Friday, February 26, 2010

Win for the White House

Paul Krugman's got a great column this morning on yesterday's health care summit. It's worth a read and makes the obvious point that it has set in motion the best prospects yet for passage of a bill. The Huffington Post reports that 3.9 million people streamed the summit on their web browsers, so it was clearly a closely watched affair. For my part, I found it tremendously refreshing to catch a glimpse of the old Barack Obama. This is the guy we voted for: sharp, intelligent, a very strong debater with legions of facts at his fingertips ready to refute dishonest GOP talking points. As a former college professor, this style of open but managed debate is clearly his strong suit. He is in his element at the front of a class, making an argument, fielding questions and disabusing students of erroneous beliefs and mis-perceptions. Faced with lies and distortions about the Democratic health care plan, he never flinched, never lost his cool, and simply responded by disabusing Republican leaders of their errors (as when schooling Lamar Alexander on his dishonest claims about premium increases) or brought them back on track when they started to go off on irrelevant tangents (as when chiding John McCain for acting more like a campaigner than an honest broker trying to solve a problem for Americans).

This is how liberals win the war of ideas: by staging an open debate in a respectful forum charged with defending claims and counter-claims by appeal to facts and reasoned argument. Contrast this with the way in which conservatives do: last summer Tea Party activists descended upon Democratic healthcare Town Hall meetings and yelled insults at participants, shouted down speakers and made claims about planned bills that had nothing to do with what was actually contained in them.

My only worry is that Democrats, through their cowardice and inability to come together around a single bill for so many months may have damaged their brand to such an extent that they will face devastating losses in 2010 elections. It would be a real irony if Democrats rescued an economy that Republicans nearly destroyed, and gave the American people real, workable health care reform, only to find a mended nation handed back to the GOP for governance. It would be like a hospital discharging a victim of brutal spousal abuse back to her husband as soon as she's well enough to go home.

Sadly, if this happens, it's the feuding, unmanageable and sometimes cowardly Democrats themselves who will be largely to blame.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Which I Try To Play Nate Silver

Meandering over to Wonkette yesterday I ran across another amusing tale of Fox News much vaunted propagandizing balance falling flat on face. It comes in the form of a poll published in the Fox Forum that gives some remarkably non-foxy results. I'll go ahead and reproduce the poll results as of 7:00 this morning (click image to enlarge):

Now, it's certainly amusing to see Fox publish a poll in which a full 75% of respondents characterize the Tea Party movement as a "fruitless mix of racism, conspiracy theories." It was, no doubt not the results that the creator of the poll was hoping for. Most likely, once the poll began yielding unexpected results it got picked up by the liberal blogs who then sent it waves of traffic, further skewing the results in a direction the poll creators were neither expecting nor hoping for. These sorts of things have a way of snowballing once they reach a certain critical mass, and currently there are over 155,000 responses to the poll --by my count more than three times the number of responses for the previous two polls. It bears mentioning, furthermore, that this is an unscientific, self-selecting, internet poll. So the results would have been dubious at best no matter how they came up.

That said, Fox News does have a storied history of FAIL when it comes to charts and basic math. The most notorious example of which I have taken the liberty to reproduce below:

If you successfully completed 1st grade, you've probably realized that the percentages in the above poll add up to 193%.If you've gotten as far as 2nd grade then you know they should add up to 100% But if you were home schooled by parents seeking to shield you from Satanism in the form of the Theory of Evolution (as the Fox News intern who produced the above chart likely was) then you're probably pretty comfortable with the results.

But the tragedy of Fox News' epic stupid doesn't end there. As I mulled over the amusing results of the first poll, I realized that the creators of the poll, in their propagandistic zeal and lack of basic math competence had drafted a poll that actually favored the sort of result they were hoping to avoid. How so, you ask? Let me explain:

One of the surest ways to guarantee a position a strong showing in a multiple-choice poll is to provide several subtly different alternatives for opponents of your position to chose from, while providing only one choice for proponents to pick. So, for instance, if I wanted to prove the superiority of hamburgers over pasta in a population of evenly divided hamburger lovers and pasta lovers, I would produce a poll such as this:

Now, assuming these pasta lovers all love different kinds of pasta, I can expect a poll result like this:

Though poll responses are evenly divided between pasta lovers and hamburger lovers, the way this poll was constructed, and especially the bar graph format gives the false impression that the overwhelming majority of respondents are hamburger lovers. And this is exactly what Fox has done, crafting a poll that gives the president's opponents three options to chose from, but supporters only one (we can pretty much disregard the meaningless 5th "other" option).

So why did editors who produced this poll for Fox News make such a basic mistake? I have a theory that goes beyond their appallingly obvious lack of basic math competence. My suspicion is that the producers of the graph are so blindly driven in their ideological partisanship that they can think of all sorts of reasons to hate President Obama and the Democrats and have a hard time narrowing it down. But when it comes to providing the opposite choice, they find the idea so distasteful that they can bring themselves to provide only one pro-Obama option, and that only to avoid producing a poll so ridiculously partisan in its framing that it makes a complete mockery of Fox's disingenuous "fair and balanced" mantra. You can't defend a poll that doesn't give the opposition at least one voting option.

And what happens then, is that the few liberals who do hang around at Fox can more easily tilt the poll in their favor. Once this starts to happen the unexpected results get linked to by some high-volume liberal blogs and before you know it 75% of respondents think the movement you're trying to promote is made up of racists and crazy conspiracy theorists.

Nice going Fox.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New Post

My latest post to Stinque went up yesterday. It's about Sen. Richard Shelby's outrageous hypocrisy.

Quote for the day

"Trust me, after taxes, a million dollars is not a lot of money..."

-GOP Chairman Michael Steele

The list of conservative legislators and talking heads who've made the same or similar claims is quite long. And yet some people still fool themselves into believing that the GOP is a party that represents the interests of average Americans.