May 2013 Archives

Nate Silver's piece on Peggy Noonan dissects her "flawed statistical thinking" with regards to the IRS "scandal." "Some conservatives," writes Silver, "are alleging that there is another component to the scandal. They accuse the I.R.S. of targeting not just conservative groups that sought 501(c)(4) status, but also individual taxpayers who oppose President Obama or have supported conservative causes."

Silver observes that "it's likely that hundreds of thousands of Mitt Romney voters were selected for an audit in 2012," [but] "it's also likely that hundreds of thousands of Mr. Obama's supporters were audited:"

The point is, however, that even with no political targeting at all, hundreds of thousands of conservative voters would have been chosen for audits in the I.R.S.'s normal course of business. Among these hundreds of thousands of voters, thousands would undoubtedly have gone beyond merely voting to become political activists.

The fact that Ms. Noonan has identified four conservatives from that group of thousands provides no evidence at all toward her hypothesis. Nor would it tell us very much if dozens or even hundreds of conservative activists disclosed that they had been audited. This is exactly what you would expect in a country where there are 1.5 million audits every year. [emphasis added]

He also provides my Quote of the Day: "a handful of anecdotal data points are not worth very much in a country of more than 300 million people."

Paul Krugman has attempted to explain the closing of the conservative mind. "There are," he writes, "a lot of largely empirical questions whose answers need not, in principle, be associated with one's position on this left-right divide but, in practice, are." He offers us this partial list:

  1. 1.The existence of anthropogenic climate change
  2. 2.The effects of fiscal stimulus/austerity
  3. 3.The effects of monetary expansion, and the risks of inflation
  4. 4.The revenue effects of tax cuts
  5. 5.The workability of universal health care

"I've deliberately chosen a list here where the evidence is," he continues, "in each case, pretty much overwhelming:"

There is a real scientific consensus on 1; the evidence of the past few years has been very strong on 2 and 3; there are no serious studies supporting the view that we're on the wrong side of the Laffer curve; one form or another of UHC operates all across the advanced world, with lower costs than the US system. [...] The point is that there remains essentially no room for independent thinking within the conservative movement.

Could you say the same thing about liberals? I don't think so.

His summary is appropriately harsh:

The point is that being a good liberal doesn't require that you believe, or pretend to believe, lots of things that almost certainly aren't true; being a good conservative does.

CBR has a preview of the new edition of Jack Katz's magnum opus The First Kingdom [no Wikipedia page], which is calls a "long-lost treasure:"

Remastered and packed with exclusive features, this sumptuous volume collects the first part of a tale for which the term 'epic' was invented! After nuclear armageddon devastates the Earth, the survivors become playthings of resurgent 'gods'. As civilisations rise and fall, as loves and lives are lost, the future of humanity will be won by uncovering the secrets of the past.

The First Kingdom is presented here in a complete collectors' library for the first time, replete with cleaned and restored art taken from high-resolution scans of the original art pages, and completely relettered throughout.

The six sample pages accompanying the article should serve to whet everyone's artistic appetite. September can't come soon enough!


update (11:09am):
Comics Spectrum is quite laudatory as well, which I hope will spur interest in Katz's epic tale.

20130511-idiotamerica.jpg

Pierce, Charles. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (New York: Anchor Books, 2010)

As a companion to Robert Proctor's Agnotology, Charles Pierce's Idiot America [see "Greetings from Idiot America" (Esquire) for a taste] is less academic and more conversational. The absence of notes--aside from a few pages listing his primary sources--is detrimental to Pierce's credibility, but I didn't note any other missteps. Here he lists what he calls the three Great Premises of Idiot America (pp. 35-43):

  • Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
  • Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
  • Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it

Together, this unholy trinity explains how the prevalence of anti-intellectualism has come to drag so much of our national discourse in a regressive direction. Pierce deplores "the extraordinary way America has gone marching backward into the twenty-first century:"

Unquestionably, part of the process was the shock of having more than three thousand of our fellow citizens killed by medievalist murderers who flew airplanes into buildings in the service of a medieval deity, and thereby prompted the United States, born of Enlightenment values, to seek for itself the medieval remedies for which the young country was born too late: Preemptive war. Secret prisons. Torture. Unbridled, unaccountable executive power. The Christian god was handed Jupiter's thunderbolts, and a president elected by chance and intrigue was dressed in Caesar's robes. People told him he sounded like Churchill when, in fact, he sounded like Churchill's gardener. (p. 5, Introduction)

Pierce's look at cranks and crackpots, from the Creation Museum to climate change, could be ignored by much of the audience that would most benefit from reading it because too many of his examples make the Right look bad; he addresses potential complaints of one-sidedness this way:

If this book seems to concentrate on the doings of the modern American right, that's because it was the modern American right that consciously adopted irrationality as a tactic, and succeeded very well. (p. 66)

This lopsidedness is an effect of media bias--which, as he correctly observes, tends to be conservative:

According to a 2007 joint study by the Free Press and the Center for American Progress, on the 257 stations owned by the five largest owners of commercial stations, 91 percent of weekday talk programming is conservative. (p. 103, "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio")
"The rise of Idiot America," he writes, is not strictly partisan, but "is essentially a war on expertise:"
It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects--for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power--the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about. (p. 8, Introduction)

A prime example of this is the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case (2005), of which Pierce writes that "Pastor Mummert had laid out the shape of the battlefield early on, when he described Dover as besieged by its intelligent and educated elements:"

The people to be most distrusted were those who actually knew what they were talking about. This is how people get elected while claiming not to be politicians. This is how, through the new mass media technologies best exemplified by the successful know-nothingism of talk radio, everyone is an expert, if they can move units or budge the needle. (pp. 153-154)

The distrust of intellectual expertise and elevation of ideological palatability leads to effects in how we discuss subjects such as global warming:

The novelist Michael Crichton wrote State of Fear, a thriller about bands of eco-terrorists bent on using the global warming "hoax" to capture the world. [Senator James] Inhofe [R-OK] invited Crichton to testify before Congress as an "expert" witness, and he was warmly received at, among other places, the White House. By those standards, poor Dan Brown should have gotten an audience with the pope. (p. 201)

Pierce pulls out the rhetorical stops when discussing the Iraq/Niger yellowcake document ("probably the most consequential forgery since the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," p. 240) and The Creation Museum ("a richly appointed monument to complete barking idiocy," p. 279). This anecdote about one of the Right's early propaganda books sums it all up:

I distinctly remember spending a rainy summer's afternoon on the porch, reading, at the suggestion of my father, None Dare Call It Treason, the ur-text of the modern American paranoid right, published in 1964 by John Stormer. I also recall thinking that, somehow, the book's whole argument made sense although it made no sense at all. It had an internal coherence while being utterly dissonant with the actual historical facts as they occurred. (p. 289, Afterword)

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