Political Discourse in the Age of Obama

political debate

(From Actual Conversations)

ME

So why do you hate President Obama so much?

THEM

Are you kidding? He’s worse than Hitler. He’s destroyed America.

ME

Then I have to wonder what country we’re living in. How exactly has he done that?

THEM

He’s a dictator, a tyrant, a king, a monarch.

ME

Even assuming that’s true, you surely must realize that Republicans in Congress have opposed him bitterly at every turn – even on things they formerly supported. Wouldn’t you say that rather limits his potential for dictating, tyrannizing, kinging, monarching and Hitlering?

THEM

Well, Obummer bypasses Congress with his dirty tricks. He’s issued all these executive orders, which is absolutely unprecedented.  He should be impeached for that.

ME

Actually, every president issues executive orders. And quite often they’re in defiance of Congress.

THEM

Yeah, well… Ovomit has issued more of them than any other president.

ME

Actually, he’s issued the fewest per year of any president since Grover Cleveland.

THEM

Yeah, well… it’s not just the number, it’s the kind of executive order that matters. I mean, Obeyme has used his office to give amnesty to illegal aliens. Just because he’s a foreigner himself. He ought to be impeached for that.

ME

Actually, many presidents have granted amnesty to undocumented aliens.  Reagan and Bush Sr. did so without Congressional approval. Should we impeach them all retroactively? What makes Obama different, other than his ethnic heritage?

THEM

Now there you go. Why do liberals always have to bring up race?

ME

I seem to recall that a non-liberal introduced the topic of the president’s roots and supposed foreign birth. Whether or not I’m a “liberal” is irrelevant, but race is sometimes very relevant, or at least potentially so. Because sometimes it’s the only reasonable explanation for the way some people behave. And that’s certainly the case when it comes to the obsessive hatred of President Obama.

THEM

Well, I don’t hate him just because he’s a nigger. Makes no difference to me. I hate him because he’s a dictator, a tyrant, a king, a monarch. He’s worse than Hitler. Just look at the whole socialism thing.

ME

What socialism thing is that?

THEM

Come on, he’s a socialist. Everybody knows that.

ME

Socialists themselves don’t know it. They find it quite amusing that some people believe Obama to be one of them.

THEM

Well, what would they know? Rush Limbaugh says he’s a socialist. Just look at Obamacare. It’s socialized medicine. Just like Hitler. He ought to be impeached for it.

ME

What is your definition of socialism?

THEM

Well… I don’t really have one. But Glenn Beck says it’s socialized medicine. And Obarfbag has rammed it down everyone’s throats, even though nobody wants it. Just like Hitler.

ME

It’s true that most Americans will say they oppose “Obamacare”, if you use that word. But if you ask them about what the Affordable Care Act actually does, an overwhelming majority support it. So the president has been placed in the difficult position of giving Americans what they want, even though they’ve been convinced that it’s something they hate and fear.

THEM

Oh yeah? I bet people don’t really want death panels.

ME

Agreed. And exactly what passage in the ACA provides for death panels? Have you actually read it?

THEM

No, but Sarah Palin says it has death panels. And I’m sure she’s read it. She’s very smart.

ME

Moving right along. Is there anything else that prompts you to hate Obama?

THEM

Sure, lots of things.

ME

Such as?

THEM

He lies.

ME

Ah, that might explain the animosity. No other politician has ever lied before. But how significant are his lies? On a scale one to ten, with one being “I did not have sex with that woman” and ten being “WMDs in Iraq” — or reverse the polarity if your values are those of the political and media mainstream — just how damaging have been whatever lies he’s told?

THEM

He’s lied, and he should be impeached for it. Take that global warming crap. It’s worse than Hitler.

ME

So you don’t believe global warming is a problem?

THEM

Hell no. It snowed in Montana last week.

ME

And no doubt it also snowed in Wasila. But other than that, what convinces you that global warming is a hoax? How much professional training and experience have you had in climate science?

THEM

None. But Sean Hannity says global warming is a fraud.

ME

I guess that settles it then.

THEM

You’d realize it too if you weren’t so brainwashed by the liberal media.

ME

Of course. Why do you suppose the president would pursue the effort to combat global warming if it doesn’t exist?

THEM

It’s just one of Hussein’s ways of wrecking the economy.  Just like Hitler. And he needs to be impeached for it.

ME

Actually, the economy has been improving at a pretty steady pace under “Hussein”.  Unemployment is at its lowest since 2008. Gas prices are at their lowest since 2010. Home construction has more than doubled. The deficit has experienced its largest reduction since World War II. Consumer Confidence Index has risen from an all-time low of 37.7 to at least 83. And the rate of growth for corporate profits under him absolutely dwarfs that of any other president – which doesn’t t do much for your “socialism thing”.

THEM

You really like to throw statistics around, don’t you?

ME

Sorry, I guess that’s not playing fair.

THEM

You don’t really believe he had anything to do with any of that, do you?

ME

So he has total power to destroy the economy, but no power at all to improve it?

THEM

Well, I suppose he could improve it if he wanted to. But he wants to make Americans suffer.

ME

Why?

THEM

That’s just what liberals do. They’re worse than Hitler.

ME

There’s a limit to how far you can go in blaming “liberals” for your problems. We could debate how much influence any president has on the economy. But what’s beyond question is that the economy has improved while Obama’s been in office. And since that also happens under just about every other Democratic president, it’s probably not just coincidence.

THEM

Well, the economy may have improved a little bit, but it’s still really crappy.

ME

If so, it indicates what terrible shape it was in when Obama came along. His predecessor demolished the economy along with many other things. If you’re looking for someone to accuse of trying to “destroy” America, maybe Bush would be a better place to start.

THEM

Well, you have your opinion and I have mine.

ME

Unquestionably. But this is not a matter of opinion. If you’re interested, I can provide plenty of solid facts and figures that add up to a blistering indictment of the Bush administration.

THEM

Why do you hate America so much?

Matters Of Opinion: The Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America

Buckley and Vidal

Back in 1968, ABC News did something really revolutionary. It made opinionated commentary the centerpiece of its evening newscast.  Because, as its anchors explained in announcing the stunning innovation, opinion was something that had been sorely missing from news coverage. (We’ll pause while you catch your breath.) It wasn’t the first time commentary had been used on newscasts, of course; but ABC’s bold move in programming at this particular time proved to be groundbreaking, the opening of what many consider a Pandora’s box of domination by opinion.

It was perhaps an ideal time to try such an experiment, an explosive year at the height of the Vietnam conflict and the civil rights movement, with vociferous student protests and other civil unrest, a presidential election, violent clashes between police and civilians in Chicago, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As part of its fare, ABC  made an honest attempt at being fair and balanced by featuring frequent debates between the preeminent voices of “conservatism” and “liberalism” : William Buckley and Gore Vidal. At one point the affectedly suave, urbane and unflappable Mr. Buckley became so flustered that he threatened to “sock you right in the goddamn mouth”  — not the only time he threatened to punch out a debating opponent — and suggested that the “queer”  stick with his “pornography”, a reference to Vidal’s racy novel Myra Breckenridge. (And it’s an illuminating comment on American culture, such as it is, to note that when Buckley’s tirade aired, the network censors bleeped out only the word “God”.)

ABC’s revolutionary new format was short-lived, but it left a lasting impression; commentary remained a standard feature of its newscasts, and other networks followed suit. While network officials may have been rather uneasy about the way Buckley and Vidal clawed at each other like rival faction leaders in a schoolyard, the public ate it up. One might argue that 1968 helped pave the way for George Putnam and Wally George and Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck etc., etc., etc., etc,, planting the seeds for the “infotainment” establishment so prevalent today in media coverage of current events.

Today, opinion is the coin of the realm in the public forum. People believe  not only that it’s important for them to have an opinion about everything, but that it’s urgent to express it, and that the world has an obligation to deem it of great importance. Everybody has a blog, and everybody comments on everyone else’s blog, and Facebooks and Tweets every little reaction they have to every little thing. In theory, there’s something healthy about this unprecedented level of exchange; but read the discussions on many of these blogs and you’ll almost always see them degenerate into catty, juvenile bickering that benefits no one. (I have to remain vigilant to prevent that from happening even here.)

It’s also a great irony that when we have such a phenomenally unprecedented source of knowledge as the Internet, it’s so often used to promote and reinforce pre-existing beliefs.  If you have concerns about the safety of vaccines, you can pull up all the legitimate research you’d ever want in a matter of minutes; instead, people often just Google-channel Jenny McCarthy.

I recently saw an online poll about whether people think Michelle Obama’s attire aboard Air Force One was disgraceful. Seriously, people? This is how you choose to spend the precious hours of your life that will never come again? Yet however frivolous such a discussion may be, it is at least a genuine matter of opinion, as there are no absolute standards about what a first lady should wear while traveling.  All too often, there’s a public avalanche of opinion about topics that aren’t matters of opinion, such as evolution. Evolution is a scientific fact, and none of your opinions (yes, including your opinions about the meaning and significance of biblical passages) will alter the reality one whit. It can be interesting and illuminating to discuss the facts; but trying to discredit them with opinion is like trying to conceal the Grand Canyon under a napkin.

We’re awash with opinion, drowning in opinion. Americans have become intoxicated with the notion  that opinion is inherently interesting. But opinions are only as interesting as the facts or ideas they’re attached to; and all too often, both are sorely absent.

Case in point: game show host Pat Sajak recently generated a great deal of free publicity that his career desperately needed when he tweeted the following:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

He later insisted he was just joking, but the purpose of the “joke” was to ruffle the feathers of the “alarmists” (i.e. scientists and those who support their work). No explanation of how he acquired greater knowledge of science than scientists — apparently from years of watching Vanna White play with the alphabet — but anyone who challenges him is, if not an “unpatriotic racist”, at least an “alarmist” and a “liberal”. Opinion is supreme, and fact mustn’t dare infringe upon it.

That selfsame Bill Buckley who yearned to settle differences of opinion pugilistically also once commented that

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

This remark is touted by his disciples as a clever putdown of “liberals”, but it actually betrays a common problem among “conservatives”. No, I don’t mean that it often seems their greatest joy in life is attacking them librulz, though that’s certainly a consideration. I’m referring to a common fallacy they exhibit or pretend to: the premise that respecting other people’s beliefs would entail presuming that all beliefs are created equal. Just because I respect your right to believe that AIDS is caused by peanut butter doesn’t mean that I’m going to take such a belief seriously. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m going to stand by idly while you try to make such a belief the cornerstone of public policy.

“Conservatives” have a habit of pushing for policy based on passionate beliefs that are unfounded at best, and often ill-informed, irrational and sometimes squarely in collision with solid fact and even their own convictions. These include the following: that capital punishment deters crime; that aggressive warmongering discourages aggressive warmongering; that having more guns makes us safer and an armed society is a polite society and citizens use guns to prevent millions of crimes a year ; that homosexuality  is both an illness and a voluntary “lifestyle”; that creationism is a substitute for science; that outlawing abortion will reduce its incidence, and doing so makes a person “pro-life”; that “Obamacare” is “socialized medicine”; that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War; that government assistance to the needy encourages indolence, while government assistance to the wealthy encourages industriousness; that the U.S. was intended to be a Christian nation and God is on our side and Christian morality is more moral than everyone else’s morality.

Their only “evidence” for such beliefs is that somebody else said that somebody else said so.  Yet they want these tenets not only to be treated as the equals of fact-based beliefs, but given unquestioned supremacy — if you dare request some substantiation, they are likely to play the “liberal intolerance” card just as Buckley did. (Technically, there’s a distinction between belief and opinion, but the two are so closely allied; and neither is synonymous with fact. Fact: “Gravity exists”. Opinion: “Gravity is unfair”. Belief : “Gravity is a liberal conspiracy”.)

And oh yes, there’s the matter of global warming. Having an opinion about global warming is like having an opinion about the boiling point of water or  the number of days in a week. You either know the facts or you don’t. You either accept them or you don’t. Opinion is superfluous and irrelevant.  But that doesn’t prevent Pat Sajak from drawing his brilliant conclusions. Or Sean Hannity from saying “global warming is a myth, in my opinion.” At least these two had the decency  to acknowledge, in these particular instances, that they were merely expressing an opinion. Not so with James Inhofe, perennial senator from Oklahoma, who called climate change

the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state

And this, mind you, is a person who is in a position to shape legislation, a person whom the citizens of Oklahoma have voted into office repeatedly. Again, there’s no hint as to why Hannity’s or Inhofe’s opinions on such a topic should matter. We just know that they should somehow — apparently to a very great degree.

There are many subjects that I’m not an expert on; so when discussing such subjects, I’ll gladly defer to people who know more about them than I do. Which is why you’ll never hear me join the Sajak/ Hannity/ Inhofe chorale in proclaiming global warming a “myth” or “hoax”.  Am I suggesting that you never should question authority? Not at all. But quite often there’s a difference between authority and expert. George W. Bush was the ultimate authority on this planet for 8 long years. But he never exhibited expertise in anything except lies and deception, mangling the English language, destroying international goodwill, and magically transforming black ink to red. And he also. by the way, behaved, like many other “conservatives”, as if he considered scientific truth negotiable, heavily subjugating it to political ideology.

By all means, question authority if you feel so inclined. But if that also entails challenging the experts in their own fields, you’d better be armed with a lot more than opinion. You’d better have a level of knowledge at least equal to theirs. That is, if you don’t want to make a Sajak of yourself.

Do you really care if I believe that Bogota is the capital of Peru, or that the Baltimore Orioles won the American League pennant in 1944? Then why should you care what Pat Sajak or Sean Hannity or James Inhofe thinks about global warming? Or Pat Robertson thinks about evolution? Or Alex Jones thinks about government policy? Or Sarah Palin thinks about… well, anything?

The correct answers are (a) Lima — Bogota is in Columbia; (b) the St. Louis Browns, who did not become the Baltimore Orioles until a few years later; (c) it’s very real; (d) likewise; (e) he’s long overdue to be fitted for a new white jacket, and (f) she has achieved an extraordinary level of ignorance on a wide range of topics.

Those are the verifiable facts. Any contradictory opinions are probably — in my opinion, at least — a big waste of your time.

The Red Herring of “Settled Science”

krauthammer_shinkle_605

It has become very popular among climate science deniers to say that “the science is unsettled”, as if such a statement settles anything. It doesn’t. Of course the science is unsettled. Science is almost always unsettled. That’s why they call it science instead of religion. But just because scientists don’t know everything doesn’t mean they don’t know anything. There’s still much they don’t know about global warming, just as there’s much they don’t know about cancer and Pluto. That does not mean they’re uncertain that any of them exists.

“Settled science” is a straw man suggesting that scientists claim to have all the answers. How could they when they usually don’t have their own radio talk shows? And I’ve never heard one of them claim to know everything. What you might hear them claim, however, is that they know more about the field they work in every day than does someone who’s never worked in it at all. Fancy that.

Charles Krauthammer (pictured) recently paid tribute to the “settled science” decoy with an article in the Washington Post titled The Myth Of Settled Science. He prefaces his remarks with the insistence that “I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier.” But he certainly uses the tactics of a denier, including cherry picking, misinformation and distortion. And he follows the Golden Rule of today’s rabid ideologues: When All Else Fails, Attack President Obama.

He quotes a statement by the president that “the debate is settled … climate change is a fact” , for which he believes the president deserves the appellation of “propagandist in chief” — an irony too thick to cut with a chainsaw– and pontificates that

There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.

Scientists, of course, subscribe to no such credo, nor does Obama. He didn’t say that the science is settled, but that the debate is settled — i.e., the debate over whether global warming is a fact. And on this point he was all too accurate.  The debate indeed has been long settled among competent and disinterested scientists. Plenty of people still contest that conclusion, of course, just as plenty of people contest that a landing on the moon really occurred. But neither is really a debate in any meaningful sense.

Such individuals often cloak themselves in the mantle of “skepticism”, as if a skeptic would be more likely to doubt scientists than crackpots and ideological fanatics with little or no scientific background. You can also doubt gravity if you like, and test out your conviction with as many leaps from tall buildings as will support your thesis.  In the words of physicist and advocate for scientific literacy Neil deGrasse Tyson, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One might argue that the leapers from buildings hurt nobody except themselves; but sometimes before they leap they get themselves into positions of power and influence. And they have a habit of vilifying and ridiculing people who do support science. (See Gore, Al.)

Are scientists sometimes wrong? You bet. But that doesn’t mean science itself is wrong. And you need a lot more to establish that scientists are wrong than ideological fervor and cherry-picked details.

Krauthammer likens global warming to mammograms, which have been used for many years to prevent breast cancer but which, according to one study, are more or less worthless. It’s a weak analogy because mammography research is experimental and remedial, whereas climate research is purely observational.  A more appropriate analogy would be: “The certainty that global warming exists is like the certainty that breast cancer and x-rays exist.” Or, if Krauthammer’s assessment is correct: “The idea that mammograms prevent breast cancer is akin to the idea that global warming can be dispelled by flapping your bedsheets at the moon.”

Krauthammer can speak with some authority about mammograms, having been trained as a physician. But to the best of my knowledge, he has little to no expertise in climatology. Which doesn’t seem to make any difference to the cult of denial.

It’s interesting to note that Krauthammer is generally considered a “conservative” — which may not be entirely fair, since he holds certain positions (i.e., pro-choice) that are antithetical to contemporary boilerplate “conservatism”. But he is a regular contributor to Fox “News” and The Weekly Standard. And he certainly follows the winger playbook on this one.

“Conservatives” — whether they’re genuine conservatives or modern neocons fraudulently wearing the badge of conservatism — have a long, long history of being on the wrong side of science. You’d think that just once in the long, long history of the human race, they could get it right. But they seem very, very determined not to.

(See previous posts,  Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming and NASA Data, Computer Projections, Opinion Polls and Them Dang Libruls.)

Misquoting Gore. Again. Still.

Al-Gore-Freezing

As 2013 was coming to a halt, the cult of climate science denial believed they had great reason to gloat. After all, hadn’t their favorite bogeyman, Al Gore, predicted 5 years ago that the Arctic would be free of ice by now? And wasn’t there still plenty of ice left at the North Pole? And heaven knows, as long as there’s at least one icicle left on Santa’s beard, it totally proves that global warming is a hoax. Ditto if we can establish that Al Gore has been wrong even once in his life.

Sorry to pop the bubbles in your champagne, deniers, but you got it wrong on both ends; both Gore and the scientists he was quoting were all too accurate.

Climate science denial is predicated on the belief that climatology is part of an evil commie plot to destroy the American economy by nibbling away at the mountain of profits raked in by corporate polluters. Somebody forgot to pass that memo along to the CEO of ExxonMobil, who has acknowledged not only that global warming is real, but that fossil fuels “may” contribute to it.  But the global warming “skeptics”, as they like to fancy themselves, know better.

If you’re one of these cultists — oops, “skeptics” —  then I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that them thar evil commie scientists were indeed mistaken. The bad news is that their error is minor, and not one that will be very friendly to your dogma. On the contrary, the estimates were too conservative: Arctic ice is disappearing even faster than projected.

The “skeptics” generally try to discredit climate science by stringent cherry picking. Unable to grasp the concept that global warming is an AVERAGE increase in WORLDWIDE temperatures over a LONG period of time, they instead seize upon very short-term variations in temperatures in one location, particularly if they happen to occur during the winter. The folly of this type of cherry-picking “skepticism”, particularly with regard to arctic ice, is readily apparent in the following graph borrowed from Truthout:

Arctic Ice

Yeah, there was a spike in the ice in 2013, just as there had been in certain previous years; but there’s still an unmistakable downward trend. Any gambler who records his wins and losses at the craps table long enough can show you a graph like this one. It doesn’t mean that probability is a hoax or mathematicians are frauds or casinos are generous. But gosh, ain’t it fun to just forget the facts and ridicule Al Gore.

If you try Googling something like “Gore’s 2013 prediction”, you’ll come up with an ocean full of blogs sneeringly touting Gore’s pronouncements that the Arctic would be ice free by 2013. What an idiot!  What a lunatic! What a shill! What a propagandist! What an opportunistic manipulator!

But what you’ll have a much harder time finding is his actual words. So let’s take a look at them. Chances are you saw them here first:

Last September 21 (2007), as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

In case you’re having struggles with the Mother Tongue, let’s point out that there’s a difference between “could” and “will”; between “one study estimated” and “without a doubt”; and between “in as little as 7 years” and “in at most 6 years”.  In their ever-mounting desperation for a Gore flub, the anti-sciencers also turned to a speech he made in 2009, in which he supposedly said that the arctic ice could be gone in 5 years. Even if that had been what he said, that would mean this year (2014) and as of this writing it’s only January. But what he actually said was this:

Some of the models suggest that there is a 75 percent chance that the entire north polar ice cap during some of the summer months will be completely ice-free within the next five to seven years.

His office later clarified that he meant to say “nearly” instead of “completely” — in which case he was, again, too conservative, as the Arctic is already nearly ice-free during summer — but even as it stands, the statement leaves way too much wiggle room for anyone to declare that it’s wrong. Except, of course, for the Gore-hating science deniers. They’ve even misrepresented the words of the scientific source Gore was citing. But their most extensive smearing and distorting is, as always, reserved for Al himself.

As its own Exhibit A against Mr. Gore, PJ Media, one of those innumerable bastions of disinformation and general wingnuttery out in the blogoshpere, presents a brief, undated, uncontexted, garbled, and possibly edited clip of Mr. Gore appearing to say that arctic ice could be (or might be, or something) gone in 5 years. PJM notes that a presumably more damning clip that it had alluded to previously seems to have vanished down the “memory hole” along with, presumably, its smoking gun evidence that global warming is a hoax and thousands of the world’s top scientists are frauds. Doncha hate it when that happens?

The campaign to discredit Mr. Gore has been long, intensive, nasty, silly and downright bizarre. For sheer silliness, it’s hard to surpass the recent grade school gigglefest at Fox “News” over the fact that Mr. Gore’s book finally has, as any book eventually does (are you ready for this?) gone on sale. (Snicker snicker tee hee) Except maybe for photographing a copy of the book in the snow. But above all, there’s the standard practice of heavily editing his own words, as above.

As discussed previously , the Gore haters were relentless, systematic and unscrupulous in their efforts to assail Gore’s credibility during the 2000 presidential election, twisting his words like pretzels. When he said of a student’s campaign to clean up the toxic spill at Love Canal, “That was the one that started it all”, the librulmedia, taking its cue from GOP propagandists, quoted him as saying “I was the one who started it all.” And even more famously, of course, his observation that “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” will be forever remembered as “I invented the Internet”. They branded him permanently as a pathological liar without producing even one lie he’d told.

Not content merely to distort his words, the Gore haters have distorted his actions as well, pegging him as a blustery con man. What a hypocrite, they say, to warn people about the dangers of pollution when he, like any successful American, lives in a nice house and travels on planes occasionally. Obviously, he’s spent 4 decades warning about climate change just so he can put a feather in his own cap and rake in a few bucks in the process.

What you probably won’t hear these folks talk about is how he used planes after Hurricane Katrina. Remember Katrina? Even if you’re one of those sage souls who pooh-pooh the commie notion that global warming may have contributed to it, and instead chalk it up to gay marriage and abortion, you probably agree that the government’s finger-in-the-ass response to it was less than stellar — under the “leadership” of the guy who, by all evidence, had stolen Gore’s job.  Meanwhile, Gore himself shelled out $100,000 of his own money to secretly charter two planes to fly to New Orleans and evacuate 270 stranded citizens — an effort in which he physically assisted. And he refused to discuss it with the media when they found out about it. A big spender he may be. A self-aggrandizing phony he ain’t.

Somehow, the rightwing anti-science vendetta against Albert Gore, Jr. reminds me of a line from the movie Love Story. Perhaps it’s because the author of the book , Erich Segal, was a friend of Gore’s at Harvard. Perhaps it’s because Gore’s good faith reliance on an inaccurate newspaper article about the book was transformed into another of his baldfaced “lies”.  Perhaps it’s because the line in question was uttered by Gore’s Harvard roommate, future Hollywood superstar Tommy Lee Jones.

In any case Jones’ character, upon hearing the news that the male lead is romantically holed up in his room with his girlfriend, initially responds, “Again?” But then after a moment’s reflection, he amends it to the more appropriate reaction: “Still?”

Likewise, when I hear about the smears and distortions against Al Gore by climate science “skeptics” I seldom think, well there they go again.  Because in all these years they’ve never once put on their clothes and gone home.

Propaganda Prop # 7: Cherry Picking

cherry-picking

You may have heard that the Associated Press recently was compelled to issue a retraction because of an embarrassing photo accompanying an article about global warming.  The article had identified the photo as depicting ice melting at the North Pole; but in fact, it was a seasonally thawed “lake” (actually more of a pond) some 300 miles away. Chances are you heard about this from an anti-science relative, along with the comment, “Aha! This proves that global warming is a hoax.” To which, perhaps, the only suitable response is: “Aha! This proves you know how to cherry pick.”

Cherry picking, the seventh in our series of propaganda tools, consists of zeroing in on evidence that reinforces one’s argument, and discarding evidence that doesn’t.  It’s the result of confirmation bias, which is a tendency — a tendency very deeply ingrained in the human species — to seek out confirmation of one’s beliefs and values. It usually doesn’t entail inaccurate information so much as incomplete information — facts ripped away from their context with other facts that would drastically affect their interpretation.

A frequent telltale sign that you’re being cherried is the reporting of a single anecdote followed by the words “this proves that…”. A single occurrence rarely proves anything except as noted above: The statement “This proves you know how to cherry pick” may be assumed accurate with reasonable safety, because doing something even once proves that you’re at least capable of doing it (it’s pretty damn hard to fly a plane once unless you know how). But it doesn’t prove that you do so habitually, and that’s the basis for “proofs” supported by cherry picking.

You might think that the Associated Press itself was guilty of cherry picking, but most likely it just committed an honest flub, placing the wrong picture with the right story. That’s been known to happen before. As far as Alex Jones and company are concerned, however, the journalists and editors were “blatantly lying”, which proves that global warming is a myth. But the AP had no need to lie or cherry pick, because there is an abundance of photos that starkly reveal thawing polar ice caps on a massive scale.

In any case, the AP gaffe is a journalistic lapse rather than a scientific lapse. It has no bearing whatsoever on the enormous mountain of evidence compiled through decades of climate science research. Yet the deniers speak as if they believe they can bowl that mountain over with a single cherry — from an entirely different orchard, no less.

The op-ed piece pushed by Jones and his faithful flock (it was re-posted from another website, Natural News) employs both of the most common cherries picked by the cult of climate science denial: (A) citing the beliefs of a few of the 3 percent of scientists (many of them affiliated with the petroleum industry and/or right-wing think tanks) as being more substantive than the 97 percent who have reached a consensus on global warming; and (B) citing instances of cold weather as contradicting warmer climate. Actually, long-term warming can contribute to short-term cooling; and the article also ridicules this sound fact as further proof that scientists are “incompetent”.  It also brandishes a couple of phrases that qualify as both straw men and framing: “Earth worshipers on the Left”, suggesting that it’s the “other side” and not the anti-science fanatics who have systematically politicized this issue; and “the lie that mankind’s loathsome habit of improving life is killing the planet”, suggesting that it is the anti-science fanatics rather than the scientists who represent true progress. Cute.

The article also indirectly pays homage to “Climategate“, a faux “scandal” that science deniers falsely claim impugns climate research. They really pulled out all the stops on this one. There’s even a nifty explanation for why scientists are so devious and nefarious: “to take away your mobility and force you into crowded urban centers where you can be more easily controlled”.  Heaven knows people in those crowded urban centers are nothing but automatons, with evil scientists pulling their strings.

Cherry picking may be thought of as the flip side or complement of an error that all of us have been guilty of at some time or other: faulty extrapolation — more colloquially known as “jumping to conclusions” . We tend to draw conclusions in line with what we want to believe, even when the evidence is insufficient. And then we try to convince other people that those beliefs are accurate by reversing the process, selecting facts that support the faulty conclusions.

In 1998 a fraudulent study proposed a causal link between autism and certain vaccines. This gained a great deal of traction with the public, in part because children begin to manifest symptoms of autism at about the same age they get the vaccines. So the two must be related, eh? It’s like surveying the smog in Los Angeles and deducing that it must be caused by palm trees. (Which appears to be just what Ronald Reagan may have done.) It’s a classic case of the cardinal sin of sociology: confusing concurrence with cause — or as it’s been expressed, confusing “with” and “because”.

The reputed autism-vaccine link has been soundly discredited, but that won’t stop people from believing it anyway if they are determined to do so. Okay, if you wanna believe it, go ahead. As long as you keep it to yourself, you may be guilty of nothing more than being misled into a faulty conviction.  But when you start trying to sell your misguided belief to other people, you’re committing propaganda via the genus Pluckus redfruitus.

Sometimes people confuse cherry picking with illustration by example. (My attackers have been known to do so.) It’s an easy mistake to make — the line does get rather blurred. So let’s see if we can make it more distinct.

Suppose I’m discussing a certain extremist fringe group — we’ll call it the Koo Koo Klan — and I mention that it is racist.  Then I illustrate this with a particular incident in which the group burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. Am I cherry picking or just providing an example? In a sense, it depends on whether the cart came before the horse.

If I’m basing my racist characterization of the KKK only on this one incident, then I just might have crimson-stained fingertips. There might be other reasons why they burned a cross on this family’s lawn. Maybe it was a twisted gesture of affection instead. Maybe they picked a yard totally at random. Maybe they didn’t like families with a certain number of kids or who drive a certain type of car. But if the organization has a history of burning crosses for racist reasons and has explicitly made racist comments in its official documents, promotional materials and speeches, then my conclusion is on much more solid ground; and my inference about this one action being of racist intent is more reliable, and may reliably be taken as an illustrative example rather than a definitive cherry.

As you no doubt are aware, cherry picking is a sort of Olympic sport among political pundits and partisans; and it often leads to some rather fascinating contortions of reason.

Consider, for example, a column by right-wing commentator Larry Elder titled What About the Stupid Lies Democrats Believe? (Elder, incidentally, is the author of the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, which rehashes talking points that he and his fellow ideologues utter frequently even though they’re supposedly forbidden from doing so. They include the claim that “illegitimacy” is “America’s greatest problem”. Really.) Apparently on the defensive about criticism of the loony things right-wingers believe, he mentions just one of many –i.e., that President Obama is a Muslim — and plucks a few cherries to make it sound like that might not be such a fruitcake belief after all. Then he counters with a list of 5 “lies” left-wingers supposedly believe — which somehow excuses or mitigates the lunacy of right-wing beliefs. (That’s an evasive tactic we’ll be examining in the future).

His list of 5 supposedly wackadoo Democratic beliefs is really not far-fetched at all. and is highly suspect for several reasons. One of these “lies” in particular really jumps off the page at you:  “George W. Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election”. Which he dismisses with this quote from the New York Times:

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.

As we discussed in an earlier post (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored) the allegation of a stolen election in 2000 is founded on numerous factors, all involving soundly documented instances of malfeasance by the Bush camp and/or the GOP on his behalf.  There was, for example, the unwarranted (and evidently unlawful) purge of tens of thousands of likely Democrat voters, months before any ballots were even cast, from the rolls in Florida — where Bush’s brother just happened to be governor and his local campaign chair just happened to be Secretary of State.  And there was the blatantly partisan intervention by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court — two members of which had direct ties to the Bush family and/or campaign — which included unnecessarily halting the Florida recount. And on and on and on.

But Elder ignores all of this, and focuses only on the projections of the media consortium which reviewed ballots long after the election was over.  And it gets even better. He singles out a single statement by a single media outlet summing up the results.  Not that it really matters. He could have found a similar quote in just about any major newspaper. As we discussed before (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup), the consortium examined the outcomes under several different counting scenarios; and Gore would have won most of them — including any scenario involving a statewide recount of all ballots!  And this, mind you, is even after all the shady shenanigans by the Bush gang. It’s hard to see how anybody could wring an unequivocal Bush victory out of all this, but that’s exactly what the media did. In nearly every case, news reports trumpeted the recount scenarios favoring Bush in its headlines, while burying in fine print the much more significant results favoring Gore. George W. Bush was not picked by the voters, but he was picked repeatedly by the cherry harvesters.

In short, Elder fails to make a case that the stolen election narrative is even wrong — much less that it belongs in the same corner of the loony bin as Obama the Muslim (not to mention death panels, forged birth certificates and Benghazi cover-ups). Yet he purports to have established both with a single quote from a single newspaper. He’s balanced quite a stack of cherries here.

In addition to overtly political topics, you’ll hear the sound of cherries being yanked from trees in relation to a number of other hot-button issues that almost invariably get linked to politics. Probably the two canards I hear cherried most often are: “gun control doesn’t work” and “American media has a liberal bias”.  (Both of these constantly chanted mantras are on Elders list of things you can’t say. Really.) We’ll be dissecting both of these myths in due course. For now let’s just note that “proving” either of them would require an Everest-sized heap of data; but proponents of these beliefs are generally content just to “prove” them with a nugget or two carefully plucked from the mass.

Several years ago, the ever-entertaining National Review ran what may be my all-time favorite instance of cherry picking. There is unquestionably a liberal bias in the media, it declared, because x number of media outlets during a certain period of time ran y stories about “gun control” and only z stories about gun ownership.  First off, the ever-entertaining NR was selecting a single issue as the determining indicator of bias. Then, it heavily stacked the deck by comparing coverage of “gun control” to coverage of gun ownership — how often is the latter really newsworthy? And do you really think that right-wing media would never have any interest in covering “gun control”? This illustrates just one of the many reasons why I can never resist affixing “ever-entertaining” to “National Review”.

None of the foregoing should be construed as an admonition against countering the prevailing paradigm. If I didn’t favor questioning “conventional wisdom”, this blog wouldn’t exist. (The prevailing paradigm, in case you really didn’t know, includes the “conventional wisdom” that media have a “liberal bias”; that “gun control doesn’t work”; that “both sides” are equally hostile and over the top; and that scientists are unscrupulous and inept.) But if you’re going to challenge experts in their own field, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than your beliefs. And if you expect your beliefs to be taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, those beliefs need to be backed up by more than a few cherry picked facts wrenched out of context.

 

The God Bias, and Other Observations from Joplin

This past weekend, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Joplin, MO and volunteer with the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the recent tornado. It’s a daunting, sobering task that can’t help but make you pause to reflect on a number of things. Here are just a few thoughts that paraded through my mind while picking up debris in the June swelter.

Sometimes media gets it right.

It’s no secret that we live in an age of media exaggeration and sensationalism. (That’s one of the reasons for the existence of this blog.) As I came into Joplin, it appeared they’d done it again. Seeing initially the part of town that was little affected, I noted only a few trees down and some spotty structural damage to houses, and I figured the TV cameras had just zoomed in on a few buildings that got hit exceptionally hard. And then came the reality: miles and miles of total jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching, mind-numbing devastation. The media actually may have understated the case this time.

People want to help.

Despite what you hear about people being greedy, selfish and cutthroat, most of us jump at the opportunity to help out someone in need. Sometimes it takes a disaster to jolt people out of their ruts and make them realize that their help is needed. But we have an innate drive to be of service – ALL of us, regardless of age, race or creed.

The God Bias

Disaster relief is a conspicuous manifestation of the bias toward religion that permeates our society. Most of the people you see – no, strike that – most of the people that you NOTICE  reporting to volunteer are affiliated with a church group. They arrive in vans, wearing custom made T-shirts advertising their congregations from all over the country. Hey, it’s great to see them, from southern fundamentalists to Middle Eastern Muslims.  Joplin needs all the help it can get; even the Scientologists are a welcome sight.

What’s annoying is that it’s often difficult to find an outlet for volunteering without going through a religious group. The official spin is that churches have cornered the market when it comes to charity. And this perception has contributed to the belief that one must be religious in order to be moral, in order to be a good person. The truth is that secularists are just as caring and helpful as anyone else (see above); they are just not as massively organized nor as publicly visible as the religionists.

Religion is, for better and for worse, a highly conspicuous thread running through American society, especially in this part of the country – they don’t call it The Bible Belt for nothing. Just try having a ten-minute conversation with someone about their social life without having them mention their church. The work these folks do for charity is an extension of everything else they do; but contrary to what many believe, it is religious people doing the good deeds, not religion itself.

God does not play favorites.

One aspect of the God Bias is the strange but persistent belief that faith will protect you in the face of such calamity – while simultaneously blaming God for the very disasters he is expected to shield you from. (“Act of God” is even a legal term is this strange world.)

Sorry, but the reality is that such tragedies often strike (think Joplin and Katrina, for instance) in areas having a high concentration of believers. Just around the corner from the houses where I was picking up the sad traces of some family’s home and life were the sparse ruins of a church building, with only a couple of pews remaining, and its hymnals scattered to the winds.

It’s a trend.

In case you haven’t noticed, there has been an increase in storms of this type in recent years. And it’s likely to get worse. Because it’s quite probable that global warming is contributing to it. Of course, the Cult of Denialism will poo-poo this, and find some other explanation. (See above.) They believe that global  warming would be linear and consistent, and therefore having a cold day now and then totally discredits the exhaustive research of climate scientists. What they don’t realize is that global warming produces extremes of many kinds, including cold weather and winds. But don’t worry, the extreme heat is still there too: while I was cleaning up debris, the thermometer reportedly hit a new record for the date.

Finally, note that Joplin still needs a lot of help, and will continue to need a lot of help for a long time. You can contribute hours, money or goods – even if you’re not religious. Honestly.

Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming

Global warming has been the subject of an absolutely phenomenal amount of propaganda, distortion, misinformation, disinformation, balderdash, poppycock, baloney, drivel and other crap. In fact, with the exception of health care, there’s probably no subject that has inspired more lunacy in the past… well, two years or so. Here are the more common inane and insane utterances that you probably have heard, are hearing, and will continue to hear:

1. “Global warming is a politically motivated liberal hoax.

Actually, the cult of denial about global warming is a politically motivated hoax. Scientists simply studied and reported the facts; but they stepped on some toes in the process. Because the conclusion that carbon emissions contribute heavily to the problem carries with it the recommendation that polluters need to clean up their act. And those polluters have some very powerful allies in Washington and in the media. Thus the intense and well-financed campaign to shoot the messengers and create the impression that there is still a debate going on about the reality of global warming. Sorry to break the news, but the debate ended long ago.

2. “But the evidence is inconclusive.”

Read my lips. If you inherit a million dollars, that means you’re richer. If you gain ten pounds, that means you’re heavier. If the Giants score more runs than the Rangers, the Giants win. If temperatures rise, that means it’s getting warmer. What’s the least bit ambiguous about any of that?

And there is no doubt that temperatures are rising, and have been for some time. Since at least 1880, when reliable measurements began to be taken, temperatures have risen in every decade except 1930-39 and 1970-79. During those two decades, they remained essentially level. But the rest of the time, they climbed steadily.  And the first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the warmest decade on record. Furthermore, this is the first time in the past 650,000 years that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its current level. And high CO2 levels are always followed by warmer temperatures.

3. “But scientists disagree over the evidence.”

It’s practically impossible anymore to find a competent scientist who disputes the evidence and who is not on the payroll of oil companies or affiliated with a right-wing think tank.

4. “But scientists can’t be trusted.

So from whom would you like to obtain your information about science? Politicians? Pundits? Televangelists? If you’re going to reject the work of scientists, then stop driving your car, taking medication, eating food you don’t grow and develop yourself, watching television, and wearing clothes. And while you’re at it, turn off the damn Internet!

Scientists in fact are extremely efficient at policing themselves, with a system of checks and balances that would be the envy of many governments. Yes, there are occasional instances of scientific fraud. And it’s almost always scientists who detect them. On the other hand, Fox “News” has no accountability whatsoever; they know they can say absolutely anything and some people will believe it.

5. “But those leaked emails prove that scientists fudged data.”

Those leaked emails prove that leaked emails need context; and that whenever they can’t find a scandal, the media will invent one. There was absolutely nothing in those emails that negate any of the research on global warming, much less indicate deliberate manipulation of data. (See Fact Check’s analysis.) But if you’re going to talk about leaked memos, maybe you should look at this one in which Fox instructs its talking heads to deliberately cover up the evidence. Or this report, which shows that the Bush administration did likewise.

6. “But it wasn’t long ago that most scientists believed in global cooling.”

Nope. Sorry. This is another myth tirelessly circulated by the media and other right-wing establishments.  Despite the fact that climate science was still in its infancy and despite the fact that there had indeed been a temporary cooling trend, most scientists of the 1970s still believed the earth was getting warmer. The “theory” of global cooling was never embraced by the scientific community.

7. “But scientists often change their minds”

That’s one way of looking at it. Science, unlike anti-science and other forms of dogma, is a living, evolving thing.  Scientists are in the business of uncovering facts; so if they “change their minds”, it’s a sign they’re doing their job.

Again, it’s a question of expertise. Chances are if you were on trial with your life at stake, you’d want to be represented by someone who’d spent years studying and practicing law rather than a hairdresser who’s never changed her mind on legal matters. And if you needed brain surgery, you’d probably want it performed by a medical expert rather than a plumber. So why would you want to rely for answers about science on someone whose sole expertise lies in manipulating public opinion?

8. “But skepticism is healthy.”

It certainly is, and scientists aren’t suggesting otherwise; science is built on skepticism.  But who is more deserving of your own skepticism: thousands of the world’s most brilliant and dedicated researchers including several Nobel laureates – or media hacks with perhaps one basic college science course under their belts and a fiercely ideological agenda to push?

9. “But we still have a lot of snow and cold weather.”

This is perhaps the silliest statement of all, so naturally it gets repeated quite a bit. Every time there  is a snow flurry, you can count on someone saying, “well, so much for global warming”, and you can count on someone like Sean Hannity saying something like, “I wish Al Gore would explain where all this snow is coming from”. In fact, Al Gore has done just that; and as always he was met with hoots of derision from demagogues like Hannity. And as always, since he was simply relaying what scientists say, he was right and they were wrong.

Folks, folks. There is a difference between climate and weather. Weather is what’s falling from the sky right now, or over a period of days, or weeks, or even months. But climate is the normal weather for a given area based on a much longer period of weather cycles. Global warming refers to climate, not weather, and just because climate is warming doesn’t mean that all cold weather will suddenly disappear. In fact (write this down) warmer climate can actually cause cooler weather. Really. Ask a scientist to explain it to you. And maybe to Sean Hannity as well.

10. “But Al Gore rides around in big jets and lives in a big house that uses a lot of energy.”

I take it back. This is surely the silliest of them all. So naturally it gets an incredible amount of mileage. Do a search for “Al Gore” and “energy” or “ecology” or some such and you’re guaranteed to get a gazillion stories about his “hypocrisy” and/or “elitism”. But a fair and honest evaluation of his habits is much, much more difficult to find. So what? Do you really want to sacrifice the future of the entire planet in order to make the point that one person is unqualified for sainthood? If so, then please, please PLEASE take a closer look at Mr. Gore’s  “carbon footprint”.

11. “But human activity can’t possibly have an effect on atmospheric conditions.”

Never been to Los Angeles in the summer, eh?

12. “But God will take care of it.”

As Hercules said to the man whose wagon was stuck in the mud, “the gods help only those who help themselves.”

13, “But there’s nothing we can do about it, anyway.” 14.”But it would be too expensive.”

The “expensive” objection is not even a legitimate argument, since all the money in the world isn’t much good if we don’t survive to use it; and the costs (financial and otherwise) of ignoring the problem will be astronomical. But it’s also wrong.  First of all, practicing sound ecology opens up new sources of revenue, such as alternative sources of energy.  Second of all, there are many simple steps that could be taken to have a dramatic impact.

A few years ago, one study concluded that simple conservation measures could reduce energy consumption by 47% (memo to Glenn Beck: that’s  nearly half) and of course carbon emissions would also be greatly reduced. Shortly thereafter Dick Cheney, who was in charge of the nation’s energy policy (An oil tycoon deciding energy policy??? See anything wrong with this picture?) decreed that conservation would play no role in his administration’s energy policy.   Presidents Ford and Carter, however,  implemented more stringent automobile standards which, if left in place, would not only have greatly reduced pollution, but might have totally eliminated the need for foreign oil. And then along came Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of politicians (if we really must) we can’t help noting that among the current crop of congressional Republicans, 53% of those in the House and a jaw-dropping 74% in the Senate claim to know more about climate science than scientists do. Surely it would make a significant difference, and cost nothing to boot, if the American public simply stopped electing characters like these.

IN SUMMARY: Global warming is real. Climategate isn’t. (We’re not sure about Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.) Al Gore didn’t invent global warming, nor did he claim to. It may not be too late to avert disaster. But we probably won’t anyway. In a war between scientists and loonies, the loonies will probably win. Because they have a powerful propaganda machine that no scientist could ever invent.