Sunday, March 28, 2010

True Americans

We are Americans first. This simple principle is at the core of the strength and stability of our government. We are Americans first and Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or Wicans, or Asians, or Baptists second. We argue passionately for our causes, because we want what we think is best for our country. We argue civilly amongst ourselves because we know our opponents also want what’s best for our country. That’s why we can accept the results of our elections peacefully without bloody riots or disruptive protests and strikes. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work.

Running for national public office is not easy. It takes long hard hours away from home and loved ones. It means the constant glare of media attention, debates in which every word can be misconstrued, and, often attacks on ones character or ambitions. And the winners get to be away from home for long stretches of time doing often thankless tasks. These are great sacrifices that our representatives make because they care deeply about our country, and about us. Some become seduced and corrupted by the trappings of power, but most are honest hard working people who believe that their work will make this a better country. They are not evil people out to take away our liberties, confiscate all our property, or sell us into slavery.

We sometimes lose sight of that fact. Negative campaigns, attacking an opponent’s character or lifestyle or beliefs rather than promoting one’s own ideas, has been an effective campaign tactic since the earliest days of the republic. If you can convince the voters that your opponent is the devil incarnate they won’t ask about that tattoo on your own forehead. Usually, after the election, we forget all that, shake hands, and get on with governing. It is a sad fact of politics that, at least since FDR, there are always a few who believe any current occupant of the White House is the antichrist.

Demonizing the opposition can have disastrous consequences. The Nixon White House was mired in an escalating and unpopular war. The people running Nixon’s re-election campaign actually believed that if the Democrats won the election they would surrender to the communists, confiscate our property, and sell us all into slavery. Thus they felt that they were justified it trampling our freedoms by bugging the Democrats’ phones (along with other illegal disruptive tactics and “dirty tricks”). Ultimately Nixon was forced to resign over his role in obstructing the investigation into these very un-American activities. Nixon achieved many great things, but his presidency was destroyed by zealots battling imaginary devils.

Following the 2000 elections many Democrats blamed their loss on an evil Republican conspiracy led by the “Bush crime family” that stole our rights and sold us into slavery by designing ballots to confuse Democrats, preventing black people from voting, rigging vote counting machines, and corrupting the courts. By failing to focus on their own errors and miscalculations, and by not making a clear case for their policies and plans, the Democrats lost again in 2004.

In 2008 many people passionately believed that Obama was an evil person out to take away our liberties, confiscate all our property, and sell us into slavery. Although these claims were soundly rejected by the American people, a vocal minority still cling to those paranoid beliefs. They stated publicly, without a hint of shame, that they hoped Obama’s plans to improve the economy failed. They chose to not cooperate at all with governing America so that Obama’s presidency would fail. Throwing America under the bus like this is outrageous behavior from people who claimed to represent “real” Americans during the campaign.

Despite the concerted efforts of the Obamaphobes to stifle debate, intimidate supporters, and confuse the public, Democrats passed sweeping health insurance reform. This bill was debated for a year. It was passed with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, as required by law and Senate rules. It was then passed by a majority in the House and in accordance with all House rules. It was done so by a Democratic majority elected sixteen months ago along with a Democratic President who campaigned daily on health care reform, and who received the most votes in the history of American elections and won by the widest margin in decades.

The opposition is irate because their plans to destroy Obama’s presidency failed. They said this plan takes away our liberties, confiscates our property, and sells us into slavery. They said this bill was “rammed down our throats”. They lied that their ideas were not sought or included. They equated passing this bill with “Armageddon.” (I hadn’t realized that everyone gets health insurance at Armageddon. Maybe Armageddon isn’t that bad. I’m sure the churches will be glad to hear the good news.) The Obamaphobes reacted with language filled with violent metaphors (but they didn’t mean actual violence, wink, wink). One crank made a direct call for violence. Sadly, a wave of violence ensued. Real Americans do not act this way, they condemn such language and acts unconditionally, and they do not blame the victims, or mention them in any way, while doing so.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Arguing with the Willfully Ignorant

Human knowledge is vast, and we are all ignorant about a great many things. We strive to give our citizens a broad education so we all know at least a little about many subjects, but there are limits to our knowledge and experience. Most people are aware of their limits and respect the insight that comes from specialized study and training in a particular subject. As we grow and learn we develop ideas about how the world works. Many of us learn to modify those ideas if we acquire new knowledge that contradicts those ideas. This is a fundamental principle of the scientific method, which has proven to be the most effective and reliable method of “knowing” ever developed.

But some people, once they have acquired a little knowledge, lose all humility and think their “common sense” is all they need to make their way in the world. This often results in very rigid ideas about the world, people, and politics, based on a simplistic view point that ignores or denies conflicting facts and ideas, and with a distain for informed opinions (false “elitism”). It is both sad and pathetic when these people make a public spectacle of themselves by arguing on subjects they clearly know very little about. I call them the willfully ignorant (WI).

Arguing with them is extremely frustrating. They are often misinformed or grossly under-informed, yet stubbornly reject any knowledge that conflicts with their opinions or “common sense”. They often have no clue how little they know or how wrong their facts are(Dunning-Kruger Effect). They believe their conclusions follow logically from their premises (which themselves are often false) even though they can’t identify the most basic logical flaws in any argument (I once received an email from a WI which contained 8 different logical errors in a single sentence). They rarely acknowledge when their logical or factual errors are exposed. They ignore it and repeat the error, change the subject, or attack you for contradicting them. No matter how thoroughly you present your case they are unlikely to concede the argument or acknowledge any flaws in their thinking. In fact the WI often state that there are no facts that could change their opinion.

This makes debating a WI a futile exercise. Nevertheless it can be personally rewarding if you consider it a chance to hone your own argumentative skills. If it is a public discussion you also have the opportunity to educate the bystanders. Do not get emotionally involved. Stay detached and logical, even if they attack your character and intelligence. Remember that you are unlikely to change their mind, but you will be more convincing to others if you stick to facts and reasoned argument.

Stay focused on one or two points. Changing the subject is a common technique to avoid acknowledging factual or logical errors. Do not let them move on until they admit they were wrong or they defend the point.

Do not let them put words in your mouth. A common tactic is to twist something you said into something different (or to “assume” or “imply” you said something you didn’t) and to then refute that. This is known as a “straw man argument”. It may be an innocent mistake, but is often a deliberate and dishonest tactic.

Be ready to challenge the “argument from ignorance” where the arguer’s ignorance of some fact is used to “prove” their point. For example, “Since you can't prove what that light in the sky was, then it must be aliens from Planet X.” If you don’t know what it was you have no reason for concluding what it was. Or, “You must be in favor of carbon caps since I don’t know anyone who believes in global warming that doesn’t.” That’s straw man and argument from ignorance combined – the WI are certainly resourceful. The fact that you are ill informed does not prove anything except your own ignorance.

Be on the lookout for contradictions. My favorite is a non-biologist stating the since Darwin did not get a degree in biology then his biological theory can’t be valid. If we accept that flawed premise (only people with biology degrees can formulate biological theories) then the speaker herself (a non-biologist) cannot judge the validity of a biological theory. Contradictions are common, but often subtle.

Finally, do not attack the person’s character or intelligence. Stick to the facts under discussion, even if they start calling you names. Attacking the person rather than his arguments is known as the ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem attacks can be brutal and a strong emotional reaction is understandable. But take a deep breath, confine your remarks to the observation that a personal attack does not negate your facts, and restate the point they were trying to avoid.

Remember that you are unlikely to sway a person whose conclusions are based on deeply held beliefs, myths, or opinions rather than on facts and logic. But if your goal is to refine your own arguments and beliefs or to convince others of the validity of your position, these guidelines will help you succeed.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What's Behind the Open Carry Movement

As the 2008 election neared and the magnitude of the rights’ impending defeat became apparent, the extremist rhetoric reached a strident crescendo including all the usual tactics - the fear mongering, the guilt by association, the character assassinations, the questioning of the opposition’s loyalty, patriotism, and even citizenship. The NRA spent $15 million telling people that if Obama was elected he was going to take their guns away. These tactics failed to arouse a public unusually focused on the real issues. The right’s frustration at their withering influence was apparent on blogs and openly expressed at public campaign rallies.

Obama won the election. He formed a generally centrist government with mostly competent, experienced people in his cabinet. None of the radical consequences predicted by the extremists came to pass. Ayers wasn’t put in charge of homeland security, the White House wasn’t turned into a mosque, and not a single effort was made to take away guns from law abiding citizens. The extremists, already emasculated by their resounding defeat, were further deflated when their apocalyptic predictions could not stand up to reality.

As momentum built for the Democrats’ signature legislative effort for health insurance reform, many on the right found renewed vigor by banding together and drowning out open and honest discussion at the “Town Hall” meetings. Some people got off openly displaying their weapons at these emotionally charged events. This created some controversy, which aroused them even more. As word spread the “open carriers” membership swelled and they began to hold rallies where they could strut their manhood in public. They are deliberately controversial in the hope of producing a backlash against them, thus validating their failed predictions. Unfortunately, they are having some success.

Debating them is not likely to be productive because they are out to make a point, not to engage in rational argument. It is all about them feeling better wearing their manhood on their hips, and their feelings are immune to facts and reason. Rather than erecting barriers to their manly love fests, which will only validate their point and swell their egos, we should laugh at them and ignore their movement until it dies a "little death" on it's own.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why “Common Sense” is Often Wrong

People who do not have facts and reason to support their beliefs often appeal to “Common Sense” without any definition of the term or how they know it applies to the situation. A typical definition of common sense is, “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like” ( Most definitions include phrases equivalent to “sound judgment”, and if we accept that definition, then common sense can never be wrong. However "common sense" is often used as a substitute for sound judgment or in situations where specialized knowledge or training is required to make a sound judgment. In fact, when a person appeals to “common sense” it usually means something that the person believes to be so widely accepted that it must be true (Argument by popularity).

At one time it was common sense that the earth was flat and sat at the center of the universe, which revolved around it. This is just one example of how common sense depends on the context, knowledge, and experience of the observer.

Our world today is extremely complex and most issues we face require specialized knowledge to fully understand. For example, most people cannot make rational decisions about the efficacy of medical procedures. Not only do they not know what factors have to be considered, they do not know how to evaluate multiple, often competing, factors. “Common sense” says that if a screening procedure can identify a potentially lethal disease while it can still be treated, then it should be widely used. To reach that conclusion, however, requires statistical analysis of the accuracy of the procedure, the risk of the procedure, the actual frequency of the disease, and the risk of false positive results. Nevertheless, when experts examined all those factors and recommended reduced breast cancer screening among women without known risk factors, there was a public outcry against the facts based on “common sense” among people who could not answer, and had never even considered, the simple question, “How many breast cancers are caused by radiation from regular mammograms?”

In politics people disagree about virtually every issue, and both sides often claim “common sense” supports their side. There is often a grain of truth in commonly held beliefs, especially for simple situations. But for complex issues “common sense” is a poor substitute for knowledge and logic. It is often a smoke screen to hide a lack of knowledge or to avoid challenges to pre-existing beliefs or already decided conclusions.

As science historian Daniel Boorstin, writing about the rise of scientific methodology and its contradiction of commonly held beliefs, noted, “Modern Western science takes its beginning from the denial of this commonsense axiom… Common sense, the foundation of everyday life, could no longer serve for the governance of the world.” (The Discoverers, A history of man’s search to know his world and himself)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Did Sarah Palin Blaspheme?

Last week Sarah Palin, who has criticized Obama for using a teleprompter, defended her use of crib notes written on her palm by claiming god did it too. Her narcissism aside, her interpretation of Isaiah 49:16. is curious. Palin is clearly stating that her god is a small god who is so imperfect that he needs crib notes to remember which tribe he has sworn to protect. Now I’m no expert, but I do know that this passage is not about god’s memory at all. The sign on the palm is symbol of god’s support, a reference to the Jews' custom of marking their hands to represent their city and temple. Thus Palin defends her hypocrisy by cloaking herself in religion while revealing a deep ignorance of scriptural interpretation. I guess fundamentalists have a hard time understanding symbolism.

I have searched high and low for a sign that any one on the right, or any religious writers, pointed out these errors. Very curious, especially since practically anytime Obama mentions religion, someone criticizes him for it.