Category Archives: Falsehoods and Skepticism

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

I don’t know much about astronomy, but I am a scientist and I know this. One key scientific concept that is rarely grasped by non scientists but at the same time drives much of science itself is variation.

Indeed, the understanding that variation is key is one of the characteristics that separates the ancients, who may have engaged in what looks like science but rarely advanced true understanding, and the moderns (to oversimplify greatly, ironically).

The moon and other celestial bodies always do the same thing, never change in their course or appearance, and once one has finished cataloguing them, there is nothing else to see.

Or is there? Isn’t there in fact change all the time? Isn’t change itself the essence of the universe? Is it not true that a star is a dynamic thing that has a birth, stages of life, a death, and from its remnants come other things? Isn’t this how astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson are able to utter such brilliances as “I am made of star dust”??? Don’t planets form, collide with things or things with them, cool, change dramatically across the surface, even break lose form their orbits now and then? Continue reading Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

Falsehood: “People, not guns, kill people”

Yes, of course, you need a person (usually) to pull the trigger. But it is abundance of and ease of access to guns that causes the United States to be off the charts in woundings and killings from firearms. This is what the research has shown for a very long time and continues to show. Here, I’ll give you yet another example. All of the following text, and the tables, are exerted directly from the paper. Continue reading Falsehood: “People, not guns, kill people”

Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary. Continue reading Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

It is generally thought that life expectancy in the past was less that it is today for our species as a whole and in the case of industrialized countries in particular. However, this belief counts as a falsehood not because it is untrue (it is, in fact, true) but because many people get this idea wrong in a few different ways. People often:

1) confuse life expectancy with lifespan;

2) underestimate the life expectancy of many past populations; and

3) think of the past compared to the present as a dichotomy, the present being one way, the past being the other way, failing to recognize diversity and variation in life history variables across our species and across time … life expectancy is seen as a measure of quality of life (which it may well be) that has tracked the one way progress of the human condition from a widespread past condition of short-lived misery to the present and much improved condition of living long and prospering.
Continue reading Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

According to one of the leading experts on the human circulatory system, blood flowing through veins is blue.

I’m not going to mention any names. All I’ll say is this: A person I know visited a major research center last year and saw a demonstration of organ removal and some other experimental stuff. A person also visiting asked the famous high-level researcher doing this work if blood was ever blue. What he said was not recorded in detail, but it was very much like this statement I found on the Internet:

… human blood is red as soon as it is oxygenated. Blue blood flows through veins back to the heart and lungs…..
[source: Some Guy on Yahoo Answers]

My friend was disturbed by this, as s/he had been teaching high school students for years that blood is not blue. Her understanding of the situation was that people thought blood was blue because standard anatomical drawings and models depict arteries as red and veins as blue, and because if you look at your veins they are blue. Obviously veins are not clear, but if you don’t think that out you might assume that you were seeing blue blood.

Continue reading Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

Falsehood: Correlation Implies/Does Not Imply Causality

As is the case with any good falsehoods, one can never really be sure what the falsehood may actually be. In this case, there are two falsehoods: 1) When we see a statistical correlation between two measurements or observations, we can not assume that there is a causal link from one to the other. This is the way the statement “Correlation does not imply causality” or some similar version of that aphorism generally means, and this is an admonishment we often hear; and 2) When we see a statistical correlation between two measurements or observations, there probably is a causal link in there somewhere, even when we hear the admonishment “Correlation does not imply causality” from someone, usually on the Internet. To put a finer point on this: What do you think people mean when they say “Correlation does not equal causality?” or, perhaps more importantly, what do you think that statement invokes in other people’s minds?
Continue reading Falsehood: Correlation Implies/Does Not Imply Causality

Mythbusters on Head-on Collisions

I’m sure you all have cable and/or satellite setups and thus see the Mythbusters, which is clearly one of the best things on TV, as they produce them. But I am always a couple of years behind because I watch them on Netflix. Two more seasons were released on Netflix very recently, so I’ve been watching them, and I thought one of the Myths addressed was worth bringing up.

Here’s the Myth: Continue reading Mythbusters on Head-on Collisions

That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood

Update: Long after I penned this essay, Cambridge MA (which is not Boston but is near and different from Boston) renamed Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.”

The photograph above is of the Columbus Statue in the North End, doused with red paint in 2006.

Columbus Day has become a holiday of disdain, and there are many people who feel it should be taken off the books. It is a little like the Martin Luther King Jr. day maneno in reverse. If you were a progressive thoughtful American you’d have supported having a state-wide Martin Luther King Jr. day, and probably also a street named after the highly influential slain civil rights leader. If, on the other hand, you were a Republican and/or racist white supremacist type (and there are a lot more of those than gentile people like to admit) than you’d have come up with some lame excuse for not having a Martin Luther King Jr. day or a Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in your state or town. When the Federal version of MLK day was being debated in congress, it was the likes of Jesse Helms who opposed it. Numerous states resisted adding MLK day, and it was not until the year 2000 that all states in the US celebrated the only US holiday for the birth of a famous person who was not white by actually taking the day off.

Continue reading That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood

How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?

The original post generated a lot of comments, including from expert historians who strongly disagreed with my post. I put those comments at the bottom of the post so you can see them. I am sticking to my story that the consideration of people murdered as witches should include the 13th century, and does not for reasons having more to do with quirks of the practice of history than to the behavior of the Europeans at the time. I also maintain that typical estimates accepted by historians are by nature conservative.

Now, on to the original post:
Continue reading How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?

How long is a human generation?

How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Continue reading How long is a human generation?

Harvey The Hurricane: Truly Climate Change Enhanced

Harvey the Invisible Rabbit: Did not exist.

This is a picture of some men.

Since they are men, they have some abilities. They can, for example, knock each other over, and they can play with balls. This is what men do, and this is what these men can do.

This is a picture of some professional NFL foodball players.

They are also men. They can also knock each other over, and they can also play with balls. But the NFL football players are much better at knocking each other over, and you wouldn’t believe how great they are at playing with balls.

They are NFL enhanced. They are trained, embiggened with special diets, and they are clad with armor and vibrant, often scary, colors.

This is a picture of a hurricane from 1938.

It was a big one; It did lots of damage when it slammed into New England and New York.

A hurricane is a large storm that forms in the tropics, and sometimes hits land. The energy from a hurricane comes from a combination of the earth’s spin, trade winds, and so on, but mainly, from the heat on the surface of the sea. The rain that falls from the hurricane also comes mainly from the sea surface indirectly, and any water that evaporates into the atmosphere.

This is a picture of Harvey the Hurricane, the remnants of which are still circulating around in Texas.

Harvey is a lot like the 1938 hurricane, in that it formed in the tropics, in the Atlantic, and was a big spinny thing. It got its energy in the same way, and formed in the same way, and both slammed into land and scared the crap out of everybody.

But they are different, the 1938 Hurricane and Harvey the Hurricane. How are they different? Have a look at this map:

The pairs of photos above show “then” and “now” for two different things (men and hurricanes). This map shows both then and now in the same graphic. This map represents the current sea surface temperature anomalies, meaning, how much warmer or cooler the current sea temperatures are compared to the same time of year but at some time in the past, averaged over a long period, in this case, from 1971-2000. Global warming was well underway during that period, so present sea surface temperature readings that are above that baseline are not only high but are actually very high, because the baseline is high.

In this map, red is more, blue is less. Look at all the nearly ubiquitous more-ness in sea surface temperatures around the world. That causes the atmosphere across the entire globe to potentially contain much more water vapor than it could have contained during that that baseline period. Look at the sea surface temperature anomalies for the gulf of Mexico, where Harvey formed. They are high. This means that any hurricane that formed over that extra warm water will be stronger, and any tropical storm system that occurs pretty much anywhere on this map (or round the other side of the Earth as well, for that matter) will contain more water, than it would if it existed and all else was equal several decades ago.

This is a picture of a Unicorn.

A unicorn poops rainbows and pees mimosas. Or so I’m told. This is another view of Harvey the Hurricane.

What is the difference between the unicorn and Harvey? Harvey is real, and the unicorn is not.

I won’t quote you or give you links. Why? Because I find this whole thing a bit too embarrassing. But here is the thing. Otherwise intelligent and well informed individuals have stated in various outlets, including major media, and including twitter, that it is simply inappropriate to claim that Harvey the Hurricane is in any way global warming enhanced.

This is wrong. There is no such thing as a storm of any kind that is not a function of the current climatology. The current climatology has widespread and persistent, and in many cases alarmingly high, sea surface temperature anomalies. There will not be a tropical storm, including hurricanes, that escape the physics and poop out rainbows and pee mimosas. They will all be real. They will all have greater power and more moisture than they otherwise would have, had they formed decades ago before the extreme global warming we have experience so far.

There was a time when Harvey was a rabbit, an invisible rabbit only seen by a delusional character in a movie, played by Jimmy Stewart. Today, we have Harvey the Unenhanced Storm, playing that role. It is a fiction, something seen by a few but that is no more real than the above depicted unicorn.

As I was writing this post, Michael Mann posted an item in the Guardian that makes this case.

He says (click here for the whole story):

Sea level rise attributable to climate change – some of which is due to coastal subsidence caused by human disturbance such as oil drilling – is more than half a foot (15cm) over the past few decades … That means the storm surge was half a foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.

… sea surface temperatures in the region have risen about 0.5C (close to 1F) over the past few decades from roughly 30C (86F) to 30.5C (87F), which contributed to the very warm sea surface temperatures (30.5-31C, or 87-88F).

… there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average … That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.

That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.

… there is a deep layer of warm water that Harvey was able to feed upon when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast….

Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge…

Mann mentions other effects as well, but I’ll let you go read them.

The extra heat at depth Mann mentions is now recognized as responsible for the extra bigness and badness of some other famous hurricanes as well, such as Katrina and Haiyan. Harvey might be a member of a small but growing class of hurricanes, deep-heat hurricanes I’ll call them for now, that simply did not exist prior to global warming of recent decades. Further research is needed on this, but that’s the direction we are heading.

Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth recently noted that “The human contribution can be up to 30 percent or so up to the total rainfall coming out of the storm,”

Aside from Michael Mann’s Guardian article, he has this facebook post making the same argument.

Harvey the Hurricane is real, and so was the 1938 Hurricane. Climate change enhancement of Harvey is real, but unicorns are not. Sadly.

I really thought we had stopped hearing this meme, that “you can never attribute a given weather event to climate change.” But, apparently not. That is a statement that is technically true in the same way that we can’t really attribute an Alberta Clipper (a kind of snow storm) to the spin of the Earth. Yet, somehow, the spin of the Earth is why Alberta Clippers come from Alberta. In other words, the statement is a falsehood that can never be evaluated because it is framed incorrectly. Here is the correct framing:

Climate is weather long term, and weather is climate here and now. The climate has changed. Ergo … you fill in the blank. Hit: Unicorns are not involved.

Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary.

The first part of the sentence that is problematic is the word “voters.” Yes, people who vote in a primary are voting, and thus voters, but that is not really what a voter is in our democratic system. A voter is a person who votes in the general election for a constitutional candidate. The constitutional candidates got on the ballot, usually, through our party system in which a formally recognized party puts someone on the ballot by filling out the right paper work and following a bunch of law-based rules and some other rules that the party itself makes up. The person who goes and votes in a primary is doing something subtly but importantly different. They are participating in the party’s process of selecting a candidate. In theory, this could be done with no voting. It could be done by people meeting several times to pick surrogates, who will be delegates to a convention. Even when it seems like one is visiting a polling location and casting a vote for a candidate, that is not really what you are doing. You are actually casting a vote that will be put together with all of the other votes cast in that state for use in a formula that will cause chosen delegates to vote a certain way on the first ballot at a national convention, after which they can do (more or less) what they want.

I’ve seen people use the word “elect” and “election” in reference to what people are doing during the primary process. But we are not doing that. The statement that “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.” is improperly framed, because what happens in the primary process does not really involve voters, but rather, individuals who are participating in a party’s process in a way that often involves casting a ballot, but really not a ballot for a particular candidate.

Now lets travel down the sentence a bit farther until we get to the phrase “kept from.”

There are a lot of ways to keep someone from casting a ballot or caucusing that are bad and that should be fixed. In Minnesota we cast our presidential preference ballot during a one hour time period at a large building (usually a school) with inadequate parking, often far from where people live, not on a bus route, in the dark (lots of people don’t drive in the dark), under conditions that are dauntingly chaotic. It is assumed, almost certainly correctly, that this causes a lot of people to not even show up. If an insufficient number of polling places is arranged so it takes hours of waiting to pick your candidate, or if you show up and somehow you are not allowed to vote because your name has been incorrectly removed from the registration list, or something along those lines, then you are being kept out. These and similar things are bad and should be fixed.

But a lot of the “kept from” stuff is not about any of that. Rather, it is about the particular rules a party uses (or all the parties in a state, in some cases) that the participant must know about and follow in order to be involved in the process. In New York you have to be registered in a party to vote in that party’s primary. In New Hampshire it, a registered Democrat must vote in the Democratic Primary, a registered Republican can vote in the Republican primary, and a registered Independent can pick at the last second which of those two party’s primary to vote in. I’ll discuss in a moment why these rules a) should be changed and b) shouldn’t be changed. For now, though, we need to recognize that these are not things done to keep one from involvement. They are simply the rules for being involved. Potential party primary participants who are kept out of the process because of these rules are, essentially, repressing themselves (sadly).

Now let’s go even further down the sentence (“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.”) and look at the word “involvement.”

I’ve already implied that involvement in the primary or caucus process is not the same thing as voting, even if you think you are voting at the time, because you really aren’t quite voting for a candidate (I quickly add that yes, this is true with the Electoral College as well, but generally we feel that we have an inalienable right to vote in the general election for all sorts of candidates, and only one of those offices is somewhat indirect, and perhaps it shouldn’t be).

Involvement is not casting a ballot in a primary or standing on a table holding up a sign in a caucus one time. Involvement is bigger than that.

Consider Sorkin’s Rule “Decisions are made by those who show up.” That is actually not true. Important decisions about complicated things require multiple conversations, meetings, etc. The actual rule should be “Decisions are made by those who show up. And then show up a few more times.”

I suspect that the majority of people who are pointing at long established party rules and complaining about being kept form involvement really don’t want to be “involved” in the way it takes to really be involved because it takes a fair amount of work. Rather, people seem to want to vote for a candidate and go home, and have that be all there is to it, and have it count. But involvement is actually more complicated than that, and may require more work than that.

For example, consider the recent caucus in Minnesota.

We don’t actually caucus for president here, although it is called that. Rather, we cast a vote (as described above) just like in a primary, but a rather badly done primary. In Minnesota, as well as in other states, that vote ultimately determines only one thing: how will the delegates that the state sends to the national convention vote on the first ballot. If you want a particular candidate to survive an open convention, or if you want your candidate’s party platform planks to be considered, you better send a delegate supporting your candidate to the national convention somehow, and do some other things. To do this, you will have to show up not just once, but a couple or a few times.

In Minnesota, we had that preference ballot, and at the same event (the precinct caucus) people were able to present resolutions, which could ultimately be part of the party platform if approved by enough people. The resolutions that go through this process are the party platform, and the party platform doesn’t come from anywhere else. So resolutions are presented at the precinct caucus, and voted on, and if approved, go on to the next level. Also, at this precinct caucus, delegates are selected to go forward in the process.

A few weeks later, there is a Senate District convention. All the precinct level resolutions are listed on a ballot, and the delegates that moved forward can vote on them. Delegates are welcome to rise in support or opposition of a resolution, and there is discussion among all the delegates of these resolutions. So the voting itself is a democratic process, but that process is enhanced by a conversation at which questions can be raised and answered and issues can be clarified. The resolutions that are passed on will likely become part of the state party’s platform.

A this event, the delegates select among themselves a smaller set of delegates that will go on to the next level (Congressional District or County). Those delegates will form the pool from which the national delegates are ultimately chosen, and they will vote on other party issues at higher levels of the caucus process.

That, folks, is involvement. If you go forward to this level and participate, you have influenced the party platform, and you have influenced which actual people go forward as delegates. Maybe you yourself will even be one of these delegates.

Sticking for a moment with Minnesota, let me tell you what happened at my caucuses, because it is illustrative of a key point I’m trying to make here.

There were about twice as many votes cast in the presidential preference ballot than individuals who stayed in the room to participate. The people in the room were the usual Democrats who show up every two or for years, among whom were several Clinton supporters and several Sanders supporters. I’m pretty sure the two people running the show included one Clinton supporter (my guess) and one Sanders supporter (I know that for a fact. Hi Robin.)

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who voted and left gave up an opportunity for involvement. Casing your ballot was easy, and thank you for doing that. But it wasn’t enough.

Also in the room were about a dozen Sanders supporters who I’m pretty sure (and in some cases, I’m certain of this) had not participated in the process before, ever, even though their ages ran from just eligible to vote to mid 40s or so. The chair of the caucus asked for a show of hands of how many people were new to the process. Several hands went up, and the rest of us cheered them and welcomed them. In other words, what some might call the “party insiders” (people who show up again and again) welcomed the noobies, and were very happy to have them there. So this was about a 50-50 mix of Clinton-Sanders supporters cheering on a bunch of new folks who were likely in majority Sanders supporters.

It was interesting to see what happened when resolutions were presented. Some of the resolutions caused these newer folks to take notice and ask questions. Two resolutions asked that various aspects of medical coverage for transgender medicine be restored to the state health plan. These provisions had been removed by the Republicans, and the Democrats wanted them back. The Sanders Noobies said things like “this shouldn’t apply to kids” and “this is a lifestyle choice, why should it be paid for by taxpayer?” and such. They did not understand that those are issues that have long been dealt with by the medical community, and were not concerns. (Much of this was explained to them by a transgender woman who was in the room). Once the Sanders Noobies understood this, they supported the resolutions (mainly, there were a couple of conservatives who voted against several liberal resolutions, which is of course their right). The same thing, roughly, happened with two or three other resolutions having to do with issues of race and racism.

That was fantastic. Sanders supporters, involved in the political process for the first time, were engaged in a conversation in which they became more aware of certain issues, and asked questions, and had a conversation.

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who stayed at the caucus meeting contributed to the conversation and learned more about the issues. That was involvement. Thank you for doing that.

At the Senate caucus, the resolutions were available to vote on, and there was extensive conversation about them. The conversation was so extensive that the chair of the caucus noted that he had never seen such involvement. Oh, and by the way, he also asked for a show of hands of those who were there for the first time. There were many, and the rest of us applauded and cheered them, and thanked them.

The Senate District Caucus, as noted, selects a subset of delegates to go forward. This was done as a walking caucus, and because of the way a walking caucus works, people were divided up into groups that had a candidate’s name (or uncommitted) along with an issue. For example, “Sanders and wealth inequality” or “Clinton and health care” or “Uncommitted and education,” etc.

The number of delegates that were elected to go on were about 50-50 Sanders vs. Clinton. (Slightly more for Clinton than Sanders.) In other words, a Sanders win in the presidential ballot preference (at the Precinct Caucus) was erased with respect to the delegates that went forward. Our Precinct caucus was allowed to send some 12 delegates forward, but only about 6 people volunteered, and of those, only two showed up at the Senate District Caucus.

Decisions are made by those who show up. Multiple times.

So the outcome of this process was that the ratio of Sanders to Clinton delegates who would support one of the candidates in a second ballot, or in convention business, or with the party platform, from our caucus, does not reflect the presidential ballot exactly because Sanders supporters did not show up. I checked on some other Senate District Caucuses, and others had better numbers for Sanders, but I think the final outcome is close to 50-50.

Note to Sanders supporters: Showing up at the precinct caucus to cast a presidential ballot, and then not showing up again, was not enough.

A walking caucus is a bit complicated, and there is a way to do it to maximize a preferred outcome in terms of delegates passed on to the next level. I note that the Clinton supporters at that event did so, but the Sanders supporters probably lost one delegate because the were imperfect in their strategy. Why were thy imperfect? Because this process, which is highly democratic, grass roots, conversational, and all that, is also a little complicated. In order to do it right, it is helpful to have a number of people who know what they are doing (because they did it once or twice before, or got a half hour of lessons form someone who knows how to do it … very doable) on your side. The Sanders Noobs, bless their pointy heads, may have lost one delegate because they did not show up multiple times over the long term (from year to year) and the Sanders campaign did not bother to engage in the “ground game” in Minnesota.

This illustrates a problem with democracy. The problem is not that the process is necessarily complicated so the good guys lose. The problem is that having a real conversation and real involvement is not simple, and requires a little more effort. This puts a small disadvantage on the insurgent, but only a small one. The outcome is that people show up, talk, listen, learn, influence, make things happen.

A word about New Hampshire, as promised.

In New Hampshire, you register for a party (Democratic or Republican) or as an independent. This registration then limits your choices for what happens in a primary (so it is a semi-closed primary). People who say they want the rules changed to allow better involvement object to this. If you are a Republican who decides you prefer a Democrat, you can’t vote for the Democrat. That is, of course, not really true because this is not the general election, it is the primary, but whatever.

Here’s the thing, though. If you are an independent in New Hampshire, you are a special political snowflake. The activists and campaigners in both major parties have your name (you are registered) and will court you and buy you coffee and talk to you and visit you and call you on the phone and give you a lot of attention, and pay careful attention to what you say. You are the subset of people who will determine the outcome of the primary, in many cases. This is a situation where the rules, which are restrictive, actually enhance and amplify involvement for those who register in this manner.

Something like this happens at a different level of intensity with party registration in general. Even where there is no registration in a party (like in Minnesota, we don’t register here), there is a list of probable party supporters. This underlies strategies for mailings, coffee clutches in homes, door to door visits, etc. Here’s a hint: If you want to have a bit more influence in the process, donate five dollars to a candidate. You and your views will be attended to, at least to some extent.

A word about party platforms. People say, without evidence generally, that party platforms are not important, that no one pays attention to them. At the state level, this is simply not true. The party platform is the legislative agenda of the party. The success of a party’s effort during a legislative session is measured by the degree to which the party platform, which was determined by the people who showed up — multiple times — was put into effect. Seated legislators and governors take credit for their implementation of the platform, or find reasons to explain (often blaming the other party) why planks from the platform were not implemented, in their campaign speeches, campaign literature, and appeals for funding.

It might be true that these things matter less at the national level, but there are some good reasons for that. National policy implementation is often more reactionary than at the state level because politics are often shaped by unexpected international events or an uncooperative economy. But it still matters.

Now, back to Minnesota for a moment, for another stab at problematizing the premise. All that caucus stuff I’m talking about allows involvement by citizens to shape the political future at the local, state, and national levels. But we often hear that a simple primary, where you just vote and go home, counts as better, or more real, or more meaningful involvement in the political process. (This of course ignores the fact that voting in a primary does not influence the party platform or other party issues.)

In Minnesota we also have a primary. It happens late in the process. One of the main objectives of the caucus system is to endorse candidates for Congress, and rat the state level and below (but not municipal, usually). The caucuses can endorse a candidate, but that endorsement does not mean that the candidate is put forward by the party. The candidate is only put forward if they get the majority of votes in the primary. Often, probably almost all the time in fact, the various candidates for a particular office fight for the endorsement, then drop out if they don’t get it. But sometimes one of those candidates, or an entirely different candidate that was not even involved in the endorsement process, puts their name in the primary and runs.

The reason this is interesting and important vis-a-vis the key points I’m making here is this. The system that many seem to prefer because they think it is true involvement (and anyone can vote in either primary, there are no restrictions, in Minnesota) actually has the potential to circumvent and obviate the grass roots endorsement process. It allows a person with means to swoop in and become the party’s nominee. This happened recently two times. In one case, a person of means swooped in and took the party’s nomination form the endorsed candidate for governor. He won the election and became one of the best governors we’ve ever had. In a different case, a person with means swooped in to try to take the party’s nomination at the primary from a highly regarded much loved State Auditor, who had been endorsed. In that case, the swooper spent piles of money on the primary but was roundly shellacked, losing in an historic landslide.

Note to those who want to switch to having a simple primary for everything because it allows for more democratic involvement by the citizens; No, it doesn’t.

“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.”

It is not a simple truth that closed primaries or caucuses limit involvement. That can happen, but limitations (i.e., as in New Hampshire) can increase involvement. Citizens who want to be involved but found this difficult because they did not know or follow the rules have repressed their own involvement. Personally, I would advocate for open caucuses or open primaries, so I don’t disagree with the proposals being made so vocally these days. But I think that many who are calling for such reform do not really understand why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us, and what we might in some cases lose from it.

The caucus system is better than the primary system in many ways, because it encourages and allows a lot of involvement. But in those instances were we are basically voting for a preference, the caucus system can be stifling. We need to ask what we want, how to do it, and what it will get us, at a more detailed level, and then find solutions that may in some cases be hybrids, or may in some cases require only minor tweaking in the system.

I think people need to ask themselves why they are independents. Some people are independents because they dislike the party system, but I’m sure they are wrong to think that. Parties are organizations that give voice and power to regular people. We should work towards enhancing that effect, not tossing it like bathwater out the window. Others recognize that being independent gives them a bit more political power than being a party member, in some cases. Those folks have a problem in states where not being registered in a party takes you out of the primary process. Those individuals have to decide if they want to engage in a party system for a given year or not, or they need to advocate for an open system in their state. I recommend following the first strategy immediately — learn the rules and use the party system when appropriate — while advocating long term for the second strategy. What I do not recommend is complaining about a system you don’t fully understand and demanding specific changes that would actually reduce, rather than increase, your involvement.

I also suggest that people do two other things. One is to remember that the primary system is a totally different process than the general election. In a way, you can’t actually suppress voting in a primary, because a primary (or caucus) is a way a party, which could select nominees in any of a number of ways, reaches out the the people. Furthermore, you are not really voting for a candidate, but for delegates, and by voting and walking away, you are not really even doing that.

The other thing is to understand the numbers better. This is a bit of a digression from the main points of this post, but important. Remember my comments above about percentages of Sanders vs. Clinton supporters in various subsets of people at these events. It is not the case that the “party faithful” or “established Democrats” (people who show up multiple times) are Clinton supporters and the Noobs are Sanders supporters. Yes, there are differences in proportion, but evidence from Minnesota belies this oversimplification. My best guess is that about half the established Democrats (we call ourselves DFLers here) in Minnesota are for Sanders, and half are for Clinton, but Sanders won the presidential preference ballot because some extra people who were mainly Sanders supporters showed up. But then many of those Sanders supporters did not show up multiple times. The influence they had was to put the state in the Sanders win column, but remember the numbers. Sanders only got a couple of more national delegates than Clinton, and in the end the two candidates will have the same number of supporters, I predict, at the convention. So, the only influence there is in one — critical but singular — event at the convention, the first ballot.

Democracy is great, and democracy is hard. There are reforms that are necessary, but gravitating towards easy, thinking that enhances democracy, is foolish. If you make it too easy it will not be as great.

And, really, it isn’t all that hard.

Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?

Imagine that there is a trait observed among people that seems to occur more frequently in some families and not others. One might suspect that the trait is inherited genetically. Imagine researchers looking for the genetic underpinning of this trait and at first, not finding it. What might you conclude? It could be reasonable to conclude that the genetic underpinning of the trait is elusive, perhaps complicated with multiple genes, or that there is a non-genetic component, also not yet identified, that makes finding the genetic component harder. Eventually, you might assume, the gene will be found. Continue reading Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?

Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

Whinging About Skepchick

A critique of a talk by Rebecca Watson is very likely heavily influenced by the critiquer’s membership in one group or another as defined by The Great Sorting. This not because Rebecca is a polarizing person. It is because she has been outspoken on issues that tend to polarize people, like feminism. This polarization is enhanced by the fact that a break-off group of skeptics have chosen to join the haters rather than the thinkers and doers. Also, she leads a group of women who have tried to open up the Skeptical Community to having more female participants and to more frequently address women’s issues, and this has led to significant push back. As you listen to Rebecca’s recent talk on Evolutionary Psychology or read critiques of it, especially those that specifically call her talk “science denialism” or “creationism” or some other absurd thing, keep that in mind. Continue reading Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

Correlation and Causation: Single Mothers and Violent Crime

The phrase “Correlation does not imply causation” has developed in to a Falsehood, as I discuss here. This is in part because people often use the phrase to argue that a particular correlation has no meaning, which is a false argument. It is, of course, true that a correlation does not in and of itself prove a causal link between two things. And, as pointed out in a few places, but I’ll refer you to this Mother Jones piece for background, the relationship between single mothers and homicide and other crime is … well … interesting. Continue reading Correlation and Causation: Single Mothers and Violent Crime