquaintance with the psychic-debunking work of the magician James "The Amazing" Randi will recognize the method by which psychics perform their prodigal feats: sometimes it's as simple as knowing the answer ahead of time; usually it's by offering predictions so vague, and unbounded in advance by agreed-on definitions of what constitutes a correct result, that they can always be claimed as a success after the fact ("something special will happen today"); always it's by relying on the quirk of human psychology that is more impressed by a single correct coincidence than a 100 blank shots.

Exactly the same foibles explain the obsession of the security agencies with other pieces of pseudoscientific malarkey — notably the lie detector, aka polygraph. Study after study has shown that the polygraph, a piece of 19th century electrical-gizmo quackery, is no better than chance at detecting deception; still, agencies like CIA and NSA justify its use by citing its "successes," defined usually as instances in which an employee confronted with a "deceptive" polygraph result suddenly blurts out a confession.

The trouble of course with such after-the-fact justification is (a) a certain number of genuine culprits will be fingered just by chance by any methodology that produces a fair number of positive hits, even one that is purely random and (b) it totally ignores the false-positive rate, that is, the number of perfectly innocent people wrongly fingered. (The latter is not a trivial point; repeatedly it has happened that intelligence officers have lost their security clearances and jobs on the basis of this witch-doctory even though a single scrap of real evidence is never adduced before or after of any wrongdoing on their part. The polygraph methodology is even worse in this regard, in fact, in that cool pathological liars tend to breeze through while conscientious honest people tend to flunk it. One of the striking revelations in the internal NSA history I referred to the other day is that in every one of the serious spy scandals to ht the agency mentioned in the report, the employees who were betraying their nation to the Soviets passed a polygraph test.)

A new field ripe for pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo in the security biz, I fear, is now detection dogs. The business is absolutely booming for drug-sniffing dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, money-sniffing dogs, illegally imported meat-and-plant sniffing dogs. But again, this is a perfect opportunity for the same flim flam. There's no real penalty for false positives, and the evidence is beginning to suggest that detection dogs generate a lot of false positives. (Excuse me: I was corrected by a guy from Homeland Security at a recent dog conference where I was giving a talk when I asked him about false-positives; he chastised me that the correct term is "nonproductive responses." And the rate, whatever you call it, is conveniently classified.) Likewise, there's enough people carrying some sort of stuff to keep dogs looking good no matter how scientific or unscientific the whole business is — you finger enough people, some of them are going to be bad guys.

The guy from Homeland Security actually I thought was even more revealing, in his answer to my question about the false-positive rate, when he said that part of the purpose of the dogs was "deterrence." Exactly: if you can make people think it works, it doesn't matter whether it's voodoo or not.