Shedding blood for liberty

A brawl has erupted over a statement in the stump speech of Republican candidate Fred Thompson, who asserts that the US has “shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world” As the WaPo points out, our Russian allies lost millions in WWII alone, as did Britain and France in WWI which (at least nominally) they entered ‘that small nations might be free’. In fact, US casualties in World War I (about 120 000 killed and 200 000 wounded) were comparable to those of Australia and New Zealand,which between them had about 5 per cent of the US population.

Unsurprisingly, vvarious people have tried to quibble by saying that the other losses weren’t in defence of freedom, so that Thompson’s claim is true by default. But in that case, Thompson ought to have said something like “the US, alone among nations, fights for the freedom of othersâ€? which at least sounds like standard meaningless stump-speech rhetoric rather than a false factual claim.

Leaving motivations aside, the striking fact is that Thompson’s claim is pretty much the opposite of the truth. The US is notable among major nations in how little it has suffered in foreign wars, and this helps to explain why the war party is so strong there.

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Defending Rachel Carson

One of the stranger efforts of the political right over the last decade has been the effort to paint Rachel Carson as a mass murderer, on the basis of bogus claims conflating the US ban on non-public health uses of DDT with a non-existent ban on the use of DDT as an antimalarial. Starting from the lunatic fringe of the LaRouche movement and promoted primarily by current and retired hacks for the tobacco industry, this claim has become received wisdom throughout the US Republican party and its received offshoots. Although this nonsense has been comprehensively demolished by bloggers, most notably Tim Lambert, article-length refutations are desperately needed. Now Aaron Swartz has a piece published in Extra!. It’s great to see this but, as the global warming debate has shown, one refutation is never enough in resisting the Republican War on Science.

Tear down this paywall

The NYTimes experiment with putting premium content behind a paywall lasted a bit longer than I expected, but eventually the cost, in terms of separation from the Internet at large, has outweighed the benefits. The NYT columnists and archives will now be available to all readers. (Hat tip, Andrew Leigh).

As Jay Rosen says, this is good news for the conversation that is the blogosphere. Paywalls are an obstacle that we can’t get around individually, since, even if I have free access to a site, there is no point in linking it for readers who have to pay.

But there’s always a downside. The Times decision has been motivated not only by the increasing costs of a closed system but by the increasing returns to advertising, of which the lion’s share is driven through Google (and to a lesser extent, other search engines), which rely on links to place their ads.


In my experience, growing returns to advertising are being manifested in more, and more obtrusive, ads. This may signal a renewed arms race with ad blockers. I’ve just installed Adblock Plus on Firefox, and am waiting to see if that gets me blocked from ad-dependent sites.

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Signal and noise

Not surprisingly, given the mini-crisis surrounding Howard’s leadership, the Newspoll released yesterday, with the two party preferred position for Labor shifting from 59-41 to 55-45 was big news. But was there really any news, or just the usual random fluctuation. The ABC News on Monday night made it sound huge, describing it as the government cutting Labor’s lead by 8 per cent. On the other hand, if you started with the view that the true position was 57-43, neither this poll nor the last one would lead you to change this view. Two percentage points is well inside the usual allowance for sampling error in polls with a typical sample size of a bit over 1000. So, you might say, it’s all just a beatup.

Comparing the two polls gives a somewhat different answer, which my son Daniel kindly computed for me. Given two polls with 1000 respondents, and the stated results, you can reject, at the 5 per cent confidence level but not at the 1 per cent level, the null hypothesis that they are from the same population. That’s because, given no underlying change in the population, the chance of two variations in opposite directions is smaller than the chance of each variation considered separately.

But that doesn’t end the problems. If you run polls every fortnight, you’re bound, sooner or later to get two samples in a row that deviate in opposite directions, producing a big apparent swing.

FWIW, looking at the Newspoll results since July, I see no reason to think there’s been any real movement in either direction. Aggregating all the polls, and reducing the sampling error accordingly, I’d put the Newspoll 2PP vote somewhere in the range 56-57. The other polls seem to be much the same.

The real problem, though, is non-sampling error. If the question being asked doesn’t match up to the way people are actually going to vote, all of these statistical considerations count for nothing.