Monday, October 12, 2009

Thinking Big

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. -- Joseph Goebbels

In this week's Sift:

  • Mad Men 2.0. Our national conversation is changing. Spin is out. Complete disregard for the facts is in.
  • Workers' Comp as a Malpractice Model. Malpractice reform would do almost nothing to make health-care more affordable. But the system does suck. Why not reform it in a liberal way?
  • Nate Silver vs. Strategic Vision. I used to think I was a sophisticated reader of polls. But it had never occurred to me that a pollster might interview no one and just make the results up. Nate Silver suspects somebody did just that.
  • How Do I Know? The Bible Tells Me ... Whatever I Want It To. Maybe you thought the Bible was conservative enough already. The folks at the Conservative Bible Project disagree. They want to edit out all that permissive-liberal stuff about forgiveness.
  • Short Notes. Rachel Maddow on Obama's Nobel. More southern church/state issues. Electric buses don't need wires any more. Newsmax calls for a military solution to "the Obama problem." Where I was last week. And more.

Mad Men 2.0

The most interesting article I read these last two weeks was David Sirota's "Mad Men 2.0" in In These Times. He's pointing to a change in our national conversation that is obvious when you think about it, but is not getting much attention: Outraged assertions unconnected to reality are replacing fact-based forms of persuasion.

The new strategy's key component, Sirota writes,

is replacing spin—the artful highlighting of partial truths—with a total rejection of all facts. This PR device is based on the theory that in a post-Watergate, post-Monicagate world, the public will view spinned parsings as admissions of guilt, yet accept enraged refutations as ineluctably true.

Attacks on health-care reform -- "death panels" and so on -- are the most obvious recent examples of high-intensity arguments divorced from reality. But individuals and corporations caught red-handed have changed their tactics too. No longer do we see tearful pleas for forgiveness like televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's in 1991. Instead, no matter what the evidence, perps just keep repeating "I did nothing wrong" like Rod Blogojevich.

After last year's financial meltdown, Wall Street didn't even purge a few symbolic scapegoats; they awarded themselves bonuses instead. The Bush administration gave us a new and particularly brazen way to break the law: You order your lawyer write a memo saying that what you want to do is legal.

Spin is out. Complete-break-with-reality is in.

The article's title makes a connection to the last great change in persuasion tactics, from hard-sell marketing ("Brighter! Whiter!") to soft-sell marketing ("Join the Pepsi Generation!"). Rather than push the virtues of the product, the soft sell created a pleasing image of you and the product together. This change in strategy (which Sirota calls "Mad Men 1.0") is part of the background of AMC's 1960s ad-agency drama Mad Men.

The Mad Men 1.0 strategy hit politics in a big way with the "New Nixon" campaign chronicled in Joe McGinnis' The Selling of the President 1968. But after forty years the public has adjusted, and those adjustments make us vulnerable to new tactics.

Through decades of commercials, congressional testimony and political punditry, we’ve been taught to believe that institutions and individuals may evade and prevaricate, but they will never defend or promote themselves with brazen, up-is-down fabrications because they know such lies can be easily exposed.

The Internet ought to make it easier than ever to expose outright fabrications. But perversely, it also makes them easier to defend. If you have enough money, you can create your own echo chamber of astroturf organizations that repeat your lies and portray you as the true victim. Or, if you belong to one of the partisan blocs, you can take advantage of a ready-made echo chamber. Anyone who tries to cut through the noise (like me, for example) will just sound like more noise.

Sirota offers no cures (and I'm not sure I have one either). But it's good to have a diagnosis.

Workers' Comp as Malpractice Model

Recently I met a lawyer who has worked both sides of medical malpractice. I asked him what should be done about malpractice -- not so much because I expected an answer as because that's how I make conversation with strangers: I get them talking about things that they know better than I do. (My Dad, perhaps afraid he was raising a know-it-all, often told me, "Everyone in the world knows something you don't.")

To my surprise, he had an answer I hadn't heard anywhere else: The malpractice tort system should be replaced with something like the workers' compensation system.

As everybody knows these days, tort reform is a conservative issue. Trial lawyers are a major Democratic constituency that contribute a lot of campaign money, and so they make an appealing target for Republicans. Republicans can frame "frivolous malpractice lawsuits" as the source of all the wastefulness of our health-care system and know that Democrats will not call their bluff by supporting their proposals.

I've outlined before why I think the tort-reform issue is smoke and mirrors: The numbers just don't work. The size of malpractice settlements is miniscule compared to our healthcare costs, and (except for one suspect study that gets quoted as if it were a dozen studies) estimates of the cost of defensive medicine (the unnecessary stuff doctors do to protect against lawsuits) are not that high either. States that have tightened the rules on malpractice suits or limited the size of settlements have not seen their health-care costs drop.

So malpractice-reform-as-healthcare-reform is a joke. But that doesn't mean that our malpractice system is perfect or even good. As a way to compensate victims, it's horribly inefficient. On one end of the pipe you have all the money that doctors spend on malpractice insurance, and on the other you have what victims get many years later. Money gushes into one end of that pipe and trickles out the other, because so much winds up in the hands of insurance companies, lawyers, and various other middlemen.

I'm sure the workers' compensation system has its own problems, but it works much better than medical malpractice. If you're injured on the job you won't get rich, but you stand a reasonably good chance of seeing timely compensation. The basic idea is that fault is not worth arguing over. You don't have to prove negligence to collect, and the employer doesn't gain by showing that you were an idiot.

In our current malpractice system, juries are impressed by stories of criminal negligence and not by cases of honest and understandable medical mistakes. But honest mistakes are real and have expensive consequences to their victims. Those victims ought to get compensation, and they ought to get it quickly.

My new lawyer friend wasn't optimistic about seeing his vision become reality, though, because no organized special interest would benefit from it. The beneficiaries of the current system -- mainly the lawyers and the insurance companies -- know who they are. The beneficiaries of a better system -- mainly people who will suffer from future medical mistakes -- don't.

Nate Silver vs. Strategic Vision

When a poll comes out with unlikely conclusions, a lot of people are smart (and cynical) enough to wonder if the pollster might have manipulated the responses somehow: by the way the question is worded, the question order, the interviewer's tone-of-voice, and so on. But it had never occurred to me to wonder if maybe the pollster just made the whole thing up. What if they didn't ask anybody anything?

That level of audacity went right off my scale. Well, it doesn't go off Nate Silver's scale. Nate is the baseball-stat wonk who took the polling world by storm in 2008. In primary after primary, his predictions were dead-on -- not because he polled anybody himself, but because he knew what to do with other people's numbers. When I made my surprisingly accurate prediction of how election night would unfold, I was mainly just comparing Nate's final poll-of-polls estimate to a list of poll-closing times.

Anyway, Nate asks the question: If a pollster did make the numbers up, how could you tell? Is there something in the internal structure of a poll's results that would be hard to fake? And he asks these questions with a clear example in mind: A survey of high-school students done by Strategic Vision for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

Nate thinks they made it up.

The Strategic Vision survey claims to have asked 1000 Oklahoma high school students 10 questions off the exam given to people applying for U. S. citizenship. The reported results are awful, and allowed the OCPA to write one of those mournful why-is-our-kids-so-stupid articles. (For example, less than 1 in 4 of the students could name George Washington as our first president.)

Right away the results look suspicious. The article doesn't say whether the survey was multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank, and some of the answers only make sense one way or the other. For example, 10% of the students say that Franklin Roosevelt was the first president. That would make sense as a multiple-choice answer, but not as a fill-in-the-blank. (How many kids don't know George Washington was the first president, but can come up with Franklin Roosevelt's name?) On the other hand, would 46% of kids really answer "Don't Know" to the question asking them to name the two major political parties if "Democrat and Republican" was sitting right there in a multiple choice list?

But that kind of stuff is subjective -- it doesn't look right to me, but if it does to you there's not much I can say. Then Nate goes nerd. He compares the question-by-question data to the distribution of students' scores -- which in themselves look strange because out of 1000 students there is not one politics-nerd who gets all ten questions right, or even nine. Nate comes to the conclusion that the survey's correct answers are uncorrelated: In other words, the kids who knew the answer to one question seem to have no advantage on the other questions -- which is ridiculous. He goes on to give a few other wonkish-but-objective measures of believability, by which the Strategic Vision survey fails. Like: Why do so many of their numbers have a final digit of 8?

Strategic Vision executive David Johnson says: "We have a call into our attorney on this and fully intend to take action that will vindicate us." (Their attorney must be hard to reach or something.)

How Do I Know? The Bible Tells Me ... Whatever I Want It To.
Conservatives fervently believe they need their own institutions, because all the standard institutions have a liberal bias. They need Fox News to be a right-wing propaganda channel because CNN (they say) is a left-wing propaganda channel. They need the Conservapedia because the Wikipedia has the same left-wing bias as its writers and editors -- the general public.

And now they need their own Bible -- a conservative Bible as opposed to the liberal one we have now. I wish I were creative enough to have thought this up as a parody, but no, I'm not. They're really doing it.

OK, I overstated just a little: They think they need a Conservative Bible Project to create their own English translation of the Bible. Why? Because "there is no fully conservative translation of the Bible." This sad state of affairs came about because Biblical scholars are liberals -- just like journalists and the people who give their time to update the Wikipedia are liberals.

What are the liberal biases in our current English Bibles? Well, the main one seems to be this bizarre lefty idea that you should forgive people who do wrong rather than, say, stone them. Remember that story of Jesus getting an adulteress off the hook by saying, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."? Left-wing fabrication. The Conservapedia comments:
The Mosaic laws clearly state death as a punishment for sin. So the argument that an individual must be perfect is not relevant. The God-ordained government has the responsibility for punishment.
"Nearly all modern scholars agree" that this story "is not authentic." It contains "multiple absurdities" and is not included in "the earliest and most reliable manuscripts." So it's not going to be in the Conservative Bible. (If they apply those standards consistently -- which they probably won't -- the resurrection story at the end of Mark also shouldn't make the cut. It's not in the earliest manuscripts, and a dead guy getting up and walking out of his tomb is kind of absurd.)

And that line about "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."? (Luke 23:34) More permissive liberal nonsense. It won't be in the Conservative Bible either.

Neither will all that nasty stuff about rich people, about camels and needle-eyes and so forth. Bad translation. Liberal bias. Jesus was pro-capitalist.

They're still debating about what to use in place of the word Pharisees, which I guess they figure is meaningless by now. (Although one of their ten principles says they shouldn't "dumb down" the Bible.) The candidate translations so far are intellectuals and self-proclaimed elite. (I think fundamentalist would be more accurate than either.)

I wondered what the CBP would do with the pacifist Matthew 5:38-39. The NIV translates it like this:
You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
The CBP can't find an excuse to edit this out completely, but they did tone it down:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you: Don't be quick to stand against evil. To whomever hits you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also.
So you can still invade Iraq, if you've warned Saddam several times first. Just don't be hasty. The CBP's "be quick to" addition, as far as I can tell, has no support in the original text. No other translation says anything like it.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Salon suggests rewriting Matthew 5:5 like this: "Blessed are the children of the rich, for -- once Congress finally eliminates the death tax -- they will inherit the earth."

One of the movers and shakers behind both this and the Conservapedia is Andy Schlafly, son of (you guessed it) the famous anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Which reminds me of this story: When I was a grad student in the math department at the University of Chicago, Phyllis' son Roger was an instructor there. As far as I could tell, Roger was not all that political. But mathematicians in general are very liberal, so within the department Roger took a lot of grief.

One day the Tribune published a multi-column article about whatever outrageous thing Roger's mom had just come out with, and the headline just had her last name: "Schlafly Says ... " Well, it got posted on the department bulletin board. I didn't do it, but I happened to be standing there when Roger walked by. He sees the headline, takes one step toward the bulletin board, but then thinks better of it and keeps walking. "I don't care what she said," I heard him mutter.

Short Notes

Whenever things went wrong during the Bush administration -- or rather, whenever the wrong things became undeniable -- the inevitable line was "No one could have predicted ..." Well, Meteor Blades proves this wrong, at least for Iraq, by quoting at length from the speech California Representative Pete Stark gave seven years ago Saturday: October 10, 2002, five months before the invasion.

Full disclosure: I wrote about Stark for UU World two years ago.

The best thing I saw on Obama's Nobel Prize was Rachel Maddow's reaction. Her main point is that Obama fits reasonably well into the Nobel Peace Prize tradition. The prize is often awarded for ongoing work the Nobel committee wants to encourage, rather than for finished accomplishments. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, won his prize ten years before apartheid actually fell.

Dasheight on Daily Kos raises an interesting question: How long do Obama's poll numbers have to go up before the media will stop reporting that they're going down?

There's yet another church-and-state controversy brewing in Texas: The ACLU is objecting to school districts allowing the Gideons to distribute free Bibles to public-school students under favorable terms: Letting the Gideons into the classroom, teachers and administrators appearing to endorse the Bible, and so on.

A spokesman for the evangelical Liberty Legal Institute accuses the ACLU of "trying to add the Bible to their banned-books list." But there's a simple rule-of-thumb that would resolve the majority of these cases: If you wouldn't allow the Koran or Sam Harris' The God Delusion to be distributed under the same terms, you're doing something wrong.

Take the case of Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where the high school football team is no longer allowed to enter the field by bursting through banners of Bible verses. One cheerleader says "Our freedom of speech and freedom of religion is being taken away." But just picture two Muslim cheerleaders holding up a Koran verse for a player to burst through, and the problem becomes obvious.

Rhetoric Watch. Conservative news source Newsmax published and then withdrew a column predicting/suggesting a military coup to "resolve the Obama problem." Republican Congressman Paul Broun points to Nancy Pelosi as the kind of "domestic enemy of the Constitution" that Marines are sworn to defend us against. Rep. Trent Franks goes one step further and proclaims Obama "an enemy of humanity."

Who knew that knocking up the governor's daughter would such a great career move? Now Levi Johnstone is going to be in Playgirl. His Vanity Fair article from last month is now available online.

Paul Rosenberg on Open Left explains why the Right sees nothing wrong with rooting against an American Olympics or an American president winning a Nobel Prize:
in their minds, they alone are America. If they're not running things, then it's not America. It's just that simple. Which is why it's fine to talk about secession as soon as they lose an election ... If you are the real America and everyone else is not, well, then, you can do pretty much whatever you want--and do it all in the name of America.
This pretty much echoes my who-are-the-People analysis from a few weeks ago.

Is the liberal blogosphere going to defend Charlie Rangel just because he's a Democrat? Doesn't look like it.
The next generation of the electric bus doesn't need overhead wires. Story. Video.

John Kerry and Lindsey Graham claim to have the formula for bipartisan greenhouse-gas-controlling legislation: Include some nuclear power and natural-gas-drilling perks along with a cap-and-trade emissions-control system. Grist's David Roberts is hopeful, but wants Democrats to get real commitments of Republican support in exchange for whatever conservative ideas they put in the bill -- unlike what Max Baucus did in his health-care bill.

What I've been up to: The reason there was no Sift last week was that I had other things on my plate: I gave this talk to the "Conversations Toward a Better World" workshop on Saturday the 3rd, and this sermon (twice) to the Community Church of Chapel Hill on Sunday the 4th.

Suggestion: If you'd like to nominate articles to be Sifted next week, leave a comment.


stoutfellow said...

I think I've seen Roger commenting at the Volokh Conspiracy occasionally; he's not as far right as some of their commenters, but he's solidly conservative.

kimc said...

Your Mad Men 2 link didn't work for me.

Doug Muder said...

I'm not sure what to do about the link, because it works when I try it. The URL is: