February 2005, Part 3
Jim Miller on Politics
California = West Coast: Every once in a while you hear a slip from a media star that reveals something about their world view. This morning, I heard Katie Couric talk about the torrential rains hitting the "West Coast". Well, yes and no. Rain has been hitting California, but if Couric takes a look at a map of the United States, she will see that there are three other states on the west coast (not counting Hawaii). I don't know how much I can say about the weather here without losing my status as a native Washingtonian, so I will just mention that, as usual, the weather here is different from that in Southern California.
Couric isn't the only media star I have heard make this error. And it is, I must admit, understandable. For them, California, especially Hollywood, is the West Coast. (And I suspect that New York City comes close to being the Northeast for them, too.)
Though understandable, the slip also helps explain why our "mainstream" media is so out of touch with much of the public. Most of the time, they don't even see most of the country.
- 4:28 PM, 21 February 2005 [link]
Yesterday Was The 60th Anniversary of the American landing on Iwo Jima, which began one of the most intense battles in all of World War II. Historian Arthur Herman thinks that Iwo Jima still has lessons for free nations.
Yet even this valor and sacrifice is not the full story of what Iwo Jima means, or what Rosenthal's immortal photograph truly symbolizes. The lesson of Iwo Jima is in fact an ancient one, going back to Machiavelli: that sometimes free societies must be as tough and unrelenting as their enemies. Totalitarians test their opponents by generating extreme conditions of brutality and violence; in those conditions--in the streets and beheadings of Fallujah or on the beach and in the bunkers of Iwo Jima--they believe weak democratic nerves will crack. This in turn demonstrates their moral superiority: that by giving up their own decency and humanity they have become stronger than those who have not.At Iwo Jima, American Marines proved, at immense cost, that they were as strong as their Japanese enemies. In capturing the island, the Marines suffered almost 20,000 casualties, of whom nearly 7,000 died. (Nearly all the 22,000 Japanese soldiers on the island died. The Wikipedia article says that just 200 prisoners were taken.)
Reverend Sensing explains why the battle was so bloody in this post, which includes photographs of the horrendous conditions in which the Marines fought. Zell Miller speculates on how the battle would be covered by today's media.
(Iwo Jima means "sulfur island", so it would be a mistake to say the "Iwo Jima island", or something similar, a mistake I am sure I have made at one time or another. It seems oddly appropriate that such a hellish battle should take place on an island that once had a sulfur mine.
By the way, if you do not read Reverend Sensing regularly, you miss many great posts. Just below the post on Iwo Jima is this post on a Muslim scholar's view of Islamism, and just above is this post on how Iraqi election officials honored the Marines who have died in this war. Both are worth your time.)
- 10:29 AM, 20 February 2005 [link]
Ian Duncan Smith, the former leader of the Conservative Party in Great Britain makes a familiar argument.
For decades the national conversation in most western countries has been directed by a few talking heads. Newspapers play important roles but all the evidence suggests that broadcasters have possessed the greatest potential to frame public debate. British politicians have known that communicating their message depends upon getting the nod from a small number of powerful figures in the broadcast media.Or at least familiar if you read this site. In January, I argued that first talk radio and now bloggers (often working together) had broken the "mainstream" media control of the national agenda. As I understand it, there is no direct equivalent in Britain to America's talk radio, so bloggers there will have to do more. And I have every reason to expect that they will.
As in the United States, I expect that the rise of British bloggers will strengthen what I call populist conservatives, people who want to take control away from elites in pursuit of mostly conservative causes. And I expect the same reaction from the metropolitan elites there, as we have seen here; they will try to move decisions out of electoral politics and into the courts and the bureaucracy, especially the bureaucracy of the European Union.
- 9:22 AM, 20 February 2005 [link]
The Baseball Crank Dissects Jimmy Carter's Bad Habit, saving me the trouble of doing the same. Which bad habit? Undermining later presidents by unauthorized diplomacy.
It's time for another episode of "let's make an important distinction here."We elect one president at a time. I can understand why Jimmy Carter would still be unhappy that we voters tossed him out in 1980. But we did, and it is long past time for him to accept that. His private negotiations ever since may not make him a "treasonous prick", but they are unacceptable — at least for those who believe that defeated politicians should accept the will of the voters. Some may even be illegal, but I will leave to lawyers the discussion of whether Carter has violated the Logan Act.
I especially object to his efforts to undermine George H. W. Bush's efforts to put together a coalition in the first Gulf War. Carter had every right to oppose Bush's policies openly, but he should not have been privately writing to other world leaders urging them to oppose Bush. (For what it is worth, Howard Dean backed Bush then, or at least now says he does.) Even worse, as far as consequences go, may have been Carter's showboating diplomacy with North Korea where he sabotaged Clinton's efforts to impose UN sanctions. If you have followed the news recently, you'll notice that Carter's agreement didn't exactly fix the problem of North Korean nukes.
(It is common to describe Carter as a complete failure as president but a success as ex-president. I disagree with both, giving him some credit as president and many debits as ex-president.)
- 7:53 AM, 19 February 2005 [link]
Can't Say There's Any Great Political Lesson in this story.
Two former employees of the Gorilla Foundation, home to Koko the "talking" ape, have filed a lawsuit contending that they were ordered to bond with the 33-year-old female simian by displaying their breasts.But it's so weird that I just have to pass it on. And I haven't a clue as to what might have motivated Patterson — assuming the story is true.
I have always had my doubts about the more extreme claims made for Koko, and this story doesn't do anything to decrease those doubts.
- 7:24 AM, 19 February 2005 [link]
Beta Blockers And Classical Musicians: I've had much to say critical of NPR (and will probably have more today), but I do hear stories on the local NPR station, KUOW, that I don't hear anywhere else. (Along with a fair amount of pretentious music, which seems intended more for the staff than for the listeners.)
And this story is an example; a few days ago I learned from NPR that classical musicians often suffer from performance anxiety, what most of us would call stage fright. This came as a bit of surprise to me, since they typically perform in public from an early age. I would have thought that musicians who could not learn to cope would be eliminated in the competition. Apparently not. Or perhaps the competition is so fierce at the top levels that many musicians who could handle performance anxiety at lower levels can not at higher levels.
And so a significant number of classical musicians have turned to heart medicines to control their anxiety. Beta blockers have many approved uses.
One reference lists 29 different uses, including high blood pressure, angina, irregular heart rhythms, migraines, prevention of a second heart attack, tremors, alcohol withdrawal, anxiety and glaucoma.But curing stage fright is not among them. This does not mean that doctors can not prescribe beta blockers for stage fright, since the FDA allows doctors to prescribe drugs for any condition where scientific studies show the drug might help. And there are studies that show that beta blockers help for that condition.
How many? A 1986 study found that 27 percent of musicians in major U.S. symphony orchestras admitted to taking beta blockers, though some of those take them, in whole or part, for a heart condition.
There are sometimes, I should note, bad effects on the music, or at least some of the musicians who have used the medicines think so. Some believe that the drugs calm them down too much and make their music flat and unemotional.
I'm not sure what to make of this. We accept many psychoactive drugs without much thought. I've just finished my morning coffee, which was not decaffeinated. Many people across the world smoke for the effects of nicotine. And the use of alcohol to change moods (including reducing anxiety) is millennia old. Whether the beta blockers are "worse" in some sense than these more traditional drugs is something for experts on drugs to answer, not me.
Learning this will change how I watch classical musicians. Those that seem abnormally calm will make me wonder, just a bit.
- 9:27 AM, 18 February 2005 [link]
The Name Of Author Is Enough Of A Hint: Or should have been, but the Seattle PI published this column from "Just Insane" anyway. And that's a fair description of the argument, which simultaneously attacks Bush for increasing benefits for service men and women — and attacks Bush for earlier cutting benefits for them (something that did not happen).
And if the name wasn't enough of a hint, "Just Insane's" affiliations — assuming they are correct — should have settled the matter. He (she?) is said to be the "lead singer of Anti-Flag and board member of Underground Action Alliance.org and Punk Voter.com".
I might not have mentioned Mr. (Ms.?) Insane's contribution had I not had an interesting exchange with the PI's editorial page editor, Mark Trahant. He seemed genuinely hurt when I pointed out that the Seattle PI does not have a full time employee, who is a moderate or a conservative, writing on politics. But it's true.
(Sometimes I almost wonder whether the Seattle papers are run by people directed to cut circulation. It seem completely implausible, but it is hard to explain some of the editorial choices otherwise.)
- 5:45 AM, 18 February 2005 [link]
Yesterday, I argued that, quite often, you can't trust professors. Garin K. Hovannisian, a student at UCLA, illustrates my argument with this description of UCLA history professor Mary Corey.
I was prepared for her to be some former hippie who obscures the line between her academic freedom and mine. And I knew I was in for some Bush-bashing, but I'd learned to let it slide in its smaller doses. As a second-year history student, I thought I would give the course a shot despite my apprehensions.She's not a historian; she's a propagandist. I have no objection to that, but I can not see why taxpayers should support her efforts.
And it isn't obvious that she has done much serious research. She's a lecturer at UCLA, as far as I can tell, which is not much for someone who attended college in the 1960s. I did a few simple searches and couldn't find any evidence of research achievements other than a popular book on the New Yorker magazine. I don't think she's a Ward Churchill, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she has her current position because of her radical views.
- 2:12 AM, 17 February 2005 [link]
Softball Questions At Presidential Conferences: As I said in this post, partisan questions are not new in presidential news conferences. Nor do they come only from those who sympathize with Republicans. Tim Graham has a few examples from a single Clinton press conference. It is hard to pick just one, but I think I like this one from John Harris of the Washington Post best.
"Sir, George Stephanopoulos has written a book that contain — contains some tough and fairly personal criticism of you. Earlier, Dick Morris had written a somewhat similar book. How much pain do these judgments by former aides cause you? And do you consider it a betrayal for people to write books on the history of your administration while you're still in office?"Some of us might be interested in hearing Clinton's replies to the charges from Stephanopoulos and Morris, but not John Harris.
The timing of the press conference that inspired such questions is significant. It was held March 19, 1999. It was, Graham says, the first press conference after the Senate failed to convict Clinton and the first since "Juanita Broaddrick charged on the February 24 edition of NBC's Dateline that Clinton had raped her in 1978". Only one journalist, Sam Donaldson, asked about that charge, and no journalist asked a follow up question.
Like Graham, I can't get very excited about the fact that "Jeff Gannon" of Talon News asked a softball question or two of President Bush.
- 10:16 AM, 17 February 2005 [link]
Here's An Amusing Switch: For decades, feminists have attacked opponents of day care as "old white guys" who didn't understand what women wanted. Now, a Conservative MP in Canada, Rona Ambrose, has used the same ploy to make the opposite argument.
Ambrose made the comments in the House on Tuesday after an exchange with Social Development Minister MP Ken Dryden about a national day-care policy.Surveys that I have seen show that most American women would rather stay at home when their children are very young. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many Canadian women shared that view, although the idea seems to astonish the reporter, Kate Dubinski.
(For hockey fans: Yes, this Ken Dryden is the longtime goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens. Whether winning six Stanley Cups qualifies him to make policy on daycare centers is a question I will leave to our Canadian friends to decide.)
- 9:56 AM, 17 February 2005 [link]
Yesterday Was As Clear as it gets in this area, and the views of Mt. Rainier, and from Mt. Rainier, were spectacular. As I worked up from the Paradise parking lot, Mt Adams popped up over the Tatoosh ridge.
And I cranked up the telephoto to get this picture of another famous Washington volcano.
It was a little hazier in that direction, but you can still see some of the crater.
(Mt. Adams is 12,276 feet high and about 45 miles from Rainier, a little east of due south. Mt. St. Helens is 8,635 feet high and about 40 miles from Rainier, a little west of due south.
Cross country skiers and snow boarders may want to know that the snow was mostly excellent yesterday, just enough powder for easy skiing in most places. Some of the ridges had places where sun had added a glazed crust, but even it was thin enough so that you could ski there without too much trouble.)
- 5:30 AM, 17 February 2005 [link]
And Now To Make Ski Tracks while the sun shines. Back later today, perhaps with some new pictures of Mt. Rainier.
- 9:11 AM, 16 February 2005 [link]
While Researching the previous post, I came across this book review by Bruce Ramsey, which begins with another fallacy, and a particularly unpleasant one.
Michelle Malkin argues in "In Defense of Internment" that the World War II imprisonment of 112,000 ethnic Japanese, 70 percent of them citizens, was done out of military necessity. The book, by a former Seattle Times editorial columnist, has raised a clamor. Former Seattle City Councilman Charlie Chong denounced it in the Northwest Asian Weekly, saying that he didn't intend to read it because he didn't want to contribute to the author's purse.That last paragraph is, I would say, just a little irresponsible. Ramsey implies that Malkin came to her views because of her race, but then notes she opposes claims on based on race. So he is simultaneously insinuating two nasty things about her, that she makes these arguments only because she comes from a Filipino family, and that she is being inconsistent with her principles. Does Ramsey have the slightest bit of evidence for these insinuations? No.
I should add that, with just a quick glance or two, I found other things to object to in the review. For instance, I don't think that "suffered at the hands of the Japanese" really captures the horror of the Japanese occupation. And saying that a Pearl Harbor attacker was "befriended" by Japanese Americans in Hawaii is deceptive. The pilot had landed on the small island of Niihau and been captured. He escaped with the help of a Nisei named Harada, and the two then proceeded to terrorize the inhabitants. "Befriended" is not how I would describe those events.
(Ramsey is something of a puzzle, at least to me. His columns on local government often make acute criticisms of local government policies from a libertarian perspective. His columns on foreign policy remind me of the isolationist American First organization that did so much to prevent us from aiding those who were trying to stop Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. I am particularly troubled by some of his attacks on Israel, which are hard to explain on any rational ground. It is strange that a man who is so rational on local matters could be so irrational on foreign policy.)
- 9:04 AM, 16 February 2005 [link]
When Can We Trust Professors? In September, I read this column by Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times attacking Michelle Malkin's controversial book, In Defense of Internment.
The argument over the book didn't interest me much, but the decision making rule that Westneat used did.
Her thesis is that some Japanese Americans were spies and so the racial profiling was justified.Westneat is appealing to authority, specifically academic authority. Anyone who has studied logical fallacies knows that an appeal to authority* is one of the common kinds of fallacies. It is fallacious to simply argue that "such and such is true because an authority says it is true".
At the same time, we all must, to some extent, rely on authorities. Courts commonly take testimony from expert witnesses to establish the truth on some matter not known to the average person. And when they take the testimony, they usually begin by establishing that the expert is, in fact, an authority. But even in trials, the experts usually do not ask us to simply accept their word; instead, they try to explain their arcane knowledge to us.
What authorities, including college professors, can do is tell us what is probably true — in some cases. What I will outline for you is how I decide whether to trust college professors as authorities, beginning with the easy cases and ending with Westneat's example.
Let me begin with the easiest case of all. A professor can testify to the truth of something only if that truth has been established. Mathematicians have known for millennia that an angle can not be trisected or a circle squared using the simple tools allowed in old fashioned geometry classes, a a straightedge and compass. (You can do these constructions with a ruler and compass, by the way.) Conversely, there is no grand unifying theory in physics, so no physics professor, however eminent, can testify to its truth.
Almost as easy is the requirement of the correct specialization. It is common for math professors to devise proofs that only a few hundred other math professors can follow, so strong is the specialization in that field. And the same is true, usually to a lesser extent, in every academic field I am familiar with. Despite this, we sometimes see biologists posing as experts in climate change, or physicists telling us the potential of stem cell research. We should take such arguments no more seriously than we take the same argument from any other intelligent person.
And quite easy in principle, though not always in practice, is the requirement that the professor reflect the consensus, if there is one, in his field. There are geologists, though not many, with PhDs from respectable institutions who believe that the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. Because they have credentials, they might be allowed to testify in court, but the opposing counsel, if they are any good at all, would quickly establish that their views are shared by few other geologists.
Now we get to somewhat harder cases. Let me start with an obvious point, but one often forgotten. Professors are human, and being human, have human faults. Some cheat in their research. Many more simply make mistakes. And the mistakes may not be detected for many years. Margaret Mead's influential study, Coming of Age in Samoa can best be explained by a combination of cheating and errors. Yet it influenced anthropologists for decades, and does so even now, though Derek Freeman demolished it in his book, Margaret Mead and Samoa.
And, being human, professors will sometimes tell the public what they think the public wants to hear in order to get funding. That's how I explain the success of the campaign to fund the superconducting super collider, begun during the Reagan and administration and cancelled during the Clinton administration. Particle physicists wanted to find the Higgs boson, but that wasn't how they justified the project to the public. (I never could decide whether I favored the project. I do love basic research and even big science, but is was never clear to me that the SCSC was the best use of our money.)
Something similar seems to have happened with embryonic stem cell research. Those pushing it (and extracting billions from the taxpayers) are promising cures for many diseases. But to date, embryonic stem cells have had little success in actually curing anyone of anything. That's in contrast to adult stem cells, as Michael Fumento keeps reminding us. I believe that biologists have been pushing embryonic stem cell research in part for reasons similar to the physicists who wanted to find the Higgs boson, not because they expect their discoveries to be of practical use, but because both lines of research touch on deep theoretical questions.
When professors come looking for money, we should be skeptical of what they say, just as we should be skeptical of anyone else who wants to dip into the public purse.
Still more difficult cases come from the politicization of so many fields. The sad story of sociologist James Coleman, important in itself, also illustrates that problem. Jim Lindgren tells part of the story here:
As part of my Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be among James Coleman's last students. At one time or another in his long career, Coleman had been the leading practitioner of several subfields in Sociology: educational sociology, mathematical sociology, and rational choice sociology. In the 1960s Coleman did some of the first large-scale, well designed educational studies. When his early results seemed to find positive effects for school integration, he was lionized by the profession. But just a few years later, when his data started showing problems with the educational effects of busing, he was vilified. Although I never heard exactly what was done to him, Chicago faculty members told me that he was "basically thrown out" of the American Sociological Association (ASA), perhaps analogous to what Ms. Samuel has proposed for Condoleeza Rice. I don't take the claims that Coleman was thrown out literally; probably nothing more was done than open insults, shunning, and expressions that he was not welcome anymore.Let me add a little more to the account. Years ago, I actually looked at some of the evidence that Coleman (and others) found for the positive effects of integration on learning. I thought the evidence weak — not necessarily wrong, but inconclusive, because I thought there were other possible explanations** for the data. I suspect, though I have never looked at those studies, that his findings on busing were stronger. And there was another finding in his original study that has held up very well over the years — but has been almost completely ignored. What Coleman found was that students learn more from smarter teachers, specifically teachers who scored higher on tests of verbal ability.
So we have three findings from the same man. The first delighted sociologists, the second appalled sociologists, and the third was ignored by sociologists. Coleman's evidence had nothing to do with those three reactions; the political consequences had everything to do with them. Could we have trusted the consensus of sociologists then? Obviously not. And I can think of many similar examples, though few with such troubling consequences.
Finally, the most difficult of all are those cases in which academics win appointments because of their race or sex. I'll let Paul Campos, a liberal law professor who supports affirmative action explain:
Over the past few days I've been bombarded with e-mails regarding the Ward Churchill scandal. Many have expressed astonishment at how someone like Churchill could have been hired in the first place, let alone tenured and made chair of a department.Academics know the answer because they know that the universities are full of such people, often in departments with "studies" in their names, but also in more traditional departments, definitely including history. People such as Ward Churchill have the trappings of authority, but not the substance.
Almost as difficult are those cases in which academics win positions because of their political views. Though Campos does not discuss it, it is no secret on campuses that some departments hire only those on the far left, and that political views, not professional competence, are what determine which applicants are hired. Such professors are usually not legitimate authorities, either.
So, let's put this all together for Westneat. Is his appeal to authority a legitimate argument? Should we assume that Malkin's book is flawed because "39 historians and researchers" say so? No. We would have to know that these academics had the right specialties, something Westneat does not discuss. More important, we would have to know that their critique was not motivated by politics — something that can not be assumed, especially in fields as politicized as history. My own reaction to Westneat's claim, for what it is worth, was to give a little more credence to Malkin. That a gang of (leftwing?) historians were attacking her did not prove she was right, but did give me one more small reason to think she might be.
That's a harsh conclusion, but not one I shrink from. And I understand the implications of my argument. I really am saying that there are many professors who, to borrow Speaker Reed's pungent phrase, seldom speak or write without "subtracting from the sum of human knowledge". I really am saying that there are entire departments that make us worse off, net. There may even be entire areas of study that do damage, net. Need an example? Middle East Studies, possibly. Certainly Michigan Professor Juan Cole has been trying hard to convince me of that. For examples, see here, here, and here.
From time to time I have mentioned that I believe that our universities desperately need reform. That we have many professors that we can not trust is one reason I think so, but not the only reason. I'll come back to that reason, and to other reasons our universities need reform in future posts.
(*It is an old enough error to have a Latin name, argumentum ad verecundiam. You can find discussions of the error here and here.
**As I recall, Coleman's argument on the positive effects of integration went something like this: Students in schools dominated by middle class students tended to learn more, after you had controlled for the obvious things like family background. Since only a minority of blacks were then middle class, you could improve the educational achievement of black kids by mixing them with white kids, who were predominately middle class. It is not an implausible argument even now, but it is not hard to think of alternative explanations for the same data.)
- 7:59 AM, 16 February 2005 [link]
TalkLeft Added: I have been looking for civilized sites on the left to add to my blogroll and think I have found one in TalkLeft, which offers:
Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice newsWhy would I want to read such sites? Several reasons. First, I think the distance between right and left in this country is trivial compared to the difference between most of us and our Islamist enemies. Second, as someone who studies political tactics, I like to know what all the factions are thinking. Third, if I should be wrong about some point — and it does happen — I am more likely to learn that from someone who disagrees with me than someone who agrees with me.
The requirement that the site be civilized is more of a constraint than you may realize, if you don't spend much time at some of the most popular leftwing sites. I don't claim that this obscene post at Daily Kos is typical of the posts there or at similar leftwing sites, but in my experience such "arguments" aren't unusual at those sites. And you'll notice if you go there that most of the commenters approve.
(The post is signed "Sue in NH". Like many, she is so accustomed to using the "f" word as an obscenity, she forgets its literal meaning. "Sue in NH" is, literally, asking Republicans to make love to her, which I don't think is what she intends.)
- 10:38 AM, 15 February 2005 [link]
Remember The Pythagorean Theorem? Not everyone at the New York Times does, as you can see from this correction.
The Keeping Score column in SportsSunday on Jan. 23, about a mathematical formula for projecting the winner of the Super Bowl, misstated the application of the Pythagorean theorem, which the formula resembles. The theorem determines the length of the third side of a right triangle when the length of the two other sides is known; it is not used to determine the sum of the angles in a right triangle.The math minded will find the description of the error amusing, since the sum of the angles in a right triangle is the same as the sum of the angles in any triangle — at least in normal Euclidean space.
The public editor at the Times, Daniel Okrent, did admit, quite recently, that journalists had trouble with math.
Hat tip to Power Line.
(If like at least a few employees of the New York Times, you need a review of the Pythagorean theorem, here are some geometric proofs. And here's an informal (all right, very informal) animated proof that's fun to watch.)
- 10:08 AM, 15 February 2005 [link]
Woman Speaks After Twenty Years: From the Medpundit I learned that doctors are not very good at predicting what will happen to patients in a coma. And from time to time, you read stories like this one that illustrate her argument.
For 20 years, Sarah Scantlin has been mostly oblivious to the world around her — the victim of a drunken driver who struck her down as she walked to her car. Today, after a remarkable recovery, she can talk again.Sarah was 18 when she was hit, and has not grasped how much time has passed, so her request for more makeup should not surprise anyone.
She has been communicating with eye blinks, but began speaking in January on her own when a therapist was working with another patient in her room.
No one expects her to make a full recovery, but then no one expected her to speak again, either.
- 6:11 AM, 15 February 2005
More: I should not have implied that Sarah Scantlin was in a coma, at least not in recent years. But I think the main point, that doctors are not very good at predicting recovery after extensive brain damage, holds.
- 10:13 AM, 15 February 2005 [link]
Late Yesterday Afternoon, I couldn't log on to my service provider, Seanet. Don't know what the problem was yet, but it did delay several posts.
- 5:09 AM, 15 February 2005 [link]