Sunday, April 26, 2020

I wrote the original version of this a month ago, when the only serious misinformation was about a contagious and deadly disease.  Since then, things have gotten quite a bit more complicated.  In an effort to turn down the heat, I decided this post is worth publicizing.

One statement about Covid-19 that cannot be disputed is that there is a lot of highly suspect information around about it.  Most of us are suffering from some degree or another of misery trying to sort the valid from the idiotic from the merely incorrect claims swirling about and infecting our social media.  I can't help with developing a vaccine, but I might be of some use in providing tools that everyone can use to sort the claims supported by facts from the nonsense.  Lawyers spend all our time at work not devoted to meetings to analyzing evidence.  Over centuries, the legal profession in the English-speaking world has developed a set of principles we use to distinguish useful evidence from useless.  Those rules have been codified in the US, at least, as the Federal Rules of Evidence.  Each state has a version with some small variations, but mostly following the federal version.  

The statement of purpose of the federal rules is: "to administer every proceeding fairly, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the development of evidence law, to the end of ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination." Here's the link to the entire set of rules, should you be curious.  If we have ever needed a tool to ascertain truth and secure a just determination, now is that time.  Let me try to demonstrate how these rules can help anyone judge the merits of any assertion.  

There are, of course, differences between a trial, with a judge and a jury, and an ordinary person reading something posted from a friend's Facebook page or Twitter account.  There's no judge, and no opposing counsel making objections.  You, Dear Reader, are going to have to be both judge and opposing counsel, objecting to irrelevant or inaccurate evidence and ruling on your own objections.  To do that, you have to understand a couple of things: 1. The difference between a fact and a conclusion; and 2. the importance of a definition. 

One thing that you have to understand that seems obvious but very much is not is: What is a fact? The Rules of Evidence don't define 'fact.' Webster's has one that takes a page or so.  The best definition that I can give you -- and I don't have authority to cite to support it, so please just take my word for this one, single thing -- is that a fact is not a conclusion.  That distinction is vital and very difficult to make.  We think in conclusions.  Let me give you an example: 


"Karen has a blue car parked in her driveway" contains both facts and conclusions: the facts: there is a car, it's blue, and it's parked in a driveway.  The conclusions: the driveway belongs to Karen.  (Lawyers will also argue that 'car' and 'blue' are too vague to be casually deemed facts.  Is an SUV a 'car?' What, exactly, is 'blue?'  We'll get to those later.) 

The reason that the bit about whether the driveway belongs to me is a conclusion is that ownership of property depends on other facts, not included in that statement.  What facts led the speaker of this terribly vague sentence to conclude that the driveway belongs to Karen (that's me, by the way)? The witness who spoke this would have to say whether she just assumed it was my driveway because she has seen me coming out of the door of the house to which the driveway leads; she's seen mail with my name on it delivered to the address of the house to which the driveway is attached, or other ordinary observations.  For most cases, that's enough.  I am connected to the driveway enough to conclude that it's mine.  It is vital to remember, however, that the witness has seen other things that led her to conclude that the driveway is mine.  

Let's stick with this fact v. conclusion bit a little longer.  "Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald" is a conclusion.  Millions of people saw Ruby shoot Oswald as Oswald was being moved from one jail to another.  Why isn't that statement just considered a fact? That's because 'murder' is a legal conclusion; concluding that something is 'murder' requires finding that several conditions existed at th time.   "Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald with a pistol on November 24, 1963" is a set of facts.  We have pictures of men identified by those names, one of who has a pistol and pulls the trigger of that pistol, firing a bullet that hits the other one on November 24, 1963.  For us to conclude that Ruby murdered Oswald, we would need evidence establishing that Ruby "intentionally or knowingly caused the death" of Oswald.  (There are some other things that qualify, but this is the main one) Did Ruby know the gun was loaded? Did he know that pulling the trigger would cause the bullet to fire? Did he know that Oswald was actually another person? The prosecuting attorney has provide evidence to the jury on all those points.  The defense then can argue, to use one example, that Ruby was in the middle of a psychotic break from reality and thought the Oswald was a werewolf whom he needed to shoot with the silver bullet to save Dallas or other evidence proving that Ruby didn't actually have the mental state necessary to be guilty of murder.  

It takes practice to make this distinction, but once you get good at it you will make it all the time, everywhere.  Also, I will remind everyone constantly during the course of all these essays.  We'll all get plenty of practice.  It is a trick used by a deceptive writer to present conclusions as facts, or to leave the concluding to the reader entirely.  I will show examples of this tactic later, but start looking for writings that advocate something and using only conclusions to support it. 

I mentioned that 'car' and 'blue' were too vague to be useful earlier.  One thing that lawsuits have over other areas where people dispute over evidence is that lawyers are constrained by statutes, rules, or caselaw as to what we can call 'blue.' As noted above, murder is a conclusion drawn from a specific set of facts.  The most important part of any rule or statute is the first bit, where the enactors define the important words used in the rest of it.  In Texas, for example, single axle trailers are 'motor vehicles' and mobility scooters are not, which sound idiotic since the second one actually has a motor and the first one doesn't.  Still, the law governing motor vehicle titles defines trailers into the law and scooters out of it.  

When evaluating whether something is true or not -- 'true' is a conclusion! -- always find out how the advocate defines significant words or phrases.  What does the writer mean by the words she uses? 

Let's use that word "blue."  Light is 'blue' at approximately 490 - 450 nanometers wavelength interval and a frequency of approximately  610 - 670 terahertz.  That's still a lot of colors that can be 'blue,' but it does allow for an objective test to see if the color observed is 'blue;' does it reflect light within those parameters? If I needed a more specific definition, I might refer to the Pantone charts and define 'blue' as Pantone 19-4052.  Any color that has a wavelength and frequency outside of those numbers, or that isn't Pantone 19-4052 isn't 'blue.'  If a writer leaves important definitions up to the reader to fill in the blanks, consider that writer either wrong or deceptive.

Note something else here.  Definitions can be much too narrow.  I picked one color -- Pantone 19-4052 -- and made it the standard for 'blue.' I didn't explain or provide evidence why that one color is 'blue' and nothing else is.  Excessively narrow definitions are a common rhetorical trick of deceptive writers.  The best test to see whether a definition is too narrow or not is, if possible, to ask the person proposing it about other things that could be included but aren't.  In our rather silly example, if you asked me why I didn't pick Pantone 2685 to be 'blue?' I would respond that that color is purple, and then we would argue about what 'purple' means, but at least we have some evidence on which to base the discussion.  If the author can't explain their reasons or argues about something else entirely, then it's reasonable to dismiss their assertions, at least on what 'blue' means.


Rhetorical questions: One common method advocates use to deflect people from noting that her arguments are absolute bunk is the rhetorical question. Writers use such questions to get an effect or make an assertion, not to get a  reply.  So far, so much English 301, the dreaded freshman comp.  It's a perfectly respectable tactic provided that the author then goes on to actually answer it.   If the writer has an entire paragraph of rhetorical questions, you can safely ignore everything else they say.

The most deception subset of the rhetorical question goes by the nickname "'whataboutism', which I include under rhetorical questions because that's the typical manner of phrasing such things.  As the link says, this is a way of deflecting criticism by asking about some terrible thing other people do.  Advocates for the Soviet Union usually responded to criticism of gulags by referencing Jim Crow laws.  In a trial, such tactics would draw a loud objection about relevance which would be sustained. If you're reading something in which the writer says someone can't criticize police brutality because they are also in favor of Roe v. Wade, that's a good example of 'whataboutism' and should cause you to doubt the writer's credibility.  (And to be perfectly bipartisan, if someone defends Roe by accusing opponents of being racists, that is also 'whataboutism.') Even if the whatabout is valid, using it to buttress an argument about something unrelated is deceptive and should make you doubt the person’s credibility.

There are several million other ways advocates cover for the fact that their arguments are without merit, and the next essays will go into them in more detail.  Your homework for the next few days is to look for unsupported conclusions and deceptive 'whataboutism.'




Sunday, November 22, 2015

The uses of "connected with" and evidence

The best thing about having a humanities degree is that it trained me in how to argue, and especially how to spot weak arguments.  (The ability to see through stupid arguments explains the hostility some politicians and pundits have toward the humanities.  If more people could do this, those guys would have to get a real job.)  One particularly bad one I've seen often is the assertion that some person or another is "connected" with some bad thing or another.  Syrian refugees are "connected" to Daesh or al Qaeda.  Obama is "connected" to the Weathermen.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was "connected" to the Nazis.  The evidence supporting the connection varies, but the writer asserts a connection between Random Terrible Thing and whatever person the writer wants to discredit.  The writer isn't required to provide her evidence or state any arguments against any particular policy because the connection to random terrible thing is enough to spoil anything the person with Random Terrible Connection advocates.

Let's walk through a case study: I am connected to Charles Whitman, the guy who held the title for death toll in a school shooting for many years.  I graduated from UT Austin; Whitman attended UT Austin.  I used to work with a guy who was actually on campus during the shooting and won a bet that he couldn't run across the street and make a call from a phone booth -- for those under 40, use Google -- and run back to the dorm without getting shot.  Even more persuasive, my husband's uncle was a Justice of the Peace for that precinct in 1966 and signed the death certificates for the victims and for Whitman himself.  Thus, I am 'connected' to Charles Whitman.

Of course, these connections don't prove anything.  I had turned three years old about a month before Whitman's rampage.  I had nothing whatsoever to do with this particular tragedy other than be born before it happened.  It is possible, however, to type "Karen Cox has connections to Charles Whitman" and not be a complete filthy liar.  Thus, assertions of connections is a common rhetorical technique in mendacious and tenacious arguments.

Let's follow a real-world example, that of Benedict XVI.  Now, I have zero use for pretty much any Pope.  I'm a proud and committed Protestant and will happily explain why a belief in transubstantiation is wrong and idolatrous, should any of you be foolish enough to ask.  That said, I know that Nazi Pope assertions were, to use the technical term, bullshit.  Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth when he was a teenager in Germany.  So far, okay.  Supporting the conclusion that Ratzinger was a Nazi and therefore all of his opinions were terrible, however, requires ignoring the other facts about being a teenager in Nazi Germany, such as refusing to join meant at the very least causing his family a great deal of pain, up to and including imprisonment.  It also meant getting sent to the Eastern Front for little Josephchen.  Expecting a teenager to risk his and his family's lives just to make a point many years later is absurd.  Yes, Ratzinger was a member of a Nazi youth organization.  He probably heard many antisemitic speeches and read a lot of propaganda.  Those facts are in no way relevant to whether or not the Catholic Church should recognize second marriages or punish dissident theologians.

To use an example from Team Red, many people claim President Obama is somehow a protege of the Weather Underground -- the radicals, not the weather website -- because he and Bill Ayers both lived in the same neighborhood in Chicago.  Bill Ayers was actually involved a couple of unsuccessful bomb plots, and wrote an autobiography making, in my opinion, an unsuccessful effort to justify his actions.  He's a genuine radical, with at best a checkered legacy.  All of his violent acts, however, occurred before 1970.  He's been a boringly conventional rich guy with leftist opinions since then.  President Obama was nine years old in 1970, and living in, I think, Indonesia.  He was not at the '68 Democratic convention.  Obama may agree with Ayers on some things -- or not -- but their connection doesn't prove anything.

My point is not to defend Obamacare or the exclusion of divorced and remarried people from Catholic Communion.  If I wanted to do that, I would, for example, discuss the cost of medication and the effect on poor people of delayed or denied care, or discuss the doctrine of the sacraments and the effect of changing that doctrine.  My point is to demonstrate a particularly terrible rhetorical device, and to encourage everyone to check the evidence before repeating that Facebook or Tumblr post or forwarding that Tweet or email.  During the next election year, there will be as many opinions about candidates or policies presented as their are people with an Internet connection.  Those opinions stand or fall on the evidence presented to support them, not on what clubs the people on either side joined when they were kids or whether one person recognized another at cocktail parties.  Be careful!


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Heavy Metal Summer Camp

my son Aaron is at electric guitar day camp.  I think that the time is right for a heavy metal boy band, like N'Sync with skulls.  A Disney Channel or Nick at Night sitcom as well.  More on this later.

Friday, August 16, 2013

German Travelogue Day 3

This was a bus tour in the morning with a visit to "Checkpoint Charlie" in the afternoon. We saw what's left of the Berlin Wall, which the city has turned into an outdoor art exhibit. Artists take a section of wall and paint a mural. My favorite was a picture of Leonid Breshnev and Erich Honnecker locked in an intense smooch. The end of the morning part was at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, officially known as "The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." It's across the street from the new American Embassy, and I recall the guide saying that the site was the location of the Gestapo headquarters, but I can't find anything confirming that statement. Standing on the edge of the park all of the stone blocks look about the same height. Inside, however, the floor slopes so that in the middle observers are about six feet below street level and all the blocks tower over their heads. It's designed to be disorienting and confusing, a goal at which it succeeds remarkably well. I found it very effective and appropriate. We skipped the Checkpoint Charlie museum and walked around old East Berlin. We saw a parade of Trabants, the East German horrible car, which now has quite a lot of nostalgia. They were made with a two-stroke engine, which was used in the West for things like lawn mowers and chain saws. Not very powerful. Their exhaust smells like a lawn mower and they don't go very fast, but since that was the pinnacle of consumer goods in the DDR, they were something of a status symbol. The cars in the parade had all been customized, including my favorite one, pink with Gucci stripes. We also went to a chocolate shop that has been in business since the middle of the 19th Century, although they haven't been in the same place that long. They had scale model chocolate sculptures of the Brandenburg Gate, the TV Tower, the Titanic, the Reichstag, and other Berlin sites, as well as a Berlin mascot bear wearing a gold marzipan crown.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Germany Travelogue Day 2

Arrived in Berlin. I couldn't sleep at all well on the plane -- the seats never reclined and the movies played constantly -- so I've been awake 38 hours. It's already Wednesday. We have a walking tour of the city, from our hotel in the old East Berlin, S - Bahn (surface train) to Alexanderplatz, then walk to Museum Island and the Reichstag. The one really serious regret I've got is that the tour never allowed us to go into any of the museums there. The Heinrich Schliemann Treasures of Priam, the first Neanderthal skeleton, and tons of things from Sumeria and Babylon are in those Museums, especially the Pergamon Museum and Neues (New) Museum. The Neues was founded in, I think, 1860, so "new" is relative. I wish I could say something profound about the Reichstag building, but mainly it was a really lovely place, which is no longer used for much serious business. The Bundestag does some ceremonial things in there, but mainly it's a nice backdrop to a lovely park. Berlin has lots of trees. None of them date before 1947, but they made up for lost time and planted THOUSANDS of linden and chestnuts, which now make Berlin Europe's greenest city. Since it was about 85 degrees while we were there. I really appreciated the trees. We walked about 8 miles that first day, so I really got to love the trees. There is a farmer named Karl who has set up stands all over the city to sell his strawberries. Karl's strawberries are the platonic ideal of strawberries -- huge, ripe all the way to the top, and sweet. We bought two liters and ate most of them in one night. Karl's berries are to Berlin what Cheetos in vending machines are to the US, which explains why there are no very fat Germans. There are plump, even heavy-set, but nothing like the typical Walmart shopper. Walking ten miles a day, seven miles of which are stairs, plus little junk food, keeps the citizens of Berlin fit. I made my first discovery of pay toilets today. It costs 75-Euro-cents to use the bathroom here. Charging people who have the audacity to leave home to pee cancels all the benefits from the walking, lack of junk food, and excellent public transport. Really, Europe, this is one thing that is so completely superior in the US. Have you ever thought what happens to someone who doesn't have the right change? Overall, toilets aside, I have to say Berlin is lovely. There's still a lot of Worker's Paradise grey block buildings, but in the 20 years since the Wall fell the residents have cheered the place up. Most of the grey blocks have been modified and painted, so they don't look quite so much like the set for a movie of "1984." It's still easy to see the difference between East and West, though, in that the old West Berlin has nicer mid-20th Century buildings and better restoration of the old stuff.

Germany Travelogue Day 1

A Very Long Plane Ride. We left at a little before 9 from Austin and arrived in New York at a little after noon their time. I had dreaded this part, mainly because I have had almost no good experiences with airlines, and those few were with Pan Am. We flew Delta, which has automated its ticket counters so that we got boarding passes from a computer. I put three pieces of paper into my passport, gave one to the gate clerk, and never read the others. While we were in flight to New York, I noticed that I hadn't gotten a boarding pass for the Amsterdam - Berlin leg of the trip. I would get to Europe, but that's as far as it went. I spoke to the gate clerk at Kennedy, and got the correct papers in ten minutes. So, Delta Airlines, you have my respect and admiration. United would have told me to hitchhike from Holland to Germany. We had an uneventful flight the rest of the way, including the pleasant and amazingly clean Amsterdam Airport.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Language Instruction

One of my personal crusades is the need for more language instruction in our schools. Languages are usually cut first, right up there with music and art, as "unnecessary." The chair of the University of Virginia governing board recently proposed to eliminate that school's highly-praised German department, because Germany is now a completely unimportant country with no international influence at all, like, oh, Greece. An evil combination of corporate Philistines, misguided school reformers, and legislative skin-flints work together to deprive as many students as possible of the chance to learn a second language. The foolishness of this idea is evident right now, with the US facing attacks by possibly-coordinated mobs on many of our embassies in western Asia and North Africa. We don't know about this because we have so very few Arabic - speakers who are not imported from that troubled area. We don't teach Arabic in our schools, so we don't have citizens who read Al Jazeera's website and comments. During the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," we fired Arabic speakers for being gay, like we had dozens of extras stored somewhere in the State Department supply cabinet. We don't do that any more, but we aren't doing anything to increase the supply, either. Arabic is a very hard language to learn, and the colloquial form spoken on the street isn't much like the formal version spoken by the upper classes. I understand from the two people I know who speak the language that there isn't anything like standard business English that most fluent speakers use. This is not an insurmountable problem, because there are a bunch of jihadi websites published in European languages, especially German and French. The 9/11 hijackers lived in Germany before moving over here, and presumably talked to other people while in Germany. More Americans speaking German might have made a difference there. This is very personal to me right now. I am learning both French and Spanish via Rosetta Stone, and my Spanish has gotten good enough for me to read CNN en espaƱol and Univision for news. Venezuela detained the captain of an American ship. American officials were attacked in Mexico. I learned of these two events from Spanish websites. I learned a lot about Latin American opinions of us from reading the comments. I am a better and more informed person from knowing this. How much more would we know about the real sources of the current rioting if more of us could read Arabic or Farsi or one of the European languages spoken by the leaders? I undertand that East Toenail, Idaho can't hire a full-time Arabic or German instructor. With the Internet, however, they can buy Rosetta Stone and allow their students one class period to complete the program. They can administer on-line tests for credit. So what if only six students are interested? The subscription is about a hundred dollars per year for an ordinary consumer; I'm sure the company would be willing to give a price break to school districts, especially if the state leg bought enough for all of its students. Bogota and Powderly, Texas -- the Prairiland Consolidated School District and a real place -- has a couple hundred students. Texas has almost seven million. Giving every student in the state the chance to learn any one of a dozen languages costs very little anymore, but has a tremendous benefit. We should do this, for all of us.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Royal Wedding

30 years ago in late July I got up at truly horrid hour to watch William's parents get married. Diana was lovely, Charles was actually rather appealing, and I got to hear Jeremiah Clarke's "Trumpet Voluntary." Of course, their relationship didn't quite work out, but at least the beginning was lovely. I watched Andrew and Fergie, Edward and Sophie, too. I have to work tomorrow so getting up at 3 a.m. isn't really an option, but I will watch the recap.

Many people wonder why a committed Democrat likes to watch royal weddings. I don't secretly believe that monarchy is a great form of government. What I do think, however, is that modern life could do with more formality. We need pomp. The problem with hierarchies of birth is that it eliminated huge numbers of people from participating in the beauty of ceremonies in any manner other than observers. Instead of my lefty friends' habit of eliminating ceremonial and formality, we need to find ways of getting more people to dress up. After all, the best way to eliminate the class structure is to make it impossible to tell the peasants from the nobles, and not because everyone looks like a slob.