Friday, July 22, 2005

Liars, truth tellers, and bias

My wife and I both argue politics on different message boards, and we both agree that there is a tendency for people to listen only to the sources they like and discount the sources they don't like. For instance, people who insist that "mainstream media" is automatically lying because of their "liberal bias", will in the next breath go on to confidently quote blatantly right wing sources such as Rush Limbaugh, NewsMax, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, etc.

Now, admittedly, Ginny and I get a lot of news from left wing sources. And I'm not talking about Time, the New York Times, CNN, etc... the places that conservatives pretend are liberal when they aren't. I'm talking about Air America Radio, Daily Kos, Media Matters, and so on. Sources that are really liberal, and don't fear to say so.

Ginny asks me sometimes, "Do you think we do the same thing, but reversed? Do we just listen to those sources and form our opinions based on that, while ignoring the other side?"

My answer is no. Sure I listen to my favorite liberals, and I occasionally catch myself repeating what they say without checking it out first. But most of the time, if I want a new "fact" to enter my mental library, I go and check it out with as unbiased a source as I can find. If it's about something Bush said, I look at the White House page. If it's about world news, I try to corroborate it with several unrelated sources. If it's about science, I look for peer-reviewed material, or at least direct references to peer-reviewed material. And whether the answer is what I want it to be or not, I accept the results of my best research efforts.

Al Franken likes to tell an anecdote about himself and Rush Limbaugh. He repeats it a lot, so if you listen to his show then you've almost certainly heard it. In case you haven't, I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I repeat it one more time. From an interview:
A few months ago, Rush was talking about the minimum wage. Conservatives like to portray it that no one has to raise a family on the minimum wage, the only people who get the minimum wage are teenagers who want to buy an i-Pod. So Rush says, "75 percent of all Americans on the minimum wage, my friends, are teenagers on their first job." And one of the researchers brings this to me, with a smile, and I say, "Well, can you look it up?" And they look it up, the researcher goes to something called the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 60.1 percent of Americans on minimum wage are twenty and above. 39.9 percent, then, are either teenagers or below twelve (laughs). I had several jobs as a teenager, so you figure, what, 13 percent might be teenagers in their first job. Not 75 percent. So where did Rush get his statistic? Well, he got it directly from his butt. It went out his butt, into his mouth, out the microphone, into the air, into the brains of dittoheads. And they believe this stuff.

So we get our labor statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He gets his from the Bureau of Rush's Butt. And that's the difference. We don't do that. That's one of the main differences.
That is a big difference in my book. It's not that I think Al Franken does flawless research; he's wrong sometimes. But the point is that he actually CARES whether his information is correct or not, he is willing to go to a credible source and not just use rhetoric. That very attitude sets him miles apart from Limbaugh.

Even so, I'm not sure that it is correct to say that Limbaugh is "lying" when he says something like "75 percent of all Americans on the minimum wage are teenagers on their first job." That is because in order to really be lying, you have to actually know whether what you're saying is true or not. If you don't know, then you're just mistaken.

I heard an anecdote -- almost certainly not true -- about an asylum inmate who was hooked up to a lie detector. He was then asked, "Are you Napoleon?" The inmate answered "No." The machine indicated that he was lying.

You can be right and still be lying, if you don't think that you are right. And you can be wrong without lying.

In that spirit, I don't know for sure that Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity ever lie. I think it is far more likely that they just don't care whether they say things that are true or not. There is a difference. They care whether they say things that agree with the construct they've made of the world, but they don't see a difference between lies and non-lies. That's why they tell you that the media is biased, that polls don't matter, that scientists all have a nefarious agenda, etc, etc. They want to rule out the possibility that anything could contradict them and still be accurate.

How American Are You?

I'm not very American, at least not according to the author of this quiz.

But then, the quiz ought to be called "How Conservative Are You?" Note that answering that your favorite president is Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter will both net you less points than Ronald Reagan, and answering that you like American music and movies actually hurts your American-ness. Where's the answer to the sports question for people who don't watch sports? And what is the guy's deal with cheese? Are sheets of yellow plastic the only other type of cheese besides brie and bleu? I think maybe they make some other kinds of cheese in Wisconsin, and they're Americans there.

The author, whether in jest or not, is buying into the myth that people who are religious, outdoorsy, macho, simple, and humble are true Americans; while people who are educated, cultured, complex, godless, and progressive are not.

Whether or not it's a joke, the myth is bullshit. I am an American. I like rock music and big summer action blockbusters. I like to read long non-fiction books and play video games in "hard" mode and solve puzzles on the internet. I like not having an official religion, or an official category of religions. I like it that minorities can vote and women can work, even though I am neither. I like speaking out against my government when they deserve it.

If "true Americans" can't accept that those things are part of what America is all about, then they should leave my country.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [movie, ****]

Warning: this review contains spoilers about the new movie, which you will not know from reading the book.

I'm not one of those people who worships the original movie. I liked it a lot; for years I would watch everything with Gene Wilder because I loved seeing Willy Wonka. That movie was the first opportunity I had to learn about special effects. I knew all the kids were actors, but I was convinced that Augustus really did go up from the pipe into the fudge room, and Violet really turned blew and blew up, etc. I asked my mom how they could do all those terrible things to the children, and she tried to come up with a plausible technical explanation for each one. That was cool, but I have no idea how I would begin explaining the new computer generated effects to my kid.

The Gene Wilder movie was good but not great. I found the music catchy but annoying. After I read the book, I was disappointed at many of the deviations, particularly the mundane nature of the Great Glass Elevator. But also, although Gene Wilder was adorable, he didn't quite capture the spirit of the character for me. He was just too darn tranquil most of the time. Violet is chewing gum, and book Wonka will scream "Stop! Spit it out!" while wringing his hands, but movie Wonka is practically yawning while muttering the same lines in a bored manner. Dahl's Wonka was easily excitable; Gene Wilder was relaxed and seemed really in control.

To Johnny Depp's credit, he captured the manic personality of Wonka much better, but he also added something totally different that I never would have expected. Clearly what Depp and Burton were thinking was, "Here's a guy who has spent 20 years secluded in a factory, with nobody to talk to except these freaky little guys. Genius or not, he's bound to be a little bit socially awkward. Actually Johnny Depp plays him as a tremendous nerd, who reads lines off of cue cards when he's lost for words, and can't even remember the names of the children. Throughout the movie he's always gesturing ineffectually at the kids saying "Uh, little girl, little girl..."

Now that doesn't fit with the image of Wonka that I had either. But it is a very interesting take that actually makes sense... AND he manages to combine it with that frantic energy that Gene Wilder didn't have.

As I've read, both movies sharply deviate from the book for the same key reason: The book has no moral center for Charlie. Basically he's not as atrocious as the other four, so he wins by default. Also he is assumed loveable because he's poor. In the Gene Wilder movie, they threw in a subplot with Slugworth tempting all the kids to spy for him, and Charlie refuses, proving his goodness. In the Johnny Depp version, Wonka tells Charlie he can only inherit the factory if he leaves his family. Charlie refuses, proving his goodness.

In order to get to that point, the movie throws in an extra-Dahlian subplot about Wonka's childhood with his father. It's okay. It is logically consistent with the Burton/Depp version of Wonka. I'm not sure it's necessary, and the flashbacks feel kind of crammed in there.

The real problem I had was that when Wonka demands that Charlie leaves his family... well... I just didn't buy it. In the book, the three of them crash through the ceiling of Charlie's house Wonka says "Come on, let's go! Wheel the bed in the elevator and let's head for the factory!" This new version makes Wonka more of a jerk, and I just didn't want him to be. It also forces a resolution with the "Wonka's dad" subplot, which I didn't think was all that important.

The real problem with the ending is that it doesn't jibe with the sequel. I've done some thinking about "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator," and I concluded that it just wouldn't make a very good movie. But let me fantasize, okay? Let's pretend that we can look forward to a Tim Burton version of Elevator, how does the ending of his movie jibe with the beginning of the next book? It really doesn't quite. In the beginning of the first book, Wonka has an element of surprise on his side. The other three grandparents are like "Who IS this nut job?" That doesn't really work if Wonka has already spent several days eating dinner and making nice with the family and learning what families are all about.

FYI, here's the second book in a nutshell: Wonka takes the family up in space with his elevator, where they are chased by shape-changing aliens and shot at by the president. The grandparents (except grandpa Joe) bicker constantly. Once they are back down to earth, Wonka tells them about his invention which makes people younger. They overdose on the substance, two of them turn into babies and the third takes so much that she disappears completely. Charlie and Wonka then take a terrifying trip down to "Minus-land", deep below the factory, to save her from negative age and horrible negative monsters.

Again, I can't see that plot making a good movie, but damn, wouldn't Tim Burton make it look cool?

Which reminds me to comment on the visual aspects. Very nice. Charlie's house was a brilliant design, loved it. Chocolate river and waterfall, miles beyond the original movie. Elevator, better than I imagined it. Special effects on the kids? Well, weird, and even more disturbing than the Wilder version. Actually less convincing in some ways, because they just LOOK so computerized. I'm mainly thinking of Violet here, although they show a parting shot of Mike Teavee after he was stretched, and that also looks silly.

Overall, I have to say that this was well worth seeing. It's just a bit better than the first movie, unless you consider the first movie perfect, in which case -- well, you're wrong -- but okay, you won't like the new movie more.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Were Bush's WMD claims enough to justify war?

There is an email that has been making the rounds since 2003, and it pops up from time to time on message boards whenever a Democrat says that we should never have gone to war due to the fact, now pretty well established, that Saddam didn't have any weapons of mass destruction and didn't pose a threat to the US. The mail cites a bunch of quotes by prominent Democrats -- such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Ted Kennedy -- saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons. The point of the message seems to be that even if Bush was mistaken or lying about WMD's as a sufficient reason to go to war, it wasn't his fault, because the Democrats thought the same thing.

The full text of the message can be read at, where it is classified as "true", but with some pretty serious reservations about how the quotes were taken out of context. While snopes does a pretty good job of examining each quote, I haven't seen a really good response to the overall point of the message, which is that Democrats and Republicans alike supported the war because they believed that Saddam Hussein posed a nuclear threat to the United States.

The facts are not nearly as cut and dried. I'm not going to rewrite the entire snopes link, which you should read for yourself before continuing with this entry. But I would like to single out one of them as a representative example.

Hillary Clinton said:
In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

As the link points out, the rest of the speech is left out. She went on to say:

Some people favor attacking Saddam Hussein now... However, this course is fraught with danger. We and our NATO allies did not depose Mr. Milosevic, who was responsible for more than a quarter of a million people being killed in the 1990s. Instead, by stopping his aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, and keeping on the tough sanctions, we created the conditions in which his own people threw him out and led to his being in the dock being tried for war crimes as we speak.

If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us. In recent days, Russia has talked of an invasion of Georgia [obviously the one in the Former Soviet Union, not the US] to attack Chechen rebels. India has mentioned the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan. And what if China were to perceive a threat from Taiwan?

I need to point that out, because it strongly highlights the difference between the approach that Democrats were urging Bush to take, and the approach that he actually took. While many Democrats such as Hillary Clinton recognized the possibility that Iraq had or was developing some weapons, they also stated at the time that there was not enough solid evidence to launch a full out war on them. Bombing a country, or combatting an invasion like in Kuwait is one thing. But starting a war and occupying the place, and trying to fill a void by toppling their entire government, is something else entirely. In fact, Bush's dad made this very clear when he explained why he didn't depose Saddam after dealing with Kuwait in 1991.

Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.'s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different--and perhaps barren--outcome.

--George Bush Sr. and Brent Scowcroft
Time (2 March 1998)

Pretty uncanny how accurate George H. W. Bush's predictions turned out to be.

Of course, we know that Saddam Hussein had WMD's at one time. That's because the United States sold them to him during the Reagan administration. In case you've forgotten about that little detail, here is Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, during a trip intended to set up friendly relations with Iraq. But Saddam was ordered to disarm after he lost the first Gulf War, and all evidence right now indicates that he did. Yes, Hussein kicked out the inspectors in 1998, and it's likely that he wanted to rebuild. But "wanting to" and "doing it" are not the same thing. Bill Clinton's response was immediate. He launched Operation Desert Fox, bombing suspected weapon sites but not endangering any American troops.

In other words, he pursued a policy of containment and responses to actions, not "pre-emption" against actions that hadn't happened yet. At this point I should remind you that the policy seemingly WORKED, based on the fact that no WMD's were found in Iraq in 2003. This is something that even Bush administration officials have acknowledged at this point.

For all these quotes about how Saddam Hussein kicked out the weapons inspectors and wouldn't let them back in, it's funny how none of them date after late 2002. Guess why? Because in early 2003, Saddam Hussein let the weapons inspectors back in. And they didn't find any weapons.

You remember that too, right? UN Weapons Inspectors, headed by Hans Blix, were on the ground in Iraq for three months. Their conclusion? No WMD's found, although they didn't rule out the possibility that they might find some. But immediately Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Miller, Larry Elder, and every other budding Republican comedian started repeating the joke, over and over again, that Blix was weapons inspector Clouseau. He couldn't even find the weapons in Iraq! And it just kept getting funnier every time. :)

Of course, the reason poor Inspector Clouseau couldn't even find any weapons in Iraq was because there weren't any. Remember, even Bush officials agree. We couldn't have known that at the time, but Blix's point was that more time was needed to gather evidence. They didn't get it. It wasn't Saddam who kicked them out. It was America, who said, in effect "We don't care what the evidence is, we are commencing the attack."

Let's also not forget that it's completely bogus to say that Bush was misled into attacking Iraq by bad intelligence. The administration was making plans to attack Iraq within hours of the September 11. Richard Clarke, former White House counter-terrorism czar, reported that Bush was pressuring the CIA to justify an attack on Iraq, not the other way around.
"The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.

"I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection.'

"He came back at me and said, "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer.
Colin Powell, who later testified so skillfully before the UN, said in 2001 that Saddam "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."

It was because his own intelligence wasn't giving the answer he wanted, that Bush formed the Office of Special Plans as an alternate intelligence agency to come up with the answers they wanted.,2763,999737,00.html

Much of the faulty information that "misled" Bush into war came from this office that he set up for the express purpose of doing whatever they could to make a case for going to war.

It's true, of course, that some (not all, or apparently even most) of the Democrats on the list spoke persuasively about Saddam's WMD's as a justification to go to war. Those Democrats absolutely share responsibility with Bush for the situation we find ourselves in now. However, it can't be overemphasized that the White House was pushing hard for war, before the dust from the World Trade Center had settled, and that they presented their case to Congress based on faulty intelligence that they had engineered by way of the Office of Special Plans, and against the judgment of many of the standard channels of intelligence gathering.

In other words, many people were misled into supporting the war by the president, and their primary mistake was trusting that what the president said was accurate.