On the Use of Political Pejoratives

Reading this tweet by Luke Dockery prompted some thoughts on uses of the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

Claims like "racism has deeply-rooted, ongoing effects" and "masks are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID" are true or false, not liberal or conservative. Assuming realism, the position that reality is what it is, independent of our beliefs, desires, etc., believing one of these claims does not, in itself, make a person either liberal or conservative, but only right or wrong with respect to the relevant facts.

Uses of the terms, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ seem to me to be so different now than what they traditionally were, that I’m not sure what they even mean anymore. Maybe it’s best to think of them as frameworks of fundamental commitments used to justify normative claims about political structures. If so, what makes one a liberal or conservative is not so much the normative beliefs that are held, but the reasons one has for holding those beliefs.

I’m confident that there are normative claims that are logically incompatible with a given set of reasons, but it’s important to understand that many normative claims can be justified on several different sets of reasons. So, both a conservative can reasonably believe something that is traditionally associated with liberalism, but believe it for different reasons than a liberal might. A good example is the belief that we should preserve the environment. A traditionally conservative reason for environmentalism would be the commitment to a Burkean social contract that includes, not just the present generation, but past and future ones as well, such that no single generation is a tyrant over others.

A rational conservative is unlikely to ever advocate abolishing the police, because another traditional central conservative doctrine is a commitment to established laws and institutions, insofar as they have served us well in the past. A conservative could, however, advocate "defunding" the police, on some proposed meanings of defunding — that is, making changes to existing police forces insofar as they have not served us well. (I grant that ‘defunding’ is an unfortunate term, but to assume that everyone means "completely defunding", especially when it has been made clear that they do not, is to commit a straw man fallacy.)

That means that, for most normative claims one cannot know if a person who holds them is a liberal or conservative unless one knows the reasons for which the claims are believed. Which means that inferences like "You believe X, therefore you are a Z" are rarely, if ever, examples of good reasoning. What is needed is "You believe X for the reason that Y, therefore you are a Z." Unfortunately, even when we reason like this, the reasons are often simply attributed to the interlocutor, not gained from them in dialogue. A memorable line from a former colleague is relevant here: "Labels are libel."

For non-normative claims, like the ones above about racism and the use of masks, the important question is not whether holding them makes one a conservative or liberal. The important question is whether they are true. Our responses to the facts may be liberal or conservative, but the facts themselves are neither. So, in both cases, the normative and the non-normative, the reasonable thing to do when a person claims something is not to immediately label them, the reasonable thing to do is to engage in dialogue, to discover the reasons, or evidence, for the claim.

What is going on when a person says, "You believe X, therefore you are a Z"? I can think of three possibilities, ranging from the best to the worst, although none are good:

  1. It is a charge of cognitive bias. There is no doubt that features of our particular psychologies, such as our beliefs, desires, emotional attitudes, etc., incline us to believe certain things. We consider these things to be cognitive biases to the extent that they incline us to believe falsehoods. So, again, the important question is not, ultimately, what biases tend to result in this belief, but whether the belief is true. Even more, imagine that you believe something only because you are biased to do so. That, in itself, does not give me good reason to dismiss your belief as false. Just because you have no good reasons for the belief does not imply that there are no good reasons for it. (Incidentally, one of the best ways to diminish the role that our biases are playing is to engage in honest, open dialogue with people who disagree with us.)
  2. It is a case of an ad hominem fallacy. "Since you believe X, you are a Z, and I shouldn’t believe anything that a Z says, include your claim of X." Dismissing someone’s belief by labeling the person as a liberal or conservative is an often persuasive ad hominem, but it is an hominem nonetheless. Ad hominems have their usefulness, however, especially when one doesn’t have good evidence for one’s own position.
  3. A third reason for dismissing a claim as false by labeling the speaker as liberal or conservative is because it’s simply not the way I want the world to be. This, unfortunately, seems to me to be more and more common. Consider one of the claims above, "masks are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID." Evaluating a hypothesis is a function of two things, initial plausibility and confirmation by evidence. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that any reasonable person should assess the initial plausibility of the claim as very high for two reasons. First, it’s a relatively weak claim — it does not claim that mask-wearing completely prevents COVID, but only that it is helpful in limiting its spread. Second, COVID is a respiratory disease; does it not make sense that wearing masks covering our noses and mouths would limit the spread of respiratory diseases? If not, then why cover our mouths when we sneeze, simply because it is polite? A high initial plausibility of a hypothesis does not guarantee that the hypothesis is true, but it does mean that greater evidence would be required to show that it is false. So, responses like, "this can’t be true, because one respectable scientist is saying that…" or "this can’t be true, becuase there is one study showing that…" are simply not enough. It strikes me as more likely that claims like this are rejected because we simply don’t like the inconvenience of wearing masks. This, however, is a kind of naïve anti-realism, demanding that the world conform to the way I want it to be. This is especially unfortunate for conservatives, for one thing that conservatives formerly prided themselves on was their commitment to realism, by recognizing that we have to deal with the world as it is, not simply the world as we want it to be.

A final point: it is useful to be able to sort beliefs, positions, etc. into typological categories. Such categories help us to predict behavior and better understand each other. It’s important to realize that these categories, though, are simply models, and that models are, at best, approximations of the landscape of reality, and, as approximations, will always have exceptions. Once those category terms become pejoratives, it strikes me that they are no longer useful for anything except for asserting power — the power to create a world that conforms to my desires, or the power to make others believe what I want them to, regardless of the evidence. The first is not a power that we finite beings have. The second is something we might have, but shouldn’t exercise.

Some Thoughts on Mass Shootings

The Second Amendment

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, I have never thought that a reasonable reading of the 2nd Amendment guaranteed an individual’s unequivocal right to possess firearms. In fact, the only Supreme Court decision that focused on the 2nd Amendment, US vs. Miller in 1939, found that there is no individual right to bear arms independent of the nation’s self-defense interests. There is also reason to believe that Madison wrote the 2nd Amendment to protect the rights of southern states to have militias that they could use to put down slave revolts. 1

I do believe, however, that every person has an inherent right to self-defense. 2 I take this to not be a civil right enshrined in law, but as a basic human right. Although there are weapons that are designed to be used for defensive roles, assault rifles, by definition, are not. I have no sympathy for those who argue that their guns are necessary for defense against a tyrannical government. I have seen four Apache helicopters on an attack run at a range in Fort Hood. If you think that your AR-15 will defend you, you’ve been watching too many bad action movies. 3

Good Guys with Guns

Lately, there have been demands to arm teachers to prevent school shootings. This is a variation on the idea that the only solution to gun violence is more good guys with guns. There are obvious reasons why this is untenable. We had problems with active shooters when I was in Afghanistan. The solution was not to have more people carrying guns, since everyone except me and the other two chaplains were already armed. The solution was to have a soldier standing at the ready at every meeting, doing nothing but looking for signs of hostility, prepared to shoot as soon as a weapon was drawn. That’s what the only “more guns” solution looks like – an armed guard standing with weapon drawn in every classroom, in every corridor of the mall, covering every line of sight in every public venue, etc. 4 That’s not a country where I want to live.

Possible Solutions

Mass shootings are a complex problem, but not irreducibly complex. We shouldn’t pretend that our only options are an impossible perfect solution and doing nothing. So, what should be done? There are some means that, I believe, would help reduce the level of gun violence.

  1. Treating sources of terrorism consistently would be a good first step. White nationalism has always been an ideology associated with terrorism, from the lynchings of Reconstruction to the mass shooting in El Paso. As a terrorist ideology, white nationalist demands for racial purity are no different than demands for religious purity from other movements that we rightly label as terrorists.
  2. Ban assault weapons – that has already been shown to be effective.
  3. Ban high capacity magazines. Otherwise, thirty people are dead before the “good guy with a gun” has an opportunity to respond.

May God forgive me, if I ever demand my rights at the possible expense of another human being’s life.

  1. Conservatives had no problem with gun control when the Black Panthers were taking up arms to press for equal civil rights. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed an act in 1967 banning the carrying by members of the public of loaded firearms in cities. He said there is “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” It’s also curious how reticent the NRA is to come to the defense of registered African-American gun owners.
  2. Specifying this right will, by no means, be simple. I do not believe that people have the right to do anything that will result in saving their lives. I also do not believe that the right to self-defense is automatically a right to kill, if there are other effective means available. There are also tricky questions about prisoners on death row, etc. This is also a right that implies certain duties, like the duty to ensure, as much as possible, that no innocent people are harmed. This means that gun-owners have a duty to acquire and maintain a high level of skill. This could mean that the public has a right to demand that those who wish to carry firearms in public be tested and certified.
  3. I’ve also recently heard that when criminals get semi-automatic weapons, then citizens need full-auto. In my infantry days, the only situation in which fully automatic fire was used was to spray a room with bullets before entering. So, saying this is the same as saying “When criminals get semi-auto, then citizens kill indiscriminately.”
  4. That doesn’t mean that a member of the public with a gun will not occasionally act to prevent, or minimize, some tragedy. That will have to be weighed against members of the public misidentifying a target or harm done by negligent discharges, a particular problem that we had in Iraq.

Disagreement and Being Wrong

This internet meme has been making the rounds lately:



The graphic shows two people on opposite ends of an ambiguous figure on the ground. One person points down and says “Six.” The other points down, saying “Nine.” The original caption is “Just because you are right, does not mean I am wrong.” That caption is crossed out, and this rebuttal placed below:

But one of those people is wrong, someone painted a six or nine, they need to back up ad orient themselves, see if there are any other numbers to alight with. Maybe there’s a driveway of a building to face, or they can ask someone who actually knows.

People having an uninformed opion about something they don’t understand and proclaiming their opinion as being equally valid as facts is shat is ruining the world. No one wants to do any research, they just want to be right.

There are number of things wrong here. First, the minor and less interesting problems:

  1. The distinction between opinion and fact — an opinion is just something someone believes. A fact is something that is the case. True opinions express facts; false ones do not. So, an opinion can very well be as “valid” as a fact, if it indeed expresses a fact.
  2. I do think that people having uninformed (I assume that is what was meant, not “uniformed”) opinions is bad, however, I suspect there are worse problems in the world. Failure to be informed is not evidence that people want to be right, but that they want to win. There’s an important difference.

Now for the more interesting issues:

One thing the explanation gets right is that context is important. Context might very well show that one person is in fact wrong, but context could also show that both are right. The explanation assumes that the figure is painted on the floor or ground, but that’s not clear from the cartoon. Another possibility is that the two people are looking at a large sign that was not intentionally placed, but simply laid down. To save money, the sign-maker may have produced 9 different signs for the numerals, intending the same sign to be used for both 6 and 9. So, both are correct. It is both a 6 and 9. The explanation assumes that the person who placed the figure there was trying to communicate something, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Another possibility, imagine that the two people live directly across the street from each other — one at 6 Elm Street and the other at 9 Elm Street. Not being very bright, they thought it would be cute to paint this large figure on the street between their houses. One points out that it is a 6, the other, a 9. Both walk away happy, and there is no real disagreement.

To the broader point communicated by the original statement:

We’ve all probably had disagreements that seemed irresolvable. Then, after some patient discussion, one person says, “You know, I think we’re really saying the same thing.” We often find that there are many different ways to express the same thought. One way being right does not mean that the others are wrong.

Statements also have meaning relative to a linguistic context. We may assume the other is wrong, but we’ve just misunderstood the context. For example, one person says that it is 25 degrees outside, but another says that it is -4. Can they both be right? Of course, if they are assuming different temperature scales.

So, in cases of disagreement, there are several possibilities:

  1. The disagreement is merely apparent. The parties believe the same thing, but do not understand each other.
  2. The disagreement is genuine, and the issue is such that only one party can be correct.
  3. The disagreement is genuine, but the issue is such that, even though they don’t realize it, both parties can be correct.

To know if someone’s being right entails that another person is wrong, I have to know facts about the question, the issue, the linguistic context, etc. That’s often not very difficult, but sometimes it is very hard. It’s important to note that we are always hypothesizing about these things and our assumptions may be wrong. So, in situations of disagreement, maybe we should try to exercise a bit more charity.

In the end, then, it is both one person’s being right and facts about context that determine if the other person must be wrong. So, the original statement stands, one person’s being right is not alone enough to guarantee that another person is wrong. We should certainly seek to be informed, but we should also seek to understand.


The Rise of Fake News

NPR has a fascinating, if not troubling, interview with a creator of various fake news sites that began to profilerate during the 2016 presidential election. This part of the interview was particularly telling:

Well, this isn’t just a Trump-supporter problem. This is a right-wing issue. Sarah Palin’s famous blasting of the lamestream media is kind of record and testament to the rise of these kinds of people. The post-fact era is what I would refer to it as. This isn’t something that started with Trump. This is something that’s been in the works for a while. His whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. When we were coming up with headlines it’s always kind of about the red meat. Trump really got into the red meat. He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.

We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.

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

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 snopes.com 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. [return]
  2. The first six pages of results from a Google search of “Clinton 5.7%” were entirely about this. [return]
  3. The NonProfit Times. [return]

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 W be white, B be black, and K be killed by police. The probability that someone is white if they are killed by police, \Pr (W \vert K), is 0.49. The probability that someone is black if they are killed by police, \Pr (B \vert K), 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.

\Pr (K \vert R) = \Pr (K) \times \frac{\Pr (R \vert K)}{\Pr R}

Since \Pr(K) 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 \frac{\Pr (W \vert K)}{\Pr (W)} to \frac{\Pr (B) \vert (K)}{\Pr (B)}$.

\frac{\Pr (W \vert K)}{\Pr (W)} = \frac{0.49}{0.62} = 0.79

On the other hand,

\frac{\Pr (B \vert K)}{\Pr (B)} = \frac{0.24}{0.13} = 1.84

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 \Pr(A \vert B) does not necessarily equal \Pr(B \vert A), 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. [return]

Go to Your Pastor for Depression?

Glennon Doyle Melton at momastery.com posted an article with the provocative title, “If You Wouldn’t Go to Your Minister for a Mammogram, Don’t Go for Depression.” In it, she makes the important point that there are those in Christian communities that advocate treatment of depression through prayer alone, refusing to see it as a medical condition, yet those same people would not treat cancer simply with prayer. In this, I wholeheartedly agree. Ministers harm those whom they counsel when they do not urge them to seek medical help for mental illness.

At the same time, though, I think the title of the post does a disservice to those who might read it. First, recognize that the analogy is particularly weak. Depression is a condition, a mammogram is a diagnostic tool. A better analogy would be this, “If you wouldn’t go to your minister because you have cancer, don’t go because you have depression.” So, the question, then, should be “Would you go to your minister if you had cancer?” I certainly hope that the answer is yes; cancer may not be a spiritual condition, but surely having cancer affects one’s spirit, and the patient should get as much support as she can. In the same way, having depression affects one’s spirit, and support from a caring pastoral counselor should be valued.

Is pastoral counseling good treatment for the depression itself? No, but then again, neither is a mammogram good treatment for cancer.

NRA Survey

I just received a call from the National Rifle Association today. A recorded message from the NRA Executive Vice-President concerning the U.N. Small Arms Treaty was followed by the following single question survey:

Do you think it’s OK for the U.N. to be on our soil attacking our gun rights?

I was instructed to press “1” if I did not think was OK for the U.N. to be on our soil attacking our gun rights. That was followed by a repeat instruction to press “1” if I did not think it was OK. I was then instructed to press 2 if I did think was OK for the U.N. to attack our gun rights. (Note that I was only given that instruction once.)

I am not criticizing the NRA’s position on the U.N. Small Arms Treaty, primarily since I have no interest in making enemies of the most well-armed group in the country. NRA membership outnumbers the people serving the U.S. Armed Forces by over a million. Even if there are no problems with the policy position, there are several problems with the survey. First, it is obvious that the NRA is not concerned what people think about the treaty. The survey is a classic example of a push-poll. It’s designed simply to push a message out to the population. This is evident from the question. What useful information do we expect to gain from asking people if they think it’s OK for the U.N to attack our gun rights. Do we really not know how people will answer that question? It’s no different from my polling my students to find out if they would like to get out of class early. I expect to soon hear an announcement from the NRA proclaiming that the American people are nearly unanimous in their rejection of the Small Arms Treaty. As far as information gathering goes, it’s a complete waste of time and money. For propaganda pushing, on the other hand, it’s very effective.

I wonder what the response rate would have been had the question been “Do you think it’s OK that the U.N. negotiate a treaty designed to prevent guns from falling into the hands of terrorists?” Another group could report that the American people nearly unanimously support the Small Arms Treaty. This survey would be no better as a survey, but just as effective as a propaganda tool.

I will be curious to see what percentage of respondents the NRA reports as supporting their position. It should not be 100%, since I pressed “2” just out of spite.