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Politi-Fallacy

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Quick post, but something that has been bothering me:

Fact checkers like PolitiFact have been coming under fire from all corners recently, some of it very well deserved. But many conservatives have jumped on the fact that more statements made by Republicans or conservatives are rated “false” or “pants-on-fire” as opposed to statements by Democrats or liberals. Look!, they say, clear evidence that the fact checkers are biased!

Here are a few examples:

“In July you printed a chart with two years of PolitiFact Ohio results. It showed Democrats with 42 ratings of Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire, while the Republicans had a total of 88 in those categories. Doesn’t that prove you guys are biased?”

Cleveland Plain Dealer reader

And, slightly more sophisticatedly:

“A data-driven analysis of PolitiFact Florida’s 554 rulings on statements made by individuals appears to show a clear bias against Republicans and in favor of Democrats. As the truthfulness of a statement increases, so does the percentage of Democratic claims included in PolitiFact Florida’s rating.

… This dynamic appears to be a textbook example of what statisticians call ‘selection bias.’”

(This is followed by two cherry picked examples of how and whether PolitiFact chose to review certain statements.)

— Sean Davis, Red State

Here’s the thing these two posts neglect to mention: not reporting an exact 50/50 split is only evidence of bias if the split is in reality 50/50. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by rethoughtblog

September 9, 2012 at 10:52 pm

How Politico bungled its Elizabeth Warren story

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(Okay, the headline’s a little extreme, but it was just too perfect)

In a story that stands out as poorly written even for political tabloid Politico, writers Manu Raju (@mkraju), David Catanese (@davecatanese), and contributor Maggie Haberman (@maggiepolitico) failed one of the primary rules of journalism: disclose the connections your sources have to the subjects of the story and to the media outlet itself. This is why, for example, every Washington Post article about Kaplan Co. will cite that it is the parent company of the Washington Post.

The story, “How Warren Bungled First Controversy”, was about Elizabeth Warren apparently listing herself as a minority law professor because of her 1/32 Native American heritage, an admittedly strange move, and her reaction to the ensuing hubbub.

The entire article feels like an attempt to stoke the coals of controversy, with a lot of misleading question-raising that places ideas in people’s heads under the guise of a genuine question (“he says he doesn’t torture puppies in his spare time, but how can we really be sure?”). See the following:

She said she listed her Native American heritage as a way to meet others who are “like” her, but law school directories listed her vaguely as a “minority” teacher for nearly a decade — not specifically as someone with tribal roots.

She said that she’s long been “proud” of her heritage, but that assertion seems to be undermined by her decision to delist herself as a minority teacher in the law directories and the fact that there is virtually no mention of her lineage over the past decade-and-half, including as she climbed the ranks in the Obama White House.

She said that listing her ethnicity was not part of her efforts to seek a job, yet she scrubbed that listing as she received tenure at Harvard.

While Warren insists she was hired solely on merit, the campaign has no plans to release records detailing whether she cited her minority status as she sought law jobs in the early part of her career.

But that’s not really what irked me. The segment that stood out to me as violating journalistic ethics was when they cited William Jacobson, the author of a conservative legal-focused blog Legal Insurrection, and law professor at Cornell Law. Even Cornell itself described it as “the conservative blog Legal Insurrection” in a story about Jacobson’s defense of the Tea Party.

Jacobson also is a fairly widely published conservative pundit, including at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, CBS Evening News, and Fox … oh and at Politico Arena. The reporters seem to feel no need to disclose this. Here’s the segment:

“If she is 1/32nd Native American … is it really appropriate to list yourself that way and knowing you will therefore be listed as a minority law professor?” asked William Jacobson, associate clinical professor of Cornell Law School, the author of a blog read in the legal community. “Why in the world would you list yourself when it is such a tenuous and distant relationship?”

“Why would she have done it, and why would she have stopped when she was at Harvard?” Jacobson said. “The whole thing makes no sense.”

In a normal question of law school tenures or something reasonably neutral, perhaps it would be okay to neglect to note Jacobson’s conservative background. But in a Senate race where Warren is the Democratic nominee? And when Jacobson has been regularly attacking Warren? Might be relevant.

In fact, Jacobson has been pushing the Warren Native American story HARD. He’s written no less than nine articles in the past week on the subject (more than one a day, for those watching at home), including favorites like “Elizabeth Warren’s claim of being 1/32 Cherokee in doubt” and Elizabeth Warren claims listed herself as minority to meet people, but story doesn’t hold up (Update: High cheekbones?). Check out the whole list here.

To be clear, I don’t have any issue with the content of what Jacobson said, and there wasn’t any wrongdoing by him. It’s also true that Warren’s move seems rather stupid. But, if we’re supposed to take Politico as a legitimate news organization, its writers owe us, the readers, context about speakers’ backgrounds and affiliations so that we can better evaluate their  motives and messages.

Hopefully, Politico will quickly update the story to disclose Jacobson’s conservative background, opposition to Warren, and his ties to Politico. And I hope they avoid similar issues in the future.

Edit: It came to my attention that my About page was not displaying on the right sidebar. Recognizing the obvious irony of a post urging disclosure without any easily accessible info about me on my (very new) blog, here goes: Kurt Walters, works at Public Campaign Action Fund, usual disclaimer about nothing I write speaking for anyone but myself.

Other edit: made a few small edits for clarity and to include the actual title of their piece (which has since changed). Otherwise this post’s title doesn’t make too much sense.

Written by rethoughtblog

May 4, 2012 at 11:44 am

The Post ed board strikes out on clean energy

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The Washington Post had two editorials dealing with climate change yesterday, “Nuclear haste” and “How D.C. can better deal with climate change”, that showed they don’t understand how a renewable-focused energy portfolio would work and that they are hopelessly naïve when it comes to how DC can help fight climate change.

The first offender? Nuclear baseload power

Here’s the Post’s take:

Can the world fight global warming without nuclear power? One major industrialized country — Germany — is determined to find out, and another — Japan — is debating whether to try. Both illustrate how hard it would be.

To date, nuclear is the only proven source of low-emissions “baseload” power — that is, electricity that’s always on, day or night, powering round-the-clock elevators in Tokyo or office buildings in Munich. Yet both Germany and Japan are poised to prematurely shutter their large nuclear sectors, giving up all of that guaranteed, low-carbon electricity generation in an anti-nuclear frenzy, on a bet that they can multiply their generation of renewable electricity within a decade or two.

Here’s the problem: in any economy with a proportion of renewables anywhere even close to the amount required to prevent the worst of climate change, “baseload” power is not a virtue, but a vice. In a renewable-centric energy portfolio, energy sources that take days to start up or stop and can’t adjust their output easily are simply out of place.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are what is known as “intermittent” power, varying in strength based on how sunny it is, windy it is, or what have you. Too much intermittent power stacked on top of too much baseload and you can have way too much energy at times with nothing to do with it — a giant waste.

Instead, what is needed is a smart grid with “dispatchable” power that can be easily ramped up or down quickly based on how productive renewables are at the moment. There is some progress toward storing large amounts of renewably-produced energy in molten sands or synthetic natural gas, but for the moment, the best source of dispatchable is regular old natural gas. (Grist’s David Roberts has a much more thorough explanation of the interplay between these three types of energy and why Germany is ditching the concept of baseload power). Obviously we’ll need to move away from all fossil fuels, but it’s a necessary step for the overhaul from baseload to renewable/dispatchable.

Now, the Post has a point in that fossil fuel use has risen in the short term in Japan, where the shutdown of nuclear plants was in response to a disaster rather than the result of a conscious long-term plan. Ideally, we’d want to phase out fossil fuel baseload plants (coal in particular) first and only eliminate nuclear once renewables held a large share of the portfolio.

Ultimately, you can get to a low-carbon economy via a nuclear-dominated energy portfolio or one with high amounts of truly clean renewable energy, such as geothermal, wind, and solar, but to my eyes, the two strategies are basically incompatible. France has already tried the first; I for one am glad another country is proceeding with the second.

Offense number two: carbon pricing nirvana

The Post’s ed board also came against D.C. council member Mary Cheh’s (D-Ward 3) proposal for cutting the District’s carbon emissions. The editorial mainly complains that the city’s climate policy is too complex. After criticizing Cheh’s attempt to remove a tax disincentive for local solar power production, the Post writes:

Ms. Cheh’s bill would also require stores to keep their doors closed while their air conditioning is switched on. Preventing such waste is obviously appealing. But the best way to lower emissions is to put a price on carbon or to set top-line goals without prescribing precisely how businesses must achieve them. This allows businesses to make their own decisions about the most efficient ways to save energy.

The fight against climate change requires government to intervene, creating incentives for cleaner energy. But in that process, it’s easy for government to get too involved in deciding how we derive and use energy. If city leaders worry that the District isn’t moving toward green energy fast enough, they should first press for a more aggressive regional carbon-pricing scheme or to modify the city’s renewables mandate.

This is a great example of the nirvana fallacy, a logical fallacy of comparing an actual option against an obviously better, but implausible alternative, discrediting the plausible option in the process.

Clearly, pricing carbon is a desperately needed step to take away the unfair advantage fossil fuels have by polluting for free. And a regional agreement would be necessary to reduce the amount of carbon leakage that happens from “regulatory arbitrage” (think going over the state line to buy cheaper gas or cigarettes).

But, umm, what magic wand is the council supposed to wave to get an “aggressive regional carbon-pricing scheme” in place? Pressure from the city’s leaders is very unlikely to push other states to do much of anything. If it weren’t, DC might have, oh I don’t know, real voting rights.

Regulations like requiring stores to keep their doors closed in the summer might not be as ideal as a carbon tax, but if we just sit around debating what the perfect policy response would look like, we’re going to end up roasting. Imperfect action now beats the hell out of Washington Post ApprovedTM solutions that either are never implemented or get put in place decades down the line after irreversible tipping points in climate change are already reached.

-kw

Written by rethoughtblog

April 25, 2012 at 1:41 am

Posted in climate, media

Out of sight, out of mind for carbon emissions?

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A new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting “How dirty is the cloud” looks at the massive, energy intensive data centers which are needed for remotely hosted (“cloud”) applications like Dropbox or Gmail. Many of those are powered with coal, the most carbon intensive of popular fuel types.

A fear I have is that as more and more computer services are remotely hosted in these data centers, people become less aware of the energy they’re using and less inclined to conserve. If you have to have a server running in your closet to power your applications, it’s pretty obvious they’re using a lot of energy. But when you access Gmail on your phone or computer, you just click a button and a magic email fairy serves up your data. Never mind that the fairy lives in a huge data center and feeds on coal.

This is just one example of a larger trend. Individuals in wealthy countries (which have the most climate pollution emissions) have had more distance put between their actions and climate pollution, as their countries have essentially outsourced their carbon-intensive industries to China and other less developed countries. As the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer writes:

A handful of countries, including Sweden, France and Belgium, have managed to become more carbon-efficient largely by using cleaner forms of power. The rest, however, seem to have largely decarbonized through the process of transforming into service economies and shifting their industrial and agricultural needs abroad.

This means that things are even gloomier than they seem and that even the modest successes that nations have had cutting climate pollution deserve a fat asterisk next to them. It seems to me that in the absence of a binding international climate agreement, that boosting clean energy sources is more effective than trying to impose limits on dirty energy as there will be carbon leakage and the “balloon effect.”

One possible improvement is carbon labeling, which has been piloted in the UK and other jurisdictions. This would at least require consumers’ ignorance to be willful. Small steps…

All in all, one more reason why a collective action problem like fighting climate change requires a collective (as in global) response.

Written by rethoughtblog

April 19, 2012 at 2:56 am

Posted in climate, media

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