Mayan campaign mashup 2012: Hold it steady, hold it steady

2 11 2012

I’m off shortly to volunteer unloading and distributing relief supplies, an effort organized by the Red Hook Initiative, (and found through the Brokelyn website, via the Red Hook Recovers Twitter feed)—but before I go, a bit o’ political prognostication.

I think Barack Obama is going to win, both the popular and Electoral College votes, and by a comfortable margin. Not overwhelmingly, not a landslide, but with, say, more than 290 electoral votes.

And since I’m in a predicting frame of mind: The Dems retain the Senate, and while they pick up some seats in the House, Republicans will likely control that chamber.

I’m really going out on a limb, I know, but I’m usually allergic to predictions and this time I just feel so. . . calm about this.

This is not normal for me. I usually try to game the worst that could happen and prepare myself for that, partly because I genuinely believe the worst will happen, and partly as a hedging strategy: better to be pleasantly than unpleasantly surprised.

My new-found serenity may be due to an (over-)attentiveness to polling aggregators and explanations of Obama’s small-but-persistent edge by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight as well as by John Sides  and the folks at The Monkey Cage and Jonathan Bernstein at a plain blog about politics: they offer good probabilistic evidence for confidence in re-election.

Still, I’ve rarely let evidence get in the way of my neuroses before, so why the calm this time?

I dunno, I truly don’t. Maybe it’s the sense that even if Obama loses and we end up with President Romney (may those words never truly be joined), things will be worse than they’d have to be, but we’d survive. Hell, we’re still here after eight years of the thoughtless, careless George W. Bush as president, so would the empty privilege of Willard Mitt Romney destroy us? No.

Anyway, since I’ve been quietly confident of the president’s re-election for some time, it seemed only right that I put it out there—if only to take my licks if I’m wrong.

But this time, this time I think it’s going to be all right.





Mayan campaign mashup 2012: Twisting round to make me think you’re straight down the line

14 08 2012

Let’s play pundit!

C’mon, it’s easy: Just take a stray thought (either your own or one you overheard standing in line for coffee or maybe from that always-wise taxi-driver) and expand it into a Theory of Everything, alternate wrinkling your brow with raising your eyebrows, slip in a cliche or two to assure your audience that you’re not straying too far from the reservation [see what I did there?]—and don’t forget at some point to say, “Look, . . .” And if you can, work in a hand gesture to emphasize your insights; it also helps to sell your sincerity.

Here we go:

“I think one angle which has been neglected is the question of comfort. Mitt Romney is a famously disciplined man, so is it any surprise that he would choose another man with a reputation for discipline? Ryan has, rightly or wrongly, the reputation of a man willing to do the heavy-lifting on arcane budget matters and to make the tough decisions. He’s also known for his punishing workout routine.

“Ryan also knows how to stay on message—a terrifically important factor to the machine that is the Romney campaign. Romney has to know that his running mate will reinforce his message, not step all over it, or, as President Obama once said about Joe Biden, ‘get out over his skis’.

“Romney could have chosen someone who contrasted with his image, someone like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie’s blunt talk would have served him well in the traditional attack-dog role assigned to vice presidents, and I think not a few journalists following the campaign would look forward to the jousts between the let-‘er-rip vice-presidential candidates.

“But it is precisely that let’s-wing-it approach to politics which likely put Romney off Christie. And, let’s face it, that Christie is overweight could be seen by Romney as evidence for a general laxity. Could you see these two men sitting down together—well, not over a beer [ha ha!]—to shoot the breeze? You can just see Romney cringe as Christie lets loose with a few choice words.

“Tim Pawlenty, I don’t think, was ever a serious contender. He ran a terrible campaign and quit far too quickly. I think Romney appreciates ambition and boldness, and Pawlently is conspicuously lacking in both.

“I have to say, I’m a bit mystified why he didn’t choose Rob Portman. Ohio is crucial to victory in November, and having Portman on the ticket might have made all the difference. Maybe a chemistry thing.

“Speaking of chemistry, could anyone really see Bobby Jindal running alongside Mitt Romney? Sure, a fine family man, but he’s been shrinking ever since his disastrous Scarecrow-sounding response to the president’s State of the Union speech. And Louisiana, hm, Romney is definitely not a laissez-les-bons-temps rouler kind of guy.

“And the women, well, the women I’m sorry to say were probably never considered due to the Palin factor. Nikki Haley is a first-term governor, as is Susan Martinez in New Mexico, and Kelly Ayotte has been in the Senate for less than two years. These women might be serious contenders in 2016, but putting one of these women on the ticket would draw comparisons the Romney campaign would prefer to avoid.

“It’s also not clear how comfortable Romney is with women. He has four, excuse me, five sons, worked in private equity—a very male, and, I should point out, a very white field—and as an elder in the Mormon Church hasn’t had a lot of exposure to women in powerful positions. Sure, his lieutenant governor in Massachusetts was a woman, but how much interaction has he had with women as equals?

“I mean, look at this campaign staff. It’s all men—all white men. Look, I’m not saying he wouldn’t have chosen a Hispanic candidate if that person was head and shoulders above everyone else, but Romney is clearly most comfortable with people most like himself.

“Paul Ryan is a lot like Mitt Romney. Intense, ambitious, disciplined. A religious man, a family man, and hey, with a nice head of hair [ha ha!] There may be a downside to having someone who seems to reinforce some of Romney’s more robotic tendencies than to soften them, but Ryan’s sincerity likely resonates with Romney’s own straight-arrow demeanor and, who knows, his earnestness may come across as endearing to undecided voters.

“None of this is to discount the policy implications of the pick, of course, or whether any of this will pan out in November, but I do think this pick tells us something about Romney and what kind of people he would surround himself if he does win the presidency.”

~~~

See how easy that was? Plausible, sober, and completely without recourse to any research whatsoever! I have no idea who his closest advisers are, and I know for a fact that there are some women high up in his campaign, but why bother with the labors of an internet search when I can just pull this stuff out of my navel? (Or, to be honest, from a shoot-the-shit conversation with T.)

Now, I did run a search for his campaign staff before I wrote the piece and found a handy sheet documenting his various staffers and advisers, but I didn’t look at it until just now. Whaddya know, there are a number of women in key positions (chief of staff to the exec director Kelli Harrison, deputy campaign manager Kelly Packer Gage, senior adviser Beth Myers, among others)—but hey, why let a few facts get in the way of punditry?

Besides, a really good pundit knows how to spin away inconvenient truths, noting that “it is well-known that his closest adviser is Bob White, and let’s not forget his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, who’s been with Romney since the ’08 campaign. It’s not that women don’t have a role, but, with the exception of Myers, they’re all more organizational than strategic.”

Again, I have no idea if any of that is true. If I were a real political reporter and not just a Sabbath gasbag I would talk to people in and around the campaign, closely observe the candidate when he’s with his staff to see who he consults, see who’s quoted in the newspaper and who gives interviews, and then and only then, and based on a general background knowledge of what is expected roles of various staffers and advisers in any campaign, would I venture any suggestions as to the possible meanings of the Ryan pick.

But that’s too much like real work, and the evidence might get in the way of my narrative—and as a pundit, you should never let anything get in the way of your narrative.

That’s how the pros do it.





It’s all too much

3 08 2012

The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as possible. . . . I mean, people don’t realize that not only can data be wrong in science, it can be misleading. There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something. It’s only afterwards that the facts become hard.*

~Francis Crick

It’s no surprise that Crick is a theorist, is it?

I quite like this quote, and (I think) used it in my dissertation, but it also makes me nervous.

First, why I like it: It puts theory first, forces you to think of the evidence in terms of a theory in which it makes sense. If you let the evidence go first, you may end up hiking into a dead end, both because you’re misinterpreting the evidence as evidence (i.e., taking as fact something which is not, yet) and because you miss other bits because you don’t have a way of seeing those bits as something which matters.

But this is where the unease kicks in: Theory can mislead, as well. Thomas Kuhn noted this in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his arguments on paradigm shift, although Max Planck had the pithiest observation on this phenomenon: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

So, theory leads, and theory misleads.

Richard Rhodes, in his magisterial The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ticks off any number of discoveries which were missed by those with the most data because they weren’t able to see the data correctly.
The most well-known story is that of Frederick Smith, who didn’t discover X rays:

. . . not so unlucky in legend as the Oxford physicist Frederick Smith, who found that photographic plates kept near a cathode-ray tube were liable to be fogged and merely told his assistant to move them to another place. . . . Röntgen isolated the effect by covering his cathode-ray tube with black paper. When a nearby screen of fluorescent material still glowed he realized that whatever was causing the screen to glow was passing through the paper and the intervening air. If he held his hand between the covered tube and the screen, his hand slightly reduced the glow on the screen but in the dark shadow he could see its bones.

So is this a case of theory leading, or misleading? Or is this a third case, where a willingness to follow the evidence led to a hitherto overlooked phenomenon?

My guess: all three. Physics at the turn of the century was in the start of a creative tumult, a half-century active quake zone of discovery: old theories cracked under the pressure of irreconcilable data, new theories upended the known world and brought forth phenomenon which had previously hidden among the unknown unknowns, and all of this piled up and into the felt urgency to explain not just this new world, but a whole new universe.

There was too much of everything, a glorious and disorienting plenty on which one of the finest collection of minds in human history feasted; is it any surprise that pursuit of this course meant that dish was neglected?

All of this is a long way of saying I’m having a bitch of a time trying to make sense of my foray into medieval history. I don’t have a theory, don’t have a direction, and while I’m unbothered by—hell, actively defend—a certain amount of dilettantism, I’ve wandered enough to have become frustrated by my wanderings.

I’m not too worried, though. As frustrating as frustration is, it works for me, (eventually) crowbarring me out of my “it’ll come” complacency and into a “go get it” activity—which is to say, I’ll come up with a theory which will guide me to look at this, not at that.

I’m not doing the [kind of] science Crick did, so his observations on the process of discovery don’t necessarily translate across the fields, but he is right that if you’re going to find anything, it helps to know what you’re looking for.

(*As quoted in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation)





Welcome back my friend to the show that never ends

23 05 2012

I was in Camp Fire Girls as a kid (We are the Camp Fire Girls/We wear our hairs in curls/We never smoke or drink/That’s what our parents think. . .), and my mom and B.’s mom were our Camp Fire leaders.

That meant B.’s little brother P. sometimes came to our meetings.

P. was a dork*—not in a geeky or fumbling way, but in the way that younger brothers appear to pre-adolescent girls—and not infrequently managed to draw attention to himself by engaging in some little-brother dorky activity.

Like the time he repeatedly shocked himself.

He’d shuffle his feet along the carpet in the meeting room, then touch the metal radiator cover. OUCH!

Shuffle shuffle shuffle, OUCH! Shuffle shuffle shuffle, OUCH! Shuffle shuffle shuffle, OUCH!

His mom probably told him to stop, and he probably didn’t. We girls all just looked at him and thought, What a dork.

Now, what does this have to do with anything?

Birthers.

Yep, those folks just keep shuffling shuffling shuffling and yelping OUCH whenever someone points out the idiocy of their quest, but, unlike, P., they don’t have the excuse of being dorky 9 year-old boys.

I don’t know if they keep trotting out their conspiracies because they like that feeling of getting zapped over and over again (which P. pretty clearly did), or if they somehow think that this time, THIS TIME, the outcome will be different.

Conspiracy theorists can be amusing, heartbreaking, scary, or puzzling, but in this case, they are just damned irritating, and if I were a citizen of the state of Arizona in general or of Maricopa County in particular, I would be MIGHTY irked at the waste of time and money thrown at the quest to prove that Barack Obama, born in Hawaii in 1960, in somehow not an American citizen.

Here is the appropriate response to anyone who suggests that the President was not born in the US: Prove it.

I happen to believe (along with with almost everyone else) that the birth certificate issued by the state of Hawaii is legitimate, and that the preponderance of evidence does, in fact, prove that President Obama was born in the US—but hey, if you don’t accept it, so be it.

But it’s not enough to yelp LIES! or PHOTOSHOP! or LAYERS! or whatever; you actually have to gather your own evidence which proves where, exactly, Barack Hussein Obama was born.

I’m not asking you to prove a negative (that the president wasn’t born in Hawaii) but to prove where he was born—with evidence that someone without your extra-special powers of perception could, in fact, accept as evidence.

That’s fair, don’t you think?

Oh, and one more thing: Shut up until you actually have that proof in hand. If you and Orly Taitz and Joe Arpaio insist upon shuffling through the static of birtherism, the rest of us really don’t want to hear you yelp when you’re zapped by reality.

~~~~

*P. grew up to be a decidedly non-dorky and decent man.





Don’t get your back up over this

7 09 2011

I’m less clear about how we “get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack”. Online and off it has been my experience that people generally don’t appreciate it when you point out (even if gently with leading questions) that they don’t have much of a basis for their not so considered opinions, they feel certain and righteous about their position and have been told over and over that they have a right to their opinions as if that in an of itself justifies the opinion at hand, they may even have a one-line answer from some undergrad class they took in support of it. Whatever the reason people seem to have a hard time separating judgment of the basis of an idea that they may hold from judgment of their persons, even, maybe especially, with strangers, so how to bring some of the philosophical ethos of pushing the ideas, fleshing them out, and testing them and their implications from the seminar into the public realm. and what rewards are there to share with people who don’t yet have a taste of how such demanding work/research can be.rewarding?—dmf

Just when I thought I was done (for now) with this question, you pull me back in. . . .Ha, no. Really, d, Imma stealing from you to feed my blog.

I think it helps to classify one’s interlocutors. If you’re dealing with adversaries—those who seek to get one over on you and vice versa—then it’s anything goes. If they’re shifters, you punish them by not letting go of a single thing they say and not giving in on a single point they make. You point out all the ways they’re wrong, admit of no wrongs on your side, and go after their credibility. “You were wrong on this, and you were wrong on this, and this, and this. . . why should anyone take anything you say seriously?” Attack attack attack.

Despite my vociferousness on this matter, it’s actually not my preferred way of doing things. I like rules, like the notion of “keeping one another honest”, and prefer not to cheat in order to win an argument. If there are no rules, however, then you’d be a fool to act as if there were. The best you can hope for is to diminish the shifter’s sphere of influence.

Or, if you’re not in the mood, you simply walk away—preferably laughing the whole while. (This is how I deal—or don’t deal—with Objectivists.)

Not all adversaries are shifters, however, so some standards apply. If the argument is “staged”, as in, we both know that the real person we’re trying to convince is not the other but neutral others who are listening in, such questions may take on an edge, and some shortcuts in service to the performance are acceptable, but you can’t go too far in upending your adversary. You can’t get mad and you don’t want to make the other person mad, as that would ruin the enjoyment for onlookers, and you have to know when to shrug and let something go. You want to appear reasonable and creditable to those onlookers, so while light jabs are acceptable, garrotting is not.

But if it’s not a performance, if I’m simply trying to suss something out, I find it best simply to ask questions. My forte in verbal combat is in going after the other person’s argument, so I get as much information as I can about that argument. I ask real, not gotcha, questions, and allow the person a full answer. And if their information is or appears incorrect, I’ll ask about that, as well.

If it turns into a fight, I’ll use their words against them, but a lot of times the mere process of asking the questions leads away from the gladiatorial arena. Because I don’t twist their words or mock them or sneer at their views, if I offer them the benefit of the doubt, they’ll often open up, both in expanding upon their views and in their willingness to hear my concerns. And I don’t try to convert anyone, not overtly, anyway. I just ask questions, ask them to think about x from the vantage point of y, and then let it be.

It’s the soft approach—something which I would have abjured when younger—but now I can see the possibilities, and not just the threat, of such softening up.

The Old Man knew this long before I did:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack, in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

_____

(h/t Zoe Pollack, The Daily Dish: Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”)





If I’m so wrong and you’re so right

5 09 2011

is this all about convincing other people to share our intuitions and if people don’t share such faith (religious or otherwise) convictions on what possible basis would they be convinced by anything we say that builds on them? Is there no obligation to try and have some researched basis for our public opinions?—dmf

No easy questions, eh, d?

I don’t know that there’s any one, good, way to deal both with clashing ontologies and the question of the quality of the opinion. Habermas attempts to do so, as do Guttmann and Thompson and deliberative theorists generally—attempts which tend toward the suppression of fundamental conflicts and an optimism regarding shared language. Focus on a respectful process and practical goals, G&T advise, and use reasons which can make sense across any epistemological or ontological divides. Aim for consensus rather than winning, or rather, see consensus as winning. The point is not just to solve problems, but to deepen democratic discourse generally.

I am, unsurprisingly, skeptical of the deliberative approach, of the willingness of different sides to agree to a shared approach, and of the desire for mutually-agreed-upon outcomes over a clear win. That said, I think it can work in specific instances, especially those in which participants really do want to solve a problem and where some version of splitting the difference (as in, allocation of funds) is possible.

It does not work on matters where an underlying principle is so closely related to the position that any disagreement on the principle makes impossible any agreement on outcome. The exemplar of this kind of conflict is that over abortion: female autonomy runs up against fetal personhood, such that the right to choose cancels the right to life, and vice versa. There is no splitting this difference, at least as it is currently configured; there are only winners and losers.

These sorts of polarized debates (which can arise for any number of reasons, including hyped-up partisanship) make it very difficult both for us to find a shared language (fetus/baby; undocumented immigrant/illegal alien; etc.) and to agree upon any standards of debate. If I am convinced I am right I won’t agree to any standards which might allow you to win the argument, and will dispute your starting point, reason, evidence, and conclusion.

The abortion debate, however frustrating and exhausting it may be, may nonetheless remain within the confines of democratic debate. We may not be able to resolve the conflict, but in the main (not, necessarily, on the margins), it can at least be contained by such debate.

That’s not always the case.

Consider the political debate over global warming. Most scientists agree that the planet is warming and that human activity has contributed to increased temperatures. If I think global warming is scam designed by extremist leftist-environmental types, I’m not going to listen to anything you have to offer which might prove me wrong. I’ll bring up the so-called climate-gate and take issue with any inexactness of your evidence, and will offer my own scientists and state that the reason they’re not published in scholarly journals is bias, plain and simple.

I am energized by fierce political argument, but this shit is disturbing. This isn’t simply about two sides disagreeing about the evidence, this is one side outright rejecting the relevance of evidence: it can’t be so it must not be. And if we can’t stand on the same ground on an issue for which there is clearly only one place to stand, then how the hell are we going to have any kind of conversation or debate about what to do about that issue?

In other words, what should be a good and vigorous political debate about what to do in response to a phenomenon (anthropocentric global warming) has been made impossible by one side of that debate declaring, in effect, that its politics don’t allow it to see the preponderance of evidence for that phenomenon. In short, the political commitments of one side has forced it to rule out the existence of the phenomenon itself.

There is no way to deal with this kind of reality-shifting except to defeat it. By any means necessary.

There are other kinds of less dire political debate wherein some notion of reason and evidence is accepted by the various participants. There may be scuffling over evidence or even the sources of evidence but not over the need for evidence itself. In these cases, your question of obligation for a researched basis is mooted insofar as it is beneficial for the participants to have done their homework ahead of time.

In other words, the best way to get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack.

Dealing with reality-shifters, I’m afraid, is largely a negative affair. You have to beat them (metaphorically, of course!) into submission, allowing them no quarter in any debates. You’ll never win them over, but you might be able to win nonetheless by so discrediting them to any larger audience. You trample over the shifters to speak directly to the audience, and smack ’em back down whenever they pop up with an objection. You rely, as ever, on reason and evidence, and offer zero respect for arguments which rely on neither.

However much such a strategy may be in service to a democratic politics, it is not democratic itself; it is, instead, brute, and brutal, politics. It is a ground war, one fought to establish whether the elements necessary to democracy will be encouraged to flourish, or not.

There will always be disagreements over the grounds, the standards, and the desired outcomes of debates; a democratic politics takes for granted the disagreement over desires, accommodates those over standards, but may shatter if it becomes too preoccupied with the grounds.

Whatever other commitments its citizens make, whether some have one foot nestled in heaven and some, dangling over the abyss, the other must be planted on common ground.





I have no opinion about that

4 09 2011

Riddle me this how do we decide how much info/understanding should we have about a topic before we feel justified in having an opinion that is more than a gut hunch? —dmf

I once introduced myself to colleague as someone who “has lunch and opinions”, so I can’t say that it ever occurred to me that I needed to justify the having of an opinion. As far back as I can remember, I have had opinions about something or another, from the superiority of homemade jello pops over store-bought popsicles to the belief that swimming was the summer activity, to the obviousness that racism was stupid and girls were equal to boys, and on and on about cars and music and food and friendship and clothes and alcohol and sex and money and liberty and justice for all.

No, for me, the corker was justifying not having an opinion.

I do, in fact, now qualify my opinions in ways I didn’t when younger, and I do justify not having opinions about a whole range of topics, based on 1) lack of information and 2) lack of interest. “Don’t know/don’t care” is a pretty damned effective gate to conversations which would otherwise drive me off a cliff.

Still, I don’t regret my previous opinion libertinism, and I don’t begrudge anyone else their expressive needs. I learned a lot in spouting off, both in how to put together an argument and in prompting others to take issue with me. I hate hate hate to be wrong, but I hate even more the persistence of error. I could—and can—also be sloppy in my pronunciamentos, so getting smacked (or wanting to avoid getting smacked) for spilling too many words has forced me to steady my tongue.

(There’s the additional question of credentialism and the desire not to want to make a fool of oneself in front of one’s colleagues which may lead to a crippling reticence, i.e., in not challenging a majority view for fear that the mere expression of a minority opinion marks one as untrustworthy—but that’s a separate issue.)

Given my own history, then, I’m more likely to indulge than shut down opinionists, especially if they’re willing to go back and forth on an issue. Shooting the shit can be an highly enjoyable way of passing the time.

What I do narrow my eyes at are those who state their opinions as fact and who substitute their subjective experiences for objective certainty. That you have a right to an opinion doesn’t mean you have the right to trump all other opinions. Oh, and shouting doesn’t make you right. (*Full disclosure: I have shouted. More than once.)

So anyone can have any opinion about anything. If, however, you want that opinion to have any weight with anyone else, you gotta do the work—the (self-)education, the reflection, the reasoning—to convince them. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones got it right when she admonished: Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict.

Educate yourself. Quite so.