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[Originally post November 14 at skepolitical.com]

Last week’s election produced some some encouraging developments for civil rights and liberties. Most of the candidates who made disgusting comments about rape lost their races. Gay marriage was passed through ballot initiatives in several states, and the first openly gay Senator and bisexual Representative were elected. (Krysten Sinema, the bisexual Representative, was also thought to be congress’s only “out” atheist, but she recently rejected that label.) Marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington. Here in Maryland, casino poker was legalized and undocumented immigrants were given access to funding in state schools.

By far my favorite development, however, was the triumph of Nate Silver and other political “quants” over the traditional political pundits. In other words: the triumph of skepticism and rationality over bias and propaganda. The triumph of thinking with your brain instead of your gut. The triumph of honest analysis over hopeful analysis (often indistinguishable from lying). The most important part of this story is that the media ate it up and reported it with a gusto, making it one of the central stories of the election’s aftermath. The conservative media dug their own grave by setting the election up as a referendum on empirical prognosticators like Silver, and left-leaning pundits have beenrejoicing in this landslide for NateSilver and rationalism. We saw many high-profile conservative pundits, notably David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, using their condescending rhetoric in embarrassing attempts to poopoo Silver’s brand of rational prognostication and replace it with their own crystal-ball “analyses”, followed by the most devastating imaginable outcome on election day. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

Beyond the pure, simple joy at seeing pompous pundits humiliated (don’t worry about them, they won’t miss a step), the reason I’m so happy about this is that it has the potential to move the culture towards becoming more rational. In particular, I think Americans may become more skeptical of pundits who are telling them what they want to hear and more amenable to objective analysis. (For an excellent take on how this all relates to climate change policy in particular, I highly recommend this post by David Roberts.) Sure, the Confirmation Bias means that it will be damn hard to bring people over to the side of objectivity, but this was a particularly spectacular rout. There was even an apology from Dean Chambers, the right-wing’s foil to Silver, for his misguided analysis on the “Unskewed Polls” website. There’s consternation among conservatives that the Romney campaign bought into the bad projections and thus failed to devise an appropriate campaign strategy. All in all, it would be tough to have followed this story since before the election and be left entirely unswayed. Here’s hoping it left an impression on the American psyche.

*****

The magnitude of the “win” by Nate Silver and other poll aggregators reminds me of the part in Moneyball where the A’s win something like twenty-two games in a row and it attracts all sorts of media attention. Billy Beane and the A’s had confidence in their methodology and believed that it was the best way to help them win games, but the spectacular nature of the result was something they never could have predicted. The same thing happened on election night with Nate Silver’s projections. In the end, it was pure luck that made it such a big story. (Silver’s own model predicted only about a 20% chance of a perfect 50/50 state projection.) The irony is really quite rich: the rationalists, whose rejection of any reliance on luck is central to their worldview, ended up benefiting fromtremendous amounts of it in order to sway public opinion to their mode of thinking.However, it’s also a bit sad to have it confirmed that the public is still swayed more by haphazard events (like an election result) than by skeptical argument. I hope that will be changing.

I also hope that this election will usher in a new era of rational punditry, just as theMoneyball story ushered in a new era of rational analysis in Major League Baseball.

*****

I think it bears mentioning that Nate Silver’s baseball analysis played a significant role in my personal interest in skepticism before I knew that such a movement existed. As an avid Fantasy Baseball participant, I consumed quite a bit of baseball analysis from all sorts of sources in the late 1990′s. Around then, I found a site called Baseball Prospectus. Baseball Prospectus was a revelation: they provided opinions about baseball backed up with evidence and statistical analysis. Their opinions were right. No more wasting my time with the opinions of the windbags on ESPN and the pages of The Sporting News! All I needed to do was look at Baseball Prospectus (plus Rob Neyer and a few other skeptical sources.) Before long, Baseball Prospectus began publishing one “Nate Silver”‘s player projections on their site, and Nate soon became my favorite writer for that website. I won most of those seasons of Fantasy Baseball, and it was not long before I began noticing the value of this same process in many other endeavors: the faster you can separate the skeptics from the windbags, the faster you can find truth. (In competitions like Fantasy Baseball and poker, this translates to gaining an edge on your opponents.) This process, I later learned, is the essence of Skepticism.

Given his role in my introduction to the skeptic/rationalist movement, it seems only fitting to me that Nate Silver should be the new standard bearer for Rationality in the public eye.

*****

Oh, man. I just checked the Bestsellers on Amazon. At first I was pleased to see Silver’sThe Signal and the Noise up there at #6… but Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly both have books ahead of him on the list. Well, at least this means I don’t have to worry about there being a steady supply of suckers to beat at the poker tables! (48)

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Originally posted October 18 at skepolitical.com http://skepolitical.com/?p=917

After dishonoring the profession of journalism, Newsweek has decided to stop publishing a print edition starting in January 2013.

 

Sadly, this is not truly an act of principle, where Newsweek shuts its doors in shame as a result of the embarrassment they’ve made of themselves and their magazine. No, editor-in-chief Tina Brown is saying that this is a result of the “challenging economics of print publishing and distribution,” but certainly “not about the quality of the brand or the journalism, that is as powerful as ever.” The magazine will continue to be published online.

A quick review of their death throes:

August. The abyssmal writing of its star commentator Niall Ferguson finally catches up with Newsweek when Newsweek was forced to admit that it did not even have fact-checkers after they published a falsehood-laden story of his that attracted too much attention (and elicited an embarrassing defense from Ferguson). They didn’t even seem too upset about it: after all, what relevance did truth have to Newsweek? This may have been the point when Newsweek decided to give up all pretense of being anything other than an attention-grabbing tabloid.

September. Newsweek goes with this cover, playing to America’s cherished stereotype of Muslims: 

Early October. Newsweek goes with this cover story, abandoning their credibility:

A week later the Newsweek announced they would not be publishing a print version anymore. An online version will persist.

[Edited for grammar Oct 18.] (58)

Original: http://skepolitical.com/?p=926

Most of my readers don’t live in Maryland (and certainly not my district/county), but I just spent some time researching my ballot, so I figured I’d let you know how I’m planning to vote. Maybe someone from Maryland District 8 will stumble upon this post and use it as a voting guide. I’ll be posting more about the Presidential election soon. (I know, I know, time is running out!)

 

President: Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala (Green).

(2nd choice: Libertarian Gary Johnson.) If a party manages 5% of the vote nationally, they will qualify for public funding in 2016 and possibly get into the debates. If you are voting in a swing state, there are arguments to be made for voting for either Obama or Romney, since it could effect the outcome of the election. Maryland is solid blue, so there’s really no good argument for giving your vote to either of the two propaganda parties. I like Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson, but Gary Johnson would also be a good choice if you prefer a smaller government. You can watch a debate between Stein, Johnson, Anderson, and Virgil Goode on Youtube here, and decide for yourself. (Anderson and Goode are only write-in candidates in Maryland.)

US Senate: Dean Ahmad (Libertarian).

I prefer not to support the corrupt fund-raising machines that both of the two major parties now represent, but sometimes an exception needs to be made for a particularly stark contrast between candidates. Democratic incumbent Ben Cardin, who haschampioned anti-whistleblower legislation, is clearly not deserving of such considerations. Besides, he is projected to win in a landslide. Dean Ahmad of the Libertarian Party is endorsed by Gary Johnson and, according to wikipedia, his platform includes, “bringing U.S. troops home, restoring civil liberties compromised by the ‘war on terror,’ working for federal government fiscal responsibility, and ending corporate welfare.” Good enough for me. (No liberal candidates are running.)

Representative in Congress District 8: George Gluck (Green).

(Second choice: Libertarian Mark Grannis.) I prefer the Democratic incumbent Chris Van Hollen to the Republican Ken Timmerman, but the difference between them doesn’t warrant supporting the corrupt Democratic Party. Supporting the Green Party is more important than keeping Timmerman out of congress.

Judge Lynne Battaglia continuance: Yes.

I don’t think Judges should need to campaign for their seats. Besides, Battaglia voted for gay marriage and seems quite laudable.

Judge Stuart Berger continuance: Yes.

I’m not sure who this is, but it would take more than a simple disagreement for me to vote against a judge. If he did anything despicable enough to justify voting him out of office, I think I could have found it after a few minutes of googling.

Board of Education: Jim Doolan and Cynthia Foley.

The other two candidates want to cut school spending, which I consider to be a mistake.

Questions 1 and 2 (Judge Qualification): Yes and Yes.

This is endorsed by the Baltimore Sun. Frankly, I did not do enough research here to form my own opinion, but the Sun’s article was convincing enough for me.

Question 3 (removal of convicted elected officials): Yes.

Get corrupt politicians out of power as quickly as possible!

Question 4 (illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rate): Yes.

Immigration policy is a mess. Hopefully we can get it sorted out. In the meantime, I prefer to support this problematic band-aid of a law rather than cause unnecessary hardship to qualified students. Hold your nose and vote for it.

Question 5 (congressional districting plan): No!

Gerrymandering is one of the most blatant types of political corruption. The Maryland Democrats brazenly gerrymandered the districts for this year, and it turns out that I have the opportunity to voice my disapproval in the ballot box. I don’t intend to miss that opportunity. Hopefully it will get overturned.

Question 6 (civil (gay) marriage protection act): Yes.

The description says it “protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs.” However, this referendum’s main purpose is to reaffirm gay marriage in Maryland. The concessions to clergy actually seem reasonable. It seems heavy handed to compel clergy to officiate gay marriages, and besides, who would want their marriage to be officiated by some religious dolt who disapproves of the marriage, anyway?

Question 7 (casino gaming expansion): Yes.

Quite simply, adults should be able to do whatever they want unless it infringes on others’ rights. Not only is this a fundamental principle of liberty, it’s also good policy. Trying to prohibit such activity merely sends the business underground, as with alcohol in the 1920′s and other drugs today. This principle of liberty overrides any social ills that may result. That said, I have no problem with forcing casinos to fund gambling addiction education or other measures that mitigate any cultural damage gambling my cause. For me personally, this referendum has the potential to drastically improve my life because it will allow poker in casinos. I’m a professional poker player, and currently I have to drive all the way to West Virginia to play. (Anyone know any good underground games nearby?) (13)

 

I guess this is a little late (I think an Obama-Romney debate is in progress as I write this), but I just heard about the leaked memo detailing the agreements between the two camps, including the restriction on follow-up questions from not only the town-hall question askers, but even the debate moderator. Glenn Greenwald details just how insidious the politics of these debates has become since the League of Women Voters lost control of them in the 1990′s.

 

Even ignoring these factors, what possible value could there be in watching the debates? Nothing is more vacuous or clearly propagandistic. If your goal is to determine what sort of President either of these men would be, watching the debates would be one of the least productive possible uses of your time. There is no correlation. Look at their records, read some analysis, even consider the candidates’ own words from two years ago. But, please, disregard anything said during campaign season.

If you’re just interested in watching for entertainment value, I suppose that’s fair enough (though I question your taste), but keep in mind that your patronage of the networks that cover this propaganda extravaganza is supporting a deeply troubling regime of manipulation of our political process. (16)

Originally at: http://skepolitical.com/?p=895

This week’s cover story represents the culmination of Newsweek’s decade-long descent from a respected establishment-news source to a tabloid rag.

 

My family had a subscription to Newsweek when I was a kid, and I had my own subscription until just a year or two ago. Even after I had shifted my focus mainly to alternative news sources, I kept my subscription because I liked some of Newsweek’s features and I felt there was some value in keeping in touch with “mainstream” news, for the sake of perspective. As I mentioned in my recent links post, it was my weekly horror at the writings of Niall Ferguson that finally forced me to end my subscription.

If I were writing for Newsweek, I might have tolerated writing alongside Ferguson’s columns, which, though sloppy, misleading, and repulsive, did not sink to the level of being unpublishable. I can’t see the value in giving his ideas a platform, but their publication merely represented poor taste and judgment on the part of the Newsweek editors, not an outright dereliction of their duty to their readers. If we consider that duty to be putting at least attempting to give its readers a true depiction of reality, this cover story reveals that the editors are have neglected this responsibility.

The problem isn’t just that the conclusions in the story are wrong, it’s that the editors must have known the story was problematic, but decided to go ahead and publish it anyway. The author of the story is so incredibly naive that someone at Newsweek should have had some qualms about it, and one phone call to a skeptic could have revealed the utter nonsense of the author’s claims. They decided to run with the story anyway because stories about Heaven being real probably sell well to our simple-minded populace. When that rationale wins the day in the front office of a publication, what you have on your hands is no longer a news magazine but a tabloid.

If the Newsweek editors wanted to preserve its status as a news magazine and also wanted to go with this story about Dr Alexander’s experience, the story should have been about how easy it is even for a doctor like Eben Alexander to be confused into thinking he had seen heaven, and then it should have described what was really happening inside his brain. That would be what I call “informing the reader”. Instead, the Newsweek editors opted to mislead readers and treat them to a fanciful story of make-believe. That Newsweek opted to go with the most credulous and misleading version of this story reveals that either editorial board is completely broken, or that this is simply not a news magazine anymore. If I were writing for Newsweek, I may have tolerated Niall Ferguson. This week’s story would have demanded a resignation. We will soon learn if any of their current staff agrees with me.

For more, read Sam Harris’Steven Novella’s, and Hemant Mehta’s takes on this Newsweek story. (1)

[Original Post: http://skepolitical.com/?p=883]

Some people have expressed concerns about whether the impersonal nature of drone warfare might necessitate some reflection and public debate in order to develop a more philosophically thorough set of guidelines.

 

Fine, but we can trust President Obama with that, right? He’ll make sure all the safeguards are in place. He’ll invite moral philosophers and others to join the discussion. That seems like an easy decision when facing such a weighty moral issue.

In case you don’t entirely trust the President and are still silly enough to think that these issues may not have been given sufficient consideration, with all the humanity, thoughtfulness, and gravitas that it requires, behold the emblem that has been chosen to represent the program (via Mano Singham):

 

Emblem for the US Navy’s Executive Office for the Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons Program

Well, then. That about settles it.

I can’t decide whether this is meant to be “Devilishly Ironic” or if they’re just going for “Badass”. In any case, the abhorrent insouciance on display here should put to rest any questions about whether the morality of drone warfare is being taken sufficiently seriously.

*****

One purpose of this blog is to explore avenues of action to help make things better. If things like complacent drone warfare upset you, please try and do something about it. At the very least, tell someone about it, which can help move public sentiment. The people in charge of these programs ultimately derive their power and authority from the American people. It is Americans’ inclination to ignore these issues, or to look the other way, or to throw up our hands in helplessness, that enables everything our government does. It really is up to us to change things, which means we really are responsible for any evil our government does. Please, don’t just ignore it. (9)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 9/12/12]

Allow me to indulge in some public self-exploration. I promise to conclude with a worthy resolution. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to react to the injustices I see in the world around me. Of particular interest are those injustices that I am ostensibly responsible for: those committed by my own government. The current reality seems to be that Americans are so far removed from the levers of power that they have, perhaps rationally, given up not only the hope of affecting their government’s actions, but also any sense of responsibility for them. Any lingering sense of civic duty in a typical American’s heart is assuaged by voting once every four years and voicing their indignant anger at those in opposition to their favored party. Over one-third of Americans didn’t even bother going that far in 2008 (37% didn’t vote).

The problem with this is that we, collectively, are ultimately responsible for our government’s actions. That is the nature of our democratic republic. The question I have been mulling over is this: how should I, as an individual, proceed when I believe I am responsible for horrific actions but feel powerless to intervene? Is it even possible to be responsible for something if I’m powerless?

I think the first part of the answer is to acknowledge a problem with my premise: I am not powerless. I certainly have at least a small measure of power granted to me in the form of my vote, but, more importantly, I can take action to gain more influence. My first step on this path was to start contributing to this blog, which so far has had 50-300 views per post. Not much, but something. I’ve used this space to highlight some of the injustices that I think necessitate civic action; to explore my own thinking about politics and how to make a difference; to share information about skepticism and critical thinking; and to promote my idea that getting skeptical critical thinking taught in our schools is an achievable goal that would pay dividends in many ways, particularly in improving our government. This has started a handful of productive discussions and even landed an interview with a major media outlet. (Nothing has come of it.) However, like voting, it’s simply not enough. The magnitude and importance of the problem of America’s corruption and injustices are too great to be solved by such meager efforts. Voting and blogging doesn’t do much more than artificially assuage the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict between my self-image as a good person who doesn’t remain “a spectator to unfairness” and the reality that I’ve been neglecting my civic responsibility.

My next step is something I’ve been avoiding because it is so far out of my comfort zone. I’m going to try to get involved with a college campus group promoting civic agency. I recently started a PhD program in statistics at UMBC (home of a student government renowned for its efficacy). I contacted the teachers for a course called “Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship” in the political science department. This sounded like the sort of training I needed to get my voice heard and ideas rolling. I was able to talk with David Hoffman, who encouraged me to get involved with a new project called BreakingGround, which is focused on encouraging civic engagement. I tend to be skeptical of this sort of earnest community/campus activism group, largely because in my experience they seem to make very little difference. Also, most of my ethical concerns deal with the actions of the Federal government, not UMBC’s. However, I’m excited about this opportunity for two reasons. First, from what I know about UMBC’s culture and from my conversation with David Hoffman, it seems like they are more committed and more effectual than similar groups in other places. Second, from a personal standpoint, I feel it’s past time for me to embrace opportunities like this to increase my civic agency rather than resign myself to powerlessness.

This is pretty far out of my comfort zone, but I intend to confront my misgivings about my civic responsibilities this week and start contacting some of the BreakingGround members. I’ll ask what sorts of projects they are working on, and hopefully I’ll gain some experience with flexing some of my civic agency muscle. Perhaps I will then use that muscle to help advance education in skeptical critical thinking.

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