Blargh Blog

Saturday, October 30, 2004


I didn't expect to be saying this in the days before the election, but bloggers from across the spectrum are fact-checking the latest bin Laden video tape.

Juan Cole considers it to be "highly unlikely" that bin Laden's use of the rhetoric of political liberty is sincere.

Sebastian Holsclaw observes that, contrary to bin Laden's claims, there was little that Bush could have personally done to improve the evacuation of the World Trade Center.

There is also some debate among commentators over whether bin Laden really cares about the Israel-Palestine situation.


Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Moral High Ground

Steve Landsburg has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism around the web lately, and I'm sure that people who are eager to attack the man for whatever he says will jump all over his latest statements, which equate John Edwards' attitudes towards international trade with the racism of David Duke, as some sort of irrationally hateful slander of the Democratic candidates:

If George Bush had chosen the racist David Duke as a running mate, I'd have voted against him, almost without regard to any other issue. Instead, John Kerry chose the xenophobe John Edwards as a running mate. I will therefore vote against John Kerry.

Duke thinks it's imperative to protect white jobs from black competition. Edwards thinks it's imperative to protect American jobs from foreign competition. There's not a dime's worth of moral difference there. While Duke would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of skin color, Edwards would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of birthplace. Either way, bigotry is bigotry, and appeals to base instincts should always be repudiated.

I think that Landsburg should instead be commended for expressing such lofty values on the equal worthiness of every human life while denouncing the Democrats' shamelessly bigoted vitriol. I eagerly await his future columns which will expound on what the people and government of America should do to be just and fair to all the people of the world. Among the highlights of the articles that we can expect to come are:

- A reevaluation of immigration policies. Why should some people be allowed to live in the United States while others are not, just because they happen to have a different birthplace? The xenophobic attitude of those who want restrictions on immigration is equivalent to that of the racists in 19th century America who wanted to see blacks excluded from their society and sent back to Africa.

- A scathing critique of government spending. If I am reading this chart correctly, those who live outside of America only receive about 2% of US government transfer payments, even though they make up over 95% of the population. Imagine the outrage if the average white American received over one thousand times as much in government transfer payments as the average black American, for no other reason than the color of their skin (despite the average white already being richer than the average black). There is no moral difference between that racist travesty and the way that the government currently decides who is "deserving" of its transfer payments based on birthplace.

- Righteous indignation at America's bastardization of the democratic process. Over 95% of the world's population has no say in electing the leader of the free world, merely on account of some arbitrary rule about the location of their birthplace. Even in the Jim Crow south, the disenfranchisement of blacks was never so ruthlessly and disturbingly thorough.

I can't wait to see Landsburg go after the xenophobic bigots on these issues! And if he already has any columns out there that apply his basic moral concern for human equality to these policy areas, please point them out to me. (The only related column that I know of is this one, which looks at voting from a slightly different perspective.)


Wednesday, October 27, 2004

There is no curse

The suddenly dominant Red Sox have swept the Cardinals to win their first World Series since the end of the first World War.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Carnival is back in town!!!

Returning due to overwhelming popular demand:


at the Doing Things with Words fairgrounds

Come and be amazed by the evil robot!

Marvel at what death gives to philosophy and what it takes away!

Be astounded by the depths of pathos and the cognitive feats that you perform as the lives that persons who never walked this earth could have lived pass before your eyes!

Cheer on the anti-contextualist warrior as he stands alone in battle against the ravenous skeptical hordes!

If you're more than lucky, you can even treat yourself to a second order of desert!

The Philosophers' Carnival
The only carnival bringing you performers who attempt the highest of human endeavors.


Monday, October 25, 2004

Thank God that Iraq did not have WMDs

Terrible, terrible news from Iraq. 380 tons of powerful explosives that had been under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency at an Iraqi military facility went missing after the IAEA left on account of the start of the war. It is believed that the terrorist and insurgent forces in Iraq have these explosives, and that these explosives alone will be sufficient for them to continue the violent insurgency for years to come.

I wish that the United States had not invaded Iraq without being careful and thorough enough to keep under control the dangerous and messy disorder that inevitably accompanies warfare and the fall of a regime. And I am relieved, as the Bush Administration should also be, that at least Saddam Hussein did not have any hidden stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that we did not know about.


Saturday, October 23, 2004

Zoologists for Truth

The mainstream political parties are making vicious, deluded, self-aggrandizing descriptions of how animals live for their own partisan purposes. It seems that they will say anything to get elected, no matter how false or how odious.

The Bush campaign started off the latest round of lies with their slanderous depiction of wolves in the advertisement by that name. Backed by video of wolves and threatening music, a sinister voice claims that "weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." In fact, wolves kill fewer people than lightning. They are hunters of quadrupeds who are not waiting to do us harm any more than lightning is. Further, the main cause of the few annual wolf attacks is not weakness in humans but rabies in wolves. There has never been a recorded example of a fatal predatory attack by a healthy wolf in all of North America. Yet, the Bush administration would cast the entire species as mortal enemies to be feared and fought off.

The Democrats responded, not with truth, but with a new ad, Eagle, that spreads their own nasty zoological lies and slander. Backed by a video of an ostrich that is torn away from any context that could indicate its reasons for its actions, they repeated the vicious stereotype about this noble bird. They claim: "The eagle soars high above the earth. The ostrich buries its head in the sand. The eagle can see everything for miles around. The ostrich? Can't see at all." In fact, ostriches have keen vision, and they face their problems strategically. Their heads are primarily lowered towards the ground when they are fighting other ostriches, when they are hiding from predators, and when they are caring for their eggs in the sand. The ostrich lowers its head to solve problems, for assertiveness, survival, and family values, not to pretend that these problems do not exist.

I hope that the mainstream media will stop spreading these willful and hateful distorsions of the facts about what happens out there in the animal kingdom. It is time for Americans to hear the truth about zoology.


Wolves & Piñatas

Does anyone else remember that old SNL commercial from around the time of the NAFTA vote with this crazy Mexican guy saying that you should support NAFTA because it would bring all sorts of goodies to him down in Mexico, as if they were spilling from a piñata that represents the US? And then there was a competing ad, with a sober, well-dressed gentleman saying that the piñata ad was just some underhanded, baseless propaganda from people who opposed NAFTA? So, you ended up not being sure of who was behind what ads?

That's what came to mind when I saw this website claiming that the Wolfpack supports John Kerry for President. Are the wolves really as peaceful and misrepresented as they claim to be? Or, are they just trying to get you to vote for Kerry because of course the wolves would want to have Kerry as our President? Or, are they claiming to support Kerry because they want Bush to get elected, since they're trying to get you to think that, if the wolves want Kerry as President, then Bush must be the better anti-wolf candidate? It all gets so confusing that sometimes I think that it might be easier to just stop worrying about what the wolves think and decide who to vote for based on the candidates' merits.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Probabilistic Voting

Disclosure of my political views:

I will be contributing to the decision of who will be the next President of the United States by casting a vote November 2 for one of the two men who might become the next President of the United States.

Because of my disappointment with the way that this country has been run over the past 3+ years, I can reject the hypothesis that I will be voting for the incumbent (p<.01).


Monday, October 18, 2004

If you're happy that you clap your hands, then you know it

Brian Weatherson at TAR argues that Gettier cases are cases of knowledge based on the claim that "If X is happy that p then X knows that p." He claims it is correct to say that someone who is made happy by a Gettier belief p is happy that p, and he follows Williamson in claiming that being "happy that p", "angry that p", "relieved that p", etc. is a factive mental state that implies that knowing p.

I disagree with Brian's argument.

I think that it can be appropriate to say "X is happy that p" as long as X is made happy by his belief that p. For instance, Timmy is happy that Santa considers him to be a good boy.

"X is happy that p" only tends to imply that X knows p because of a linguistic convention which can be overruled, either by context (as with Timmy) or by qualifying the statement, as in "Even though Bush has actually increased funding for education, his chances at reelection could be harmed by the fact that there are thousands of teachers who are angry that he has cut school funding."

This "angry that" sentence does not sound any worse than the claim for the Gettier case, "Smith was relieved that his secretary was in the office." For Brian's argument to work, the statements about Timmy and the teachers must be false, and this statement about Smith must be true. This does not seem plausible to me.

For more, see the comments at TAR.



Consider today to be a one-day intermission from the story of The Island of Truth and Lies.

Yes, intermission. That sounds much better than saying that I'm going back on my word. Intermission.


Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Island of Truth and Lies, Part V

(See Parts I, II, III & IV before reading on)

Part V: Out of the Boiling Pot, Out of the Fire

"I will be boiled."

These were the words that the clever logician spoke to the chief. A few moments later the chief turned and left, without saying a word. He would not return for days.

Alone, the anthropologist finally smiled with relief and pride as he thought about what had happened. He was now safe from the boiling pot and safe from the bonfire. The chief could not boil him, because then his statement would be true, and the chief had said that he would only be boiled if his statement was false. The chief could not roast him, because then his statement would be false, and the chief had said that he would only be roasted if his statement was true.

Alternative preparations of him were also excluded. Since the chief had promised that he would be killed in the near future, his statement would prove to be either true or false in the near future, like the other "guest's" statement about the rain. It was not an uncooperative statement, so the chief lacked just cause for abandoning the two-horned dilemma in favor of a more unpleasant method. Further, if they attempted some alternate preparation, then they would not be boiling him, in which case his statement would be false. Thus, the chief would be obliged to boil him, rather than preparing him in this alternate way. It all came back to the self-defeating quality of his proposition: boiled implies not-boiled, not-boiled implies boiled, and the self-defeating implication would take effect as soon as the tribe wanted to follow through on its desire to kill & cook him.

What choice did they have, he wondered? Would they be forced to just let me go? Had he used his training in logic to swoop down and rescue himself from the flames?

The intrepid anthropologist was already considering going to the liars' village before leaving the island. Should he survive, even this brush with death would not keep him away from a fascinating society that was incapable of uttering true statements. What would life be like under such conditions? His biggest desire had always been to observe the dishonest tribe under natural conditions, though he had resigned himself to observing the honest tribe on account of his personal safety, back when he still accepted the confused reports of the anthropological record. If he were to die, though, without communicating back with the mainland, he realized that the remarkable village of liars could remain unexplored for decades, as anthropologists would stay away in fear. So what should he do after being set free? He was trying to resolve this new, much more pleasing dilemma now, while he had time. He did not want to have to rush into an impulsive decision during those first exhilarating moments of freedom.

The anthropologist had a week to ponder his pending dilemma before he saw the chief again. In the meantime, he only had brief contact with the natives who came to his cell to feed him. When the chief came in, he did not take any questions. Instead, he went straight to the facts. He told our anthropologist that his case was a difficult one, and that a decision would be reached within the next month or two. Then he left, never to return.

For the next three weeks the anthropologist continued to live alone in his cell. He was left with his clothes, his pen and paper, a blanket, and the food and water that the natives brought to him. He wrote often, although, imprisoned in his hut, he did not gather much new material to write about. The natives would sometimes talk to him briefly, but they never gave informative answers to queries about important matters. He asked to be let out of his cell on multiple occasions, but these islanders knew how to treat a prisoner. They left him, comfortable, somewhat bored, and somewhat curious, inside his cell.

A few days after the chief came to see him, he had decided that he would not head to the other village unless he was sure that he had shared the findings that he already had with the people back home. The glory of learning about the liars' village was not urgent enough for him to risk never passing on to the anthropological community what he had already experienced and discovered. In the seemingly endless minutes of captivity that followed this decision, he reconsidered it several times but never reversed it. He had detailed letters to his family and his colleagues written and ready to send as he waited for the chief to reach a decision.

Three weeks after the chief's latest visit, the imprisoned anthropologist received word: the chief was dead.

Continue to Part VI: Death and Lies


Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Island of Truth and Lies, Part IV

(See Parts I, II & III before reading on)

Part IV: An Honest Chief

Anyone who has tried to replicate the studies of other anthropologists knows that anthropological works are often riddled with errors.

That observation became prominent in the logician's mind as he gradually gathered information from the tribesmen who came and went from his cell with careful and precise questions. As far as he could tell, every one of them proved honest. And every one who he asked about his fate assured him that they were sure that they would find him delicious.

At first he suspected that he might have been captured by some strange mix of liars and truthtellers, cannibals and welcoming natives. But by the time that the chief came to see him, he had cut through this strange mix to identify a simpler explanation for his situation: he was surrounded by honest cannibals. Thinking back over all of the primary and secondary sources that he had studied diligently back on the mainland, he realized that he may have been a bit too comfortable accepting that the tribe of liars were the cannibals and that the honest tribe would be welcoming.

When the chief came in the anthropologist froze up, nervous about his fate and hesitant to use up his one question. But the chief, a gregarious and polite man, assured him that, unlike his tribesmen, he would be happy to answer questions for a while. The logician questioned him until he was satisfied that the chief was honest, and learned in the process that this chief had never met an anthropologist before, for he never left the village. He had, however, heard plenty of reliable reports about them, and so in order to be sure that our anthropologist was satisfied he had let himself be put through this questioning before explaining the situation.

After the amateur logician had learned about the chief and told the chief a little bit more about himself (at the chief's request), the chief felt that they were now comfortable enough together to get down to business. He explained to the anthropologist, in no uncertain terms: the tribe is going to eat you in the near future. That, he said, is a fact, and there is no sense in denying it. They would get along much better if they could work from this shared assumption.

The only questions remaining were when and how. The timing issue would be decided by the tribe, but, as a cordial host, the chief would let the anthropologist help him decide on the preparation. The anthropologist sat there nervously, as the chief laid out details that he had refused to even imagine when he had been piecing together the truth before meeting with the chief.

Some members of the tribe liked stew with boiled logician, while many others preferred their logician roasted over an open fire. A few liked more exotic preparations, which were significantly more unpleasant to undergo. But, assuming that the anthropologist remained sensible and cooperative, they were not something that he needed to be concerned about.

It was up to the anthropologist to decide whether he would be roasted or boiled. Leaving this decision to the guest was not just a kind gesture, the chief explained, it was also a way of helping keep peace within the tribe and avoiding the kind of conflict that could result when some people within the tribe made a decision for the whole tribe that other tribespeople did not like.

The way that the anthropologist would indicate his decision was by making one statement. If it is true, the chief told him, then you will be roasted, and if it is false then you will be boiled. Your statement must be a proposition. I must be able to ascertain whether your statement is true or false within the near future. Do not remain silent, do not say something that is neither true nor false, and do not make some obscure statement that I cannot assess. If you prove uncooperative and fail to make a verifiable propositional statement, then those alternative preparations will become more relevant to you. I will consider your next statement to be the proposition to assess.

The poor anthropologist fell silent for a minute. Not eager to rush into the pot of boiling water or the bonfire, he decided to first risk one question: is my decision just between being boiled alive and being roasted alive?

There is more to it than that, the chief replied. One guest, for instance, decided that he would like to be roasted if it was raining while he cooked, but boiled otherwise. So he told me: it will be raining when I am cooked. We ended up roasting him on a cool, rainy evening.

But that is enough reminiscing. It is time for you to make your statement.

The clever anthropologist was ready to give his proposition. He did not want to be boiled or roasted, and he certainly did not want to undergo any alternative preparation. So what did he say?

Continue to Part V: Out of the Boiling Pot, Out of the Fire


This rocks

(whatever that means)


Friday, October 15, 2004

The Island of Truth and Lies, Part III

(See Parts I & II before reading on)

Part III: To the Village

The logician's wondering was all in vain, which, initially, may have made it a more effective distracter. If he had figured out that the man was a liar, then he would never have been able to believe that the native was honest, and so the islander would have told a true statement - a feat which this rare breed of liars, as we know, is incapable of. If he had figured out that the man was honest, then the native's statement would have been false, which is surely not possible for an honest islander.

We who speak of this poor logician in a strange land can observe that he never will believe that the mysterious islander was an honest one, and thus we can see that the islander spoke the truth, and that he is indeed an honest fellow. But this amateur logician, though just as adept at reasoning as we, was never able to come to this conclusion, caught up as he was in the midst of the action.

As he approached the threshold of the village, his thoughts on the islander and his peculiar statement never sorted out logically. Instead, a few lines of study raised contradictions, which brought befuddlement, which precipitated the initial stages of panic. The intrepid anthropologist had been counting on his logical prowess, after all, and any weakness in that respect could spell his doom.

Fortunately, his ruminations were cut short by the appearance of another native on the side of the path. "Is this your village?" he asked immediately. An affirmative response from the native cleared the anthropologist's mind, and he did not mind that the native quickly slipped off towards the village.

The anthropologist's spirits lifted at this confirmation and he began to recognize what a momentous occasion was approaching. He was thinking clearly now, logically and practically, about how he was going to get in touch with the chief and explain himself with a minimum of questions. He could see more people up ahead, mostly women and children, in the midst of an ordinary day at this unstudied village.

On the verge of entering the village, a group of tribesmen suddenly materialized from the trees all around him. They went right for him, and, as he tried to explain his situation in just the right words they firmly and efficiently took his bag, pinned his arms behind his back, and led him towards a hut. He quieted down and they remained quiet as they locked him captive, alone, in the hut. Something had gone very wrong.

Continue to Part IV: An Honest Chief

Continue to Part V: Out of the Boiling Pot, Out of the Fire


Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Island of Truth and Lies, Part II

(See Part I before reading on)

Part II: All the Right Questions

We left our traveling logician at a decisive moment on the Island of Truth and Lies, face to face with the first native who he had met, and ready to ask just the right question in order to find his way to the village that he could trust.

Gesturing with both arms, he asked the native "Which of these two paths leads to your village?"

The native responded so casually and helpfully that, for a moment, our anthropologist felt that he must be one of the truthtellers. "My village is right down this path," said the native, as he made a half-turn and gestured down the path to the right.

Our anthropologist friend begin to walk along the trail that had been pointed out. As soon as he lost sight of the native, he realized how ridiculous his trusting intuition had been. The lying natives were just as calm and unassuming as the honest ones, just as likely to seem to make a sincere connection with him. Fortunately, he had not been counting on his ability to spot sincerity in the eyes and mannerisms of a member of a strange culture. He had been relying on pure, hard logic. An truthful native would point towards his own village, the honest one, and a dishonest native would point towards the honest village as well, claiming it for his own.

So the logical anthropologist made his way towards the village that he was sure to find honest and welcoming. He felt proud and excited, and just a little bit of dread. As the village came into sight in the distance, the proportion of emotions began to shift. The thought that it was possible that, somehow, something had gone wrong steadfastly grew more threatening as that possibility came nearer.

He saw one native at the forest's edge, but the native disappeared before they could speak. He tried to convince himself that it was ridiculous for his foreboding to grow while the risk that he had always acknowledged remained unchanged. But he still scanned the woods continuously as he walked, hoping to get a chance to verify that he was on the right path.

Suddenly another native appeared among the trees, and the anthropologist shouted for him to wait and answer a question. The native shouted back, "Why bother? You will never believe that I am one of the honest islanders." The poor logician fell momentarily dumbfounded, and before he could form a question the native had vanished.

The native had done nothing to assuage the doubts of our anthropologist friend, but at first, he at least proved to be an excellent distracter. The amateur logician felt puzzlement rather than dread as he wondered, "Was that man honest? What should I have asked him to figure that out?"

Continue to Part III: To the Village

Continue to Part IV: An Honest Chief

Continue to Part V: Out of the Boiling Pot, Out of the Fire


Life and death

Bush tonight:
"I think it's important to promote a culture of life. I think a hospitable society is a society where every being counts and every person matters."

Bush in the first debate:
"Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. Everybody matters."

Bush as governor of Texas:
oversaw 152 executions

I wish that Schieffer had followed his question about abortion by asking Bush about his position on capital punishment. It can be perfectly consistent to oppose abortion, feel bad about the troops who have died in battle, and support capital punishment, but you have to offer more than vague platitudes on how every life matters if you're going to defend those views.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Island of Truth and Lies, Part I

I have nothing against the logic puzzles with truthtellers and liars that I wrote about here, just the comparison between them and real-life liars. So, I'm writing a story that's full of these logic puzzles. This is the first installment. I'll be posting the other parts once a day for the next few days.

Part I: Journey to the Isle

An intrepid anthropologist, who was also an amateur logician, set forth on a trip to the dangerous but fascinating Island of Truth and Lies. Many of his friends, fearing for his life, warned him not to go to this island where many of the natives were cannibals who would have no qualms about eating a traveling anthropologist. But the anthropologist was determined to make the trip in the name of science because the island's inhabitants were of a most peculiar sort, not found anywhere else on the face or within the crevices of this Earth.

Two tribes of natives lived on this island, remarkably similar in dress and appearance, but remarkably different in their customs. The members of one tribe were perfectly honest. They always told the truth, without fail. The members of the other tribe followed an even more irregular code of speech: they were perfectly dishonest. Unlike other liars, who sunk to telling the truth whenever the pragmatics of the situation seemed to reward it, they made a false statement with every utterance. As an amateur logician, our anthropologist was particularly intrigued by this unique population.

But there were risks, serious risks, for the difference in values between the two tribes was not limited to the truth-values of the propositions they uttered. The one tribe consisted of kind and considerate people who would make the anthropologist feel welcome in their village and treat him with respect. The other consisted of cannibals who would capture and eat him if he ever got near their village. The anthropologist planned to head to a native village, and he was certainly was afraid of this possibility. He had heard that death from consumption by these natives was not the most pleasant way to go, but he had faith in his reasoning skills and his ability to find the tribe that could be trusted.

He undertook this dangerous venture because he knew that the upside to a successful trip would be enormous, since what was known about these two distinctive tribes did not extend much beyond what has already been presented here. The first anthropologists to visit the island had tried to visit the villages, and, though they may have learned a great deal about the tribes, they were unable to publish any of their findings.

Later anthropological visitors took a more cautious tack, limiting their investigation to individual natives who were interviewed far away from the villages. Unfortunately, the natives proved to be most uncooperative informants. Though any native would happily answer the first question that he or she was asked, in the manner of their tribesmen, they would often go days before responding to another question. They would happily converse with other natives, but, outside of their villages, the natives of the two tribes tended to intermingle, appear, and disappear in such a way that it was difficult for an anthropologist to follow their conversations without unethically infringing on their liberties. Since the tribes did not mix in their villages, our anthropologist realized that the only way to come to understand these tribes was to find the safe village, take advantage of their hospitality, and observe the tribal life around him.

Our anthropologist did not even have a map when he arrived at the Island of Truth and Lies, and the great risk of his journey had resulted in him coming companionless. Beginning cautiously, he landed on the end of the isle away from the two villages. He soon found a path through the forest towards the villages and walked along it without seeing another soul. He neared the villages along the island's one central path, until he reached the point where the path branched in two, with one trail towards each tribe's village. Which way was which, the anthropologist had no way of knowing.

No way of knowing, that is, until a native came out of the trees. The anthropologist paused for a moment, hoping that other natives might appear or that this one might open his mouth and reveal his tribe, but his wishes went unfulfilled as the native eyed him quizzically. The amateur logician realized that he had to take the one chance that he had been given and ask this native one question in order to figure out which way he wanted to go. What one question did our intrepid traveler ask?

Continue to Part II: All the Right Questions

Continue to Part III: To the Village

Continue to Part IV: An Honest Chief

Continue to Part V: Out of the Boiling Pot, Out of the Fire

Continue to Part VI: Death and Lies


Lies and the sometimes liars who tell them

You know those logic puzzles where some people always lie and some people always tell the truth? They're a lot of fun, and educational, too, but they are not a good way of thinking about what lying is and why we care about it. Any attempt to link them to the political conversation on lying, as John Allen Paulos tried in an article last year, is bound to distort how we think about lies and liars.

In his article, Paulos even extends the logic puzzles to include ones where a liar is someone who lies with some high probability, rather than lying all the time. But that doesn't help matters. The moral of the puzzle, he says, is still "Confirmation of a very dishonest person's unreliable statement by another very dishonest person makes the statement even less reliable." Good reasoning in a logic puzzle, horrible reasoning in real life. If you had argued in early 2003 that Saddam Hussein must have had banned weapons, since he denied having them and he is a liar, then you would have been laughed out of any reasonable discussion of the coming war*.

In logic puzzles, people make false statements for the sake of making false statements. In real life, people lie with purpose. They want to manipulate others' beliefs for their advantage. And if we care about the political process, we ought to speak out against attempts to manipulate people into having false beliefs. Democracy doesn't work so well if what people take away from their politicians' statements is demonstrably false.

The more important the issue on which politicians make statements designed to spread falsehood, the more important it is to call them on it.**

If an ordinary English-speaker understands the statement to mean something that is actually false, then it is a threat, whether or not its propositional content could be true on some literal, word-for-word parsing.**

One of the biggest problems with a democracy is voters who are not well-informed. Listening to political discussion should ameliorate this problem. It should not do the opposite.**

*I actually saw this argument.

**Partisan links are here limited to a footnote.


Saturday, October 09, 2004

How to win allies and influence people

I've been thinking about two different ways that we could try to make this sales pitch. Since I don't get many readers who are members of the group at which these pitches would be directed, I'm asking anyone reading this to imagine himself or herself as a member of this target audience.

Suppose that you're the leader of a country who did not join the coalition that invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Whatever you believed about the evidence that Sec. Powell presented before the UN, you decided that going to war alongside the US was not the right decision at that time. Your decision may have been partly motivated by your beliefs about what should have been done in Iraq, or perhaps in part by your beliefs about international processes, or perhaps in part by the unpopularity of the war in your country, or perhaps for other reasons. Since March of 2003, you've seen all of the news out of Iraq, including the US capture Hussein, the problems with the occupation and the insurgency, and the reports that Iraq did not have WMDs.

Now, suppose that the US will be asking for your assistance in Iraq, in terms of troops and money, in the coming months. Which of the following pitches would be more persuasive?

First Pitch:
When we decided to go to war in Iraq, we made the right decision. Even if we had known that Saddam did not have WMDs, that still would have been the right decision, because he intended to produce WMDs if that became practical, and he might have developed closer relationships with terrorists and shared his WMD technologies with them. Since 9/11, it is clear that the United States has to act whenever we see a threat, even if you don't agree with us. We are not going to give you a veto over our foreign policy. If other situations arise that are as big of a threat as Saddam Hussein was, then we may go to war again (though I hope that we don't have to, just as I hoped in 2000 that we would not have to go to war in these past years). But right now, the coalition wants your help in dealing with the aftermath of this war. We're fighting the terrorists in Iraq. Things are on the right track there - it's heading towards democracy - freedom is on the march. But even though I can't point to any mistakes that have been made by the people who have been running this occupation and will continue to run it, there have been security problems, and there are terrorists to go after, so it would help to have your assistance.

Second Pitch:
This war in Iraq was a mistake. We should not have abandoned the internationally agreed-upon process which was underway at the time, a process by which every corner of Iraq was open to weapons inspections at a moment's notice, and a process which, we now know, had kept Saddam from having any WMDs. America is never going to rush off to war like that again - at least not under my watch. We'll work with your country and the rest of the world to try to come to a solution that we can agree on. But the fact of the matter is that the war has happened, Hussein's government has been removed, and Iraq is now a country with serious problems. Insurgents and terrorists are gaining power and prestige, and that's not good for any of us. It's not good for America if Iraq turns into a failed state that is a breeding ground for terrorists, and it's not good for your country. I think that we can avoid that bleak scenario, and I think that Iraq can be turned into a decent, stable state, but we're going to need to start doing things right. We haven't had enough troops on the ground from the beginning, and if we're going to turn this country around we're going to need some help. What do you say - if I can get some other countries to join this, and give you some say on policy, and try to act with the blessing of the UN, are you in?

So, if you were a member of the target audience, do you think that you might join the effort in Iraq after either pitch? Which one would be more persuasive? How could either pitch be refined to become more convincing? Should either pitch be edited to make the things that we say that we'll do closer to what we realistically will do?


Friday, October 08, 2004

The power of the... Internets?????

George Bush and John Kerry disagree about a lot of things. For instance, how many internets are there? John Kerry says one, George Bush says more than one.

KERRY: It's in my health-care proposal. Go to You can pull it off of the Internet. And you'll find a tort reform plan.

BUSH: Yes, that's a great question. Thanks.

I hear there's rumors on the Internets that we're going to have a draft. We're not going to have a draft, period.


Debating Again

A key exchange from tonight's debate:

BUSH: ... Now, he says he's only going to tax the rich. Do you realize, 900,000 small businesses will be taxed under his plan because most small businesses are Subchapter S corps or limited partnerships, and they pay tax at the individual income tax level. ...

KERRY: ... Ladies and gentlemen, that's just not true what he said. The Wall Street Journal said 96 percent of small businesses are not affected at all by my plan.
And you know why he gets that count? The president got $84 from a timber company that owns, and he's counted as a small business. Dick Cheney's counted as a small business. That's how they do things. That's just not right.

BUSH: I own a timber company?
That's news to me.
Need some wood?
Most small businesses are Subchapter S corps. They just are.
BUSH: I met Grant Milliron, Mansfield, Ohio. He's creating jobs. Most small businesses -- 70 percent of the new jobs in America are created by small businesses.
Taxes are going up when you run up the top two brackets. It's a fact.

Bush's befuddled response will help get this exchange more media play, and the stream of consciousness that follows is a nice touch. So what's the truth? From Dick Cheney's favorite website:
President Bush himself would have qualified as a "small business owner" under the Republican definition, based on his 2001 federal income tax returns. He reported $84 of business income from his part ownership of a timber-growing enterprise.

(via Atrios, in case you can't get through to

The only problem is that these are 2001 data on Bush. But the main point - that Bush's 900,00 figure is greatly exaggerated - clearly stands, and anyone who wants to argue over whether it was okay to use the 2001 number will have to keep repeating Kerry's point.

Kerry's carelessness about the details around Bush's small business income compares favorably to Bush's carelessness with a more important number: Al Qaeda members captured or killed. Some unreleased numbers claim that 75% of known Al Qaeda leaders have been captured (out of no more than 100 known leaders - and perhaps much less). Tonight, Bush (mis-)used this number twice:
I vowed to our countrymen that I would do everything I could to protect the American people. That's why we're bringing Al Qaida to justice. Seventy five percent of them have been brought to justice.

Of course, we're going to find Osama bin Laden. We've already 75 percent of his people. And we're on the hunt for him.


Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Paradoxes and Self-Defeating Prophecies

There are a lot of posts floating around the Internet about choices, arguments, and beliefs that seem to undermine themselves. If you go after A you raise the specter of Not A, but going after Not A makes A come up and cause problems.

Glen Whitman at Agoraphilia writes on Newcomb's paradox, where (in one version) you can choose between two boxes with money in them, and the amount of money that they contain depends on what a Powerful Being has predicted that you would choose. But the Powerful Being has put more money in the box that he thinks that you won't choose, so if you're going to choose A then you want to choose B and if you're going to choose B then you want to choose A.

Joshua Glasgow at PEA Soup argues that both Queerness Argument for antirealism and the traditional realist response to the QA are incoherent. Since the QA is arguing that there's no such thing as reasons that make it so that you should have a belief, it is incoherent to take it the QA itself as a reason for this position, as the antirealists would like you to. But when the realists try to argue against the QA by claiming that it is self-defeating, they are being incoherent because they do believe that they should be persuaded by reasons, but the only thing that is keeping them from being persuaded by the reasons given in the QA is that the people putting forth the QA disagree that reasons are normative.

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber claims that the argument for the non-rationality of voting based on the small probability of having your vote make a difference in the election is self-defeating because if no one voted then it would be rational to vote because your vote would be decisive, in which case everyone would vote, in which case it would be irrational to vote because your vote would be almost certainly irrelevant, in which case...

Chris at Mixing Memory argues that people like Brian Leiter who are constantly worrying that the United States is moving towards fascism are creating a self-defeating prophecy because the incessant criticisms from people like them will ensure that our country will not become fascist.

John Allen Paulos argued 13 months ago in the Wall Street Journal that the Efficient Market Hypothesis is a self-defeating prophecy in the same way. If investors believe that the market is efficient then they won't bother to try to take advantage of potential inefficiencies, so the market will become increasingly inefficient. but if a sufficient number of investors believe that the market is not efficient, then they will make the market close to efficient by trying to make money off of its inefficiencies.

So, what to make of all of this self-defeating perversity? I think that you have to take it case-by-case. The arguments from Paulos and Mixing Memory are rather strong, since they take the problem to be a matter of degree, not an all or nothing question. I think that Chris Bertram's argument on voting is mistaken because he makes the decision all-or-nothing (as guy brought up in the comments), and that the reasons for voting that John Quiggin and jay brought up in the comments make for a stronger argument. Confident statements on Newcomb's Paradox and the Queerness Argument are a bit beyond the scope of this blog, though, as I mentioned at Agoraphilia, I think that people's intuitions on Newcomb's Paradox are also a matter of degree rather than an all-or-nothing issue.

And reading through the later comments at Crooked Timber, I see that Sebastian Holsclaw has pointed to a couple of posts on these phenomena by David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy, though his discussion does not extend to the more philosophical examples.


Bush and his backup

A few days ago I wondered:
But do most Republicans think that Bush has been better than a replacement level Republican President, or are they just choosing him because he's the incumbent? I'm genuinely curious about that question, although I don't expect many people who want Bush to be reelected to come out and say in the midst of the campaign that he is worse than a replacement level Republican.

Though I have not received any direct answers to my question, the response has been better than expected. I haven't heard from any Republicans on the general question of how Bush compares to a replacement level Republican President, but there is a lot of chatter out there among Republicans about how Bush's particular backup is better than the starter. Conservative David Franke's response to yesterday's debate, for instance, was:
Let’s reverse our two party’s slates! Let’s vote for vice president, not president. Both vice presidential candidates tonight proved themselves immeasurably more literate, thoughtful, and competent on the issues than the head of their tickets.

Two qualifications on Franke's statement, though. First, I don't trust his analysis of the candidates of the party that he doesn't care for. Second, we don't really know how playing time has been divided between the starter and the backup during the first season of Bush-Cheney, and it is questionable whether a reversal of their official roles would cause much of a change in the team's performance next season.


Innovators love to innovate

Grant McCracken has an excellent post on innovation, focusing in on the crucial point that slipped by the usually-sharp Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution and Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek: innovators like to innovate. Man is a creative animal. Innovation & discovery are among the best experiences that life has to offer.

Like the stereotypical economists who Cowen argues elsewhere are not representative of the complex set of members of the economics profession, Cowen and Boudreaux fill their theories with people who are motivated by instrumental rationality, with perhaps a few deviations from perfect rationality (like excessive optimism) and maybe even something non-monetary (fame) to seek in the end. (For Cowen's full defense of economists, click through to the PDF that he has written elsewhere.)


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

And the winner is...

Who won this debate? I have to say that the winner is the Internet, by default, on account of the poor performance by Traditional Media.

Gwen Ifill's question's were less than satisfactory. Two questions on gay marriage and two on tort reform? Endless gotcha questions and invitations to personal attacks or defensiveness? Almost nothing on health care, education, North Korea, or nuclear weapons?

Almost every answer was used to talk about something other than the question asked, because she didn't let them get their policies on the main issues on the table before going after very specific questions. Right off the bat, she asked Cheney about having enough troops in Iraq and the lack of a Hussein-Qaeda connection, and of course he wanted to say something first about why we'd gone into Iraq.

I won't even get into the awkward moment she created with a bizarre error: starting to give Edwards an extra 30 seconds and then taking it back.

Now, just imagine if Dick Cheney and John Edwards had been getting their questions directly from the Internet. Imagine the incisive questions on crucial issues that would emerge from this roiling ocean of pure information.

But the Traditional Powers tried to bar the Internet from the debate through their lengthy and arbitrary rules, and so the only way to share in its full wisdom is to come into its depths and drench yourself in its crashing waves of information.

The Internet, though, proved too strong, vibrant, and clever for these old and decrepit powers to keep it from injecting itself right into their midst. One website broke through their stonewall, smuggling itself into the words of our Vice President: And to any of you who might claim that it was Dick Cheney who was being an active agent by choosing to call up this website as part of his own agenda, I ask you this: do you really think that Dick Cheney is that big a fan of George Soros?


Pop music: it's catching

Have you happened to notice that there's a lot of crappy, and even annoying, pop music out there? Why could that be?

A song's catchiness (roughly, its likelihood of getting stuck in your head) is different from how good the song is.* A song that is catchy but bad (choose your own example) can be particularly annoying & disliked. Since catchiness is related to properties like rhythm & rhyme, there may be more agreement among people on a song's catchiness than on its quality. Since catchiness tends to amplify sentiments towards the song, it can lead to a polarization of opinions, which is often exacerbated by frequent playing of the song.

* If someone tries to convince you that getting a song stuck in your head means that you must really like it, you could do whichever of the following seems most appropriate:
- Tell them that the theory of Freudian repression has been sufficiently debunked
- Tell them that Bem's self-perception theory is descriptive rather than normative
- Tell them that a song can be both bad and catchy
- Punch them in the face


Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Terrorist Schema

I've added Mixing Memory to my blogroll. It's a young blog - born only a month ago (which was a good time for a blog to be born) - and it's a good blog - one of the few that bring the very relevant field of cognitive psychology to the discussion of World Affairs. So go take a look. (Hat tip to Philosophy, et cetera for pointing it out.)

Chris at Mixing Memory has a post on the role played by schemas in memory, in the context of expectations for the debates. What's a schema? If you want an answer without clicking through to Chris's blog, perhaps the easiest way to understand what a schema is comes from this example that he gives:
The gist of the restaurant experience is pretty much the same for similar restaurants, and as a result, we have a restaurant schema for these restaurants that contains the general objects (myself, the server, the cook, etc.) and relations (when to order, when the food arrives, when we're given the check, etc.). When we go into a restaurant, we expect things to happen a certain way (e.g., the server brings our food before giving us the check), based on the schema.

Here's another example: the Islamist terrorist schema. Islamist terrorists are people who are out to kill innocent people for no good reason, they want to get weapons of mass destruction to attack us with, they have a crazy fundamentalist ideology and goals that are vague or unreasonable, they cannot be reasoned with, they've attacked us on 9/11 and they will attack us again if we don't stop them, that we need to fight back because they think we're soft, etc. It's a complex schema, and people usually don't bring up all of the related facts when they talk about terrorism, but a person can bring his whole "Islamist terrorism" schema to bear on a particular case even without the explicit mention of many of the particular facts. As Chris says,
because instances of a concept activate a schema while those instances are being encoded, and because information from those instances is integrated into the schema rather than being remembered individually, when trying to recall the instance, people often mistakenly remember information from the schema that was not present in the instance.

If you understand schemas, it becomes a lot easier to see how the Bush Administration tied Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, 9/11, and Islamist terrorism in the run-up to war. They weren't just trying to create vague associations between Hussein and bin Laden that uninformed, lazy thinkers would fall for - they were trying to associate Iraq with the Islamist terrorism schema. So, yes, they would mention bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same sentence as often as possible. They would refer to the bad things that Saddam has done as "terrorist." They would say that we had to go after Saddam on account of 9/11. They would talk about how his weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists. They would mention Saddam's support for terrorism. They would talk about the terrorist group in Iraq. And so on.

So, it wasn't an accident that half the country believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks, and it wasn't just that some people were gullible and uninformed. They were thinking in the normal way, using schemas, and they heard a lot of things about Saddam Hussein that fit in the Islamist terrorism schema. The pro-war people did an excellent job of setting the terms of the debate, so that people against the war always had to concede that Saddam was a bad guy but people in favor of the war did not have to always concede that Saddam was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many people didn't get enough of the details to know that Ansar al-Islam was in the part of Iraq that Hussein did not control, that Saddam's primary support of terrorism involved giving money to Palestinians, and that the argument for the connection between 9/11 and our war on Iraq was primarily a case of 9/11 reducing the alleged level of justification that we need to go to war against those who might be threats. And then there was the whole muddy issue of WMDs and weapons inspectors, which didn't do much to disconfirm the presumption that Hussein belonged in the Islamist terrorist schema.

Many people didn't get enough of the details or alternative schemas to realize Saddam Hussein did not fit nicely into the Islamist terrorist schema. And the rest, unfortunately, is history.


Saturday, October 02, 2004

Replacement Level President

A lot of people out there are saying that the person who they want to be president is Anybody But Bush. But what does that even mean? ABB is not a person but a category mistake. And do they really mean "anybody"? Some more contentious people might even wonder, would these people vote for Hussein and bin Laden over Bush? Would they vote for an infant? These last two questions, however, are red herrings, as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, or an infant could not even run for office if they wanted to, since the first two are not citizens of the United States and the last is under 35 years of age.

The real question is, what could ABB mean? The best answer, as is so often the case, comes from sabermetricians (sports statisticians). People interested in baseball often wonder about things like "what is the value of this second baseman?" Then the people who do sabermetrics try to come up with a way to answer them. You could compare his performance to the average performance by second basemen in the league, but even if he's below average that doesn't mean that he's worthless. After all, half of all baseball teams field below average second basemen. That's just what "average" means. A team that loses its below average second baseman may still suffer because they'd have to replace him with a player who is far enough below average that he hasn't been starting on any team.

That's why the sabermetricians came up with the idea of a replacement level player. A replacement level second baseman has the statistics that you would expect of a player who replaced your second baseman (assuming that you didn't acquire some other team's starting second baseman). Here "expect" is a technical term, meaning, roughly, that it's the average performance of all replacement second basemen. So, a second baseman's value over replacement is the number of runs that he brings to his team minus the number of expected runs that a replacement second baseman would bring. That's the general idea, at least. The precise, statistical definition can be a bit tricky to work out, but we don't have to worry about that here.

They use the "expected value" of a replacement second baseman rather than the actual abilities of the backup second baseman on that team, because they're trying to say something about the starting second baseman that is relevant for comparing him to others around the league, and for his trade value. Also, it may not be clear who his backup is, since the team could bring someone up from the minors or trade for another team's backup, and the backup might not have enough at-bats to know how good he is. So, they judge the value of a starting second baseman by comparing him to the abstraction of a replacement level second baseman rather than any particular backup second baseman.

One situation where value over replacement is a useful statistic is when one player plays more often than another. If a player is likely to miss a quarter of the season due to injuries or fatigue, is he better for your team than a slightly worse player who can play the whole season? Or, in football, how do you measure the value of a workhorse running back who gets a lot of carries?

Value over replacement has another important use. Sometimes your starter's value drops below the replacement-level value. Then you know that he's washed up, or that he's just not good enough to be starting at that level. That's a pretty clear sign that you should go out and replace him, with someone above replacement level, if possible, but with a typical replacement level player, if necessary.

And now this long set-up comes back around to politics. How do you judge a president's value? Well, one way is to compare him to the average president, or to previous presidents, but you run problems with those comparisons, since they use a small, elite comparison class. So why not compare the President to a replacement level President?

What is a replacement level President? Roughly, it's the kind of President you would expect if you were to replace the Commander in Chief with one of the politicians in a major party whose could be electable in a nationwide election. That is roughly equal to the set of 50-100 Republican or Democratic Governors, Senators, and Representatives who could have some nationwide appeal. So, a replacement level President is at the expected level of a random member of this set of politicians, a replacement level Democratic President at the expected level of a random Democrat from this set, and a replacement level Republican President at the expected level of a random Republican from this set. The definition is not very precise, but it's hard to be precise with such a small sample size of Presidents and with no good objective measures of a politician's value. The sabermetricians are far ahead of us with the statistics, but at least we can use their ideas.

So, why Anybody But Bush? Because he's worse than a replacement level President. That means it's time for him to go. And if we accept this definition of ABB then, as I suspected, we needn't worry about whether people would want to replace him with bin Laden, an infant, or Hussein, because there aren't any bin Ladens, infants, or Husseins in the replacement set.

Even if some people are not exactly excited about John Kerry, it is still pretty clear that he rises at least to the replacement level. Most people can agree, at the very least, that he is one of the 20 best Democrats in the country to have as the party's candidate for the Presidency. So, if you believe that Bush is worse than a replacement level Democratic President, as many people with Liberal leanings, and some Independents, Libertarians, and Conservatives, believe, then you should vote for ABB, who turns out to be Kerry.

There are obviously a lot of people on the Right who don't believe that Bush is worse than a replacement level Democratic President. But do most Republicans think that Bush has been better than a replacement level Republican President, or are they just choosing him because he's the incumbent? I'm genuinely curious about that question, although I don't expect many people who want Bush to be reelected to come out and say in the midst of the campaign that he is worse than a replacement level Republican.


Friday, October 01, 2004

Who won the debate?

The Blargh Blog around-the-clock debate coverage continues.

The question on most people's minds probably isn't "What factual errors or questionable statements did the candidates make?" or "What did the candidates say" but rather "Who won?"

My answer: John F. Kerry.

The single most important reason why:

LEHRER: What about Senator Kerry's point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

BUSH: ... Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden.

I have a feeling that we may be hearing Bush's statement again. And again. And again.