Thursday, October 20, 2011

Josh Marshall wins the internet

Yeah yeah I know "dog bites man" but this post is for the ages


What if you ran for president to boost your book sales numbers and somehow found yourself the frontrunner for the nomination even though you'd never set up an actual campaign? Ask Herman Cain.

Because of the title.

Satire is dead.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Comment on Drum on the 60 vote Senate

Kevin Drum wrote

Like it or not, the reality of congressional politics has changed. The Senate is now a 60-vote body, and it's the vote on a cloture motion that's the important vote. For all practical purposes, the cloture vote is the vote on the bill. So my complaint would be just the opposite of Fallows's. Instead of insisting on a Schoolhouse Rock version of reporting, I'd prefer it if the media routinely reported on the actual reality of legislation today. If you want to report accurately, you should (a) report the cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself, (b) you should make clear that 60 votes are required to pass a bill, and (c) you should report the partisan breakdown of the voting — something that used to be routine but now only occasionally appears in reports of legislative activity.

Bottom line: The real-life practice of politics in America has changed over the past decade. Reporting should change along with it.

Note that he says the key votes to be reported are not votes on the bill itself but on cloture motions. His proposal is not to change reporting as reality changes (so to use "Cloture motion" in the place of "bill," but rather to use the word for the event which used to occur but didn't in this case to refer to the other thing which happened in this case.

They have to report on votes on Cloture motions, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't say they are reporting on cloture motions. Would Drum think it OK to say the Senate voted against a banana ? Why not talk about what happened using the word for what happened rather than a nice familiar word which happens to refer to something which didn't happen ?

At his blog, I have a long comment which I cut and paste below.

I vaguely recall some poll which demonstrated that most US adults don't know that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster.
26% correctly answered 60.

However, I agree with Fallows on the specific matter. I think the headline should have included the word "cloture" or "filibuster." I think all headlines of all articles which report on cloture votes and or filibusters should include the word "cloture" or the word "filibuster."I'd even contest your claim that your position is that reporting should change. Political reporters are now reporting cloture votes not votes to pass the bill. Yet they use the same old words. Most of our fellow citizens demonstrably do not know that the way the Senate (dis) functions has changed. Political reporters have failed to report the breaking news that the Senate fundamentally changed in January 2007. This isn't new but it is still news to most US adults. It should be reported until the public knows about it. That means people should be confronted with ugly words which they don't understand so that some of them will learn what the words mean and what has been done to their republic.

I understand that your aim was to argue exactly what I have argued. But I think that avoiding the words "cloture" and "filibuster" is not the way to teach people that they are the keys to understanding official Washington's failure to function in 2009 and 2010. It would be better to avoid the words "bill", "pass" and "approve." These are old concepts which are rarely useful these days. They should be used rarely while filibuster and cloture should be used often.

Do you think someone should say he was late to work because the roads were packed with carriages or say that the roads were packed with Chariots ?
Second post on Drum on Filibusters

(this is not a filibuster -- no one has to read all this junk before they can decide something)

Druum advocates reporting votes on cloture as votes on the bill. Basically he opposes "tediously explaining the evolution of the filibuster in every story, something that probably isn't really practical anyway,"

I throw a cow below.

I haven't read all the comments to your first post on Fallows and the Senate 60. I am here to cut and paste my comment to my personal blog. I note that the post was also condemned at Balloon Juice

I don't think the post was poorly expressed. I think you are giving substantively bad advice to journalists. My problem with this post is identical to my problem with the earlier post. You accept the principle that if something is not new, then it is not news. I consider this principle to be inconsistent with responsible journalism. I think a fact is news if it is important and most people don't know it. It is simply a fact that most US adults don't know the rules of the Senate. Therefore, it should be reported as news.

I support "tediously explaining the evolution of the filibuster in every story, something that probably isn't really practical anyway," It certainly is practical. Yes it would cost ink and paper, but the space could be found by removing some horse raice, political strategy, and perceptions of public perceptions garbage. Also the Washington Post is not People or Playboy. Entertaining the reader is not supposed to be its only goal.

I will give an example of the sort of journalism which I want. Bakc in the 80s a poll showed that a small fraction of US adults knew that the Reagan administration supported the government in El Salvador and the rebels in Nicaragua. The New York Times then began writing about "the US supported government of El Salvador" and "the US supported contra rebels in Nicaraugua". The second phrase slid over the detail that, some years, such support was banned by Congress (it identified the US government with the Reagan administration). But the point is that a fact which should be but wasn't well known was reported again and again.

I think the problem with both posts is that you assume that an undesirable feature of journalism is how things must be. So you just accept the journalistic attention span such that an fact, however important it might be, is not reported and reported and reported for years until the public knows it.
The WaPo was certainly following the standard norms of journalism wihen it failed to report that the latest Republican filibuster was one more example of extraordinary and (I think) unprecedented obstructionism. But your commenters object to those standard norms of journalism. Replying that journalism we advocate would be "tedious" just doesn't do it. nor does "probably not practical." If it is not practical, you are right, but you present no evidence for your claim nor any sign of careful thought. You just note that that is not the way it is done. But we argued that it is the way it should be done. This post does not reply to our argument. It doesn't even engage our argument.

But enough about you. I think the posts are related to four problems with US journalism (except for that exception). Journalists are afraid of irritating readers by patrnonizing them, journalists are out of touch with normal people who follow the news only casually, journalists are aiming to impress other journalists by telling the other journalists something they don't know, and journalists assume that, while the general public is ignorant, their readers are well informed.

I consider the fourth. Here I note that newspapers can and should and don't test the idea that their readers are generally well informed already by polling their subscribers asking about beliefs on matters of fact.n Heeyyyy Mother Jones could do that. They could at least look up Pew polls which show they are wrong (maybe not if they work at the WaPo). But more importantly, they could remind their readers that lots of people don't know the facts and give them water cooler amunition. Most people learn about public affairs from friends. Journalists should consider the way in which their repeatedly reporting a fact makes it more likely that their well informed readers will mention it to people who don't read newspapers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I hate hate hate the new Thinkprogress format. I can't seem to comment on Yglesias.

He waved a red flag in front of this bull with a post on "The Copernican Revolution in Macroeconomics." I am too upset to read the part on macroeconomics, but I assert that his claims about Ptolomaic and Copernican astronomy are totally incorrect.

the Copernican Revolution in astronomy. Not the potted 7th grade story of linear progress, but the tale told in Thomas Kuhn’s somewhat revisionist book.

The way this went was as follows. Ptolemaic astronomy started with the observation that “the planets” (including the sun and the moon) seem to revolve around the earth. It assumed they moved in circular orbits, and made predictions based on that. As people bothered to pay attention, it became clear that this theory gives you the wrong predictions. So people developed the ad hoc concept of “epicycles.” The planets moved in circles-within-circles, with equations developed to account for the actual position of the planets. With more and more observations, the calculations became more and more complicated and a lot of people were unhappy with the increasingly messy picture. Then along comes Copernicus who as a young man had been involved in some neo-Platonist cults featuring sun-worship and a heliocentric worldview. He notes that if you reinterpret the heavens as centered around the sun, you can derive a considerably more parsimonious and theoretically elegant account of positions of various heavenly bodies. All the epicycles are gone! Victory.

Yglesias's final claim of fact is simply totally undeniably 100% false. Copernicus did not eliminate all epicycles. The Copernican model has epicycles.

Ask the Wikipedia

For philosophical reasons, Copernicus clung to the belief that all the orbits of celestial bodies must be perfect circles[2] and to a belief in the unobserved crystalline spheres. This forced Copernicus to retain the Ptolemaic system's complex system of epicycles, to account for the observed deviations from circularity and to square his calculations with observations.

Now that wasn't so hard was it ? I understand that it is hard to get the facts straight on a breaking story about what was published in a book in 1543, but I think that claims of fact should be accurate and if it is not worth botherin to get them right then it is not worth making them.

Furthermore, Ptolemaic astronomy started with Ptolemy who included epcicycles and much more complicated things. The claim made by Kuhn and many many others that Ptolemaic astronomy got more and more complicated is supported by absolutely zero primary evidence.

The unsupported claim is accepted as true, because it has been made in so many secondary sources, but there is no document from the time of Copernicus or earlier which demonstrates that Ptolemaic models were made more complicated after Ptolemy'ss original model. In contrast, there is evidence that Ptolemy's original model was used by Copernicus.

The claim that the Ptolemaic model was fiddled to fit the data, because the original model didn't work is not supported by any legitimate historical evidence.

I have not read the post after the quoted passage. I am too upset and afraid my head will explode.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Second post on One article in the Washington Post.

Using the uninverted pyramid approach, I will discuss something which actually matters this time. The last in first out feature of blogs helps.

The Washington Post had two articles on their latest poll. The first focused on the Presidential horse race. The second noted that US adults disapprove of congress and then went on to discuss other results. At the very end of the second article (the part I read only after writing an indignant post about standard errors) follows

Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on millionaires to help close the deficit enjoys wide public support — three-quarters of adults, including majorities of independents, moderates, conservatives and Republicans, back it.

Among the few groups that don’t favor such tax increases are Republicans who strongly support the tea party movement; they oppose the proposal by more than two to one.

This isn't news to anyone who pays attention to polls anymore, but it is more newsworthy than the observation that most US adults have noticed that Congress is not functioning. Importantly, opinion leaders don't pay any attention to polls even when discussing public opinion.

It is widely argued that Obama has decided to fire up the base with populist proposals which will increase turnout of Democrats and liberals but reduce his support among moderates and independents. In fact, his populist proposal is supported by a majority of self identified Republicans and conservatives. Obama is moving towards the center of public opinion. He is also firing up the base.

Paul Kane's and Scott Clement's understanding of statistics is essentially as low as possible.

They wrote

Only 3 percent of Americans said they “strongly approve” of the performance of lawmakers on Capitol Hill — essentially as low as possible, given the poll’s margin of error of four percentage points.

That is they said that mathematical statistics proves that we can't agree on anything. They definitely asserted that it is "essentially" impossible for 100% to agree on somethnig.

The problem is that pollsters have reported nonsense standard errors for so long that journalists have been convinced of something absurd.

In fact, the variance of the mean of a sample from a binomial distribution depends on the true probability -- in this case the fraction of the population which strongly approve of the performance of Congress. To be modest, pollsters always present the highest possible standard error corresponding to an evenly divided population. To be honest, I think they report the largest plausible standard errors due to sampling alone to hide the fact that poll responses deviate from actual voting for reasons other than sampling error.

In any case the standard error corresponding to 3% is 100% times the square root of (0.03*0.97/(smple size) or roughly 0.55%. The convention is to report a number plus or minus 2 standard errors so 3% plus or minus 1.1%. This would be a 95% interval if the distribution were normal. Using the normal approximation, one can reject the null that the true fraction of strong approvers of Congress is zero at the 95% level.

Of course if one has any sense at all, one rejects that nul at the 100% level not the 5% level, since some people said they strongly approve of Congress. The normal approximation works very well even for fairly small samples so long as the true probability is close to 0.5. Obviously it doesn't work whenever it gives an x% level which includes the hypothesis that no one in the population would say something which someone in the sample said.

But that is an advanced topic.

Next topic English. An obviously false statement is not made true by adding the qualifier "essentially." The fact is that some US adults strongly approve of our Congress. This is appalling, but they really exist. The word "essentially" was used to assert that this mere fact is negligible. This contempt for mere facticity reminds me of Hegel (them's fighting words where I come from).

Hegel did have a point. A historical movement can turn into its opposite. So the theory of statistics has become a way for some people to dismiss inconvenient data as "essentially" non-existent.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Who Said it

"The peace-at-any-price party would no doubt muster strong at the Congress. That party would fain leave Russia alone in the possession of the means to make war upon the rest of Europe,"

Who said it ?

"Everything for me and nothing for anyone else, for such is the vile maxim of the masters of mankind"

I really hate the new ThinkProgress format. For one thing, I can't comment on Matt Yglesias anywhere that anyone reads. I can't stand this.

Commenting here.

Now he's messing with Orwell. I agree entirely with this post which argues that language can't be neutral. Rather the decision by the MSM or establishment or whoever that some phrasing is neutral is, and must be, a political act. It is not possible to balance without a fulcrum.

However, he quotes Rorty criticizing Orwell. In theory, I believe that all writers should be criticized, but I can't let this pass without counterargument.

Critiquing George Orwell, Richard Rorty notes that in practice, newspeak tactics fail. “Ethnic cleansing” was developed by thugs during the Bosnian Civil War as a newspeak term that was supposed to replace “genocide” with a phrase (“cleansing”) that has positive affect. The practical impact was to turn “ethnic cleansing” into a chilling term that connotes genocide.

Rorty's argument is nonsense. The world is not Oceania. Rorty proved that attempted brainwashing fails if the people whose brains you intend to watch have a free press and free debate. Newspeak was enforced through terror. It was not a tool to convince people. Rather it was a tool to humiliate them. In 1984, Orwell didn't suggest that it would work without the thought police. Minitrue without Minilove was not considered in that book.

The above paragraph may be unfair to Rorty. The error is referring to abuse of language as Newspeak. This invokes 1984, which did not consider abuse of language separate from terror. The word "Newspeak" is not in quotation marks, so it might be Yglesias's error not Rorty's. Notably, the ethnic cleansers did not have total power over the debate concerning Bosnia. They didn't even in Serbia proper which, soon after the coining of "ethnic cleansing" set a new record for consecutive days of protest. The issue was the Belgrade municipal election. Milosovic is a depraved criminal, but even in his wildest dreams, he wasn't Big Brother.

The relevant work by Orwell is "Politics and the English Language." To claim that the case of "ethnic cleansing" disproves Orwell, Rorty must argue that the abuse of language discussed in "Politics and the English Language" is effective so the side that abuses language wins debates it should lose. But this has nothing to do with the actual essay. Orwell asserted that all sides abuse language. There was no prediction.

More importantly, Orwell didn't write much about the effectiveness of abuse of language in "Politics and the English Language." He described the abuse of language at length. He described damaging consequences for the thought of the speaker. I think he argued that people can manage to avoid thinking clearly by abusing language. I don't recall (I am analysing from memory) any claim that the listener or reader can be infected even if the listener tries to resist.

I can't recite the essay from memory and I might have missed something, but I don't recall anything contradicted by the case of "ethnic cleansing."