Thursday, April 03, 2014


A former student, conservative, and highly intelligent, private messaged me on facebook:

I see a lot of your posts and bite my tongue. You know we've always disagreed politically and I respect that. Just figured I'd share some of the right wing news. Does it make the slightest difference in your opinion?
I replied:
You don't have to bite your tongue!  Just make a solid argument, which wouldn't necessarily persuade anyone, but it does let people know they just can't dismiss a strong opinion without some thought, which is the real payoff.

NR is a decades old conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley, who I disagree with on many issues, but I've always liked him.  Actually, he died a few years ago, but he always made arguments that liberals couldn't easily dismiss.  Lemme check this out, and I'll let you know what I think.

It probably won't make me change my mind about how the world works, but there's always the possibility that it might force me to alter an opinion here or there.  Or it might make me have to reformulate an argument or two.  There is great value in hearing what the other side has to think, if only because it forces one to think about his own views all the more.
And then I read the thing, and responded to that:
Okay, this is interesting, albeit not the sort of political debate in which I usually wish to wade.  That is, it's an argument about whether an assertion is factual or not.  I prefer to argue bedrock principles, foundational assumptions, and whether theory and ideas about the way the world works actually match those principles and assumptions, and whether such assumptions are flawed.  Yes, that does involve factual assertions, but usually I like to make sure the facts are unimpeachable. 

So, for instance, the notion that tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy, which is widely believed by conservatives, turns out to be a very flawed assumption because economists have been studying what the rich do with the money saved by tax cuts and it turns out that the rich generally don't invest it in ways that grow the economy.  That's a fun one, to be sure, because it's amusing and intellectually gratifying to shit in the punch bowl when nobody can do anything about it.

Contrast that with wading into the scientific details of global warming with a skeptic who believes he's "done the research" and knows better than 97% of all climatologists.  We're dealing with facts, of course, but the science is pretty dense and confusing to laymen.  I don't even try to understand it in the detail these armchair "scientist" skeptics claim to do themselves.  As with most science, I feel like it's enough to trust the prevailing consensus of scientists.  But these skeptics think they can argue the science with me.  Clearly, they have no idea what they're talking about because SO MANY scientists disagree with them, but there's absolutely no way I can even start to convince them.  I just try to keep out of those.

And this thing in North Carolina appears to fall into that category.  We're talking about facts, but it's dense number crunching stuff, sort of opaque to people who aren't statisticians.  So I can't say for sure one way or the other.  On the other hand, the reports I've been seeing for a few years now seem to show that voter fraud of this variety is exceedingly rare, less than one percent, not enough to sway any elections--this is not even to mention that fraud on this scale, thirty five thousand, would be amazing if actually pulled off without anybody squealing.  So I'm skeptical.

Of course, I'm not the only skeptic on this report.  Apparently, matching names and birth dates from other states like this isn't statistically weird at all.  That is, it's probable that it's mostly coincidence.  Combine that with data collection errors, and one can dismiss the entire report as erroneous:

But I guess we'll see how this turns out.  If the NC election board's study is, in fact, correct, it would be MAJOR.  We should know pretty quickly if there's any fire associated with this smoke.
The conversation continued a bit, going into race issues, the GOP, and the whole concept of voter ID laws versus whether or not there's actually an issue about voter fraud.  We didn't end up agreeing on anything, but it was a good conversation, a decent exchange of ideas.

What's funny is that he and I, just a couple of Texas guys, are able to do something our leaders in Washington seem to be incapable of doing: talking to each other.  You know, it's really not so difficult.  What's their deal, anyway?