Some Political Comments

Asking a logical, informed person with any sense of history to choose between the Dems and the GOP is like asking a condemned prisoner to choose between scaphism and crucifixion – it’s not going to be pretty, either way. The deciding factor in both cases is time: It usually takes a few days to die from crucifixion; death via scaphism can take more than two weeks. Similarly, the strongest argument for the GOP is that it will take longer to reach the full flowering of the current Dark Age under their policies than the Democrats’. Maybe. Note that this is based on what the parties do, not on what the parties say.

Lately, it may appear that I’ve been harder on Democrats than on Republicans. This is true, to an extent, but it is due mostly to the Democrats holding power at the moment. When the GOP regains the Presidency, I’ll turn the heavy artillery back on them.

Another cause of my focusing on the shortcomings of Democrats and the Democratic Party is geography: I live in California. For the last 30 years, I’ve lived in the Bay Area, including stints in San Francisco and Berkeley. Prior to that, in SoCal. As a result of this, the majority of my friends, acquaintances and coworkers are liberal democrats or farther left. Out and out Socialists, Communists and Anarchists outnumber real right-wingers among the people I hang out with.  So let’s just say I’m familiar with the species in its fullest expression.

There are particular recurring themes in this crowd. First, the combination of an absolute certainty of their own personal moral and intellectual superiority coupled with a truly awe-inspiring degree of cluelessness, as exemplified in the charts I’ve lately excoriated. The same people unable or unwilling to understand the basic math problems presented in these charts are claiming superior intelligence – that galls me. The same people who will call somebody a stupid git for not grasping the awesomeness of Obama are unwilling or unable to follow the most basic logical construct (such as: if there is no truth, there’s nothing much to talk about ). This is not always true – but my 30 years of experience indicate that it is almost always true.

Next, a lot of my personal interactions here are with families at school, which is a Sudbury school. All kinds of parents bring their kids to the school for all kinds of reasons. Some of those people are almost cartoonishly liberal, but some are also Libertarians and Randians. Many times over the years I’ve seen shock on the face of a  Liberal when they discover that not everyone at the school is a lefty – they can’t even imagine that the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals of the Right would turn their kids over to such an obviously ‘progressive’ school. Meanwhile, the right-wingers just sigh and take a ‘stopped clock is right twice a day’ attitude about the Liberals at the school, all the while seeing the individualism, boot-strap mentality and town hall democracy of the school as about as conservative and American as you can get.

Finally, my sense of irony and mockery is triggered by the control freak aspect of Liberals who, at one the same time, talk freedom and rights but seek absolute control over others. This is most apparent with their own children. Many a Berkeley mom and dad have left interviews at our school shocked (or  pulled their kids once it became obvious)  that we really, truly meant to let their kids do whatever they wanted to do all day long so long as they respected the school rules and the rights of others. Sure, they wanted freedom for their kids – in fact, *their* kids have total freedom – to do exactly what mom & dad want them to do, and are shamed & browbeaten into line by relentless and remorseless psychological pressure if they don’t.

When asked what he thought of a third party, Will Rogers replied that he’d be satisfied with a second party.  Now Republicans really are the party of the rich, and really do make sure that the laws don’t touch their sugar daddies. However, ever since the Democrats abandoned private sector Labor with NAFTA under Clinton and  government unions* have grown dominant, it’s pretty much a chocolate or vanilla choice on this point.  Key Treasury and market regulatory functions are staffed via a revolving door with Goldman Sachs – under both parties.

And so on down the line.  The only functional difference is merely which interest groups each party has chosen to pander to.  They tend to do as little as possible for those groups – just ask the Pro-Life people – but sometimes they do if it serves a bigger goal, such as using gay rights as a tool with which to punish churches.

France seems to be the mid-term goal of the Dems; the Roman Empire is more like it for the GOP. France is circling the drain; the Roman empire lasted about 300 years in the West before getting routinely overrun by barbarians and entering the Dark Ages – we should be so lucky.

*Why go to all the trouble negotiating with – and possibly ticking off – Big Business for those small and shrinking private sector union workers when you can negotiate with your self for the benefit of public sector unions? That way, you can shake down BOTH workers AND Big Business!

Follow Up: College Education and Voting

The basic problem with the chart in the last post is that it tells you nothing about how college educated voters actually voted, but invites the viewer to infer college-educated voter behavior anyway – which just isn’t possible with the given information.  Word Problem: If 35% of a state’s potential voters are college educated, and Obama collected 55% of the actual vote in that state, how many college educated  voters in that state voted for Obama? As is most ofter the case in real science, the correct answer is: we don’t know. Obama could have received 55% of the vote without getting any votes at all from college educated voters. Or Obama might have gotten all the college educated votes. There’s not enough information to say – not that it’s stopping people.

So, the question remains: Which presidential candidate got the most votes from voters with college degrees? One problem is that articles addressing this question rarely just give you the raw numbers. One is tempted to say they are pre-spun for our enjoyment. Be that as it may, here in this NYT article,  we see a decent summary of the history of college educated voters from the 80s until now. Basically, back in the 1980s, college educated voters went overwhelmingly to Reagan and Republicans in general, and have since then, as the American educational system has cratered,  slowly slid towards Democrats. (That was a joke! At least mostly!).  So now, it’s about even or even a little Dem-leaning. But the idea that a college degree = a strong Dem leaning is false, even today.

But you’d absolutely be unable to tell any of that from the data in the chart.  The needed information just isn’t there.

For the current election, all I’ve been able to dig up is some exit poll data, which is suspect on a number of levels*, but probably OK for this purpose:

The main thing to note is that there is no strong relationship between college education and voting Democrat or Republican, except among the 18% of voters with postgraduate degrees – and there are plenty of snarky comments about *that* that shall not escape the barrier of my keyboard.  For now.

Bottom line: even granting the highly dubious claim that college education = smart, no college = dumb, it’s simple not true that smart people generally voted for Obama, while it IS true that the most of the 24% with a high school educations or less DID vote for Obama.

* Exit polls are systemically challenged. Among other issues:

– self reporting – all you get is what people want to tell you with no way to objectively back it up. If I tell you I’m a rocket scientist and voted for Obama, that’s what the poll shows, even if I’m a ditch digger who voted Larouche. Don’t know about you, but if some earnest youngster with a clipboard asked me a bunch of questions about how I voted as I walked to my car, Porky Pig and an advanced degree in bovine scatology management would figure prominently in the answers;

– unclear questions, with no time to clarify them: is a certificate from a barber college a college degree? Does an online class in how to draw scantily clad Elvin princesses count as ‘some college’?

Chart Demonstrating Self-Identified Smart People Can’t Read Charts

Here’s another interesting graphic from people I’ve never heard of, that found its way to me via some social media, posted by one of the more intelligent people I know:

The claim is “Apparently this election was not only divided along racial and financial lines, but on intelligence lines as well.” Question for us sports fans – does this graphic actually show that smart people voted for Obama, while dumb people voted for Romney? Let’s assume all the number are accurate. Here’s a few issues.

1. Judging from the popularity of this and similar graphics, the major issue, of course, is that many people who think they are intelligent look at stuff like this and pat themselves on the back and forward it to their friends, all the while sure that they’ve been shown to be part of the cool kids club. No thought is wasted on whether this graphic says what it pretends to say. “Critical thinking” is a particularly Orwellian euphemism, since it seems to mean nothing more than ‘get in line for a 2 minute hate’;

2. States don’t vote – the people in them do. Looking at the numbers, in each state a huge majority of people over 25 do not have college degrees. So it is possible, based solely on the evidence presented, that *all* the college educated people voted for Romney, yet the state still went to Obama. Based on the evidence presented, there’s no reason to suppose college educated people supported Obama at all;

3. Similarly, based on the numbers, at the very least, many ‘stupid’ people had to have voted for Obama (assuming college educated people vote in something remotely like the same percentage as everybody else – but we’re not told that piece of information);

4. It is assumed “college educated” = “smart”, a mistake only someone from, say, the education or sociology department could  make (OK, that was just catty, but couldn’t resist). Seriously, my trade-school educated car mechanic is ‘smarter’ by just about any practical measure than most of the people I went to college with, including the professors – he runs his own successful business, which entails math & finance, marketing, a bit of psychology in addition to knowing how to fix hundreds of different makes and models of cars.  Why assume he’s somehow dumber than some yahoo with an education degree?

5. Which brings me to the next point: why assume ‘college education’ is some sort of homogenous whole, rather than, as any college student or employer of college grads knows, a totally mixed bag. The typical kid with a degree in physics, biology, math, engineering, computer science and the like at least had to go through some level of rigorous thinking to get that degree.  Plus, there are real-world answers and consequences to many of the questions these disciplines raise: does the experiment work? Does the animal die? Does the building fall down? Does the company stay in business? The student of these disciplines is aware that what he’s learning about has to work in the real world. The kid with the degree in education, sociology, psychology, women studies, and so on – not so much. They get their degrees by regurgitation. There are no objective criteria by which it is evident that you’ve done it right. Is Freud or modern pedagogy or the feminine mystique ‘right’? How would you know? And, if you were honest, and figured they were wrong, would you still get the particular degree? Of course, there are brilliant sociologists and stupid engineers, but that seems to be the exception.

And so on. Bottom line is that graphics such as these should only appear as cautionary tales for education of the young. No adult, especially someone with pretensions at intelligence and educational achievement, should take them seriously for more than a couple seconds.

But people do take them seriously, pat themselves on the back about how smart they are – and vote.

Minor Update: From the site linked to above, “Our favorite thing about this graphic is that the data Kenny used came from Fox Business, so if you’re a Romney voter, this is basically Neil Cavuto accidentally calling you an idiot.”  My favorite thing about this quote is that the author accidentally called the majority of Obama voters idiots by the same exact logic.  But the point here is Obama voters feeling good about themselves because they are smart and Romney voters are dumb, and it would be mean-spirited to complicate those good feelings with logic or math, especially when they lead people to vote correctly. Let’s not bicker about who killed who. This is a happy occasion!

Lying with Charts & Graphs

(silly WordPress mysteriously ate this essay yesterday. So, painfully reconstructed…)

Here is a nice chart that’s been making the rounds:

So, nice harmless little doodad attempting to benevolently terrify us into eating our veggies? Or Exhibit Z in What The Heck is Wrong With You People!?! Or something?  Let us count the issues that should be OBVIOUS to anyone with ANY KNOWLEDGE OF SCIENCE AT ALL:

1. Isn’t that an odd set of countries? There are over a hundred countries in the world, yet only these exact 12 are chosen, and no reason given why. Hmmm – could it be that these exact 12 happen to give the exact ‘right’ graph? Like, the data was cherry-picked to show exactly what the grapher wanted to show? Inquiring minds want to know: what does the graph look like if you picked, say, the top 100 most developed countries by per capita income, or any other selector not determined by the results you’d like to see?

2. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. There are famously charts showing stock market performance relative to the location of hemlines in fashionable women’s clothing – the shorter the dresses, the better the stock market does (or did – not sure this holds over the last couple decades). So, even if the data had not been so obviously cherry-picked, we’d need to wonder if it is really telling us what its makers want it to tell us. Wouldn’t we want to take wars, famines, and nuclear disasters, among other things, into account?

3. If this were the Brave New World, very few would die of cancer or heart disease – but only because everyone is summarily executed at the age of 60. So, are the clearly virtuous people on the right hand side of the chart just dying of something else before they get a chance to die of cancer or heart disease? In other words, in countries where all the obvious health problems that kill people young have been addresses – adequate calories, clean water, antibiotics, basic medical care – wouldn’t we expect to see a greater prevalence of causes of death that are not so easily addressed, like cancer and heart disease?

4. Are we measuring things the same in every country? Are causes of death accurately and consistently recorded in each country so that this sort of comparison is valid at all? For example, if I die of cancer as a result of getting AIDS, what is my cause of death?

So here, by the miracle of the interwebs, is a quick chart I put together:

This is an attempt to illustrate a couple of the problems mentioned above, not to answer them. In the “Life expectancy – % of table average” column, we note that 5 of the 6 ‘worse’ countries, where pouty children of all ages turn up their collective noses at raw veggies in appalling numbers, people live noticeably longer than the unweighted average life expectancy of the table as a whole. So, it seems you could expect to live a few more years eating hideous yet tasty and convenient prepackaged food and then die of heart disease or cancer than your more virtuous yet sorter-lived consumer of not so tasty endive and arugula.

Next, for kicks, I added a column for percentage of the unweighted average of the number of cigarettes smoked per year per capita, to highlight the countries with greater or lessor cigarette consumption.  4 of the 5 countries with the greatest life expectancies also consume significantly more cigarettes per capita than the average, and 3 of the 4 with the shortest life expectancies smoke markedly fewer. Soooo, maybe we should forget the kale and fennel, and light up a Camel if we want to live long?

Or just maybe prepackaged foods and cigarettes are relatively expensive? So that countries that are relatively wealthy, and might therefore reasonably be expected to have better health care and less life-shortening poverty, also have people who can afford to buy more Ding-Dongs and Marlboros? The country with the lowest life expectancy on the table – Laos – also has the lowest consumption percentage of packaged foods and the 2nd lowest use of cigarettes, and is relatively poor. Mere coincidence?

Who knows? But a couple dozen well-funded studies would be required to find out.

The issue is not really this one little piece of propaganda wrapped in a lab coat pretending to be Science! It’s that a college educated person brought this to my attention – person with strong political views, who consistently promotes items in various social media which attempt to advance the claim that Her Party is OBVIOUSLY the party of the Smart People, and that only stupid bigoted yahoos belong to the Other Party. Over the late election unpleasantness, anytime I ventured onto Facebook or Twitter, I was subjected to dozens of little charts and diagrams and maps making the We’re the Smart Party, They’re the Dumb Party claim, all by people who showed no evidence of being able to recognize something as patently phony as the graph presented here – in fact, it is more often than not the same people proposing *both* political and PC propaganda graphs.

Here, to put it bluntly, are people who by their own words and actions have proven themselves utterly incompetent to judge even the most trivial claims made in the name of science – yet they feel qualified to call other people stupid, AND are the people who tell pollsters they ‘believe in science’.

And they vote.

(If I get a chance, I’ll treat a few of the more insidious charts and graphs in the future.)

Science Headline: Oh, Come ON!

This may take some sort of prize:

Astronomers find super-Earth with climate like ours, say it’s due to planet’s night-day cycle

Let’s list the problems with this headline, here:

1. ‘Find’ and ‘Find evidence suggesting maybe…’ are categorically different claims. It may be crass and unsophisticated of me to point this out, but it’s different enough to constitute a *lie*.  Put another way: a wife noticing a red smudge on her hubby’s collar has found evidence suggesting maybe; this is categorically different than catching him in bed with the nanny.

2. Climate like ours? Setting aside the insurmountable difficulties in saying much of ANYTHING about a planet whose very existence is only inferred (well-inferred, but still) from wiggles and anomalies in a series of very tricky observations, we don’t know if it’s a mini-gas giant or a ball of rock 7 times* the size of earth, or something else entirely. A guess at its mass is about all we can reasonably make at this point. Does it even *have* an atmosphere? We don’t know! So, speculation on the climate this cipher might have, if in fact it is a big heavy rock with an atmosphere like ours (‘like’ being a bit vague as well) – it does strain credulity. It’s kissing cousins with lying.

3. Night-day cycles. Riiiight. So, we’re now guessing that, because this planet is both large enough and far enough away from its sun or any other large masses that could slow and lock its rotation a la Mercury or the moon (these are two things – mass and distance from the star – that scientists can reasonable at least guess at) it has a day and a night, ignoring the question of it those days and night, if they exist at all, have a reasonable period. If it’s spinning like a top, with 2 hour days, or spinning so slow as to have week-long days, that would make it hard for life as we know it: thousand-mile-an-hour winds in case 1, total freeze followed by total melt down in case 2.

Why they would assume a reasonable rotational period, I’m not sure – planets larger than earth that we know of – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – all have ‘unreasonable ‘ rotational periods – something to do with the conservation of angular momentum as they congealed.  We’re not even sure how the earth, after its presumed collision with a Mars-sized body 3 – 4 billion years ago, ended up spinning as fast as it does, with the axis tilt it has (axis tilt being another major factor in climate). and earth’s rotation is slowing down due to drag from the moon.  So, the reasonable expectation is that this planet spins too fast, making for violent weather and making it very hard for your average 1 ton person (at 7 Gs) to stand up.

Bad Science headline! Bad!

* Planet was 4-5 times the mass of earth yesterday. Seems to be putting on the weight. Oh, well, it’s *only* Science!

Current Weather Events Cause Reexamination of Position on Climate Change

OK, so, despite the constant assertion that weather does not equal climate, it seems the climate change enthusiast pool is now packed cheek to jowl with people who have jumped in due to recent weather. I feel compelled to add my 2 cents, and perhaps a little chlorine.

Out here in Northern California, we have had a couple decades of unusual weather – unusually mild. Oh, yea, it rained a bit more than we’re used to back in ’05 – I believe a couple single-day rainfall records were set – but, overall, winters have been mild, summers have had, if anything, fewer of those annoying 100F+ days where you almost have to turn on the air conditioning until night comes and it cools off.  Other than that – hey, it’s California! Read those weather forecasts, and weep, you rest-of-the-country people. (Then read about our home prices, Hollywood bozos and politicians, and have one of those little chuckles at our expense.)

Therefore, in the totally scientific manner exemplified by the Sandy Proves Global Warming crowd, based on my direct experience with unusual weather events, I’m going to go with: nah. Things are cool. No worries.

It’s Science! Right? Right?

Understanding Today’s Feast Seems Harder than it Needs to Be

Today is the Feast of  the Dedication of the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran – St. John Lateran for short. This feast is celebrated by Roman Catholics the world over.  I think this is a feast that we American Catholics really need today, which is why it seems common for us to go out of our way to not get it.  For example, at today’s services, the mandatory comments were made about us being the church, not some building. Living stones, and all that. Which is of course correct, and totally shallow in this context. Looking to the Liturgy and the readings for today we find the answer to the question: Given that we are the living stones in Christ’s Church, why is the dedication of a physical building an important feast in the Church?

The Incarnation changed everything. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Incarnation revealed to us dense humans what the created Universe is really like – The Incarnation is the apex and fullness of Creation, the ultimate expression of the ensoulment  of all things, that God is bodied forth in His Creation for us and in us. This mystery of the workings of body and soul, of God and Man, is Sacramental.

Church building are sacraments – physical signs by which God gives grace. This grace-giving is true in two senses: First, the capital ‘S’ Sacraments are celebrated in the church building, so that the building becomes the occasion  and physical focus for their graces. Second, as holy ground set apart and the expression of the finest art and material we can offer, the church building itself uniquely raises our hearts and minds to God, helping us to open up to His graceful touch.

Historically, this feast brings to mind the end of the persecution of the Church under the Romans in 313, when Constantine both issued the edict of Milan and donated the palace and lands of the Laterani family (seized by the empire under Nero) to the Pope. So, the conversion of the palace’s basilica  into a now-legal church was a huge milestone for Christianity – they could publicly and legally celebrate Mass in Rome.

What this meant to those Christians is captured in the readings for this Feast: That God’s life flows from His Temple, that “the most High has sanctified his own dwelling” and that Jesus himself calls the temple “my Father’s house”.  They and we are invited to see this beautiful building, the mother church of Rome and all Roman Catholic churches everywhere, as a sign that gives grace, as a very particular and special sacrament.

Aside: somewhere, in fact multiple somewheres, people will no doubt sing ‘Sing a New Church’ and ‘What Is This Place?‘ today for this feast. The Baby Jesus will weep.