Tag Archives: Politics

News Has Become a Geico Commercial

cavemanGreat advertising works because the advertisers uncannily understand the psychological dynamics of the moment even before it is commonly recognized. Take for example the “Great Answer” series of Geico commercials. In these commercials, a person is put in an impossibly tough spot to which they reply that Geico can save you 15% or more on insurance. This is comically accepted by everyone as a “great answer.”

In “Objection,” faced with insurmountable evidence against him in a courtroom, a thief defends himself with the line (see here).

And in “Undercover Agent” an inept undercover agent avoids certain death at the hands of the mob using a similar line (see here).

Then in “He-Man vs Skeletor” the villain escapes amid gleeful laughter after delivering the punch line (see here).

Finally in “Meteor Crash,” when faced with the imminent destruction of the Earth, the General in charge proclaims that Geico is the answer (see here).

Silly as these are, I sometimes I feel like I’m living in a Geico commercial. When we watch news interviews, we essentially see an unending stream of farcical Geico  commercials. The Geico advertising team gets this at some level. That’s why these commercials are not merely funny but they relate, they resonate, they ring true.

Except being subjected to an endless stream of Geico-esque answers to real, important questions that affect our lives and affect the planet is not funny.

When watching news interviews during the day, the nightly news shows, or shows like Meet the Press or Face the Nation over the weekend, the hosts try to ask meaningful and important questions. But the guests invariably reply with “Geico can save you 15% or more” type answers.

Host: Given all the incontrovertible evidence that your tax plan is designed only to benefit the rich, how can you justify it?

Paul Ryan: We are giving the middle class a huge tax cut.

Host: Every independent analysis concludes that your tax plan will explode the deficit which you claimed is the biggest threat to our nation. How do you respond?

Kevin McCarthy: We are giving the middle class a huge tax cut.

Host: You claim that by giving huge tax breaks to big business and ultra-rich individuals, your tax plan will create jobs and increase wages. Yet this promise has been made many times before and it has never proved true. Why should it work this time?

Sarah Sanders: We are giving the middle class a huge tax cut.

Some people would simply call this “good messaging.” But at some point, good messaging becomes formal or informal collusion in a campaign of misinformation. We are way past the point of innocent and healthy message discipline now. We are moving into carefully crafted propaganda territory.

Here’s the thing. If the person you are interviewing has no shame, no compunction about misrepresenting and “spinning” to absurd extremes, no trace of integrity with regard to facts or truth, then you really cannot and should not talk to them. It used to be that most politicians had some baseline of integrity and self-respect, some desire to be truthful, and some capacity to be embarrassed or ashamed. But no more. While this lack of intellectual and moral integrity has been growing for a long time, particularly on the Right, Donald Trump has normalized this to such an extreme that even the most disingenuous scripted politicians can rationalize they are being relatively forthright and reasoned.

Today we are confronted by immediate and immensely important threats like climate change, wealth inequality, automation, and guns. Yet just like the General in “The Meteor” commercial, even when faced by existential challenges, all that our politicians are willing to respond with is the equivalent of “Geico can save you 15% or more.”

My message to Chuck Todd, John Dickerson, and all the rest of you news interviewers is … just give up already. Your guests have just gotten too good at avoiding answering anything fully or honestly. You are wasting your time and our time. You won’t catch them in a candid moment or a self-contradiction any more. I appreciate that you cannot push harder than you do, so you should just focus on reporting facts and providing independent analysis. Yes, independent analysis may not rate as high as partisan vollyball matches in which canned messages get knocked back and forth. Nonpartisan analysts may not draw the audiences of big-name politicians and spokespersons who cackle like Skeletor as they deflect your questions. But at least you would be using that otherwise wasted airtime with real reporting with real value for the nation and the world.

Or you can just continue to serve as the straight-men and women for those “Geico will save you 15% or more” punch lines. Just know that we are not laughing.

Ethical Fallacies

A fallacy is a mistaken belief, particularly those based on invalid arguments. There are many general forms that fallacious arguments take, and they are almost always an indicator of faulty reasoning, incorrect conclusions, and even outright manipulation. Familiar examples of these include the Straw Man, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominem, Circular Reasoning, and False Choice. If you learn to recognize the general patterns of fallacious logic, you can see through disingenuous or manipulative arguments far more quickly and clearly. I discuss these and many other logical fallacies in my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).

But in addition to logical fallacies, I’d like to suggest that there is also such a thing as ethical fallacies that we encounter just as often. In fact, in this 2016 election cycle we have been ceaselessly deluged by ethical fallacies. Note that it is with deliberate intent that I speak of ethical fallacies and not moral fallacies. Morality is itself a form of ethical fallacy. For a discussion of the difference, see here.

The reason I make that distinction is because moral thinking is typically based on ethical fallacies including “Appeal to the Bible.” Note that a related and no less dogmatic form of ethical fallacy is “Appeal to the Constitution.” In fact, many of the same people who would like to bind us to their interpretation of the Bible would also like to turn the Constitution into another Bible, binding even secular individuals to their particular religiously-based interpretation of yet another literal and unassailable scripture.

Two related ethical fallacies are “Appeal to the Majority” and “Appeal to Individual Rights.” Sometimes these are valid arguments, but often they are not. When some argue that “a majority of Americans support the death penalty,” that does not constitute a valid ethical argument. Likewise when some argue that we should not restrict any gun sales because it is an individual right, clearly this is insufficient ethical justification. Politicians and advocates often similarly appeal to Federal versus State Rights inconsistently and arbitrarily when it serves their narrow interests.

Another set of ethical arguments that are often invoked are fallacies of “Time and Space.” Just because something may have been accepted or considered ethical in Biblical times or even in Revolutionary War days, does not mean it is ethical today. And just because something may be ethical in one place, does not ensure that it is ethical in another. Note that religious people have great trouble with this concept. It is too complicated and messy for them. It requires too much thought. They disparagingly call this kind of ethical thinking “situational” and therefore immoral. They prefer immutable dogma.

Note that just because something is lawful does not make it ethical either. “Invoking the Law” is therefore another possible fallacy. Of course we do our best to create ethical laws, but just because something is law does not make it ethical in all situations. Laws should be fluid enough to ensure fairness in individual situations. This concept is antithetical to some religious thinkers who have trouble with anything beyond simple dogmatic thinking. Ironically, they are most likely to insist the law be adhered to by others, but allow themselves to override the law when they can rationalize that it is in contradiction to their faith.

There are other fallacies related to belief. Many of the same people are most likely to invoke the “Fallacy of Sincerity.” Just because a belief is “sincere or heartfelt” does not make it any more or less ethical. Similarly, there is sometimes an “Appeal to Intent or Ignorance.” These may be extenuating factors, but neither of them make an action any more or less ethical.

In my last article I talked about two other ethical fallacies (see here). The first is the “Ethical Proximity” fallacy. This is the fallacy used grab all benefits for those in closest proximity to us while shifting all blame away to those farthest from ourselves or our group. The second is the “Personal Responsibility” fallacy. This version of ethical proximity is used to argue that those farthest away or least powerful must take personal responsibility for their actions while those closest to us or in the most powerful positions in our society are merely victims of “the system.”

And then there is the “Character versus Issues” fallacy. When we are talking about the flaws in an opposing politician, pundits focus on their basic character failings. But when forced to respond to character flaws in their own candidate, advocates insist that we should instead focus exclusively on “the issues.”

Another ethical fallacy that is constantly used, particularly during elections or during the aftermath of a ginned up march to war, is the “Water Under the Bridge” fallacy. This is frequently invoked by those guilty of past failures or even crimes, to insist that all of that is simply water under the bridge, that we must instead look forward. However, when an opponent has similar past failures, they insist that we must never, ever forget.

shieldoffaithProbably the most hypocritical ethical fallacy that incenses my sensibilities is the “Forgiveness Fallacy.” This is typically invoked by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, to serve as both a shield and a sword. Whenever one of their own is guilty of wrongdoing, they insist that we must forgive and that only God can judge. However, when the guilty party is not one of them, they insist that only God can forgive and that we must never forget nor forgive. Seems to me that it is those who most need forgiveness are the ones to advocate for it most strongly, but only when it benefits them.

There is a theme here. We tend to selectively use one set of ethical arguments to rationalize away problems with those in closest proximity to us, and a different and entirely contradictory set of ethical arguments to attack those we disagree with, often for completely unrelated reasons. This is called spin by some, advocacy or good debate tactics by others, and bald-faced hypocrisy by most objective observers. Yet we see and hear these and other fallacious ethical argument all the time.

But this is the thing. Just because almost every line of rhetorical attack or defense in our public discourse is some manifestation of these basic tactics, doesn’t mean we should just tune out. That is simply not an option. However, just as with logical fallacies, by learning to quickly recognize the general forms of ethical fallacies, we can quickly “tune past” all the nonsense intended to obscure and deflect and see through to the heart of contentious issues that are critically important to all of us.

Can you think of any other ethical fallacies? If so, add to this list through your comments!


Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.


2017 State of the Union

trumpThe state of the union is … great! It’s the greatest in fact. It is the greatest state of any union ever. The main reason our union is so great is because I am honestly the greatest president ever, no contest, and everyone agrees on this. Am I right?

Our rebranding of America is going really, really well – it’s amazing. The golden Trump sign we installed on the White House is spectacular, so classy. I’ve gotten so many tweets about it you wouldn’t believe. The flashing can be seen all the way from the new Trump Tower. I mean who was this Washington guy anyway? What did he do that was so great? Wear wooden teeth? Give me a break! And we are still looking for an artist to replace the statue in that Lincoln Memorial with one that people care about. Everyone wants it to be me; what can I say? Once I’m sitting there all huge you’ll be so proud to be an American. Also, I’ve got even more exciting news. We’re working on a new flag with the stars forming a constellation in my image. It’ll be classy, trust me, it’ll be so classy you won’t believe it.

And when it comes to the economy, let me tell you, last year we’ve made absolutely the best deals ever. Our deal to sell Atlantic City to The Trump Organization is the greatest deal for this country. It’s a big deal, the biggest. The new Trump City is gonna be fabulous, you’ll be so proud. And let me tell you, once our corporate takeover of Las Vegas is complete, the new Trump City West will be incredible. It’s going to make us the envy of the world that I can tell you. Tourists will flock there by the millions, trust me, millions.

The transition of my cabinet and staff is complete, and all those old losers are out. What morons and scum bags, jeesh. Today I’m pleased to announce that David Duke will be my new FBI Director. He’s going to make sure that the Congress and Supreme Court get in line, believe me. And I’m also happy to announce David Koch as Director of the newly combined Departments of Energy and EPA. I was just gonna disband them but frankly David paid so much money for the job I’d be an idiot to say no, and I’m not an idiot. And here’s the best news. Lovely Melania has agreed to be our new Secretary of State. She asked me, what do they do? I said, don’t worry your pretty head, you just have to look fantastic and keep your mouth shut. She’s so good at that I can’t tell you, she’s the best.

I gotta be honest; there have been some problems, that can I tell you. But now with old lady Ginsburg and hysterical Sotomexicano put away in Guantanamo, my lawsuits should all disappear. OK folks? Look, women and Hispanics and old people all love me by the way. And now that Pelosi is back in her place and Palsy Ryan has slithered back to whatever hick town in Wisconsin he crawled out of – sorry but it’s the truth – everyone else is falling in line with my plan to privatize the Senate and Congress. Excuse me, it’s just a fact… private companies can govern so much better than the “government,” am I right? And don’t worry, I’ll hire only the very best people to run my government, believe me, THE best. I’m personally interviewing the guys who made a killing in Michigan. They know how to get things done let me tell you. After a crash course at Trump National University, they will be ready to take over and make America great again, totally great again.

America will be so great you won’t even recognize it!

Our Curious Public Mood Swings


This is a fascinating and revealing chart illustrating our curious public mood swings. It was produced by Larry Bartels (see here) using data compiled by James Stimson (see here). It measures the “policy mood” of the country since 1950. The higher the score, the more conservative was public opinion at that particular point in time.

Stinson derived this policy mood index from responses to a wide range of public policy surveys. Since it does not rely upon self-identification as liberal or conservative, it is arguably a more nuanced and accurate measure of where public attitudes fall on the liberal-conservative spectrum.

The most obvious thing to note here are the dramatic swings. Clearly public attitudes about major issues are not as fixed as we might imagine. Over the past 65 years public opinion has swung up and down by almost 20 points. Clearly public sentiment can be swayed significantly.

The most interesting thing about these swings is revealed when you refer to the Administration timeline that Bartels added to the x-axis. If you study this a bit you’ll undoubtedly start to scratch your head in confusion. Under each Democrat administration the country became more conservative, and under each Conservative administration the country became more liberal. This is entirely counter-intuitive and immensely important.

The nation became dramatically more liberal during the Eisenhower years. Ike was moderately conservative overall but staunchly conservative on economic issues. It became slightly more conservative during the moderately liberal Kennedy/Johnson era but shifted far toward the conservative extreme during the very liberal Carter years. Similarly, during the extremely conservative Reagan era, public sentiment shot back down again toward the liberal end of the spectrum. Under Clinton, the public then became more conservative and after a year or two of George Bush became more liberal again. Finally, under the very liberal President Obama, we have become dramatically more conservative.

The next observation may or may not be significant, but the swing has been between 30 and 50 on this scale of conservatism. I can’t imagine what kind of views it would require to earn a 100% rating on this scale, but for what it’s worth public opinion has remained solidly on the liberal side of the spectrum. This seems to defy the popular meme that America is a “near Right” country. It suggests we are actually (still) a “near Left” country.

But that may not last if trends continue. Although this chart bounces up and down, there is still a clear upward best fit line. This supports the long-term trend toward conversativism reported independently by other sources. Essentially each President since Eisenhower has rated as more conservative. More specifically, each Republican President has been more conservative than the previous Republican President and each Democrat President has been more conservative than the previous Democrat President. This reinforces the observation that despite these swings, the Conservatives succeed year after year in moving the “center” ever farther toward the Right.

So what conclusions can we draw from these data? First, it isn’t true that we are intractably divided and cannot change. Clearly a very significant fraction of us can be moved a substantial amount in one direction or the other. Next, we are perhaps overall more liberal than the Right would like to have us believe. However, we are trending ever more conservative and that is never likely to reverse as long as liberals keep voting for the “lesser of two evils” who is still ever more conservative than his or her predecessor.

Finally, as Bartels pointed out in his article, Presidents do not actually succeed in shifting public opinion their direction. The data rather show that the public tends to recoil reliably away from the President in their attitudes. Paradoxically and counter-intuitively, these data suggest that the fastest way to shift public sentiment toward the liberal end would be to elect a highly conservative President. And the best way to reverse the long-term trend toward conservatism may be to allow our “lesser of two evils” Democratic candidates to lose.




Norman Coordinate!

I watched the 3rd Republican debate with great amusement. As comedy it was pretty entertaining I must admit. But as a rational debate of public policy it was pretty sad. Beyond all the usual comments about their performance art, a few things jumped out at me.

First, you may have noticed that all the candidates seemed eager to step over each other to scramble to the top of the Bernie Sanders bandwagon with rhetoric about how all of the money has been sucked out of the middle class and into the hands of the ultra-wealthy. Ok, they’re right there even if they’re finally now saying this only because the Tea Party Conservatives agree with Bernie on this.

However whenever asked about the possibility of expecting any more from the ultra-wealthy they are all quick to point out that “you could take all the wealth from the rich and give it to the poor and it wouldn’t make a dent in the wealth inequity.” Now, I’m confused. If as you say the ultra-wealthy have all the money, all the money the middle class used to have when they were an actual middle class, then how is it possible that the wealthy could not make a dent in the wealth gap? Something seems fundamentally illogical here.

Then there was another example. On many occasions they insisted that we absolutely, positively must free business from all those terrible, crippling regulations that force them to do things, you know like produce safe and ecologically responsible products. Or you know, like pay living wages.

But then when asked what they will do when businesses run amok and put their own profits ahead of the social good, as they do more often than not, the answer these candidates give is “that’s no problem because we have or should pass regulations to guard against that!

NormanI’m confused again. Remember the “I Norman” episode of Star Trek? The one where Kirk and Mudd defeated the logical, well-meaning robots by forcing them to try to process illogic until their circuits fried? The robots cried out to their central computer Norman for help processing these contradictions with the plea “Norman Coordinate! Norman Coordinate!

I feel a lot like Norman trying to process Conservative logic.

The wealthy have all the money but they have no money but regulations are bad but regulations protect us but we must eliminate regulations but we must institute them but the poor must pay but the poor have no money but the bible is the source of economic knowledge but the bible says anything but the bible says nothing but… Norman Coordinate! Norman Coordinate! Illogical Illogical! Shutting down!

So, if we ever encounter a planet of ultra-powerful robots dedicated to saving us from ourselves, we only need to send some Conservatives out to explain their public policy positions and those poor logical robots end up with their circuit boards fried like Norman and me.


Apparently the candidates got the message that you can’t claim that we need to end all evil regulations at the same time that they say that regulations are the remedy to corporate excesses. This time, Ben Carson said:

“Well, I think we should have policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.And I think this all really gets back to this whole regulation issue which is creating a very abnormal situation.”

So apparently regulations are bad but policies are good. But don’t we need regulations to enforce policies? Norman Coordinate!

The Political Pickup Artist

mysteryIn 2007, a show called “The Pickup Artist” ran for two seasons. It was a reality-show contest format in which an elite Pickup Artist named Mystery mentored a motley group of misfits and losers in techniques for picking up women. Which dweeby kid would apply their lessons well enough by the end of the season to earn the title of “Pickup Artist?” Stay tuned!

People had lots of negative reactions to the unsavory methods taught in the show and by the suggestion that women are really that manipulable (though the same is certainly true of men). They were especially vexed by the fact that they could not completely dismiss the reality that the techniques promoted in the show really do work. By applying a few seemingly counterintuitive principles, these Pickup Artists really are able to pretty much walk into any kind of venue and walk out with the very willing phone number of pretty much any woman they choose.

Here are some of the important techniques taught by Mystery:

  1. Peacocking is critical. Even if you look silly, you need bling to stand out.
  2. You have to project more worth than anyone else in the room to be desirable.
  3. You have to establish outcome independence with an attitude that you really don’t care if she goes home with you or not.
  4. You have to project absolute confidence and not show a hint of self-doubt.
  5. You have to show the target you don’t particularly care about them. You need to even dis them and put them down in a mild way to make them want you more.
  6. You have to engage and actively listen.
  7. You have to be fun and actually have fun.

The series showed us that if you are able to execute these techniques successfully, pretty much any woman will give you her number. Even if she knows you’re bad news. Even if all her friends warn her you’re terrible for her. Even if she knows that there are way more sensible choices out there that would be far better for her. Despite all reason and common sense shouting “stay away” she’ll still want you anyway.

trumpNow The Pickup Artist reality show is back for another run. This time it stars The Donald as the Master Pickup Artist and he is schooling another motley group of misfits and losers in how to pick up voters. This season’s cast includes math club runt Bobby Jindal, pathetically desperate Jeb Bush, awkward twit Marco Rubio, sickeningly nice Rick Santorum, creepy-crawly Ted Cruz, messed-up-by-religion Mike Huckabee, tries-too-hard Rick Perry, and only-one-who-thinks-he’s-smart Rand Paul. None of these poor losers has a hope of getting a voter to give him their vote, let alone their phone number.

Here are some of the critical voter pick-up lessons that The Donald demonstrates this season:

  1. Peacocking is critical. That hair may look ridiculous, but bling is bling and he certainly stands out amongst the other stuffed shirts.
  2. Everything about Trump implicitly and explicitly shouts “I’m worth more than anyone else in the field and I know it.”
  3. Trump’s attitude of outcome independence says sure, I’ll be your President if you beg for it but I don’t need to be. I’m just as happy to move on to something better.
  4. Trump projects absolute confidence in everything he says and does. He never gives any hint of hesitation or self-doubt.
  5. In talking to voters whether it be women, Hispanics and pretty much everyone else, Trump is happy to put them down to make them want him that much more despite all their better judgment.
  6. Trump doesn’t hold press conferences; he holds conversations with the press and the public. Whether he cares what you have to say or not, he makes you feel that he actively engages with you and genuinely listens to you rather than delivering rehearsed pickup lines.
  7. He definitely is fun and actually sincerely seems to have fun out there playing The Political Pickup Artist game.

So, tune in this election season and see how many voters, men and women, despite all logic and reason and common sense to the contrary are nevertheless drawn like moths to the flame of The Donald. No matter how bad for us we know he is, no matter how self-destructive the attraction, we’ll secretly be drawn to him anyway. He’s the master political pick-up artist, the bad boy, the alpha male of the pack and we desire him regardless of how ridiculous that may be. It’s in our DNA.

Can you resist his repulsive attraction? Yea, right, sure you can…