Thursday, March 26, 2009

A New Era for Science

Two science-related news stories have stuck with me this week, though admittedly the second one is rather new.

Antarctic Ice Melt

Morning Edition, March 19, 2009 · A huge chunk of Antarctic ice can't withstand nonstop global warming, according to a new study published in the latest Nature magazine. And if it melts, the ice will raise the global sea level by 15 or 20 feet — or more.
OK so far? Then the story quickly turns puzzling:
The ice in question is called the West Antarctic ice sheet. In some ways, it's the planet's Achilles' heel. It holds a vast amount of water, locked up as ice, and it's sitting below sea level, so it's inherently unstable.
So ... ice below sea level is supposed to raise the level of the oceans as it melts?

First, I doubt that this notion came directly from any scientist interviewed by NPR. Second, if a scientist did say it then the statement should require a pretty good explanation. After all, about the only way that a block of ice melting below sea level can significantly affect the level of the ocean is if the hollow in which the ice is located goes dry. As in no ice and no water either.

Remember, water is that odd substance that is more compact in its liquid state. That's why ice floats, and it's also why a glass of ice water stays at about the same level when the ice melts.

The Reuters version of the story clarifies things a bit better:
The floating ice shelf won't elevate sea levels if melts because it is already displacing water. The real threat comes when the ice sheet behind, which is below sea level, is exposed to the ocean.
Though the "real threat" remains a bit mysterious without further reading ...
The modeling showed that when the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed, and the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet continued to melt at the edges, global sea level rose seven meters above present day levels, said Pennsylvania University's David Pollard, who led the study.
Did higher sea levels cause the melt or did the melting cause higher sea levels? Or both, with plenty of scope for adjusting the percentage?

The Science of Obama

President Obama generates an aura of awe surrounding his intellect, including his understanding of science, though we don't seem any solid indication that he grasps science any better than the average person. He did end up a lawyer rather than a scientist, after all.

Power Line pointed out a rather strange application of science by Obama with respect to Red River flooding, via The Star-Tribune:

In a White House interview with a handful of reporters, including Janell Cole of the Forum of Fargo, the president said the current flooding cannot necessarily be blamed on global warming, but he said it should be a signal to act.

"If you look at the flooding that's going on right now in North Dakota and you say to yourself, 'If you see an increase of 2 degrees, what does that do, in terms of the situation there?' " the president told the reporters. "That indicates the degree to which we have to take this seriously."

If the two degree increase happened overnight and in the spring, then the flooding would be worse, assuming the same amount of ice melt going into the river. But a two degree increase over time probably lessens the amount of ice to begin with, so there's less melt to go into the river in the first place.

Perhaps the president had in mind a "The Day After Tomorrow" scenario where North Dakota is struck by sudden torrential rains as a result of global warming. Or something.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if this one serves as a strong candidate for Ed Morrissey's Obamateurism of the Day over at Hot Air.

Mar 27, 09: Provided a forgotten "is" for the first graph

Make way for OVERCOP

The new administration has decided to recommend new terminology to replace the "Long War" or "Global War on Terror."
In a memo e-mailed this week to Pentagon staff members, the Defense Department's office of security review noted that "this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT.] Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.' "
(The Washington Post)
Some are saying that the new term sounds kind of weak, as in weak on terrorism.

Thanks to the Principle of Unfair Acronymism, however, I'm quite willing to give this one a try. After all, Overseas Contingency Operation lends itself to the name OVERCOP.

It sounds almost cool, and leaves out some hope that the new administration's policy will be something more than a widespread law-enforcement gig.

And we can use some hope with our change every now and then.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Does Warren Buffett support Obama?

Fact-checking the Fact-checkers

The issue:

A statement made by President Obama to Steve Croft during a "60 Minutes" interview:

"Your plan really for solving the banking crisis was met with very, very, very tepid response," Kroft said to Obama. "A lot of people said they didn't understand it. A lot of people said it didn't have any, enough details to solve the problem. I know you're coming out with something next week on this. But these criticisms were coming from people like Warren Buffett, people who had supported you, and you had counted as being your..."

"And Warren still does support me," Obama interjected. "But I think that, understand, Warren's also a big player in the financial markets who's a major owner of Wells Fargo. And so he's got a perspective from the perspective of somebody who is part owner of a bank.
Does Warren Buffet still support Obama?

The fact checkers:

  • Alexander Lane (writer, researcher)
  • Bill Adair (editor)

Alexander Lane seems to have put very little effort into this entry. For Lane, perhaps, it was an open-and-shut case so there was little to be gained by giving the facts any close examination. After noting what President Obama said during his interview with Steve Croft, Lane moves immediately toward resolution:
Buffett, who endorsed Obama during the campaign, did explicitly say during a three-hour interview March 9 with CNBC that he still supports Obama.
OK, break.

Identification of the intended sense of a term stands as the key to evaluating the accuracy of claims. What was the original context? Kroft introduces the root word:
But these criticisms were coming from people like Warren Buffett, people who had supported you, and you had counted as being your--
Kroft, it seems, uses the term in its generic sense of broadly supporting a candidate. He uses Buffett's support of Obama as a point of contrast to emphasize the broad based nature of criticisms of Obama on economic policy.

Obama interrupts Kroft:
And-- and-- and-- and Warren still does support me. But I think that understand Warren's also a big player in the financial markets who's a major owner of Wells Fargo. And so he's got a perspective from the perspective of somebody who-- is part owner of a bank.
As with Kroft's use of "supported," I think Obama's is the generic sense of generalized support. Obama's interruption of Kroft, however, produces an impression of defensiveness. Perhaps the president was concerned that viewers would think that Buffett was critical of his economic policies? If that were the case, and I do not know that it is, then Obama may be guilty of throwing up a bit of a smokescreen. And that is the only scenario in which I can conceive of this episode being worthy of the effort of fact-checking.

So let's continue the examination after getting one thing out of the way: Kroft acknowledged Buffett's support of Obama. Obama was right to note Buffett's support in the same generalized sense as Kroft meant it. And Buffett does continue to support Obama in that generalized sense.

PolitiFact researcher Alexander Lane provides adequate proof of the above with the initial quotation he provides:
"I voted for Obama and I strongly support him, and I think he's the right guy," Buffett said early in the interview.
Lane also treats the more convoluted issue that I identified above as he continues to quote Buffett. First, the PolitiFact version:
Buffett did criticize Obama's handling of the banking crisis, saying that "a bank that's going to go broke should be allowed to go broke," as long as the depositors are protected. (Obama's approach has leaned toward giving the banks more bailout money in some form rather than letting them fail and having the government take them over.)

But Buffett's primary concern was that Obama wasn't communicating clearly with the public about struggling banks. "The right answer for me (to the banking crisis) is the president to clarify things as only he can, because you have heard so many different things," he said. "He is the commander in chief on this, and it has to be clarified...because if people aren't clear, they're going to be confused. And if they're going to be confused, they are going to be scared stiff. And that has to end."
(bold emphasis added)
Lane opens up a big can of worms with this quotation. Take a look at a more complete version of that interview exchange:
BECKY: There was the idea that maybe they should just be buying shares outright. There's the idea of nationalization out there. What's the right answer?

BUFFETT: The right answer--the right answer for me is the president to clarify things as only he can, because you have heard so many different things. And, you know, they're doing their best to communicate, but the person that the people of the United States gave their trust to not that long ago was Barack Obama. He speaks very well. He has--he is the commander in chief on this, and it has to be clarified. Like I say, the head of the New York Fed gave a talk, explained a lot of it, but nobody's going to pay that much attention to what he says. You need the president of the United States to make it very clear. Because if people aren't clear, they're going to be confused. And if they're going to be confused, they are going to be scared stiff. And that has to end.

BECKY: Does that--you make it sound almost like it doesn't matter what he says, as long as he picks one of those.

BUFFETT: Well, it matters...

BECKY: That's--you've got to--you've got to be leaning one direction.


The key graph, of course, is Becky Quick's excellent follow up to Buffett's answer, "you make it sound almost like it doesn't matter what he says, as long as he picks one of those."

Rather than putting to rest Buffett's criticisms of Obama's economic policy, this exchange makes clear that Buffett had two principal criticisms of Obama. One, that his practical emphasis was misguided. Two, that the president's handling of the crisis in terms of public relations was a failure. The second stands as an important point because public attitude toward the economy holds a strong influence over the economy.

Buffett was saying, in effect, that Obama was blundering in two ways, and Buffett, in effect, was willing to forgive the first if Obama would correct the second.

Lane's treatment of the quotation is adequate to communicate what Buffett was saying if one is relatively in tune with the backstory, but could easily mislead people who were less familiar with Buffett's opinions on the economic crisis. Nothing quoted by Lane diminishes in any respect Buffett's two fundamental criticisms of Obama's economic policy.

1) Buffett does not support bailing out the failing financial institutions*
2) Buffett does not support bad presidential communications on economic issues*

*things Obama is/was doing

The way Lane tells the story perpetuates confusion about different types of support. To whatever extent Obama was trying to substitute generalized support for specific support of economic policies, the president was guilty of deceitful communication.

Given Obama's interruption of Kroft, there is sufficient evidence to see beyond what is suggested by the plain meaning and infer that Obama had a dubious argument implicit in his response to Kroft. PolitiFact should have graded Obama "Mostly True" and emphasized the distinction between general support and specific support for the handling of the current economic situation.

Lane failed in that:
Toward the end of the three-hour interview, Buffett reiterated his support for Obama. "He is the right president," Buffett said. "He's very, very smart. He's got, I think, exactly the right goals. He's articulate and I -- you know, he will be the right person to be the commander in chief in this economic crisis."

So clearly Obama was on solid ground touting Buffett's continued support. We find this claim to be True.
Though Lane's eventual determination is not far removed from the one I would have reached, his methods were unacceptably careless. This PolitiFact entry is more rehabilitation than fact-checking, as when Lane parrots Obama's psychologizing of Buffett (not a facet I spent time on in my analysis, but it's there).

The Grade:

The grade for Lane and Adair: F+

Mar 24, 2009: corrected spelling of "principal"

Monday, March 23, 2009

When dingbat healthcare activists attack (Updated)

While spelunking the dripping caverns of the Fever Swamp (Comments From Left Field) today, I came across this little item shared by "mattbastard":

Polls consistently show the majority of Americans strongly support a single-payer healthcare system. In a recent survey conducted by New York Times/CBS (1/11-15/09), respondents indicated they preferred a single-payer model 2 to 1 over a privatized system. Why then, is a single-payer model not being seriously considered and discussed as part of the major healthcare reform proposals under your administration?

Am I automatically suspicious of claims backed by polls? Pretty much.

I did my Pavlovian duty and checked for a New York Times/CBS poll for the appropriate time frame, and I believe I found it.

Then I looked for the public support of a single-payer system supposedly contained therein.

Not so much luck on that one. This is all I found:
92. Should the government in Washington provide national health insurance, or is this something that should be left only to private enterprise? IF GOVERNMENT, ASK: Should the government insurance be for all medical problems, or only for medical emergencies?
  • 32 percent thought that health care should be left exclusively to private enterprise
  • 9 percent answered DK/NA
  • 49 percent of the total surveyed preferred the first answer to the second question
So what does this poll result mean? Not much, even if the results were not presented in such a ragtag manner. The wording of the first question seems to imply that only those who answered "government" were asked the second question, which means we are talking about a group that does not think that private enterprise should handle health care exclusively.

I'm not in favor of the private sector handling the insurance of all medical benefits, so I'd end up answering the second question in addition to the first. I wouldn't necessarily want the government insurance (to whatever degree it is used) to pay only for emergencies, so I suppose it ends up that I couldn't take that option. So, once I got through answering this poll, the dingbats at Community Counts would apparently assume that I favor a nationalized single-payer health insurance system if I allowed the poll to steer me toward the "government all" category. But hardly anything would be further from the truth.

I introduced these concerns over at CFLF. Let's see what happens (be forewarned: The CFLF crew are a potty-mouthed lot).


Sadly predictable! I had permitted myself false hope that the blunder would be acknowledged.
  • matttbastard on
    March 23rd, 2009 9:14 pm

    Sorry, trolling will get you nowhere, Bryan. :)

    I don’t feed the desperately link-starved.

    But thanks for the love, regardless.

  • Bryan on
    March 24th, 2009 12:01 am

    If I take the Web site URL away, will you take the criticism seriously?

  • blog it

    Grading PolitiFact: Jesmer apparently not as artful as Obama?

    I've railed in the past about the way fact checkers at PolitiFact display a disgraceful inconsistency in deciding whether the issue is the literal meaning of a politician's statement or the underlying argument.

    On Friday, Mar. 20, PolitiFact published a piece about the following statement from Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee:
    Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, placed an
    amendment in the "stimulus" bill that allowed for banks bailed out with taxpayer money - including A.I.G. - to hand out huge bonuses without any government oversight or regulation, as long as those bonuses were issued before February 11.
    The entry, by writer/researcher Alexander Lane and editor Scott Montgomery, ruled the statement "Half True" despite the fact that the statement is literally true:
    The Republicans’ charge is true in a limited sense — Dodd’s amendment did address the bonus issue while falling short of disallowing the recent AIG bonuses.
    The sense in which the claim is true was actually the main point of Jesmer's message, which starts by calling attention to Dodd's inconsistency in the press). The sense that Lane found false was a minor implicit argument brought to the fore with a subsequent comment from Jesmer:
    It is no wonder that Senator Dodd received more campaign contributions from A.I.G. than any other politician during the 2008 cycle, including President Obama. As FOX News put it yesterday, "A.I.G. must be feeling very grateful to Chris Dodd this morning."
    Assuming that Jesmer is right about the level of contributions Dodd received from A.I.G., this statement is also literally true, but it may exaggerate the degree to which Dodd was the friend of A.I.G.

    The problem with the PolitiFact evaluation?

    Lane and Montgomery took a claim that was literally true but carried a dubious implicit argument and ruled it "Half True."

    The previous day, editor Montgomery and writer/researcher Angie Drobnic Holan took a claim that might be literally true (Drobnic never got to the bottom of the literal truth) but which also carried a plainly false implicit argument.

    The PolitiFact judgment: Mostly True.

    The politician in question for the latter judgment? President Obama.
    Obama was careful in the way he phrased his statement ...
    So was Jesmer, by all indications.

    The key to evaluating the truth of a political claim should always be the point the communication. In Jesmer's case, his point was that Dodd had dropped the ball. His claim was literally true and reasonably supported his main idea. Jesmer should have been judged no worse than "Mostly True."

    In contrast, Obama made a claim that may well be false and used it to support a plainly false main idea, that the auto makers have been ignoring needed innovation. On the contrary, the differences between the Model T and the modern SUV show an emphasis by the manufacterers on needed innovations in terms of safety, power and energy efficiency. Obama's claim should have rated no better than "Barely True."

    Grade for Lane and Montgomery: D-

    Angie Drobnic Holan and Montgomery received an "F."

    Saturday, March 21, 2009

    Grading PolitiFact: Model T gas mileage

    I went for the more informative title rather than the tempting "Artful Obama right again!"

    Thursday was a sad day for journalism thanks to this PolitiFact entry. Angie Drobnic Holan wrote and researched it. Scott Montgomery did the editing. Both dropped the ball.

    On to the claim at issue:
    "The problem is that, for decades, we have avoided doing what must be done as a nation to turn challenge into opportunity. As a consequence, we import more oil today than we did on 9/11. The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008. And even as our economy has been transformed by new forms of technology, our electric grid looks largely the same as it did half a century ago."
    (U.S. Department of Energy)
    The Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008. Supposedly.

    Drobnic starts with the obvious, averaging the mileage for SUVs from the 2008 model year (see the afterword for a deeper critique of this aspect of the piece):
    (T)he Environmental Protection Agency found that light trucks — the class of vehicle to which SUVs belong — averaged 18.1 miles per gallon for model year 2008. The most efficient SUVs do much better than that — a Jeep Compass gets 23 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway — but Obama said "typical."
    So is "typical" the average SUV sold or the average for all the distinct SUV models plus other "light duty trucks"? Drobnic apparently opts for the latter and turns to the point of comparison:
    To find out what a Model T averaged, we consulted Bob Casey, author of The Model T: A Centennial History , and the curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. (The museum is named for Ford but independent of the Ford Motor Co.)

    He said the best estimate for a Model T's mileage is 20 miles per gallon, though it might be able to get 25 under the right conditions.

    The wording suggests that Casey made no attempt to estimate how the Model T might have rated using the EPA's methodology. Drobnic should have asked a question focused on that comparison to avoid the old apples and oranges problem. Perhaps that is what she did, but the story gives no good indication of it.

    And it would not have been a bad idea to consult more than one expert.

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  • The Model T was introduced on Oct. 1, 1908. It had a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, reached a top speed of about 45 miles per hour, got about 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline and weighed 1,200 pounds. It was the ninth of Henry Ford's production cars.

  • blog it

    Gas mileage estimates for the Model T vary widely, however. The uncertainty comes from many factors, including low-quality gasoline when the vehicle was introduced, bad roads, and no odometer.
    So technically Obama is right.
    Perhaps Obama is technically right. PolitiFact hasn't made the case.

    And now Drobnic allows her readers to again experience the traditional PolitiFact torture of inconsistent distinctions between technical accuracy and the nature of the implicit argument attached to the claim:
    But his implication is that we haven't gotten more fuel efficient in 100 years. And that's a reach.
    Uh, no, it is not a "reach." It is a blatant falsehood. The model T weighed about 1200 lbs. For comparison, one of the poorest-mileage SUVs, the Range Rover, has a gross weight of over 6,000 pounds. Put those 6,000 pounds on the Model T and the number of miles per gallon will drop precipitously--guaranteed.

    clipped from

    Excess items in trunkAvoid keeping unnecessary items in your vehicle, especially heavy ones. An extra 100 pounds in your vehicle could reduce your MPG by up to 2 percent. The reduction is based on the percentage of extra weight relative to the vehicle's weight and affects smaller vehicles more than larger ones.

    blog it

    Just for fun, let's do an estimate using a lowball number. An extra 100 pounds decreases the Model T's mileage by just one percent. Adding a mere 3,000 pounds of the Range Rover's curb weight, we get 100 extra pounds thirty times. That comes to a 30 percent drag on the Model T's fuel economy--down to 17.5 mpg from Casey's loftiest estimate.

    But the Range Rover received an EPA estimate of 19 mpg for the highway. And that was under new EPA standards that take into account gas-draining factors such as the use of air conditioning. The Model T had neither air conditioning nor electric headlights.

    For a more complete examination of the relationship between fuel economy and vehicle weight, give a listen to an NPR show from late last year featuring an editor from Popular Mechanics.

    For Drobnic it's just "a reach," but her final quotation of Casey provided the most accurate judgment of Obama's claim:
    "The government would not allow anyone to sell Model Ts today because they're so unsafe," Casey said. "It's a car that no one would use on a regular basis today. It's not a fair comparison."
    Not a fair comparison, eh? That put only the slightest damper on Drobnic's party.
    We agree that the two cars are totally different. But Obama was careful in the way he phrased his statement: "The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008." As long as you don't consider any factors other than mileage, he's right. We rate his statement Mostly True.
    That rating fails to take into account the deeply misleading nature of the president's statement. His very obvious point was a general failure to significantly advance the fuel efficiency of production automobiles, using that supposed failure to suggest the need to start doing a decent job of improving fuel efficiency. "We have avoided doing what must be done as a nation to turn challenge into opportunity," he said. The rating should have been "barely true," and Drobnic may well realize it now, as an AP fact check rated Obama much more severely on this issue.

    The grade: F


    What is "a typical SUV sold in 2008?

    As we saw above, Angie Drobnic Holan apparently used the assumption that the average gas mileage for trucks such as the Ford F-150, the best of which gets 16 mpg. On the other hand, as I understand it, it may have excluded SUVs like the Ford Excusion. On balance, the inclusion of pickup trucks and vans probably lowered the mileage estimate significantly.

    Unfortunately for Holan's assumptions, SUV sales were not necessarily proportional. During 2008, SUVs with good gas mileage tended to sell better as illustrated by the following charts. Note that crossover vehicles significantly outsold SUVs. The CUVs generally got better mileage.

    clipped from

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    While these data are not complete, we can still use them to obtain a useful estimate. And the right way to determine the gas mileage for the typical SUV was to weight each model according to its sales in 2008. That means that the mileage for the top-selling SUV should be weighted proportionally according to its sales. I'm not going to try to complete that daunting project since the PolitiFact story is a shambles even without going through all that trouble. But doing an estimate isn't that tough. I sifted out the twenty best-selling SUVs/CUVs and found that they accounted for over half of all SUV sales. If the average for the best-selling models turns out higher than Drobnic's estimate, then we have a reasonable indication that her estimate was too low.

    A few caveats about the mileage figures: Though most of the models listed come in a number of variations, I always went with the smallest engine (better mileage, generally) and an automatic transmission (worse mileage, generally). I also stuck with 2wd and FWD models exclusively (4WD and AWD models tend to get worse mileage)

    It turned out that when the top twenty best-selling SUVs from the two lists were weighted according to sales, the typical SUV in that select group averaged 20 mpg (rounded up from 19.99 if anyone is curious).

    That was using the first column of mileage figures, however. The first column represents the EPA's new method of estimating vehicle mileage, and, as noted above, that involves things like running the air conditioner.

    clipped from

    Starting in model year 2008, estimates reflect the
    effects of

    • Faster Speeds & Acceleration

    • Air Conditioner Use

    • Colder Outside Temperatures

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    The Model T did not have an air conditioner and did not operate at "faster speeds" (topping out around 45 mph). As for colder temperatures, getting an older car to start was always a challenge. It simply isn't at all likely that Model T mileage has ever taken cold starts into account.

    That means that the old system of EPA mileage estimation, though still an apples-and-oranges affair, likely provides a more realistic comparison.

    Using that column of mileage estimates, the best-selling group of SUVs averaged 22 mpg (rounded down from 22.12)--about 10 percent better than the estimate used by Drobnic for the Model T's gas mileage. In short, Drobnic's conclusion is subject to reasonable doubt.

    So what does it all mean? Essentially this: Not only was the PolitiFact treatment soft on Obama for the "reach" of his implied argument, it was also soft in accepting the raw claim that the Model T earned better gas mileage than the average (new) SUV sold in 2008.

    Mar 22, 2009: Added a clarifying clause in the next to last paragraph.

    Friday, March 20, 2009

    Obama's teleprompter scores "Quote of the Day" from Allahpundit after less than a week of blogging

    Obviously, the president's speeches are in good hands.

    Teleprompter, is the president ever argumentative with you, or is he compliant with your instructions?
    Check over at Hot Air for the teleprompter's rich zinger of an answer.

    Obama's gift to Gordon Brown: region 1 dvds

    When the news hit that President Obama gave visiting British PM Gordon Brown a set of 25 dvds as part of the traditional gift exchange, I wondered whether the thoughtlessness of the gift might be complicated by the dvds being coded for region 1 (aimed at the North American market). British dvd players are set to play region 2 dvds.

    With a hat tip to Power Line, it turns out that Mr. Brown won't be able to watch the dvds unless he either gets a North American market dvd player (along with power adapters) or hacks his player to enable it to play dvds from other regions. The Times (UK) reports that the dvds won't play in Brown's machine.
    While not exactly a film buff, Gordon Brown was touched when Barack Obama gave him a set of 25 classic American movies – including Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins on his recent visit to Washington.

    Alas, when the PM settled down to begin watching them the other night, he found there was a problem.

    The films only worked in DVD players made in North America and the words "wrong region" came up on his screen.

    Regardless of how smooth and smart Mr. Obama happens to be, this was neither smooth nor smart. It was clumsy and boneheaded.

    Thursday, March 19, 2009

    "Barack Obama's Teleprompter's Blog"

    Added "Barack Obama's Teleprompter's Blog" to the "Essential Links" section in the sidebar.

    So now we'll get the inside dope on what is going on in the new administration.

    Hat tip to Rush Limbaugh.

    Grading PolitiFact: Christina Romer and "almost all of them"

    It is almost uncanny how poorly PolitiFact plays the fact-checking game.

    The latest rating from PolitiFact, penned by Alexander Lane, concerns a economic prediction from economic adviser Christina Romer. Romer backed her prediction by appealing to a survey of private forecasters:
    "We know that this last week the Blue Chip Economic Indicators came out that surveys lots of private forecasters. Almost all of them are predicting a turnaround in the third quarter and positive growth in the fourth quarter."
    Sounds pretty easy to check, doesn't it? Watch Lane turn it into an adventure.
    The consensus, or average prediction of the panelists, was that the economy as measured by the gross domestic product would grow 0.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009 and 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter. That was not quite enough information to gauge the accuracy of Romer’s claim,
    Correct so far, with the caveat that "consensus" is not nearly the same thing as an average prediction. Consensus indicates general agreement, but one can take an average from a set of numbers that do not generally agree. Lane's sentence tends to suggest otherwise.
    so we asked editor Randell Moore for more detail. He said 50 economists were surveyed, with 30 predicting positive growth in the third quarter of 2009 and 45 predicting positive growth in the fourth quarter.
    Those are some useful numbers. Obviously with only 50 surveyed we'll find some overlap between panelists predicting third quarter growth and those predicting fourth quarter growth.

    But let's review Romer's claim:
    We know that this last week the Blue Chip Economic Indicators came out that surveys lots of private forecasters. Almost all of them are predicting a turnaround in the third quarter and positive growth in the fourth quarter.
    It appears that Romer is saying that "Almost all of them" are predicting two things, linked with the connector "and." First, "Almost all of them" predict a turnaround in the third quarter. If "turnaround" is equal to positive growth then we have a problem, since 30 of 50, also known as 60 percent, seems perhaps less than "almost all of them."

    On the second part of the statement Romer is on better footing, since 45 of 50 predicted fourth quarter growth. It's fair to count 90 percent as "almost all of them."

    Now, if Romer has said "Almost all of them are predicting a turnaround in the third quarter or positive growth in the fourth quarter" then we'd have enough information to reasonably rate her statement "True." But that is not what she said.

    Somehow, Lane sees it differently:
    That does indeed support Romer’s claim, since 45 out of 50 constitutes "almost all" the forecasters.
    Apparently we're supposed to forget about approximately half of Romer's statement. And Lane never bothers to deal with it. After sifting through more of the panel's findings and noting that the picture isn't exactly rosy, he offers us the final conclusion:
    But Romer is entitled to highlight optimistic forecasts. And it's true that almost all the panelists surveyed in Blue Chip Economic Indicators predicted a rebound by the fourth quarter of 2009. We find Romer's claim to be True.
    See? Third quarter prediction all but forgotten.

    With half of the statement pretty clearly false, how can a rating of "True" be justified?

    That answer is easy. It cannot be justified. And that is the mystery that is PolitiFact. The project is supposedly made up of capable professional journalists. And PolitiFact stresses that its ratings are subject to peer review among other PolitiFact staffers.

    So how can the results be this bad?

    Grade: D

    Note: One potential saving grace for Romer is that there might have been more information in the survey to support the notion of a "turnaround" as opposed to literal economic growth. That offers no help to PolitiFact, however, as we have no indication that Lane explored that avenue at all.

    KMW: Video of a whole bunch of German armored vehicles

    Another interesting video find, this production from KMW clocks in at over seven minutes and has cameos from pretty much every vehicle they make from the Dingo to the Leopard and including the mighty Mungo.

    The production is a tad odd in some ways, for it relies almost entirely on visuals and a sort of storyline. Basically, Daddy goes off to a surrealistic peacetime war and we get to see what happens. And try to figure out how it's supposed to make sense! I like the dubbing, especially the relatively deep (American) Southern accent at one point put in for what was undoubtedly German.


    Video: Marine Combat Tactical Vehicle demonstrator

    No, it's not exactly new, but the video shows a good set of clips including one where the vehicle self-adjusts its height.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009

    Obama gives another great speech (Updated)

    This thing with Obama and his teleprompter ...
    WASHINGTON – Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen was just a few paragraphs into an address at a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the White House when he realized something sounded way too familiar. Turns out, he was repeating the speech President Barack Obama had just given.
    Oops! Seems Cowen started reading Obama's speech. But that's not the best part. Cowen backed up and let Obama know that it was his speech on the teleprompter. The president took over from there ...
    Obama laughed and returned to the podium to offer what might have been Cowen's remarks. In doing so, President Obama thanked President Obama for inviting everyone over.
    Best case scenario: Obama noticed what was going on and thanked himself as a joke.

    But I want to see the video.


    The Times (UK) version makes it look worse than the best case scenario for President Obama:

    Although used for more than half a century, the device was previously employed mainly for set-piece speeches. The current President, however, often uses them for making small introductory statements at the beginning of press conferences.

    On this occasion, as a laughing Mr Obama returned to the podium, the script was belatedly switched over to the Taoiseach's text – leaving Mr Obama inadvertently thanking himself for inviting everyone, to further laughter. "First, I'd like to say thank you to President Obama!" the President said.

    I'd have taken an account in the U.S. press to task for "inadvertently"--a bit of an editorial judgment--but that sort of thing is pretty much standard in the European press. Dog bites man.

    Still want to see the video.

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    JournoList and journalism

    The decline of the the daily newspaper combined with the rise of the Internet has produced a de facto struggle for the integrity of public information.

    The newspapers once served as the effective benchmark, regardless of any criticism that might be brought to bear regarding how well they upheld their responsibilities.

    The recent story at Politico about the "JournoList" discussion group intrigued me from that angle. Though the membership of the list is predominantly leftward-leaning, members apparently like the list because it helps ensure better information.
    Indeed, the advantage of JList, members say, is that it provides a unique forum for getting in touch with historians and policy people who provide journalists with a knowledge base for articles and blog posts
    So this group of journalists ends up drawing on a knowledge base chosen by and/or made up of folks who tilt to the left. This seems like the sort of thing that would register a warning flag with the best journalists. We shouldn't want to restrict the pool of ideas along ideological lines or draw our expert opinions primarily from one side of an issue. JournoList lends itself to the type of "echo chamber" effect already prevalent in newsrooms around the country. JournoList represents a nationalized form of the same thing.
    POLITICO’s Mike Allen, Ben Smith and Lisa Lerer are on the list. “The roster includes some of the savviest authorities on everything from behavioral economics to Ben’s Chili Bowl,” Allen said. “It’s a window into a world of passionate experts — an hourly graduate education.”

    Said another JLister: “I don’t know any other place where working journalists, policy wonks and academics who write about current politics and political history routinely communicate with one another.”
    I don't doubt that the system offers some distinct benefits. But it's hard to imagine that JournoList reinforces an objective approach to journalism if the list is ideologically tilted. On the contrary, even if it isn't the purpose of the list, it would be natural for the list to produce an ideologically tinged news product at the end of the day.

    Good for Politico for publishing a story about it.

    The drawbacks of the Jackal

    Fears over the dangers of the Jackal all-terrain vehicle have been raised after the latest two soldiers were named by the Ministry of Defence last night.

    Corporal Graeme Stiff, 24, and Corporal Dean John, 25, of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, were killed in a blast in a Jackal in the Garmsir district of southern Helmand.
    (The Telegrah)
    Defence of the Realm sounded the alarm over the Jackal's design problems from early on:
    The third and least satisfactory of them all is the Coyote TSV (Light) which is to be a 6x6 derivative of the Jackal designed by Supacat Ltd. We are told that it will also have a cargo capacity in excess of 1.5 tons and a four-man crew.

    The MoD does not offer a photograph of this, but it may well be similar to the Supacat "Extenda" seen in Paris earlier this year (pictured). There are no indications, as yet, as to whether this will be armoured in the same way as the Jackal but, if it is not, soldiers would be better protected going to war on bicycles.
    No doubt there is precious little joy in being right on something like this.

    Two more paragraphs of note from the Telegraph story:
    "The Jackal ignores all five of the basic principles of mine or blast protection and then seeks to overcome the basic design flaws with bolt-on armour, added as an afterthought. It cannot and will not work," said Dr Richard North, editor of the Defence of the Realm blog.
    And ...
    Defence analysts are urging the MoD to join the $3 billion American all-terrain mine protected vehicle programme called M-ATV that has been short-listed to three trucks.
    It does seem that the Brits need something durable to use on patrols relegated to using Afghanistan's roads. The Jackal apparently handled rough terrain very well, but simply proved a poor fit for patrol duty on those booby-trapped roads.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009

    Grading PolitiFact: Obama invokes Teddy Roosevelt on health care reform (Updated)

    PolitiFact writer Alexander Lane evaluated a reference from President Barack Obama to past Republican president Theodore Roosevelt. It will take some probing to pin down what claim Lane thinks he's evaluating.

    Here is the article title:
    "Teddy Roosevelt first called for (health care) reform nearly a century ago."
    The title offers us two potential areas of focus. Did Roosevelt "first" call for health care reform nearly a century ago? And was it the first time Roosevelt called for such reform or was he the first to call for it? Or did Roosevelt merely call for health care reform nearly a century ago, without so much emphasis on "first"?

    The statement in context:
    The problems we face today are a direct consequence of actions that we failed to take yesterday. Since Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform nearly a century ago, we have talked and we have tinkered. We have tried and fallen short, we've stalled for time, and again we have failed to act because of Washington politics or industry lobbying.
    Does it even matter what type of reform Roosevelt envisioned? We check back with Lane:
    Not content to emulate Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, Republican icons for whom President Obama has expressed admiration in the past, Obama has aligned himself with a third GOP hero on the issue of health care.
    For Lane, the issue seems to be how Obama and Roosevelt align on health care. That is not how I would have initially approached Obama's statement. As such it says nothing about consonance between the views of the two men respecting health care. Roosevelt's failed attempt to recapture the presidency was through his alignment with a "Progressive Party" that was a faction of the Republican Party. So T. Roosevelt probably counts as the first major candidate to have health care reform included as part of his political platform, even if his speeches from around that time provide no evidence for it according to the results of my limited survey.

    Back to Lane:
    We wondered whether Roosevelt really proposed reform on the scale of the near-universal health care Obama advocates, or if the new president was pushing the whole bipartisan-appeal thing a bit far.
    Aside from the presumptive fundamental accuracy of seeing Roosevelt as the first prominent political voice to advocate health care reform, Lane perhaps has a legitimate point of inquiry, here. Given Obama's past invocation of revered Republican figures, he may have subtly intended for his reference to Roosevelt to burnish whatever health care reform he would propose. The text of Obama's speech provides relatively little purchase for that notion, but let's at least see where Lane goes with the idea.

    Lane reviews the relevant provisions in the Progressive Party platform. I'll reproduce only they key paragraph here, but encourage examination of the context using the link provided.
    The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use;
    At first blush, the above seems like a thin foundation on which to build the picture of Teddy Roosevelt as an advocate of health care reform. On the contrary, this provision of the platform looks like it is intended to provide support for a family experiencing economic difficulty owing to sickness, not as a provision for the payment of health care benefits ("The protection of home life" being the key phrase).

    Lane found two experts willing to say that Roosevelt was talking about health care benefits, apparently. W. M. Brands was one:
    "What this envisioned was pretty much what FDR accomplished with Social Security, but with health insurance added," said Brand (sic), author of TR: The Last Romantic (1998).
    Kathleen Dalton, a big liberal, was the other:
    "We don’t know the specifics of the plan," said Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (2002). "The roots were probably British, though he knew about German health insurance."
    Dalton said unequivocally Obama was on solid ground evoking Roosevelt.
    British roots, eh?

    In 1911 there was one more piece of social legislation, and a very important one: the National Insurance Act. The general plan had been outlined by the Government in 1909. This act provided for insurance against sickness and disability for workers between the ages of sixteen and seventy, under formal contract of service, whose annual incomes were £160 or less, and for nearly all manual workers regardless of income. It was a contributory scheme (the chief variation from German practice which served as something of a model), with the employer to contribute threepence per week, the employee fourpence (female, threepence), and the government twopence. The most important benefits were ten shillings a week for sickness and five shillings a week for disability.
    (Havighurst, "Britain in Transition," 1985, p. 104)
    By the measure of the British system described above, Theodore Roosevelt would seem to have found The New Deal more than adequate to fulfil his vision of social insurance.

    The Social Security Act did not quite achieve all the aspirations its supporters had hoped by way of providing a "comprehensive package of protection" against the "hazards and vicissitudes of life." Certain features of that package, notably disability coverage and medical benefits, would have to await future developments. But it did provide a wide range of programs to meet the nation's needs. In addition to the program we know think of as Social Security, it included unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, aid to dependent children and grants to the states to provide various forms of medical care.
    If we ignore the impact of the state grants, we see that Brands' distinction between Social Security and the Progressive Party's plan was probably explained by the latter's practice of providing payments during periods of illness. While that is a common feature of modern health insurance, it is not the way we think of health care reform. We think about medical services.

    Brands was good to draw attention to the distinction, and the author Lane earns credit by including the quotation:
    Brands more or less agreed, though he cautioned that health care was "not the priority that trust-busting or conservation was" for Roosevelt. "It's worth remembering that health care was a far smaller concern in those days," Brands said. "Doctors had few medicines, and most people died or got better on their own. The biggest issues were public health — eradicating malaria, cleaning up water supplies, and so on."
    After a couple of historical tidbits, Lane gives the conclusion:
    Clearly, Obama is on solid ground tracing the push for national health care back to Theodore Roosevelt. We find this claim to be True.
    Lane put himself in the position of defending a minor argument loosely implicit in Obama's statement.

    Contrary to Lane's conclusion, it is ridiculous to trace the push for national health care as we understand it today back to Theodore Roosevelt. To whatever extent Obama attempted to convey that impression, he misled.

    It seems that Lane took information that would have supported the plain meaning of Obama's statement--that Theodore Roosevelt had been the first major political figure in the U.S. to call for "(health care)" reform and wrongly turned it into support for the far more dubious proposition Lane identified.

    The grade: D-

    Editor Bill Adair shares this grade.


    Commenter "ildi" stopped by to give me a heads up about a "Marketplace" radio story called "A history lesson in health care reform."  Marketplace provides business news which typically airs on public radio stations (the NPRish style is evident from the audio clips).

    The idea, I suppose, was intended to inform me of readily available evidence of Roosevelt's direct support for a social medicine program.  But that's not what I found when I looked into the story:
    So this is a story I heard from a doctor that I met one time.
    Warner: Can you introduce yourself to me?
    Dubin: I'm William Dubin, I'm professor and interim chair at Temple University School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.
    Bill Dubin is not only a psychiatrist, but an amateur historian, he's got a book in his lap...
    Dubin: Called "The Transformation of American Medicine" by Paul Starr.
    ...Which is where he read the following story.
      At least PolitiFact contacted professional historians rather referencing "a story I heard froma  doctor that I met one time."  And can it be too much trouble to accurately provide the name of Paul Starr's book?  I noticed a discrepancy between the print and audio right away.

    But back to the evidence of Roosevelt's support for a medical benefit:
    And Roosevelt came out 100 percent behind compulsory health care insurance. And his actual quote was "No country can be strong if its people are sick and poor."
    Archival tape of Teddy Roosevelt's speech
    Of course, Roosevelt lost the election.
    The source of the quotation in this story isn't clear, oddly enough.  The archival tape doesn't match the quotation.   The portion I quoted is not attributed to Dr. Dubin.  The narrator (Gregory Warner) apparently heard something from Dubin that made him think the Roosevelt had made the statement.  But it may have originated from Paul Starr's characterization of the reason for Roosevelt's support of a health benefit (yellow highlights added):

    In the end, we have no solid lead in this story.  We'd be taking Gregory Warner's word on it.

    Perhaps more interesting than the dubious attempt to fill in the missing Roosevelt factoid, the story references a health care proposal written up after Roosevelt lost his Progressive Party bid for the presidency.

    I may follow up on that one at a later time.

    March 21, 2009: Deleted a redundant "the."
    Nov. 11, 2009: Added missing "l" to "health."

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Five M-ATV finalists identified provides an update on the M-ATV contracts, indicating that the Force Dynamics (Force Protection/General Dynamics) Cheetah, the BAE Systems RG-33 variant, the Global Tactical Systems (BAE) Caiman variant , the Oshkosh "Sandcat" variant and the Navistar MXT variant have won the five initial M-ATV contracts offered by the Pentagon.

    clipped from
     blog it

    Force Dynamics and its associated companies, from what I can tell, have yet to make available a quality photograph of the updated Cheetah. I clipped one version of what I take to be a computer artist's rendition of the vehicle.

    And I'll blurt out again that the BAE model supposedly based on the RG-33 looks suspiciously close to the BAE/Navistar JLTV design, dubbed the Valanx. Though perhaps the Valanx was in turn based on the RG-33 in some respect.

    Twisted knickers at Thales

    Bushmaster makers miffed at Australian partnership in JLTV program
    THE Australian Government has snubbed a Bendigo-built defence vehicle and funded the development of nine US prototypes similar to a lighter variant of the Bushmaster.

    The Federal Government will contribute $40 million to the United States’ Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, in a move that has angered the Bendigo business community.

    “This defies any logic as far as I’m concerned,” Bendigo Business Council chairman Doug Buerger said.

    (The Advertiser)

    Reads like sour grapes to me, even if the gripe is understandable.

    Sure, Australia stands to lose out on the economics, though I seem to recall that the deal calls for at least some of the vehicle production to take place in Oz. The Thales company in particular loses out unless it catches some of that work in manufacturing the JLTV.

    On the other hand, it is a dubious proposition that the Bushmaster (or a modernized variant) would possess capabilities comparable to those coming out of the JLTV program even if some aspects of the competition seem dubious.

    Worth quoting

    The "Quote of the Day" at Hot Air may be the quote of the month, or perhaps for the year overall.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    Obama declares fetal stem cell research moral

    Take that, Pope Benedict.
    (I)n recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

    It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.

    Apparently respecting their point of view amounts to telling them they're wrong and committing the government to spending on something they believe is immoral.

    You backward types may now retreat further into guns and religion.

    Monday, March 09, 2009

    Philosophical review of "The Watchmen"

    ****Beware Spoilers****

    A different sort of superhero flick opened up last weekend--"The Watchmen."

    The movie played a little like a mystery "Whodunnit" and featured more character development than action. Combined with its "R" rating, it seems unlikely to score big at the box office.

    While I enjoyed the movie overall, the ending was something of a disappointment because ... well, it didn't make a whole lot of sense.

    The U.S. and the Soviet Union, after being at each others' throats with the whole Cold War thing, suddenly learn to get along thanks the the machinations of the heroic villain. Peace on Earth, we live happily ever after. I guess.

    But the movie paints a very dark picture of human nature. The criminals seem irredeemable. Rorschach, one of the Watchmen, certainly sees them that way. After all, he'd just as soon kill a criminal as send him to jail. Given that dark aspect of humanity, how is the mere removal of the threat of nuclear annihilation supposed to bring peace on Earth?

    The movie's solution to that problem appears to be god. Not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, but the godlike Dr. Manhattan, who might again visit nuclear-style hellfire and brimstone on a populous Earth city from his home in the heavens (the planet Mars, last we checked).

    The film ends up giving viewers an implausible mishmash of progressive utopianism and preconventional ethics. The latter concerns doing right out of the fear of punishment. Those who blame society's ills on rich corporate interests are thrown a bone, as the murder of business types such as Lee Iacocca (no, I'm not kidding) appears prerequisite to the achievement of the earthly paradise.

    "The Watchmen" succeeds admirably in painting a comprehensive picture of an alternate recent past, but ultimately fails to present a coherent world view. It's as though a handful of writers with differing world views each got to successively write a portion of the ending. It's a bit of a mess.

    Your Defence News: Oshkosh lands preliminary M-ATV contract

    Your Defence News reports that the Oshkosh/Plasan M-ATV has been awarded a contract to produce two test vehicles.

    I'm supposing that means that Oshkosh has one of the five contracts due to be awarded in April, as reported by the Army Times.

    My calendar is still showing "March." And DefenseLink doesn't show the contract award as of the last three days of listings. So we'll see.

    Sunday, March 08, 2009

    Strengthening old partnerships--through film!

    The Daily Mail (UK) has the list of 25 movies included in the box set President Obama gave to British PM Gordon Brown during the latter's visit to Washington, D.C.

    I'm still wondering whether the dvds are playable on a region 2 player. One would hope that if the set was prepared weeks ago and perhaps for the explicit purpose of being offered as a gift to visiting dignitaries that the makers would supply a region-free set.

    But then again, one would expect the State Department to be able to figure out the Russian equivalent of "reset" accurately.
    clipped from

    Journalists reporting badly: The Clinton "Reset" button (Udated)

    The news is out for some time that the State Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton produced a bit of a flub during a meeting with the Russians.

    The incident was amusing enough, but the mainstream media have compounded the amusement.

    The St. Petersburg Times published two associated stories, one regarding the reactions to the meeting and the other about the gaffe. The first was apparently based on AP material. The second drew content from Glenn Kessler's story for The Washington Post. The story seems to underemphasize the degree of embarrassment the State Department suffered after having "worked hard" on the translation.

    And while going a bit soft on the gaffe, reporters including the estimable Robert Burns described the incident incorrectly. The video clearly shows that Clinton opened the box and handed the button mock-up to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, yet Burns' story reads thus:
    Clinton handed Lavrov a green box tied with a green bow. He opened it to reveal a "reset button," a reminder of Vice President Joe Biden's recent remark that the Obama administration hopes to reset U.S. relations with Moscow.
    Clinton began the meal by presenting Lavrov with a palm-size box wrapped in a green ribbon. Lavrov opened it up and pulled out a small plastic box with a red button that clicked — a symbol of the Obama administration's determination to "reset" the relationship.
    Roll the video:

    Note to the press: Get basic facts right, including incidental ones like this, and you have a better chance of getting people to trust your reporting.


    Note to readers: Content providers have been more aggressive lately in getting material removed from YouTube, including the video I linked. However, the remaining still image shows Clinton with the box already opened in one hand the and the button held in the other. Lavrov did not remove the button from the box as reported in the press.