Monthly Archive: January 2017

The Fallacy of information omission

Folks, some of you are posting links to stories on websites that assert that 95 million Americans over the age of 16 are not in the labor force i.e. they are not working. This is being used as information with which to claim that the US unemployment rate is far higher than the claimed figure.
Now, like most people who didn’t come down from the hillside with the last rainstorm, I know that unemployment numbers are not aligned with practical reality. I have written about this in the past.
However, the “95 million not working” claim is an example of a fallacious assertion, in that it (deliberately in my opinion on many websites) omits crucial information and analysis. A less polite summary would be that it is BS.
Politico analyzed the claimed number a few years ago when it was around 90 million. Their analysis shows how the real number of people who should be working but are not is a whole lot less than 95 million.
I would also note that the websites trumpeting this finding fall into two groups:
1. Headline clickbait sites run by popular media outlets (including the tabloid newspapers)
2. Fringe authoritarian sites specializing in bullshit stories about the Democratic party, including all manner of conspiracy theories and general all-purpose nonsense (World Net Daily being a good example)
There are no serious, analytical web sites pushing this story, for the simple reason that once you strip away the hyperbole, there aren’t 95 million people sitting on their hands doing nothing. That headline number, quite simply, does not pass any sense check or smell test. If there really were 95 million employable people in the USA unable to find work, we would have seen riots in the streets and towns a long long time ago.
If you fasten on to big numbers just because they match your preconceptions, and don’t bother to ask “how is that number comprised”, you are guilty of engaging in confirmation bias, and quite frankly, you deserve to be duped. Some of you need to wake up and engage your critical thinking skills.


Mutual understanding and agency

All through the recent electoral cycle, I grew wearily used to reading breathless exposes from reporters sent out from the coasts (where most of the major media outlets are headquartered) to The Heartland with the instruction “find out why all of those people are angry and why they like Donald Trump”.
The reporters would seemingly pick towns off a map, go visit them, talk to a cross-section of townspeople, dutifully record their thoughts, opinions and rants, and write the required article, usually beginning with a lede like “In Upper Squitville, they’re mad as hell…and they love Donald Trump” or similar.
This sort of formulaic cookie-cutter reporting is easy to satirise. So somebody did, to hilarious effect.
To get any sort of real insight, you need to dig a lot deeper. For example, go read JD Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”, the story of his upbringing in Appalachia and Ohio, in a dysfunctional family struggling to survive in an economic environment decidedly unfriendly to lesser-educated people and families in depressed areas.
Vance has also been doing the rounds of the radio and media interview circuit, partly to promote the book, but also partly to explain the reasons why Donald Trump is so popular with rural voters, although he is at pains to point out that Trump is not the answer to their prayers.
Patrick Thornton pointed out that there is a mutual obligation on both sides to understand each other. Like Vance, he escaped from a rural start to his life to move into IT in New York. Also like Vance, he became exasperated with the idea that it is entirely up to the coastal folks to understand and indulge the heartland folks, and that the heartland people are somehow helpless. So he wrote about it.
Now Patrick is back on Twitter, pointing out that heartland people have agency, and that the idea that everybody else needs to accomodate them is not realistic:

The tweet storm that he wrote basically expands on JD Vance’s point that people in these areas do have agency and choices. One of the choices is to fight to improve. Another choice is to wait for some savior (in the case of many people, they imagine that Donald Trump is their savior).
UPDATERude Pundit has a take similar to Patrick Thornton’s, but rather more obnoxiously expressed. Although it is still a lot milder in tone than the babblings of the self-identified Deplorables on Twitter.


A reminder about the word “lie”

Last year, I wrote this posting about the use of the word “lie” and how it relates to the political process.
I am adding some comments based on what is happening in the USA about now.
It is quite clear to me, based on a careful reading of his interviews, pronouncements, speeches, and tweets, that Donald Trump, a significant percentage of the time, talks bullshit. Not just standard-grade bullshit. Fine, fragrant, weapons-grade bullshit.
Many of his comments consist of assertions and statements that are clearly false, and can easily be shown to be false with only a minimal amount of analysis.
A good recent example is the claim that the singer Jackie Evancho saw her album sales “skyrocket” after she agreed to sing at Donald Trump’s Inauguration. However, as a careful reading of this article makes clear, there is next to no factual basis for this claim, based on an analysis of sales of her most recent album. This analysis by Billboard points out that the sales bump of her most recent album can easily be explained by the normal Christmas sales spike, and none of her previous albums have re-entered the charts, which is what one would expect if an artist gets a general sales boost.
Many people who dislike or despise Trump are now in the habit of labelling every utterance he makes as a lie.
It is far from clear that Donald Trump is lying. My own opinion is that, in keeping with a man whose entire business career and public persona to date has been based on self-aggrandisement and hype, he has long ago mastered the art of talking bullshit. During the election cycle, his opinions on the same issue would change, seemingly often daily. He would pick up and drop issues at random. Unlike most campaigning politicians, who usually have a tightly scripted collection of static talking points (the “stump speech”) that they give at most of their events, Donald Trump could, and often did, talk about almost anything at his events. This, of course, assured continual media attention (if you are a media organization, a Donald Trump event would be infinitely more likely to generate new soundbites than a Hillary Clinton event).
But does Donald Trump actually say things that he knows are untrue? My take is…probably. However, I strongly believe that a lot of the time he is, to use an old phrase, simply Making Shit Up. He says what he thinks will get him attention at any point in time, preferably something that will confuse and distract opponents, often without even thinking about it in advance. He also likes to use Twitter, since Twitter allows him to talk in short soundbites without having to engage with any questioners or interlocutors. For him, Twitter is the perfect communication channel. It is easy to use, simple, and scrutiny-free.
These kinds of scattergun, confusion-inducing communication tactics rely more on bullshit than outright lies. This passage from Harry Frankfurt’s book “On bullshit” summarizes the difference:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point
occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller
of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the
truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie
at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie,
he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand,
a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His
focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a
certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths
surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well,
so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must
submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of
the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less
deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and
independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and
imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar
notion of the “bullshit artist”.

Lying requires too much sustained attention to detail for a person like Donald Trump. Once you start lying, you have to remember exactly what lies you told in the past in order to avoid tripping over your own past falsehoods. I doubt that Donald Trump has the patience or focus for that, and, as a narcissist habitually surrounded by sycophants who rarely contradict him, he probably never had to face the level of scrutiny that he will now start to experience.
So…this is a long way of saying that I believe that most of what Donald Trump talks in public is BS and tosh. However, I have yet to see evidence of sustained lying. I simply think that is beyond him at present.


The 49ers trainwreck – and a volunteer

So it comes to this. The son of the titular owner of the 49ers, asked the obvious question at a press conference, responds by essentially sticking out his tongue at the media and the fan base.
The more I read about Jed York, the more I become convinced that he is the second coming of Tony George.
Yes, that Tony George. The man who, suffused with resentment and hubris after (as he saw it) being frozen out of decision-making in American open-wheel racing, took his ball and stick away, starting the Indy Racing League in 1995, a move that ultimately crippled top-flight US open-wheel racing for over 20 years. The sport has still not recovered to this day. Many years ago, somebody nicknamed Tony George “the idiot grandson”. The nickname stuck. Eventually in 2010, George’s own family tired of his spending family money on his crusades, and took away his stick and ball, but not after immense damage had been done.
The arc of the decision-making of the 49ers is looking more and more like the days of the CART_IRL battle. After hiring Jim Harbaugh and watching him coach the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance and (almost) a second one, the ownership decided that they could not tolerate Harbaugh’s behavior, and parted company with him. Having decided that they could not tolerate a strong-willed coach, they then promoted Jim Tomsula from within to be the head coach. Tomsula had a long and distinguished coaching record with the 49ers, but he had no previous team leadership experience, and the feeling was that the 49ers ownership had hired him because he would be compliant and non-confrontational. They were essentially following a classic model where a respected but confrontational and demanding leader is replaced by a more collegial leader.
What is interesting is that this is not even the first time that the 49ers parted company with a successful head coach. Back in 2003, the 49ers, with John York leading the ownership, fired Steve Mariucci after a season where the team had made it to the second round of the playoffs, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the SuperBowl. The reasons for the firing were never revealed publicly.
Jim Tomsula proceeded to prove that he was in over his head in the 2015 season, including rambling press conferences where he sometimes seemed confused. The 49ers finished 5-11 and the ownership fired Tomsula, paying him $14m to sit at home and tend to his garden, while they then hired Chip Kelly, who had been fired by the Eagles before the end of the season, his grand experiment of bringing college tactics to an NFL team seemingly at an end.
At the same time, players voted with their feet, leaving in free agency or retiring. That should have been an indication that things were about to get much worse. In the NFL, poorly managed teams always have trouble attracting and keeping free agents, who have been around the game long enough to sniff out dysfunction, and, with limited playing lives, they want no part of it.
Kelly, beset by the lack of good players, proved unable to coax any better performance out of the team, who finished 2-14. Now he has been fired, along with General Manager Trent Baalke.
The 49ers have, in the usual way, cleaned house.
That was the easy part. The much more difficult part is beginning. How do you attract a high quality General Manager and coach to a franchise where the ownership leader (Jed York) behaves like he is out of his depth? York appears to have no established leader in the organization with a solid football background at present. Unless he is able to tap into advice from elsewhere, it is difficult to see how he is going to be able to make insightful and informed decisions about who to interview and who to hire.
The 49ers situation has been described in multiple media outlets as the least desirable coaching/GM vacancy in the NFL, so it is not likely that any of the top-line names are going to be interested.
One man has already volunteered his services. Former player Jeff Garcia.
This might superficially be a daft idea, but the 49ers could do a lot worse than to hire a former player who, rejected by the NFL because he was perceived to be under-sized, went to the CFL and built a career there before returning to become the starting quarterback of the 49ers for a number of seasons. Garcia was a fiery personality on and off the field in his playing days, but one thing he could not be accused of was lack of effort and intensity.
The 49ers may have to get creative and hire a non-obvious candidate. Maybe they should interview Jeff Garcia…

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