Reality-based journalism in the US

The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, as witness:

* Jacob Weisberg, who only a little while ago was giving qualified praise to the Ryan Plan, now says the Repubs have

moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

* USA Today comparing Republican climate change delusionism to birtherism and saying

The latest scientific report provides clarity that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It paves a path to a future fraught with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, shifting agricultural patterns, droughts and wildfires.

* The Washington Post, home of High Broderism says “the Republican Party, and therefore the U.S. government, have moved far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

* Even GOP house journal Politico draws the formerly off-limits link between “skeptics” and “deniers”, regarding the Republican adoption of fringe economic theories suggesting the US can safely leave the debt ceiling unchanged.

Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

Read More »

Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, and restatements of previous arguments, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit(s). As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Turnbull for PM

There are three people prominent in Australian politics whom I would happily support as Prime Minister[1]. Of these, the one who has the best chance is, I think, Malcolm Turnbull (it shouldn’t be hard for readers to guess the other two). He’s reminded us again what we lost when he was replaced by the lightweight opportunist who now leads the Opposition, against a mirror-image PM. If the Libs would put Turnbull up again, they would get my vote for the first time.

fn1. That reflects a fairly pessimistic view of what progress can be made. A competent government with a decent and consistent policy on climate change is as much as we can hope for at present.

Adventures in social network analysis: approaching the finale

A few years back as part of the attack on climate science (and in particular the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph) Senator Joe Barton commission an assessment of the work of Michael Mann and others from Professor Edward Wegman of George Mason University, along with his former student Yasmin Said and some others. This included, not only Wegman’s supposedly independent assessment of the statistical methods used by Mann but a ‘social network analysis’ of the relationship between Mann and his co-authors, which purportedly showed that Mann’s network of co-authors dominated the climate science field. As I pointed out at the time, Wegman et al started the analysis with Mann at the centre, so the primary result was that Mann had written a paper with every one of his co-authors! Nevertheless, a version of the paper was published in Computational Statistics and Data Analysis, in which Wegman took this analysis to the startling conclusion that senior academics should not collaborate with each other, but should instead work only with their students. Wegman follows his own advice in this respect, and now we can see why.

It’s just been announced that the paper is to be retracted on the grounds that it contains extensive plagiarism, much but not all of it from Wikipedia. Wegman’s response, showing the wisdom of his research strategy, is to blame his graduate student, who was not, however credited as an author. USA Today, which has taken the lead in following the Wegman plagiarism story, asked an actual expert to look at the paper and her reaction was about the same as my amateur assessment (Wegman and Said are also newcomers to the field, which may explain their heavy reliance on Wikipedia as a reference source).
Read More »

Agnotology and Santa Claus

For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).

As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.

fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described. I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.