Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Examination of Conscience on Todd Akin and Calumny

In recent discussions on Todd Akin's infamous response to the question of abortion in the case of rape, I stand accused of serial calumny against Rep. Akin, to the point where the host considered blocking me in order to protect me from further damaging my soul.  What follows is an unavoidably biased examination of my own conscience with regards to that charge.

Putting My Cards on the Table

On the immediate matter of abortion in the case of rape, I am in agreement that the right of the unborn to be killed should not be dependent on the circumstances of conception. I understand that carrying a child to term under these circumstances is a heroic act, and am troubled by the notion of the criminal law requiring such heroism even if the moral law does. So I am honestly torn about the most prudent way to proceed on securing the right to life for all of the unborn. I also agree that the amount of attention this question receives is disproportionate to the frequency with which it comes up in real life.

I did not support Rep. Akin's candidacy for the Senate. I voted for another candidate in the primary, and third party candidate in the general election. He has been my representative for the past ten years. I think I have voted for him in most or all of these elections, and I don't recall him being seriously challenged.

My recollections of his time in the House is that I was aware of his uncompromising positions on behalf of the unborn, but not much other leadership as that stands. (This does not mean that it didn't exist, but whatever there was did not make it to me, a rather well-informed constituent.)  The positions I remember him on was his opposition to TARP, on which I disagreed with him but it now appears he may be vindicated on, and his introduction of a bill to require recipients of government benefits (children included) to prove their legal immigration status, with which I vehemently disagreed, and continue to.  I am not aware of any positions he has or had that are a significant break from the conventional Republican positions.

This is better than being pro-choice, but I did not and do not see him as about to usher in a new pro-life era. I found his statements to be manifestations of the same flaws (a bit of cold-heartedness, general lack of savvy and awareness of things outside the conservative bubble).  I think that promoting someone like Rep. Akin as a leader would ultimately do more harm than good to the cause for the unborn.

The Discussions In Question

Probably the best thing to do is go to this post and follow the links.  An earlier discussion is here.

In general, the behavior that is highlighted as problematic is my contention that Akin's "legitimate rape" comment implied one of two things:
  1. Pregnancies from rape are impossible.
  2. Pregnancies from rape are too rare to be worth considering.

The Charge 

The host of theses discussions has said such statements are calumny because they do not reflect what Rep. Akin actually said, nor do they 100% deductively flow from the text of his statements, and fail to account for Rep. Akin's next statement, wherein he does address the question, nullifying the claim that he was saying he didn't address it.


By my reading of the definition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, two factors must be in place for the sin of calumny:

  1. The person must be uttering something he knows to be untrue; there is an attempt to deceive others about a matter of fact.
  2. The intent must be to injure another person's good name.

In my judgement, neither of these factors apply in this case.

The discussion surrounds comments that are a matter of public record, indeed among the few most publicized and discussed comments that have been made this year.  Some of the discussions included verbatim transcripts and / or embedded video of the comments in question. Even if I wanted to deceive others about the contents of Rep. Akin's answer, I could quickly be debunked by a variety of means.

As for my intent, it is more about Rep. Akin's fitness for leadership in general and a Senate seat in specific than his name as a person.  I have no reason to believe that Rep. Akin is anything other than a wonderful human being, good father, etc.  I have no reason to want others to think otherwise, either.

I also suspect most people's opinions of Rep. Akin are pretty fixed at this point, and are not going to change based on my commentary.  I'm not positive it is literally impossible to commit the sin of calumny against Rep. Akin by discussing these comments with relatively informed people, but I think it's pretty darn close.  

Now, I do believe that Rep. Akin's flaws that this statement highlighted make him a poor choice as a pro-life leader, and I would like others to share this judgement.  In my view, this is a discussion more about the parameters of what is prudent to expect from our leaders than it is about the person of Todd Akin.  I understand there is a temptation to slip into a more personal discussion, but I think I avoided that in my comments.

More directly, the disagreement is about what inferences we might from the comments rather than the comments themselves.  These are inferences that I sincerely hold, even if some may think they are incorrect.  In my opinion, this is what discussion at its best, both online and otherwise is all about -- we check our assumptions, remaining open to correction from others, and hopefully get closer to the truth.  This doesn't mean we always agree, but hopefully come to some clarity about the source of our disagreements.  If expressing what inferences we draw from statements is a mortal sin, then we need to shut down our blogs and comment sections.

Fine, you might say.  But the result wouldn't be that we would all have hour minds more closely aligned with the truth.  It's that we would continue to hold our inferences without checking them against those who draw different inferences.

So, I would argue with granting a little slack on some of the verbal sins when discussing widely circulated statements made by public figures.  This doesn't mean we have the right to make things up and trash their reputations, or to think of them as abstractions rather than actual human persons, but I don't think it's sinful to talk about it if we draw an inference from them that's not altogether flattering to the speaker.

The Verdict

In some of my comments, I failed to account for the second sentence of Rep. Akin's statement, in which he says the rapist should be punished rather than the child.  I would say this puts me perilously close to rash judgment, though even that is probably something less than an open an shut case, since what I imputed to Rep, Akin had more to do with his skill as a politician than his moral character.  Still, probably close enough that it's a valid subject at my next opportunity for confession.

On the other hand, I do find myself not guilty of calumny, in that I expressed things I believe to be true, did not intend to harm the reputation of Rep. Akin, and find it very unlikely that I did indeed harm his reputation.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Math! Numbers! Signal! Noise!

There's been a fair amount of gloating about how Nate Silver's election models were vindicated by the actual results of the election.  Silver's defenders have claimed this is a victory for numbers, data, math, science, and rationality over intuition and sentimentality.

This plays nicely into the current preferred narratives regarding the parties.  The GOP is home to creationists and climate change deniers, so the Democrats see themselves as the defenders of science, and Republicans as the troglodytes favoring what they wish was true over what has been empirically demonstrated to be the case.  Republicans criticizing a complicated election model predicting an Obama victory aligns perfectly with this vision.

Of course, the parties don't play these roles in all cases.  For example, Republicans are more likely to push for evaluating schools and teachers based on test scores, whereas Democrats are inclined to be more skeptical.  This isn't (necessarily) because Democrats are opposed to numerical analysis, but because they believe that standardized tests do not capture the whole of the effectiveness of a school or teacher, and that student achievement is influenced by a number of factors, and it is unfair to base our evaluation of teachers and schools on something they may have little or no control over.

This echoes the more thoughtful criticisms of Nate Silver's models.  Yes, there were some suggesting that big rally crowds were a more important indicator than all the polling data. But others challenged whether the inputs were valid -- specifically, they challenged whether the polls that were the main input to the model were correctly accounting for party ID (Not having a particular dog in this fight, I didn't follow this debate terribly closely, and am not terribly inclined to relive it now, but my idea was that this was the main beef).  The critics turned out to be wrong about that.  But their error was not a refusal to accept data and numbers and empirical evidence, but a simple error of what inputs matter and a degree of wishful thinking.

As has been noted, Silver worked in baseball sabermetrics* before modelling elections.  That all baseball teams now incorporate statistical analysis into their decision making is cited as vindication for their methods.

And yes, it is true that the validity of statistical analysis is now widely accepted.  But that doesn't mean that there weren't some missteps along the way.  The Oakland Athletics were the first to move to this model, but weren't able to parlay that advantage into world championships.  A look at the most successful franchises over the past decade include some, notably the Boston Red Sox, who embraced these tactics, and others that didn't.

In any instance, in his 2000 Baseball Abstract, Bill James included a listing of the top 50 players at each position using his newly developed Win Shares system.  James started by explaining the system, which included a "subjective component," which allowed James to fudge the numbers a bit for players whose impact on the game may have escaped the statistics.  An obvious application of this was African American players who arrived in the majors after Jackie Robinson, and likely lost a good chunk of their careers to segregation.

James pointed out that this was not the truly subjective portion of the formula.  The truly subjective portion of it was James coming up with the formula for the not explicitly portions of the formula.  This necessarily included James' assumptions about what statistics mattered in evaluating a player's performance, which ones do not, and the relative weights of those that do.

I think this is an important lesson that I hope we don't forget in light of Silver's vindication.

Just because something is a numerical model doesn't mean it must be blindly accepted by all wishing to claim to be rational.  I could have constructed a model of the presidential election based entirely on the height of the candidates, or their weight, or the populations of their home states, or any other tangential data points (even the size of the crowds at rallies the week before the election) .  I could have done extensive analysis of how these numbers correlate to election results, and come out with a predictive numerical answer as a probability for each candidate's victory.

Or, for another example:

But even though this model is based on data and evidence, it would be close to worthless, and criticizing it would not be synonymous with rejecting rationality and science.  The current manner of giving teachers raised based on seniority and certifications is empirical in its own way, just that it's based on data that many believe has little to do with effective teaching.

In fact, may would claim that the opinion of an expert observer would likely be superior. My (non-empircal!) suspicion is that the continuum of accuracy alternates between different qualities of models, and opinions from people with different levels of expertise.  The best scout is better than the worst statistical model, and the best statistical model is better than the worst scout.

Nate Silver's success isn't based on his willingness to base his predictions on data and math; it is in selecting the data points that are relevant and rejecting those that are not, and weighting those data points appropriately (hence the title of his book being "The Signal and the Noise").

The model is based on numbers.  But which numbers matter is determined by a person, and can be subject to feedback and refinement. It is unlikely someone would get this exactly right the first time. It is both valid and proper to challenge the assumptions of certain models. In baseball, the test is the game. In this case, the test is the election. Silver passed; his critics failed.

If the lesson we draw from this is that we must trust all conclusions from models based on data, that's the wrong lesson. Rather, it we should credit Silver and others for basing his model on the right data.

* I have my own reservations about sabermetrics.  I don't have a problem with it informing team management decisions, but challenge that fan conversations, and even all-star elections and postseason awards must be statistically based.  Being a sports fan is supposed to be fun, not a grim business analysis.  If a guy wins the Triple Crown and leads his team to the World Series, give him the MVP, for crying out loud, even if RBI is a team-dependent statistic, and batting average is not a good proxy for offensive effectiveness.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Omnibus Election Post...

Haven't been blogging much, but some of these thoughts are a little too big for Twitter, so I'll throw them here.

First, the spoilery details:

My Vote:  I will not be voting for either major candidate in either the presidential election or the Missouri Senate election.  You probably don't particularly care about anything else.

My Prediction:  Regardless of how effective a president he is/was/will be, Barack Obama, as the first African American president, will go down in history as a heroic figure. Conversely, those opposed to him will be remembered as villains.  I tend to believe that's why the Republican nomination field was so weak -- who wants to be remembered as Dixie Walker to Barack Obama's Jackie Robinson?

If Obama is not re-elected, if we fire our first African American president, then future generations are going to ask why.  And, I don't think Mitt Romney is or has provided a satisfactory answer.  So, I think Obama will will by a more comfortable margin than the polls or other metrics indicate.

More below the fold...