Archive for July, 2009

Critical Thinking

July 31, 2009

I have been getting a kick out of the latest conspiracy to hit the political discourse. Of course, I am talking about the “birthers” who claim that Obama doesn’t meet the Constitutional qualifications for being president because he is not a natural born citizen. These nut-job theories are not the exclusive domain of the far right, of course. During the Bush Administration, the whacky left proffered a theory that Bush materially participated in, or at least knew in advance, about the 9/11 attacks.

The point of this post isn’t to credit or discredit the birther conspiracy or any other theory. It’s to get people to try and exercise critical thinking and minimal research on political issues. I received one of those oft-forwarded e-mails this morning that went on a right-wing rant about illegal aliens. Snopes[1] gave it an “undetermined” rating, so the only response was to research was could be researched and apply critical thinking skills to the arguments that couldn’t be easily proven. Both research and critical thinking take some time and work. The work is worthwhile if you care about being informed more than incestuously reinforcing your own preconceived notions.

Using the birther conspiracy as a case study, the first step is to do some research. In an interview between Stephen Colbert and conspiracy theorist Orly Taitz on The Colbert Report, she stated that Obama was not a citizen because his father wasn’t a citizen. We know his father wasn’t a citizen, so it seems like she made a good point. However, we all know from the outrage of some conservatives that all you have to do to qualify as a natural born citizen[4] is to be on American soil at birth. Neither of your parents have to be citizens.

Another claim that Orly made during the interview was that the Social Security Number that Obama used most often would make him 190 years old. A critical thinking approach asks us what the implications of that are. If the person to whom that SSN was issued was born 190 years ago (1819), then how old would they have been when the first Social Security Numbers were issued? A little research[2] turned up that the first numbers were issued in November 1936. Therefore, this person’s identity that Obama supposedly stole would have been 117 years old when his SSN was issued.  As a side note, in fairness other websites and references state that the SSN was issued to a 119 year old person and that math works, so Orly may have just misspoken or may have been heard wrong. The other question is whether SSNs are reused. If they are, then Obama’s SSN may just may be the second issuance of the same number. I thought SSNs were reused, but a little research[3] shows that they are not. The point isn’t whether these specific claims are true, but that we should ask ourselves what the implications of the assertions are, not just accept them at face value because we want to. That is the essence of critical thinking.

I challenge readers to question political assertions, especially coming from those with whom they have idealogical similarities. Think about them in an unemotional, preaching-to-the-choir context. Ask if they make sense. Ask if the assertions are true, then what are the secondary implications of the assertion. Then try to do some research to support or refute those implications. Question the motives of the places at which you conduct your research to try and uncover their motivations. It’s in that implication research that you will often find the lack of credibility.

This approach needs to be done, not just for the nut case conspiracies, but for all public policy.

[1] http://www.snopes.com is an urban legend debunking site

[2] http://www.ssa.gov/history/ssn/firstcard.html

[3] http://www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_born_citizen_of_the_United_States (It’s interesting reading and more complex than you might think)

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Socialism

July 24, 2009

There seems to be a lot of talk about socialism since the election of Barack Obama. Before there can be an intelligent debate about that, it’s important to know what socialism is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, socialism is [1]:

any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

In the context of contemporary discussion, I think it’s safe to infer that “good” means “goods and services”.  So first, we should ask if there are any elements of socialism in our governmental policies that predate the Obama Administration.

Law enforcement is controlled by the government.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  People could hire private guards – and some do.  Communities could pool their money and hire a private security firm.  Fire departments in most urban areas are controlled by the government.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  In many rural areas, the fire department is a volunteer force, although typically the equipment is funded by the government.

Our military services are controlled by the government.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The Bush Administration used private firms – most notably Blackwater – to handle some of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Based on that experience, I think there is a consensus that a socialized military is the best military.

On the other hand, the banking industry in this country is a free market enterprise. There are considerable banking regulations, but private industry is free to compete and profit within those regulatory confines.  There was some talk of the nationalization of the banking industry as a response to the financial crisis that gripped the country during the end of the Bush Administration.  If the Obama Administration was serious about marching toward socialism in America, that would have been an ideal time to do so.   Instead, the Obama Administration let stand the TARP process that was enacted during the Bush Administration.  On June 17, 2009, ten financial firms, including heavyweights J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group, repaid their TARP money [2].  It appears that under the Obama Administration, capitalism is still alive.

Also as a result of the financial crisis that occurred at the end of the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration infused capital into General Motors to avoid their imminent collapse into bankruptcy.  Does that action rise to the definition of socialism? Although us taxpayers own a 60% stake in GM, President Obama stated that the government would not be running the failed corporation [3].  If socialism is defined as governmental ownership and administration, this is clearly not socialism.  Personally, I think if my tax dollars are used to buy 60% of a corporation, I would like for the government to assert themselves on behalf of us shareholders, but that’s not happening.  It appears that under the Obama Administration, capitalism is still alive.

The issue of health care reform is the political topic of the day.  The plan being advocated by the Obama Administration is that the government acts as an insurer of health care.  It would be available as an option to private health insurance.  Those in the medical profession – doctors, hospitals, nurses, etc. – would remain employees of private industry.  The government would not be in the business of ownership and administration of the production of heath care services.  Whether or not you agree that it is good policy, it is not socialized medicine.  It appears that under the Obama Administration, capitalism is still alive.

In fact, there is no policy enacted or discussed by the Obama Administration that rises to the definition of socialism.  Dictionaries are readily available.   Those who use the term “socialism” to describe these policies are willfully and shamelessly ignorant.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Socialism

[2] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124524619467123215.html

[3] http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/02/business/fi-gm-reax2

[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/health_care/

The F-22

July 21, 2009

The Senate vote to stop production of the F-22 fighter plane appears to be a good sign that our government hasn’t completely forgotten how to govern.

This is the first time since the election that (to my knowledge anyway) John McCain and Obama have been on the same side of a political issue.  There is consensus among those two and apparently many more that the F-22 was a Cold War weapon.  It was designed in the late 1980’s to dominate Soviet jets.

Those in opposition to stopping funding apparently put more weight on securing jobs in their states, even if it wasn’t in the best interests of the United States as a whole.   Chris Dodd, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy all voted in favor of keeping the financing.  A pox on them, since none seem to be particularly hawkish on defense spending.

As a side note, John Kerry voiced support for the plane, but voted against the additional financing.  No wonder he couldn’t beat W. in 2004.  Geez.

More Liberal Media

July 12, 2009

A member of the mainstream media reflects on Sarah Palin‘s resignation.  In her own words:

What she is, is a seemingly very nice middle-class girl with ambition, appetite and no sense of personal limits.

She’s not Ivy League, that’s why her rise has been thwarted! She represented the democratic ideal that you don’t have to go to Harvard or Brown to prosper, and her fall represents a failure of egalitarianism.” This comes from intellectuals too. They need to be told something. Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College. Richard Nixon went to Whittier College, Joe Biden to the University of Delaware. Sarah Palin graduated in the end from the University of Idaho, a school that happily notes on its Web site that it’s included in U.S. News & World Report’s top national schools survey. They need to be told, too, that the first Republican president was named “Abe,” and he went to Princeton and got a Fulbright. Oh wait, he was an impoverished backwoods autodidact!

America doesn’t need Sarah Palin to prove it was, and is, a nation of unprecedented fluidity. Her rise and seeming fall do nothing to prove or refute this.

The elites hate her.” The elites made her. It was the elites of the party, the McCain campaign and the conservative media that picked her and pushed her. The base barely knew who she was. It was the elites, from party operatives to public intellectuals, who advanced her and attacked those who said she lacked heft. She is a complete elite confection. She might as well have been a bonbon.

She makes the Republican Party look inclusive.” She makes the party look stupid, a party of the easily manipulated.

She shows our ingenuous interest in all classes.” She shows your cynicism.

Now she can prepare herself for higher office by studying up, reading in, boning up on the issues.” Mrs. Palin’s supporters have been ordering her to spend the next two years reflecting and pondering. But she is a ponder-free zone. She can memorize the names of the presidents of Pakistan, but she is not going to be able to know how to think about Pakistan. Why do her supporters not see this? Maybe they think “not thoughtful” is a working-class trope!

The media did her in.” Her lack of any appropriate modesty did her in. Actually, it’s arguable that membership in the self-esteem generation harmed her. For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they’re perfect in every way. It’s yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.

Turning to others means the media won!” No, it means they lose. What the mainstream media wants is not to kill her but to keep her story going forever. She hurts, as they say, the Republican brand, with her mess and her rhetorical jabberwocky and her careless causing of division. Really, she is the most careless sower of discord since George W. Bush, who fractured the party and the movement that made him. Why wouldn’t the media want to keep that going?

That was written by Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street Journal. [1]  That’s not exactly a liberal publication, nor is Peggy Noonan a liberal journalist.  She was a special assistant to Ronald Reagan and a speechwriter for the first George Bush.  I don’t agree with much of her political opinions, but she is smart and articulate… and she is dead right about Sarah Palin.  The Republicans could use more like her.

As a side reference to yesterday’s post, it’s interesting how she references “the mainstream media” as though she wasn’t a part of it.  More evidence of how that idiom is so ingrained in the conservative mind.

[1] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124716984620819351.html

The Liberal Media

July 11, 2009

I guess that one’s perception of their place on the political spectrum depends on their location in the political spectrum.   It’s really all relative, isn’t it?

When I hear the tired refrain of liberal bias in the mainstream media, there is a good chance I am talking to someone who is pretty far to the right.  After all, the conservative media owns AM radio.  They have their own news station in Fox News,  their own newpapers like The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. (Aren’t they aren’t the mainstream media?).

The most recent claim of liberal bias was the recent tweet from Sarah Palin with a Walter Cronkite quote admitting liberal bias in the media.  Her quote was quite out-of-context.   I doubt that she took the time to research the quote.  It was more likely out of sloppiness and a general disregard for facts.

Here’s the quote in context from a 1973 Playboy interview.  It’s interesting reading, especially his thoughts on why some people lean to the political left:

PLAYBOY: Implicit in the [Nixon] Administration’s attempts to force the networks to “balance” the news is a conviction that most newscasters are biased against conservatism. Is there some truth in the view that television newsmen tend to be left of center?
CRONKITE: Well, certainly liberal, and possibly left of center as well. I would have to accept that.

PLAYBOY: What’s the distinction between those two terms?
CRONKITE: I think the distinction is both clear and important. I think that being a liberal, in the true sense, is being nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, noncommitted to a cause—but examining each case on its merits. Being left of center is another thing; it’s a political position. I think most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not liberal, by my definition of it, then they can hardly be good newspapermen. If they’re preordained dogmatists for a cause, then they can’t be very good journalists; that is, if they carry it into their journalism.

As far as the leftist thing is concerned, that I think is something that comes from the nature of a journalist’s work. Most newsmen have spent some time covering the seamier side of human endeavor; they cover police stations and courts and the infighting in politics. And I think they come to feel very little allegiance to the established order. I think they’re inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions. And this sort of pushes them to the left. But I don’t think there are many who are far left. I think a little left of center probably is correct.[1]

[1] http://www.playboy.com/articles/walter-cronkite-interview/index.html?page=2

Critical Thinking

July 11, 2009

I started to use Facebook, just to see what it is all about.   The good part is that you can get in contact with long lost collegues.  The bad part is that you can get in touch with long lost collegues.  I friended a former co-worker with whom I used to spar on policial issues on occasion.  He posted a link to a website that reprinted an open letter to Congress that “You Are Being Deceived About Global Warming.”   It claims that the earth has been cooling for ten years.

Like most people, I am not a climate scientist – and the letter was signed by people whose titles suggest they are scientists – so perhaps I should believe what they have to say.  Before that, a little critical thinking is warranted.

First, I know quite a few scientists and their personality tends to be a lot like the people in my chosen field of computer science.   They tend to be in the endeavor out of a genuine interest.  They have a tendency to be open about the strengths and weaknesses in their field.  The scientists that remain in academia are motivated by something other than money, since private enterprise typically pays considerably more.  In short, as a collective, they are honest.   That doesn’t mean that all are honest or that they can’t be co-opted.  There were plenty of scientists who claimed that there was no link between cancer and cigarette smoking.

From a purely critical thinking point-of-view, it seems that scientists in fields of climate science, oceanography, geosciences, biology would not all see evidence of climate change if it were not true.  Furthermore, it seems that scientists in those fields in several different countries would be hard-pressed to find a common political ground on which to conspire to manipulate the data.  Since money is typically the lever used to co-opt someone’s opinion, what is the monetary gain to be had by creating a global, cross-disciplinary hoax of global warming?  It’s not like we are close to running out of “science” and we need to invent something on which to base research grants.

Now back to some of those scientists who signed the open letter.   I randomly picked William Happer from the list.   He is a professor of physics – not exactly an earth science – but more scientist than me.   He worked for the Department of Energy under George H.W. Bush.    He is the chair of the board of directors for the George C. Marshall Institute.  They are a conservative think tank that gets funding from ExxonMobil.[1]  That doesn’t mean that Happer is wrong, but it does mean that we should have some healthy skepticism.

I randomly picked another, S. Fred Singer.  It seems that he was a consultant for oil companies, too.    Newsweek did an article entitled “The Truth about Denial” [3] that called out Singer’s motivations.  (But you know those mainstream media people can’t be trusted.  Geez.)  I think you get the idea.

Of course, this does not prove global climate change is happening, nor does it prove that climate change is accelerated by human activity, but it seems to make more sense to believe the mainstream scientists than it does these politically and monetarily motivated scientists.

I’ll go out on a limb here and state publicly that I also think the earth is more than 6,000 years old and smoking increases the risk of cancer.

[1] http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2009/01/12/22506

[2] http://home.att.net/~espi/S-F-Singer_Deposition.pdf

[3] http://www.newsweek.com/id/32482/page/3

The 4%

July 4, 2009

The blogosphere was abuzz last week with the news that Obama’s polling numbers dropped 4%. They have since regained most of that, so it’s a moot point all of a week and a half later. Although I have to way of knowing for sure, I suspect that the biggest loss was from the left. The detailed demographic breakdown in the Gallup poll suggests I might be right.

A large number of Americans have a very unrealistic perception of the nature of Washington and the real amount of change that can be accomplished by a thoughtful and pragmatic President. There were a lot of people that thought Obama was some sort of messiah, the most extreme example being the exceptionally crazy Louis Farrakhan. The gay community thought that Obama would make the misguided “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military simply go away. He could easily suspend enforcement of it, but there would likely be some blow back in the older, more conservative, upper ranks of the military. When we are fighting wars on two fronts, it’s just not a good time. That’s pragmatism.

Bill Maher, who seemed a lot more reasonable during the Bush Administration than the current administration, gave his opinion that the Democrats should ram policies down the throats of the Republicans, just as Republicans did when they controlled the White House and Congress during the first six years of the Bush Administration. My first reaction was an emotionally-based, “Yes!”, but two minutes later, my brain kicked in and I realized that substantive change comes from pragmatism and that approach just takes longer. Finding the best answer means listening to those who disagree and taking those concerns into consideration. Bill Maher should have learned that lesson from the last eight years by the previous occupant.

I think that drop in the polls reflect the realization of reality by the single-issue left and they don’t like reality.

As an interesting side note, when I was researching this post, I found the “Obama Change Index” on the Fox News website that “charts the impact of policies promised by President Obama”. Their rating has him down by 31.9%. Apparently the folks at Fox News can add mathematics and statistics to the list of things, like science, on which they have no credibility.