Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why we haven't found aliens—global warming

I found the most unusual (and possibly insane) explanation the on the question of life elsewhere in the universe. Read the first two sentences of this post from a commenter at Andrew Revkin's environment blog at The New York Times: (The rest of the paragraph is kind of amusing, too.)

Why do you suppose SETI has come up blank so far? My take is that E.T. exterminated himself with Global Warming. (emphasis added) Intelligence may be a very bad thing at the level we are at now. There is a threshold we have to get across in order to get to the next level. We have to exhibit enough intelligence to stop Global Warming before Global Warming kills us. It is a gradual thing until it is too late. Money is driving the denial machine, but money is psychopathic. Corporations and some people are psychopaths as well. We need journalists and news media that understand the science, not journalists who act like stenographers.

We haven't found life on other planets because of global warming! I can't believe I didn't think of this. The word alarmist is somewhat overused, but I think this person qualifies.

Dog bites man!

From The Wall Street Journal, August 26: (should be in The Onion)

Disabled Face Sharply Higher Jobless Rate

The government's first detailed look at disabled workers' employment shows they are far more likely than the overall work force to be older, working part-time or jobless. (Really!)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Birthright citizenship debate--interesting but irrelevant

The Washington Post makes a thoughful take on the issue of abolishing birthright citizenship in this editorial. Just like on same sex marriage, there's bad arguments on both sides. I'll quote a few sentences:

Some on the right argue that the Constitution should be changed to prevent U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants from gaining automatic citizenship, in part to prevent these "anchor babies" from being used to legitimize their parents' presence in the country.

Those on the left charge that the talk about changing birthright citizenship is evidence of deep-seated xenophobia; one activist argued that it puts the United States "on the brink of legalizing apartheid."

Neither of these arguments is valid.

The great majority of undocumented immigrants come to this country looking for opportunities, just as generations of immigrants have done. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, the new migrants tend to be younger and of child-bearing age. Although abuses occur, in the vast majority of cases the birth of a child is a natural happenstance and not an attempt to manipulate the system. The attacks from the left, meanwhile, ignore or downplay the challenges posed by illegal migration and unfairly ascribe hateful motives to all who raise questions about possible fixes. (My comment:Assigning hateful motives to one's opponents is becoming too common in all these political debates).

I agree with the Post's assessment, but I would add another more important point. This proposed change to the 14th Amendment will never happen, making discussion on this subject irrelevant. For that to happen, 2/3rds of each house of Congress and 3/4 of the the states would have to agree on the change. As the song years ago said, never gonna get it. James Madison and his friends made it very hard to amend the Constitution, for good or bad. So let's leave the subject and move on to something else.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New fallacy

From an op-ed in TheLos Angeles Times there comes a common but flawed argument:

Americans view Social Security as a central component of the nation's social contract. It is probably the most popular federal government program. Not surprisingly, when President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security — essentially asking Americans to put the security of their future in the stock market — the people considered it a preposterous idea, especially after they had watched thousands of Enron investors lose their savings and saw the stock market lose 38% of its value between January 2000 and October 2002. (emphasis added).

I call it the argumentem ad Enronem—any debate over privatization of Social Security ends up with someone referring to Enron. No one on the pro-privatization side suggested or suggests people invest all of their money in one stock. I'm not advocating privatization; there are legitimate arguments against it. I would argue, though, that using Enron as a debate stopper is unfair.

The rest of the article was awful as well—name calling "zealots", motive hunting, etc..

More Prop 8 nonsense

Last Friday, I discussed the judge's irrelevant attack on the Prop 8 campaign's motives. Now the opponents of his decision are resorting to the same weak arguments. The judge, some critics point out, is a homosexual, therefore his decision is biased. I don't quite understand this argument. If a homosexual judge is ipso facto biased, wouldn't a heterosexual judge also be biased? We've reached the reductio ad absurdem of the motive fallacy. Short of finding someone asexual, we can't ever find an impartial judge.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An "Intellectual" says a lot of nonsense

Fouad Ajami (a professor, no less) writes the following in The Wall Street Journal: If public opinion displayed no enthusiasm for the overhaul of the nation's health-care system, the administration would push on. The public would adjust in due time.

The nation may be ill at ease with an immigration reform bill that would provide some 12 million illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship, but the administration would still insist on the primacy of its own judgment. It would take Arizona to court, even though the public let it be known that it understood Arizona's immigration law as an expression of that state's frustration with the federal government's abdication of its responsibility over border security.

This is poor reasoning, especially disappointing from a professor at a major university. To briefly analyze:

1.He assumes that policy is strictly a matter of watching the polls and doing what a majority of voters want at a specific time. If we we agree with this position (I don't),then the logical conclusion is to abolish our form of government. No more Congressmen, Senators, or Presidents; we'll just do an electronic poll on every issue and majority rules. It would be impossible to carry out this policy. How often would the polls be sent out? What if popular opinion on an issue changed from one month to another. Would we pass a bill in March that has a majority, repeal it in April if public opinion turned against it, but repass it in May if the voters (polltakers?) changed their minds again?

As for the Arizona law, I shouldn't have to explain this to a Ph.D, but a majority vote for a bill does not mean it's constitutional. The federal government may be wrong in saying it's unconstitutional, but it is absurd to say that no popular measure may ever be challenged in court. How would Professor Ajami feel if New York passed legislation fining academics who write silly op-eds? (Sorry, a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist).

And, to make it worse, Professor Ajami's position on immigration reform isn't even factually correct. According to The Washington Post:

The same Pew survey that found backing for Arizona also showed that more than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) support a path to citizenship for illegal migrants who pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs. That's not much different than other Pew surveys going back before the recession.

There's actually much more nonsense in the op-ed (it's at wsj.com, you may need a subscription), but I think the point is made. Professor Ajami is a hack.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Prop 8 supporters:They're bad, therefore wrong?

I just love this Prop 8 discussion, because you get bad arguments from both sides.
According to this article in the New York Timesby law professor Andrew Koppelman, Judge Walker's "findings of fact" includes this (supposed) fact: The campaign for Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California, relied on prejudice and vicious anti-gay stereotypes, such as the idea that gay people are dangerous to children.

My response to this point by Judge Walker is simply to wonder why it's relevant. Political campaigns are rarely run by Mother Theresa types; is the constitutional fate of every ballot initiative in this state (and elsewhere) going to depend on the morality of their proponents? As for hateful stereotypes, there was plenty of anti-Mormon prejudice by Prop 8 opponents—surely Judge Walker is aware of this fact. This conclusion seems to me to be an instance of the attacking the motive fallacy, see this website for a detailed discussion of the motive fallacy. (Conveniently, the site mentions an anti-Prop 8 ad as committing the fallacy).

Furthermore, I don't see that a majority of Californians were influenced by this alleged whipping up of anti-gay stereotypes. I don't recall a lot of people who voted for Prop 8 (I was not one of them, for what it's worth) basing their decision on gays' threats to children. The issue was not whether gays should be allowed to raise children. Does Judge Walker have such little opinion of the California voting population that he thinks they would be robotically swayed by an allegedly bigoted campaign?

More to come tomorrow on this subject, but I need a break.

Spurious argument

Letter to LA Times on gay marriage:

After 54 years of marriage to the same woman, I must be near the top of the list of people who have credentials to talk about this subject. I don't want to hear anyone who has not been married for at least half a century to the same person talk about how sacred or meaningful the institution of marriage is. That would reduce the noise level to a whisper.

Charles Weisenberg

Beverly Hills

Sorry, Mr.Weisenberg, it doesn't work that way. While I congratulate you on your long marriage, it doesn't give you any extra authority on whether gay marriage is right or wrong—it certainly doesn't give you any authority on whether it's constitutional (the issue that was before the court). There are no "credentials" needed to have an opinion on the issue.A lifelong bachelor has as much right to comment on the subject as does Mr.Weisenberg.

Taking Mr.Weisenberg's argument to its logical conclusion, no non-veteran can discuss the war in Afghanistan, no one who hasn't played baseball can weigh in on whether it should have instant replay, and no man can have an opinion on abortion (actually a common argument, sadly enough).

I'd love to ask Mr.Weisenberg a question: how many years would one have to be married to earn "credentials" to discuss the subject? 10, 20, 25,30? Now we're really getting into the realm of absurdity.

Hiroshima: some facts

Were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary? According to a veteran quoted in the local paper, they saved a million lives. Many people believe that, but there is actually not much evidence that that statement is true. (Only a million—why not 5 or 10 million?) This issue arises every year on this day, so I'm going to put my two cents in. I base my belief that the bom bs were unnecessary primarily on the following 5 points from the physicist Freeman Dyson's essay on the wonderful website Edge.org (scroll down a little to see it).

1. Members of the Supreme Council, which customarily met with the Emperor to take important decisions, learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Although Foreign Minister Togo asked for a meeting, no meeting was held for three days.

2. A surviving diary records a conversation of Navy Minister Yonai, who was a member of the Supreme Council, with his deputy on August 8. The Hiroshima bombing is mentioned only incidentally. More attention is given to the fact that the rice ration in Tokyo is to be reduced by ten percent.

3. On the morning of August 9, Soviet troops invaded Manchuria. Six hours after hearing this news, the Supreme Council was in session. News of the Nagasaki bombing, which happened the same morning, only reached the Council after the session started.

4. The August 9 session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.

5. The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs but emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. In 1895 Japan had defeated China, but accepted a humiliating peace when European powers led by Russia moved into Manchuria and the Russians occupied Port Arthur. By making peace, the emperor Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.

Dyson's essay is itself based on the work of one Ward Wilson, whose essay is entitled The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in the Light of Hiroshima. Wilson makes a devastating point in his essay: before Hiroshima the U.S. had bombed Japanese cities almost indiscriminately, killing hundreds of thousands. Why did these bombings not make Japan surrender?

And, of course (as always), a logical fallacy is at work here. As Wilson points out, the bomb was dropped on August 6, and on August 10 the Japanese signaled their intention to negotiate a surrender. It would have been easy to be fooled by the proximity of the two events. But this is a fallacy known as the post hoc propter ergo hoc (since B followed A, therefore A caused B).

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Right conclusion, but faulty logic

A man named Doug Bell sends in this letter:

Some recent letters by regular contributors recycle the myth that illegal immigrants pay taxes. Of course illegal immigrants pay taxes, but not in the same sense that U.S. taxpayers do, and the writers should know that.

At least that’s the view of Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman (emphasis added)who, in a 2006 column (“North of the border,” www.nytimes.com), wrote that “ ... serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration. ...

I think Krugman and Bell are factually right in their conclusion. However, Mr. Bell's argument is still logically flawed. It is an appeal to authority, known as the ad verucundiam, and is not a good argument. Yes, Krugman is a Nobel Laureate, but brilliant economists disagree on immigration policy (and many other issues). Simply quoting Krugman does not prove Mr.Bell's contention.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Red herrings on Prop 8

I'm not sure what to think about the recent overturning of Prop 8, but this paragraph troubles me:

The plaintiffs in the California case presented 18 witnesses. Academic experts testified about topics ranging from the fitness of gay parents and religious views on homosexuality to the historical meaning of marriage and the political influence of the gay rights movement.

My queston: what does any of this have to do with the constitutionality of Prop 8? The issue the court was given to decide is not whether gay marriage is good or bad for society–that's a philosophical question, not a constitutional question. All of this testimony is irrelevant to the issue. In logic textbooks, such distractions are known as red herrings. Either the state of Caifornia had the authority to prohibit gay marriage under the state Constitution, or it didn't. That is the only question before the Court. To take one example of a red herring, the argument of a Prop 8 supporter—that kids do better when they are raised with a mother and a father in the house is irrelevant and should not have affected the judge's decision. (I have no doubt that is a true statement, but it is still irrelevant).