Blog Ipsa Loquitur

William Davies, writing in The Guardian about how statistics lost their power:

In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here”.

This is an unwelcome dilemma. Either the state continues to make claims that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else, politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and intuitively true, but may ultimately be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes mired in accusations of lies and cover-ups.

And sometimes, what you don’t study is as ​much a political choice as what you do study.

The fact that GDP only captures the value of paid work, thereby excluding the work traditionally done by women in the domestic sphere, has made it a target of feminist critique since the 1960s. In France, it has been illegal to collect census data on ethnicity since 1978, on the basis that such data could be used for racist political purposes. (This has the side-effect of making systemic racism in the labour market much harder to quantify.)

Filed on under Three out of Four Dentists Agree

Nicholas Weaver for Lawfare:

Lost amid the swirling insanity of the Trump administration’s first week, are the reports of the President’s continued insistence on using his Android phone (a Galaxy S3 or perhaps S4). This is, to put it bluntly, asking for a disaster. President Trump’s continued use of a dangerously insecure, out-of-date Android device should cause real panic. And in a normal White House, it would.

A Galaxy S3 does not meet the security requirements of the average teenager, let alone the purported leader of the free world. The best available Android OS on this phone (4.4) is a woefully out-of-date and unsupported. The S4, running 5.0.1, is only marginally better. Without exaggerating, hacking a Galaxy S3 or S4 is the type of project I would assign as homework for my advanced undergraduate classes. It’d be as simple as downloading a suitable exploit—depending on the version, Stagefright will do—and then entice Trump to clicking on a link. Alternatively, one could advertise malware on Breitbart and just wait for Trump to visit.

This should be a gigantic scandal. As Weaver says, it’s trivial for even undergraduates to compromise a phone this old and turn it into a 24/7 remote recording device. Nation states have significantly more resources and capabilities than students. Every conversation in the President’s presence is almost certainly being heard by at least one foreign intelligence agency. This is not a hypothetical situation.

Someone on the President’s staff needs to destroy his phone immediately. Don’t give him another one.

Filed on under Manchurian Release Candidates

There are almost too many gems to choose from in the AV Club’s oral history of the Double Dare obstacle course:

We had an obstacle called the Sewer Chute, which was, you’d go up a ladder and then go down a ladder in a very narrow sort of Plexiglass box, and the kid coming down fell backwards, and it looked like he snapped his neck. I thought he was dead. If you see me on the course, all I say over and over again is, “Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you sure you’re okay?”

So the kid only got to obstacle number six, and we said, “Hey, nice job. You’re doing great. See you tomorrow on Double Dare.” Well, we found out that the kid’s father was an attorney, and he came into the control room afterwards and said, “You know, that was a very dangerous obstacle course.” “Yeah, I know, we’ll remember that.” And he goes, “A large-screen TV was the prize for obstacle number seven.” Then he takes out his business card and hands it to us and says, “I’ll be happy not to sue you guys if you give him the TV from obstacle number seven. Otherwise, we got a problem here.” They went into a room, came back, and said, “Yes, sir, you want that TV? That’s your TV. No problem.” And that was the end of that.

From that point, they always looked at the kids’ applications, and if any kid had a parent who was an attorney, they never got on the show after that.

​Sound legal strategy.

I remember that Double Dare was criticized for wasting tons of food, but every article I’ve read about Double Dare since then has been quick to point out that the show used expired food. That factoid permeated into seemingly every corner of pop culture, and it turns out it wasn’t true at all:

Marc Summers, host: Klinghoffer [eventually] made [something] up, because he was the best at this stuff. [He would say] we would go to food warehouses and try and find product that was dated that they couldn’t sell in supermarkets or to restaurants anymore, and they would sell us the dated stuff. It was more B.S. than I can begin to tell you, but we just got tired of dealing with people saying that we were not helping homeless people by throwing eggs and using pudding.

My entire childhood was a lie. ​

Filed on under Things Only 90s Kids Remember

Popehat’s Ken White, on punching nazis:

We have social and legal norms, including “don’t punch people because their speech is evil, and don’t punish them legally.” Applying those norms is not a judgment that the speech in question is valuable, or decent, or morally acceptable. We apply the norms out of a recognition of human frailty — because the humanity that will be deciding whom to punch and whom to prosecute is the same humanity that produced the Nazis in the first place, and has a well-established record of making really terrible decisions.

You — the bien-pensant reader, confident that sensible punchers and prosecutors can sort out Nazis from the not-Nazis — will likely not be doing the punching or prosecuting. The punching and prosecuting will be done by a rogue’s gallery of vicious idiots, including people who think that Black Lives Matter should be indicted under RICO and that it’s funny to send women death threats if they write a column you don’t like.

Compare Twitter in 2017, in which a nazi celebrating the president’s inauguration is sucker punched on camera (and we all spend a lot of time seriously considering the political necessity of punching nazis) with Twitter in 2015, when we joked about killing baby Hitler. We were so young and innocent then.

On the topic of what White says, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great application of the Kantian categorical imperative to our current political environment: ​

So act according to the maxim where you can will your actions to become a universal law.

It’s sort of a beefed up version of the golden rule. This is handy, because most of the discussion in my liberal social media bubble seemed to take the golden rule to mean something like:

Do unto nazis as you would have other do unto nazis.

This is a much more convenient philosophy, because we all support the punching of nazis as a general rule. But as White points out, the categorical imperative makes it impossible to rationally want to impose a law allowing everyone to punch everyone with whom they violently disagree. Because the nazis disagree with you and I. And some people find Black Lives Matter activists as repulsive as you and I find the nazis. You can’t rationally hope that someone punches you for disagreeing with them, because nobody wants to get punched.

Here’s hoping this is the last ‘conversation from 1930s Germany’ we have in 2017.

Filed on under I'll Buy War Bonds Instead

The Economist, on President Trump’s speech:

As is usual with an inaugural address, there were rather few specific policy proposals. There was no explicit mention of a wall with Mexico, of tariffs on foreign-made goods, or of talks with Russia on fighting the Islamic State extremist group—all staples of the Trump platform to date. But there was nothing for those hoping to see a more pragmatic, moderate President Trump take office, or to hear him admit that the world is complex and less pliable than he pretended on the campaign trail. All populists are at heart conspiracy theorists, who pretend that easy solutions exist to society’s woes and have only not been tried to date because elites are wicked and deaf to the sturdy common-sense of decent, ordinary folk.

We certainly live in interesting times.

Filed on under Orange is the New Black

David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times about America’s Great Working-Class Colleges.

At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

Lower-income students who attend elite colleges fare even better on average than low-income students elsewhere — almost as well, in fact, as affluent students who attend elite colleges. But there aren’t very many students from modest backgrounds on elite campuses, noted John Friedman of Brown, one of the study’s authors. On several dozen of campuses, remarkably, fewer students hail from the entire bottom half of the income distribution than from the top 1 percent.

(Emphasis mine.) This seems like a problem. I’m not the first to note this, but it’s absurd to credit elite schools with turning high school valedictorians into high-earning professionals. Kids who already do well on tests get into colleges that want them to do well on tests, where they later do well on tests and proceed to careers where they succeed. It would seem to me that a college could better prove its worth by showing how much improvement its students make.

For example, take William Deresiewicz’s incendiary 2014 piece in The New Republic Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League. Once you get past the fairly unimaginative ‘kids today are weak and spoiled and soft and in my day, we walked uphill to school in the snow’ schtick, he hits more or less the same line of reporting as Leonhardt’s “more students from the top 1% than the bottom 50%” bit. Deresiewicz points out this kind of income inequality has drastically increased over the last couple decades:

The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.

And Leonhardt again, on elite colleges admitting more affluent kids than working-class ones:

Because the elite colleges aren’t fulfilling that responsibility, working-class colleges have become vastly larger engines of social mobility. The new data shows, for example, that the City University of New York system propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.

Six times! Now, you might know that CUNY is actually a university system of twenty-four colleges, and it’s larger than all but two state university systems: New York’s and California’s. CUNY has 274,000 students, while the twelve “Ivy Plus” schools have a combined 118,000 students. So on a per-student basis, that “almost six times as many” number is really more like “about two and a half times as many.” This is nothing to sneeze at, but I’m doing my part to combat innumeracy in 2017.

Well, okay. We all agree that income inequality is bad, and that America’s great working-class colleges do way more to fight income inequality than our Ivy-est schools, so problem solved, right? I’ll just read to the end of that Leonhardt piece to make sure the story has a happy ending, and-

State funding for higher education has plummeted. It’s down 19 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The financial crisis pinched state budgets, and facing a pinch, some states decided education wasn’t a top priority.

Oh, come on. ​

Filed on under I Attended SUNY and All I Got Was This Blog