The Silent Jesus

God of Grace,

When Jesus was offered
the choice to be used
or to be silent,

He chose silence.

May I guard against
the temptation to craft
an image of Jesus to use
for my own political
and personal use.

Thy will, not my own, Lord.


Confirmation Bias and the Clinton Foundation

Yesterday, I showed that claiming that only 5.7% of Clinton Foundation donations goes to charity is essentially false. Although that is indeed the percentage that goes to other charitable organizations, it ignores the fact that the Clinton Foundation is itself a public charity, unlike the Trump Foundation, which is a private foundation.

In response, a friend said that, although my claim was technically true, the majority of Clinton Foundation money goes back to the Clintons through the its two largest program expenditures, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the Clinton Presidential Library.

It is true that CGI and the Library are two of the largest program expenditures of the Clinton Foundation, ranking second and third, respectively. They are not even remotely close to the majority of expenditures, however. Even together, they account for, at most, only 18% of the Foundation’s annual expenditures.1

Now, I’m not defending the spending of the Clinton Foundation.2 I have no idea how effective its charitable work is. The point is that too many people (myself included, to be honest) simply share, retweet, or repost anything that is consistent with our own biases without checking the material for accuracy, even when verification would be relatively simple. This is called confirmation bias, something that we all must take care to minimize. Remember Reagan’s dictum, “Trust, but verify.”3

  1. The annual reports and audited financial statements of the Clinton Foundation show that CGI and the Library combined accounted for 14.8% to 18% of program expenditures over the last three years. The Foundation publishes financial reports back to 1998.

  2. I’m also not defending the Clintons. I have long thought them to be a symptom of the major problem of American politics, the undue influence of money in politics.

  3. There’s a nice piece on that phrase in the Washington Post.

The Uselessness of Political Fact-Checking

I’ve decided that political fact-checking is largely useless. Either people completely ignore the work of fact-checkers, or the fact-checkers ignore the relevant facts. Today, I saw a claim that Clinton had leaked classified information about the nuclear response window. What was curious was that the post included a link to a story explaining that the supposed leak was not classified, but was already public information. The person evidently failed to read the very story to which they had linked.1

Now, I’m seeing many claims that only 5.7% of Clinton Foundation donations go to charity.2 Unlike the claim about the classified leak, this is at least partly true. That is indeed the percentage that is given by the Foundation to other organizations that do charitable work. What it ignores is that most of the money is kept by the Foundation for the charitable work that it does directly. The Foundation spends 12% on overhead costs, compared to the average charity which spends nearly 37%3. This earns the Clinton Foundation an “A” rating by the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch. That doesn’t mean that Clinton’s claim that 90% of the Foundation’s money goes to charitable causes and work is true, though. According to Charity Watch, it’s only 88%. I suppose one could criticize Clinton for rounding up from 88% to 90%. That strikes me as a bit petty, but at least it would be true.

  1. It is more than a bit ironic that the writers of the many stories expressing shock and outrage over Clinton’s broadcast of the response time are broadcasting the time themselves.

  2. The first six pages of results from a Google search of “Clinton 5.7%” were entirely about this.

  3. The NonProfit Times.

Planting a Tree

God of Hope,

I plant this tree in faith,
trusting in your gracious care.

If such a slender trunk
can weather the Oklahoma wind,
then surely we too can weather
these storms of our own making.

May our roots reach down
into your sustaining love,
our branches reach out
to shelter those in need,
then reach up to the heavens
to bid your Kingdom come,
and your will be done.


Race, Police Shooting, and Probability

I just read a Facebook comment by someone who was apparently downplaying the Black Lives Matter movement by pointing out that the police shoot more white Americans than black Americans.

True, but it’s a classic error in statistical reasoning. The vast majority of drivers involved in accidents are sober, but it doesn’t follow that one is more likely to have an accident if one is sober than if drunk. That is, the probability that a person was drunk given that he was in an accident is very low, but the probability that someone will be in an accident given that he is drunk is very high.

Whites comprise 62% of the population, while African-Americans are only 13%. Of people killed by police officers, 49% are white and 24% are black. Since Jan 1, 2015, roughly 1,500 people have been shot and killed by police in the United States.1 This tells us that a person who has been killed by police is twice as likely to be white than black, exactly as the commenter stated. As is often the case with statistics, though, what we’re given is not what we want to know, but it can be used to derive what we want to know.

Let be white, be black, and be killed by police. The probability that someone is white if they are killed by police, , is 0.49. The probability that someone is black if they are killed by police, , is 0.24. What we need to know, though, is the probability that someone will be killed by police given their race. To do this, we need to use Bayes’ theorem.

Since is the same for both whites and blacks, we can safely ignore it when determining how much more likely a person is to be killed given that their race. We simply need to compare to .

On the other hand,

That is, a person that is an African-American is 2.34 times more likely to be killed by police than a White-American.

All lives do indeed, objectively, equally matter. Unfortunately, though, we must confess that America has a history of black lives not mattering subjectively to those who have held social power. When a truth has been ignored, even suppressed, for so long, it must be emphasized to gain its rightful standing in our social reality. To do otherwise, that is to simply say “All lives matter,” is to maintain an unjust status quo that serves the interests of some, but not all Americans.

UPDATE (October 2, 2016): I want to be careful to note what I am arguing here, and more importantly what I am not arguing. I am merely pointing out the fairly trivial claim that does not necessarily equal , and, in this case, actually does not.

I am not accusing the police of being racist, and I have not endeavored to show that anyone has been unjustly shot. I am simply showing that, even though more white Americans are killed by police, black Americans are more likely to be killed by police. There are many possible explanations for this, ranging from racial bias in the police force to high rates of violent crime in predominately African-American communities. There are significant studies that conclude that the former is more likely than the latter to be the correct explanation, but that will have to wait for another post.

  1. Wesley Lowery, The Washington Post, July 11, 2016.