Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Voting and Rationality

Imagine the following premises for some kind of popular voting for an award:

  • Every uses a correct objective set of criteria to determine his vote.
  • There is one candidate who is 1% better than his closes competitor.
Question:  What percentage of the vote would you expect the 1% superior candidate to receive?

The answer is 100%.  If every voter is objective, one would expect the to independently each reach the same conclusion.  Just as if you sent mathematicians a math problem with a correct answer, I would expect them all to respond with the same correct answer, and any incorrect answers (even ones that were close) to be dwarfed by the correct responses.

So, I'm a bit puzzled by Christina Kahrl's disappointment that Joey Votto received 31 of 32 first place votes for the National League MVP over Albert Pujols.  If Votto is the deserving winner (which Kahrl does not dispute), then one would expect that voters using the same sound criteria would all reach the same conclusion.  Even if the difference between them was narrow.  

Kahrl is on more solid ground in criticizing those who placed others like Carlos Gonzales second over Pujols, but I don't really care that much about down-ballot selections, except when they skew the outcome at the top.

Now, I suspect that Votto's margin of victory has more to do with some of the other reasons Karhl sites (Votto's team winning the division, fatigue of voting for Pujols, Pujols being punished for having a great, rather than historically great, year) than a sudden embrace of objectivity on the part of BBWAA.  But if they had embraced objectivity, this is what the result would look like.

In any case, if you're worked up over the margin of victory for someone you believe to be the rightful winner of an award, it may be a sign you don't have enough things to worry about.


While I'm on the topic of anger over votes that don't matter, it is obviously ridiculous that Bristol Palin is a finalist in Dancing with the Stars.  Even more absurd is the notion that the undeserving daughter of a political figure winning a competition is some kind of political statement.  If people didn't care for Sarah Palin before, I don't think they're going to give her a second look because her daughter won a TV dancing competition.

Then it occurs to me that the "rightful" winner of a competition involving novice dancers learning how to dance with the help of an experienced professional dancer is a woman most famous for her role in a movie as a novice dancer who learns to dance with the help of an experienced dancer.  Stressing out over the integrity of an "amateur" dancing competition that includes a competitor who is world-famous as a dancer seems a bit strange.

Which leads us to wonder what exactly we're consuming when we watch Dancing With the Stars.  It's not excellence in performance, since professional ballroom dancing is the stuff of non-pledge time PBS filler.  And it's not just seeing celebs embarrass themselves, since the truly awful dancers do seem to get voted out early, and the best dancers usually do win or make it to the finals, and nobody seemed to enjoy watching pseudo-celebs make fools of themselves on Skating with the Stars.  And it's not just relatability, since some relative unknowns have won or made it far.

No, it's some odd combination of the above.  We like familiar celebrities, but not too famous.  We want to see them struggle, but not make fools of themselves.  We want them to be good, but not too good.  It's a delicate balance.  And I'm not sure what it says about us that this is what we seem to want.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The mission of the pro-life movement is not to "reduce the number of abortions"

Alternative title:   If pro-lifers want to stop abortions so much, why don't they cut out all these legislative efforts and "common ground" approaches and go disrupt some abortion clinics?

Will Saletan has posted some lessons pro-lifers should learn from the recent conference with pro-life and pro-choice* activists working to find common ground.

In general, Saletan suggests that pro-lifers embrace initiatives that may lower the abortion rate at the margins, but neither legally or socially sanction abortion.  All of his suggestions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates most who call themselves pro-life.  What Saletan, and many commentators who strike similar notes (many of them pro-life themselves) is that the mission of the pro-life movement is not to lower the abortion rate.

I'll write that again: The mission of the pro-life movement is not to lower the abortion rate.

At first, this sounds absurd -- what is the pro-life movement about if not to reduce the number of abortions?

But to me, and many pro-lifers, abortion is a tremendous injustice and national shame. And people who fight against what they consider to be an injustice don't set about to reduce the incidence of that injustice; they seek to eliminate it and establish strong social and legal sanctions against it.

Those (including me) who opposed waterboarding did not seek to lower the frequency with which the US resorted to waterboarding, but to get the government to permanently set it aside. Appeals that we only waterboarded a handful of hardened terrorists did not dissuade me. And a suggestion that if I really wanted to reduce waterboarding, then I should support the war so as to eliminate the need for waterboarding would be a complete non-starter.

The same goes for every cause against injustice. Anti-war activists don't just want to reduce the intensity of the war. Civil rights activists didn't just want to reduce the incidences of segregation. And so on.

I understand that many people (including many who consider themselves to be pro-life) don't deem abortion to be an injustice on this scale, and consider comparisons to grand injustices like slavery and the Holocaust to be counterproductive.  And in the public debate, that may be the case.  My point here is in trying to explain the motivations.   Even if pro-life people were to refrain from these comparisons in making their case, it would not change that this is how they feel about the issue in their hearts.

This is not to say that reducing the number of abortions is not a laudable goal, or that some of the efforts Saletan describes aren't worthy of support, because they are. But I don't think they are the proper primary focus of people claiming to be pro-life, or that those who fail to are revealing that they're not truly pro-life.

One of Saletan's suggestions is that pro-lifers should embrace contraception, even though many pro-lifers are opposed to it, while seeing it as a lesser evil than abortion.  The assumption is that, someone who opposes abortion should be willing to compromise on any and all other issues in order to reduce the number of abortions.  But if this were the case, perhaps better advice would be that all pro-lifers should focus their energy to disrupting abortion clinics, using all means at their disposal.  Ironically, Saletan's common ground moderating advice assumes a pro-life worldview that is closer to Operation Rescue than, say, Harry Reid.

I understand that the perception of many is that there is already too much of a pro-life presence at abortion clinics and harassing women getting abortions and those working at clinics, but those engaged in these activities represent a tiny percentage of those who consider themselves pro-life, even using strict definitions of "pro-life."  If everybody who opposed abortion were to focus their efforts on disrupting abortion clinics, that would likely have a greater effect than legislative efforts or any of the items Saletan suggests.

But we don't do that.  Why?  Because the pro-life movement is about establishing justice, not just preventing marginal abortions.  And many see disrupting abortion clinics as counterproductive to that ultimate goal.

A more egregious example is Saletan's suggestion that pro-lifers should abandon efforts to restrict abortions because they push abortions later into pregnancy, which we are supposed to acknowledge is "worse."  It would be difficult to craft a paragraph that is more revealing of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates a movement.  It is not the pro-life movement's job to make push abortions into a zone where they are more superficially palatable.

Those who work to prevent marginal abortions through some of Saletan's suggestions and others like counseling and adoption are indeed doing God's work, and deserve our support.  But that is not the same things as saying that these efforts are the proper primary focus of the pro-life movement.

* I understand that both names cover up more than they illuminate. I find it simplest to refer to the groups by their chosen names, rather than get tendentious.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The state of discourse

If you haven't seem Rachel Maddow's interview od Jon Stewart, I would encourage you to do so.

One important point that Stewart seemed to be struggling to articulate is that, contrary to what is presented by the cable news networks, the real battle isn't between left and right.  Stewart offered "corrupt vs. non-corrupt"  and "extreme vs. non-extreme" as an alternatives, but I don't think either quite captured what he was trying to say.

I think what Stewart was trying to get across was more like "good vs. evil" or, since that may sound a bit too familiar, "good ideas vs. bad ideas."

I think the section on Bush and waterboarding was particularly powerful, though I'm not sure Stewart managed to drive the point home.   To many, the interesting thing about the waterboarding debate is what it says about George W. Bush, rather than what it says about us.

I don't want to pin waterboarding on Bush or the Republicans.  I want all parties to reject waterboarding.   I don't want to convict President Obama of being "pro-infanticide;" I want him and the Democrats to back off their support for abortion.

To many, it's a good day if they can prove some member of the other party is guilty of some depravity.  To me, that's a bad day.  It has to be done sometimes, but I hope we usually have better things to do.