Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Bullshit Heuristic and Defense of (a little) Epistemic Closure

Or a defense of what passes for “epistemic closure” these days, which is to say information cocooning and the walling off of certain individuals, information sources, and arguments from one’s attention and consideration.

Some time ago, it was discovered that certain political phrases provoke emotional brain responses rather than logical ones. This was popularly interpreted as evidence of irrationality in political beliefs. While there is most certainly a great deal of irrationality in political beliefs, I suggest that some of these responses are heuristical responses corresponding to rationally held positions. Certain subjects trip my “bullshit heuristic”. “Green jobs” is a good one. The debate about global warming may still be active, but the debate about green jobs is over, and “green jobs” lost by any objective manner. “Saved or created.” “Social justice.” “Aggregate demand.” Speakers of these and other phrases are asking me to ignore them, for they speak bullshit.

A number of people make me immediately change the channel or hit the “back” button on my web browser. They aren’t worth listening to. Ever. They actually make you less intelligent just by listening to them. The main culprits are Olbermann, Maddow, Andrew Sullivan, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, along with some others.

More fall into what I’ll call the “5% category”, meaning that 95% of the time they are safe to ignore, but on a rare occasion they might actually say something worthwhile. I will typically come across the useful statements made by these people by way of some other source. I’m talking about Chris Matthews, David Frum, Tom Friedman, Newsweek and Time magazines, Joe Klein, etc. The signal-to-noise ratio isn’t terribly favorable in this crew, so I don’t actively seek out the purported wisdom of these sources. More often they are subjects of derision for their inane remarks. (Deriding the idiocy of Olbermann et al is like shooting fish in a barrel, and thus lacks a certain fun and sport.)

Then there’s a category of largely irrelevant sources that I tend to ignore, not because of overly egregious bias (though there is some of it), but because they don’t offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere. Once upon a time, I used to read the websites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN on a daily basis. I haven’t done that in years, and any time I’ve returned to those sources I usually wonder why I bothered. The era of dominance by monolithic media sources is over. Aggregators and social media rule the information market now. I probably get 95% of my information from Google News, Twitter, and a few blogs. I watch a network broadcast news about 3 or 4 times a week. I have CNBC on in the background during the day, but I check in on the content only occasionally. Sometimes I peek at “Morning Joe”, or flip through Fox News to make sure I’m not missing something.

Am I walled off? Maybe some, but judging by what I see when I watch the network news, or pick up a major newspaper, I’m not missing much. A generation ago, if a person read 3 or 4 major newspapers (Some combination of NYT, WaPo, LAT, AJC, or WSJ) and watched the broadcast news, he or she was very well informed. Now, such a person is getting only a fraction of the available and relevant information. Some information sources must necessarily be ignored.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Amidst "epistemic closure" nonsense, a good observation about the Right

I think all the blather about "epistemic closure" is much ado about very little, so I won't rehash all the arguments.  But I was drawn to something Ross Douthat wrote at the end of his NYT ruminations about the scuffle.  Douthat makes an observation about the institutional/structural Right that fits well with my recent complaint that nobody was in charge of opposing Obamacare, and that the right suffered for failing to conduct and act upon some very simple analytical techniques.

It’s precisely because American conservatism represents a motley assortment of political tendencies united primarily by their opposition to liberalism that conservatives are often too quick to put their (legitimate, important and worth-debating) differences aside in the quest to slay the liberal dragon. After all, slaying liberalism is why they got together in the first place! And it’s precisely this motley, inconsistent quality, too, that encourages activists and pundits alike to stick to their single issue or issues and defer to the movement consensus on everything else. So pro-lifers handle abortion, Grover Norquist handles taxes, the neoconservatives handle foreign policy and the Competitive Enterprise Institute handles environmental regulations and nobody stops to consider if the whole constellation of policy ideas still makes sense, or matches up the electorate’s concerns, or suits the challenges of the moment. This unity-in-opposition was a great strength for the right for a long, long time, but it’s made conservatism much more brittle and less adaptable than it needs to be right now.

Nobody really has it as their raison d'ĂȘtre to attempt to put the pieces together in a popularly palatable manner, and the party mechanisms seem ill-suited to the task.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Intertubes Roundup: The “Porkulus didn’t work” edition

(1) Economists agree: the stimulus didn't help. Who'da thunk it?

(2) Of course Obamacare is going to cost more than they told us. Anticipating startling insurance rate hikes, Congress is in "CYA" mode, looking at price controls on health insurance. Because that always works out well.

(3) Oh look, Rendell's corporate welfare deal for Harley-Davidson isn't working out so well. Go figure.

(4) Pennsylvania spends a lot on legislative staff.

(5) National Review editorial: "The Case Against the Dodd Bill". (Why is Chris Dodd in charge of anything?)

(6) Lest we get too excited about Republicans, Rep. Lewis (CA-41) says the earmark moratorium was "symbolic". (Just FYI, Lewis has been a member of Congress longer than I've been alive.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Quote of the Day: "About Twelve" ( #FinReg )

If you only read one article today, read Jon Ward's column in the Daily Caller entitled, "Financial reform’s complexity allows truth to stay hidden behind rhetoric":

One senior House staffer, asked to estimate the number of people on Capitol Hill who fully understand the legislation, paused, and then replied, “About twelve.”

“If you’re talking about the full scope of the thing, maybe less,” he said. “The vast majority of it is anticipating events you can’t predict.”

That's probably a generous estimate.

The greatest example of rhetoric clouding the truth is the Too-Big-To-Fail/Permanent Bailout concept.  Obama should fear Zeus' thunderbolt for the egregious lies he's telling about permanent bailouts.

Obama [emphasis added]:
Now, there’s a legitimate debate taking place about how best to ensure taxpayers are held harmless in this process.  And that’s a legitimate debate, and I encourage that debate.  But what’s not legitimate is to suggest that somehow the legislation being proposed is going to encourage future taxpayer bailouts, as some have claimed.  That makes for a good sound bite, but it’s not factually accurate.  It is not true.  In fact, the system as it stands -- the system as it stands is what led to a series of massive, costly taxpayer bailouts.  And it’s only with reform that we can avoid a similar outcome in the future.  In other words, a vote for reform is a vote to put a stop to taxpayer-funded bailouts.  That’s the truth.  End of story.  And nobody should be fooled in this debate.

What a tremendous whopper!

Because, actually, the bill does give unlimited bailout authority to the government, to be exercised in an arbitrary and unpredictable manner -- and for any systemically important company, not just financial firms.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nuggets from the PA Leadership Conference ( #palc )

This is by no means a comprehensive write-up of the conference, but just some things that stood out to me.

Campaign Workshop - Like fellow Watercooler-ite Roberta, I attended the campaign workshop last year, and was pleased that there was some different material presented this year. I think last year’s presentation was perhaps more informative, but I was very pleased with the more-or-less comprehensive Candidate Manual produced by American Majority. Anybody who is thinking about running for office in the future would do well to put one or two of these workshops under his/her belt beforehand.

Government and Teacher Unions are looking like major bad-guys as long as state and local government finances are tight. Simon Campbell was an outstanding moderator of the education panel. Mr. Campbell successfully ran for school board director on a platform of stopping payroll deductions for teacher union dues and “telling the truth” about teacher unions. (Gasp!) This was accomplished in a district that I’m led to believe is not a district where one would assume such a message would be well-received. If Mr. Campbell can win every precinct in his school district, and the Governor of New Jersey can make a common-sense case against teacher union demands, I have to believe the nation as a whole is ready to take on these institutions aggressively.

Messages versus Messengers - One of the points Kellyanne Conway hit upon in her presentation was the transition from 2008 being a year of individuals and messengers (Obama, Palin, Hillary Clinton, etc.) to 2009-10 being a time of focus on issues and messages (spending, taxation, war, health care, etc.). This idea was preceded by Phyllis Schlafly’s remarks the previous day concerning the 2012 Presidential primary. Schlafly said that we don’t want a candidate who is going to be the issue, but one who will speak to the issues, perhaps somebody not currently prominent on the national scene. While I don’t share Phyllis Schlafly’s optimism about Jim DeMint’s national prospects, I think the general idea is a sound one.

Myth Busting - While I’m on the topic of Ms. Conway, it’s always good to hear a pollster confirm one’s own heretical ideas. Specifically, she claimed there is zero evidence for the “He can win”/”He can’t win” concepts about candidate ideology, and that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’ve been beating that dead horse for, what, a year or so now? She also took issue with Karl Rove’s assertion that ethical scandals cost the GOP majority in 2006. Rather, and in my opinion somewhat obviously, the GOP’s worm had started to turn long before the ethical scandals took off.

Herding Cats - It’s often said that the Tea Partiers that they are essentially leaderless and decentralized, and that this is generally a good thing. I tend to agree, though this comes with some obvious drawbacks. Tom Shakely made an interesting point comparing Tea Partiers and younger voters; both groups have upturned the traditional “leadership/follower” model and are more reliant on social media. Kevin Kelly of the Philly Loyal Opposition spoke about the benefits of holding open planning sessions to allow folks to develop a sense of inclusion and ownership in an organization. As someone who has served on a number of bylaws committees, this makes a lot of sense to me.

Where are the candidates? Some were there, but quite a few weren't. Those who missed the event may have made a mistake.

Personal Notes - It was really great meeting up with fellow Watercooler contributors Roberta Biros and Fred Mullner. We had our own peanut gallery going on during Dick Morris’ speech, and we had perhaps a little too much fun speculating on Mr. Morris’ state of sobriety that evening as he meandered from topic to topic, making bold and questionable assertions along the way. (At least he looked like he was having fun.) The meals served at the conference were miles better than the gray fish served last year, though I question the use of Earl Grey as an iced tea.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pic of the Day: We're not with Stupid

An infiltrator posing in Nazi and Klan gear -- posted by Dana Loesch

h/t Jimmie Bise

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Unable to actually capture evidence of racism at tea party protests, the nut-roots are planning to create some artificially.

So when the inevitable "ugly", "regrettable" video surfaces from protests this weekend, let's do some investigation to see who the speakers/sign-holders actually are.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Economist: Shorten the Copyright

The Economist:
At the moment, the terms of trade favour publishers too much. A return to the 28-year copyrights of the Statute of Anne would be in many ways arbitrary, but not unreasonable. If there is a case for longer terms, they should be on a renewal basis, so that content is not locked up automatically. The value society places on creativity means that fair use needs to be expanded and inadvertent infringement should be minimally penalised. None of this should get in the way of the enforcement of copyright, which remains a vital tool in the encouragement of learning. But tools are not ends in themselves.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Anti-Obamacare Messaging Failures

Who was in charge of messaging against Obamacare?

More than just mere fodder for political horse-race commentary, polls show us where our blind spots and biases are. A recently released Winston Group survey reveals important areas where opponents of Obamacare dropped the ball. Now, we're used to hearing from conservatives that the opposition did its job, and that voters disapprove of Obamacare. And that's basically true. How could we have stopped the Democrats from defying the will of the electorate? By making Obamacare a 70-30 issue rather than a 55-45 issue, or even a 60-40 issue, that's how.

The Winston survey pits the Tea Party perspective against the perspective of the electorate at large, and some fairly big differences stand out. Despite confirmations of their demographic normalcy, bottom line is that the Tea Partiers aren't on the same wavelength as everybody else, and I think that hinders their persuasive abilities. Anti-Obamacare messages were insufficiently effective or non-existent when it came to specific measures in the plan that mattered most to average voters, and Tea Partiers spend a lot of time stressing issues of diminished importance to average voters. Opponents were banging their heads against the walls talking about deficits and tax hikes, when average voters were much more concerned with pre-existing conditions and quality of care.

Let's get to some figures.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Quote of the Day: What the Reporters Saw (and Didn't See)

Daniel Foster on NRO:
I have talked (mostly on background) to a number of reporters who were on the Hill that day and covered the incident for both straight-news outlets and opinion publications. Though their stories and perspectives were all a bit different, they agreed on the basics: Unlike the homophobic comments directed at Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), which were heard by multiple reporters, no one in the media actually observed the racist taunts; rather, they pieced their stories together from press releases and statements issued by the involved congressmen and their staffers.

While the reporters I talked to all found this a bit troubling, they nevertheless believed that what they heard from Lewis and Carson passed the smell test.

Most critically, none could account for how, at a gathering that surely featured hundreds of audio recorders, there isn’t a single sound clip that corroborates their stories.

This is despite Andrew Breitbart's $100,000 bounty for any video proof of the incident(s).

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Obligatory Johnson-Guam Video

This guy is a Congressman. That is all.