Category Archives: Politics

You Wish I’d Never Been Born?

kid-picWith the latest anti-abortion dust-up, I’ve noticed a resurgence of stories from people who tell us that if the pro-abortion folks had had their way, they wouldn’t here.

“I dare you to look in her eyes,” I read, “and tell her you wish she weren’t alive today.” It’s a powerful rhetorical ploy. But a little thought reveals that as an argument, it’s misleading at best. Continue reading


Big Brother is watching you drive


license-plate-reader-2The other week I was waiting for a take-out order with my god-mother-in-law, when I noticed a Boston police car driving along with two scanner-camera thingies mounted on its trunk.

Wondering what the heck they were, I asked Google. And Google told me that they are licence-plate readers.

And they can read 10,000 license plates an hour. Even on cars traveling in the opposite direction. Even at highway speeds.

The impression that the police give is that the scanners are only used to check licence plates against an FBI database that contains plate numbers of stolen cars, criminal suspects, etc. I’m inclined to think that this use is not too troubling: It’s basically a high-tech version of posters of wanted criminals and stolen vehicles. You can see it at work in this YouTube video, where it alerts the officer to a stolen car that was used in an armed robbery.

However, I do wonder whether we know that the information isn’t also being collected in such a way that the government could keep tabs on who is where when. That would be a lot of information on U.S. citizens.

Put that information together with the cell-phone and computer data that the government is also collecting (and how long before face-recognition software makes each of our mugs a licence plate?), and you’ve got some pretty Orwellian possibilities.

Personally, I’m happy the police have the licence-plate scanners to help them find criminals and stolen vehicles, but I’d like to be sure that there’s oversight with accountability to make sure that the information is not abused.

I’d say that’s what we need more generally to deal with the privacy issues that are daily coming to light: accountability. As Hollywood put it 15 years ago: Who’s watching the watchers? (Enemy of the State rentals are probably spiking now; I already heard that sales of 1984 are up 7,000%.)

(Video is supposed to start at 7 min 15 seconds, but I can’t get it to cooperate.)

The ACLU defends Christians

I stumbled upon a useful list (by way of the Friendly Atheist), and I thought I should throw it up here so I can find it when I want it.

The ACLU Fights for Christians.

My father, who is a devout Catholic, was visiting a few years back, and as we were driving past the Unitarian Universalist church I attend, he commented on the nativity scene in front of City Hall across the street. I was dealing with traffic and couldn’t really look over at it, so I asked him whether Balthazar was inside or outside the stable. We at the church make a stink when they put the white magi inside and leave the black magus standing outside.

He told me all three were together inside. “Good,” I replied, “then we’ll let them keep it up.”

My father commented, “I’m surprised they’re allowed to have one up at all.”

I explained that there have been a recurring problem with their placing statues of dark-hued people with animals while grouping together white-hued people-statues, “but as long as they treat Balthazar like a person, we don’t have a problem with the display.” (There’s also a menorah, a frosty, and a toy soldier – and if other faiths/non-faiths wanted to put up a display, they’d be allowed to.)

“It wouldn’t be up to you,” my father interjected, “if the ACLU steps in, they’ll force it out regardless of what you want!”

“We are the ACLU,” I laughed. He was taken aback.

It was a bit of an exaggeration, but our church had been in touch with the ACLU a year or two before, and they were offering to help us in another little skirmish with the city. Our church wanted to put up a banner in support of marriage equality when Massachusetts was considering a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriages. (The banner read, “People of Faith for Marriage Equality.”)

UU-BannerOur church is a historic building, so we need permission from some city council before we can do anything that alters the church’s appearance. We needed a permit, and at first they weren’t inclined to give it. (Ostensibly because it would detract from the architecture; in reality, we suspected, because the folks on the council didn’t care for the content of the message.) We began a dialogue with the ACLU, and when the city found out that they were going to face a legal challenge, they decided that maybe the temporary sign wasn’t so unsightly after all.

Our church was active in the fight for marriage equality, and I like to think that it made a difference. Our state senator was one of those who changed his vote between the first Constitutional Convention in ‘06 and the second one in ‘07. To get an amendment on the ballot in Massachusetts, you only need a 25% vote in two consecutive legislatures, and then you only need a bare majority of voters at the ballot. (It’s never ceased to amaze and dismay me that it’s almost easier to pass an amendment than it is to pass a law.)

There are 200 legislators, so we needed 151 to vote against the amendment to keep it off the ballot. The first time we only had 132. The second time we had 151, so the civil rights of the minority never got put to a popular vote. (I’d like to think that the Massachusetts citizens would have decisively defeated it, but you can never be sure; we did elect Scott Brown, after all.)

Anyhow, I explained to my father that religious displays are perfectly constitutional as long as there is a policy that treats all religions and non-religions equally. I also mentioned that the ACLU has frequently defended the religious rights of Christians, as well as non-Christians.

“Well, I’ve never heard about those cases.”

“That’s probably because there are more Christians than non-Christians, so when someone is violating the separation of church and state it’s more likely to be a Christian,” I replied.

“Exactly! There are more Christians!” he retorted. By which he seemed to want to imply that because Christians are the majority they ought to be allowed free rein to incorporate their faith into various government functions. Which is precisely not the lesson that one should draw. But we let the conversation end there in the interests of familial harmony.

Next time the topic comes up, I’ll have a link handy.

Epistemology of Journalism

There’s been a bit of a debate lately about Nate Silver, the number cruncher at Five Thirty Eight election polls blog.

Silver is a stats guy who plugs the public poll numbers into a computer model that he has developed to give the probability of various scenarios — such as Barack Obama winning the presidential election next Tuesday.

Right now Silver’s model gives an 82.7% likelihood of an Obama victory.

The dust-up is over the fact that many pundits (especially, but not exclusively, right-leaning pundits) think that the race is far closer than this, and indeed, may even be in Romney’s favor at the moment.

These claims are based on the fact that the national polls have Romney and Obama effectively tied, and several have Romney in the lead. Further, many argue that Romney has “momentum” since not too long ago he trailed in the national polls, and now the race is neck-and-neck.

So, do we trust the geeky numbers guy, or do we trust the savvy well-connected pundits?

Mark Coddington has a very nice discussion of the philosophical differences underlying the debate:

Silver’s process — his epistemology — is almost exactly the opposite of this:
Where political journalists’ information is privileged, his is public, coming from poll results that all the rest of us see, too.
Where political journalists’ information is evaluated through a subjective and nebulous professional/cultural sense of judgment, his evaluation is systematic and scientifically based.

There’s lots more there, and in the pieces he links to, including discussion of “savviness” as a jounalistic ideal. Jay Rosen has made the case that journalists pride themselves as being “objective,” above the partisan fray, and as privy to the facts of how things really work (in contrast to the partisan public’s misconceptions of how things work).

We see this too, I’d suggest, in the response of the NYT public editor to Silver’s offer to make a wager (for charity) on the outcome of the election. If Silver’s jounalistic critics are correct that Silver’s odds are off, they shouldn’t mind betting on it, and Silver is willing to put his money behind his numbers.

The NYT editor views this as unseemly, however:

the wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.
It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist.

Notice the sins that Silver is supposedly guilty of here. By being willing to put money on the probabilities he’s calculated he’s opening himself up to partisanship. And (according to the NYT journalism ethos) this is inappropriate for a journalist.

Because journalism isn’t about getting the facts right (according to journalists). It is about being “objective” and being “above the fray” — even, unfortunately, when the fray is about the facts themselves. (Which is an example of the fallacy of false balance.)

Another point mentioned by Coddington is that many people are conflating probabilities with predictions. This brings to mind a little exchange I had with Roger Pielke Jr. last year.

People who downplay the science of climate change also seem to have trouble distinguishing between estimates of probability and predictions.

The House Science Committee on Young Earth

(via Talking Points Memo)

Broad sympathy and broader skepticism

Ta-Nehisi Coates on “Fear of a Black President”:

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.