Neat, plausible, and wrong

One of my favourite quotations is from H.L. Mencken:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.

Tom Flanagan amply demonstrates the sort of reasoning at which this barb was aimed in a recent op-ed for The Globe & Mail, We don’t need a centre party to prevent polarization.

I will let his words speak for themselves:

What keeps democratic politics focused on the centre? Not the existence of a centre party but the workings of the “median voter theorem” (MVT). Think of voters as points spread out along a line – on the left, on the right, in the middle. By mathematical necessity, there is a median position, with half of voters to the left and half to the right. The median voter sits at the winning position in the democratic competition of political parties.

The proof is simple and elegant. If Party A moves to the left or right of the median, it allows Party B to locate itself closer to the majority of voters. The MVT predicts that Party A and Party B will tend to converge on the median because they cannot afford to let their rivals cut them off from more than half the voters.

The first problem is that he invokes the MVT as having some causal role here, as though it were a force moving people around rather than just a description of the phenomena. The MVT does not “keep democratic politics focused on the centre.” Any account that purported to explain such a thing would have to be vastly more complicated than this simple theorem. Its unsuitability to the task appears clearly when Flanagan notes that a move in one direction by a party “allows” the other part to locate itself closer to the majority of votes. The problem is that this “allows” not only is not “causes,” but is a stand-in for some entirely vague understanding of political strategy, and must admit of all sort of other determining factors which we don’t really have any idea of being able to outline without enough detail that we could consider the MVT to have real explanatory force here.

The other problem is that it is absurdly simplistic to lay out political view on a line. I thought first year undergrads learnt that any remotely sophisticated organization of the political spectrum does not draw its inspiration from a straight line. It’s surprising, and somewhat disappointing, that a political science professor such as Flanagan would give any credence to this approach.

This is not just the problem of relating abstract models to the real world. That is of course always a problem, as a model must abstract some things out in order to be a model and not just a copy. Flanagan correctly admits that “The MVT is a mathematical abstraction belonging to game theory, and the world is far more complicated than that,” but this makes it seem like the problem is just the traditional one of translating abstraction into real-world, concrete application. In fact the issue is that the model is just bad. And when you start with a bad abstraction, you will never get a good translation back into concrete terms.

A valiant stand on science and religion

Eventually, someone, somewhere had to stand up for a politician’s right to ignorance.

I for one applaud Canada’s federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear for refusing to answer reporters questions regarding his belief in evolution. Such conversations are indeed “not worth having.” The personal beliefs of a politician are simply irrelevant to his or her ability to successfully manage public affairs.

We have seen this amply demonstrated already by the Canadian federal conservatives in their succession of Minsters of the Environment, none of whom know the least thing about environmental science nor care a whit for sustainability, yet who have all excelled in their ability to run a tight ship.

Whether Goodyear “believes in science” is a total red herring. Goodyear could be a voodoo-practicing astrology columnist who tries to convert humours into gold on the weekends for all I care. The role of government is simply the bureaucratic allotment of resources to the right people at the right time, an entirely neutral science, which depends not at all for its success upon concrete knowledge of the issues concerned.

I actually think Goodyear erred in referring to his chiropractic expertise as providing him with a scientific knowledge of the body. To re-iterate, the man’s understanding of science is neither here nor there. All that matters is that his reasoning is sound, and this was amply attested by his grasp of the fact that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack:

“I do believe that just because you can’t see it under a microscope doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It could mean we don’t have a powerful enough microscope yet. So I’m not fussy on this business that we already know everything. … I think we need to recognize that we don’t know.”

Goodyear is clearly referring to our current and lamentable inability to see God in a microscope. It is my private hope that some of the funds he oversees will be funneled to those humble and hard-working scientists seeking to achieve this holy grail of microscopy. I will readily admit to being encouraged by this beautiful vision of science and religion working together in the most productive of ways.

Only good can come of this.

Progress without politics

Are we supposed to think this is a good thing, Bloomberg?

This is the vision Mike Bloomberg offers us:

Screen shot 2009-11-02 at 2.02.54 AM

Why not, at the same time: decision without debate! Council without councillors! Might as well do away with elections as well, since all that messy politics stuff just tends to get in the way of our otherwise inevitable progress towards utopia.

Schwarzenegger uses Facebook

Arnold’s fan base on Facebook unleashes a torrent of <sarcasm>insightful and witty commentary</sarcasm>

It appears that Arnold Schwarzenegger (of whom I am a “fan” on Facebook, and in real life—at least, of his movies and his environmentalism) has finally started taking advantage of the Facebook fan base he has. Or, at least, someone operating in his name has begun doing so. Unlike @mayormiller, I don’t imagine Ahnold does his own web updating.

Continue reading “Schwarzenegger uses Facebook”

The future of journalism

From one of my favourite e-newsletters, J-Source, comes a provocative article by Alan Bass, assistant prof at Thompson Rivers University School of Journalism, that takes journalists themselves to task for failing to preserve the vitality of journalism and for failing to make the case for the relevance of journalism vis-a-vis the infotainment that constitutes the majority of “media.”

What’s wrong with journalism? Look in the mirror is worth reading for anyone interested in the challenges that faced by major news outlets–particularly those challenges posed by the new forms of media emerging on the web. Though I think Bass places too much blame on journalists themselves (and simultaneously assumes they have more power to reform “the press” than they do), such calls for serious self-reflection are an essential part of efforts to change large, public institutions like the media. If change can’t (at least partially) come from within, it won’t happen.

The financial crisis cloud has no silver lining

The New York Times has a decent (though it strangely focuses a bit too muich on her appearance and clothing) article on Naomi Klein. One of the things that caught my attention was her interpretation of the genesis of the New Deal:

The New Deal is usually told as a history of F.D.R., she said, but we don’t talk enough about the pressure from below. Neighborhoods organized, and when their evicted neighbors’ furniture was put on the streets they moved it back into their homes. It was that kind of direct action that won victories like rent control, public housing, and the creation of Fannie Mae. The other thing that’s important to remember, she said, is that the organizers were a threat—of socialist revolution—and it was that which allowed F.D.R. to say to Wall Street, “We have to compromise, or else we’ve got a revolution on our hands.” Now, these market shocks are opportunities for the same reason that the crash was in the thirties, because we are seeing the failures of laissez-faire before our eyes. “It’s time to say, ‘Your model failed,’ ” she said. “This is a progressive moment: it’s ours to lose.”

As Slavoj Zizek says, events do not impose their own interpretation. It is up to the left to ensure that the financial crisis is seen for what it is: a significant blow to laissez-faire ideology. Unfortunately, the situation is, as far as I can tell, entirely lacking the sort of roiling, potentially revolutionary zeal that is, both A) an appropriate response to the grossly criminal acts of speculation, fraud and exploitation that have been perpetrated (largely) upon the American population at the hands of the right-wing elite; and B), if Klein is on to something, a prerequisite for the causes of this crisis to be taken seriously.

The Government Accounting Office report that came out in late 2008 has already found, sadly but unsurprisingly, that the bailout is being handled with insufficient oversight.

beard caught in pencil sharpener
this is going to get worse before it gets better