Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Skepticism

Psychics get it wrong again

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has published its annual lookback on how tabloid psychics did in predicting the just-ended year. As has always been the case, the psychics went 0 for 2002. Here’s something I didn’t know:

[M]ost of the tabloids that still publish forecasts have now resorted to using “psychics” who may not even exist. They don’t show up on Internet search engines. That turns out to be true for the Sun and Weekly World News. The best known tabloid, the National Enquirer, gave up its tradition of publishing beginning-of-the-year psychic predictions a few years ago.

Things have sure gone to hell since Jeane Dixon died, haven’t they? Better luck this year, guys.

UPDATE: Nice to know that at least one well known “psychic” is still willing to publish actual predictions. Not exactly Elvis and Princess Di stuff here, but we’ll take what we can get.

Test your hoax IQ

The Museum of Hoaxes has a quiz to test your knowledge of hoax photos. I got seven out of ten on both Level One and the harder Level Two. Try it for yourself. Via Mark Evanier.

A few words about polls

First, go read what Dr. Limerick has to say about margin of error. Next, consider the following excerpt from this article from the Wilson Quarterly about polls:

Although the public displays no overt hostility to polls, fewer Americans are bothering to respond these days to the pollsters who phone them. Rob Daves, of the Minnesota Poll, says that “nearly all researchers who have been in the profession longer than a decade or so agree that no matter what the measure, response rates to telephone surveys have been declining.” Harry O’Neill, a principal at Roper Starch Worldwide, calls the response-rate problem the “dirty little secret” of the business. Industry-sponsored studies from the 1980s reported refusal rates (defined as the proportion of people whom surveyors reached on the phone but who declined either to participate at all or to complete an interview) as ranging between 38 and 46 percent. Two studies done by the market research arm of Roper Starch Worldwide, in 1995 and 1997, each put the refusal rate at 58 percent. A 1997 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found statistically significant differences on five of 85 questions between those who participated in a five-day survey and those who responded in a more rigorous survey, conducted over eight weeks, that was designed to coax reluctant individuals into participating.

Much more research needs to be done on the seriousness of the response-rate problem, but it does seem to pose a major challenge to the business and might help to usher in new ways of polling. (Internet polling, for example, could be the wave of the future–if truly representative samples can be constructed.) Polling error may derive from other sources, too, including the construction of samples, the wording of questions, the order in which questions are asked, and interviewer and data-processing mistakes.

I’ve seen poll numbers all over the place for various candidates. Right here, we’ve got polls showing Ron Kirk and John Cornyn in a tight race and polls showing Cornyn with a ten point lead. I look at the number of people surveyed, and while I know that it’s sufficiently large to be a representative sample, I have to ask: What assumptions are the pollsters making about turnout? Are they taking into consideration extra efforts in the candidate’s hometowns? Is there an axe being ground somewhere?

Fortunately, I have MyDD to tell me about the demographics of the DMN poll as well as the biases of various national polling companies. And it’s not just liberals who have been complaining. Conservatives have made many of the same points about sampling error, nonresponsiveness, and pollster bias.

The only poll that really matters is the one taken on Election Day. Early voting has begun. You know what to do.

Bush upside-down book photo a fake

Scott alerts me to this debunking of the Bush-holding-a-book-upside-down photo. I’m convinced, and I’m not surprised. It’s too easy to fake photos, and in retrospect, there was never a URL to a news story attached to that picture.

Just one thought to my right-leaning friends out there: If six months or a year from now you come across some sap who links to or forwards this picture (whether out of genuine ignorance or willful dishonesty), understand that whatever you think of him or her is what we liberals think of people who propagate long-discredited lies about Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Especially paid pundits.

Has Salon fired all their editors?

Today on Salon there’s a story which attempts to debunk the “psychic” John Edwards. Author Shari Waxman makes a good case of pointing out how Edwards manipulates the audience and works the odds in his favor, but nearly made me gag with the following:

But Edward, a 32-year-old native of Long Island, has not fessed up to all of his talents. As it happens, he is more than a psychic medium; he is also a master statistician. The smoke and mirrors behind his self-professed ability to communicate with the dead is a simple application of the summation law of probability. The law states that the calculated probabilities of events that are independent (i.e., the occurrence of one event has no effect on the probability that another event will occur) may be added together. In symbolic terms, where A is the first event, B is the second event and P stands for probability:

P(A) + P(B) = P(A or B)

For example, if you roll a six-sided die betting on a 3, your chances for success are 1 in 6, or 17 percent. Roll the die six times, and you are almost guaranteed to see a 3 (17 percent x 6 = 102 percent). Lucky for Edward, most audience members on his television show, “Crossing Over,” are too hopeful and trusting to pull out a calculator and expose the charlatan behind the prophet.

Her statement about independent events is correct, but it’s only true for differing independent outcomes of the same probability distribution. In other words, if an event has three outcomes A, B, and C, and the three outcomes are independent, then the equation Waxman gives is correct.

However, Waxman is all wrong when she tries to extend this to successive events. If what she said were true, then the probability of seeing at least one heads on two flips of a coin would be 100%. And whoever proofread this piece should be shot, since a 102% probability is impossible.

The right way to figure out the probability of a single outcome A occurring over N tries is to calculate the probability of A not occurring at all, and then subtracting it from 100%. The odds of two events occurring together is the product of their probabilities. Thus, the odds of outcome A occurring on consecutive tries is P(A) x P(A), where P(A) means the probability of A as before.

Let’s take Waxman’s example of rolling a 3. The odds that you do not roll a 3 on a given toss of a six-sided die is 5/6. The odds of not rolling a 3 on consecutive tosses is the product of the probabilities, so for two tosses it’s (5/6) x (5/6), or 25/36. For six tosses, it’s (5/6) multiplied by itself six times (ie, to the sixth power), which works out to be about 33.4%. Since that’s the odds of not rolling a 3, the odds of rolling at least one 3 is 66.6%, because the odds of an event occurring (in this case, no threes in six dice rolls) plus the odds of that same event not occurring (in this case, at least one three over six dice rolls) must add up to 100%.

Putting Waxman’s mathematical foibles aside, I was happy with her debunking efforts until the very end:

I prefer to believe Edward’s fans are not unintelligent, but simply in need of something to believe in, to feel good about, or to relieve the anxiety of what cannot be controlled. If he is fulfilling these needs, then in some ways, his gig is legit. Just like playing the lottery, if you really want to believe, you are better off not knowing the odds.

How is his gig “legit”? Earlier in the article, Waxman notes that Edwards sells an audiotape called “Developing Your Own Psychic Powers” for $59.95. Given that he’s selling nothing for something, how is this not fraud? If he were marketing himself as strictly entertainment, as many stage magicians and mentalists do, that would be one thing. But he’s not. And you can believe in him all you want, but unlike the lottery, the odds of hitting the jackpot with Edwards really are zero.

More on Intelligent Design vs. science

I seem to be referring to Max Power quite a bit recently, but that’s because he’s been doing such a bang-up job of dissecting Prof. Volohk’s defenses of Intelligent Design. I think I can give him an assist with this latest entry:

It’s a language issue: when I say “intelligent design”, I’m discussing the intelligent design movement, which makes actual contentions that are demonstrably false, including the contention that ID is scientific. With that definition, there’s nothing incorrect with saying that “intelligent design proponents are wrong.” Eugene would surely agree with that (he states his agreement with the premises in his posts, and the conclusion naturally follows), just as I would agree with Eugene’s narrower (but ultimately trivial) point that the hypothesis “An omniscient being created both humanity and all of the evidence pointing towards evolution and away from intelligent design” cannot ultimately be said to be “wrong” or anything worse than “not helpful.”

The word you’re looking for, Max, is falsifiable, as in Prof. Volohk’s contention about an omniscient being is not falsifiable.

Falsificationism was the great contribution to the philosophy of science by Karl Popper. It clearly lays out what makes a theory scientific and what does not. The crucial aspect is falsifiability, which is to say that a truly scientific theory must be refutable by some means. If there is no way to prove that a hypothesis is false, it cannot be scientific.

This page is full of good introductory information. Here are some conclusions Popper drew about scientific theories:

1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory – if we look for confirmations.

2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory – an event which would have refuted the theory.

3. Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating evidence.”)

7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers – for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a “conventionalist twist” or a “conventionalist stratagem.”)

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.

It’s clear that by these criteria, Intelligent Design utterly fails to be a scientific theory because there is no test which can be devised that would refute the hypothesis that an omniscient being is responsible for the creation of the universe and all the evidence that points towards evolution. It’s no more falsifiable than the statement that invisible winged squirrels are what alter the path of curveballs, and as such it’s no more scientific.

Please note that I am not claiming that there’s anything wrong with believing that an all-powerful God created the heavens and the earth. The ironic thing is that evolution has nothing to say about how life was created, nor does it contradict a belief in God having a hand in evolution. All I’m saying is that religion and science are different things that use different methods to answer questions. Intelligent Design is religion masquerading as science. It is not science, and it has no place being taught as science.

Why intelligent design is stupid

Max Power is full of good stuff today about the intellectual dishonesty and outright ignorance surrounding intelligent design. See here, here, and here for Max’s devastating critiques.

It’s important to note, as Max does, that the so-called debate over intelligent design is not about science but about a political agenda. Proponents of ID like Phillip E. Johnson opposed evolution for a long time before Michael Behe first published his book about “irreducible complexity” in 1996. ID is just the latest stick they’ve grabbed onto in their attempt to beat back evolution.

Patch Adams and the Folk Song Army Fallacy

From Greg Hlatky comes this article about Patch Adams and the “Dialogue for Democracy” which took place at the University of Pittsburgh.

Patch, the subject of an incredibly sappy feel-good movie, is apparently a bit confused about current events:

“I am literally comparing Bush and his cronies to Hitler,” Adams said, “only Hitler had a smaller vision.”

Umm, Patch? Do the words Godwin’s Law mean anything to you? I am now literally comparing you to a mouth-breathing idiot who has no idea what genuine evil is.

Patch also doesn’t understand basic economics:

“[I] don’t understand why a ball bouncer makes more than a schoolteacher,” Adams said.

Well, that would be because someone is willing to pay those ball-bouncers lots of money. Feel free to distribute some of those millions you got for selling your life story to Hollywood to all the teachers you like if you want to make a difference here.

Finally, Patch and cohort Dr. Helen Caldicott, a “vehement opponent of nuclear weapons”, seem to be unable to grasp the difference between ends and means:

“I think there are a majority of people who want love, peace and cooperation,” said Caldicott. “But we find it hard to reach out to each other.”

We all want love, peace, and cooperation, dimwit. That includes the Taliban and the Committee for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. They would be (or would have been, in the case of the late and unlamented Taliban) very happy to have us all live in peace and harmony with their vision of how the world should be. Where we differ is in how we think we can best acheive these ends. All the happy talk in the world does squat to change this fact.

Which leads me to the second part of my subject. What we’ve seen here is another application of what I’m calling the Folk Song Army Fallacy. Basically, the FSAF is what happens when an advocate confuses the ends for the means to those ends. Someone who is “for peace” or “against crime” has committed the FSAF if he or she:

  1. Loudly and constantly touts his or her commitment to the ends (i.e., “promoting peace”, “getting tough on crime”, etc).
  2. Demonizes those who do not stand firmly with them, and
  3. Has no clearly articulated plan for acheiving their desired end, or has a clearly articulated plan without having any idea of the costs and consequences of that plan.

The beauty of the FSAF, of course, is that you can always be on the right side of an issue. Who doesn’t want peace? Or less crime? Or an end to poverty and injustice? Even better, you can accuse your opponents of not being in favor of these wonderful things. With the FSAF, you can’t go wrong.

Peaceniks are commonly afflicted with the FSAF. As the Jo Walton quote that Patrick has on his page indicates, “peace” is not the same as “not fighting”, but the distinction is lost on those who’d rather chant than think. It’s my belief that the more simplistic and sound-bite-like an advocacy group is, the more likely that they have a bad case of FSAF. Once you know the symptoms of this syndrome, it’s pretty easy to recognize it in its sufferers. It’s also pretty depressingly common.

Naturally, you didn’t have to come here to read a barrel shot of this particular fish. You’ve probably already read Lileks’ screed. Lileks is a great writer and all that, but does he make metaphorical use of Tom Lehrer songs like I do? (Don’t tell me if he does; it’d just depress me.)

It’s a hoax!

Matthew Yglesias points to the scoop on the Alex Michel email. The New York Post’s Page six got a confession from Jonathan Locker, one of the two conspirators:

When we reached Locker yesterday, he confessed to making up the exchange.

“It was a complete hoax,” Locker said, “and I feel really bad about it.” Sahrbeck has e-mailed Michel an apology.

Glenn Kinen and Alex Rubalcava, who blogged it first, also point to this story.

I’m not surprised. I was doing a bit of detective work on this myself, but I can see that the route I was taking might have led me to an incorrect answer. When Rubalcava mailed me the full email chain, I took note of the domain from which Michel’s email supposedly originated. When I visited that site, I discovered that it allows guest signups. I figured that Sahrbeck and Locker probably created an address for Michel via the guest singup. This would have enabled them to write those messages from Michel themselves. What’s clever about that is even if a noseybody such as I had gotten my hands on the originals, their headers would have looked perfectly normal.

So, my investigative idea was to contact the site administrators to see if that address was a guest address and if so, when it was created. From the Post article, it’s clear that the address was real. I haven’t heard back from the admins yet (I’m going to send a followup note and withdraw my request – no need to make them do unnecessary work), but if I had they’d have told me that the account was bona fide. Another beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.

Turns out the hoaxers weren’t that clever. They simply made up the replies from Michel and started the forwarding chain, so header analysis would likely have caught them if the Old Media hadn’t sweated a confession out of them first. Well, good on you, Page Six. I’ve seen enough of these hoaxes in my capacity as tech support and email admin that I’m happy to see an offender get caught. They were looking for publicity, and they got it. Enjoy the fallout, fellas.

Scandal or hoax?

Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Kinen both point to this report by Alex Rubalcava about Alex Michel, the focal point of ABC’s reality show The Bachelor. Rubalcava prints a series of “unconfirmed emails” in which Michel claims that he was pressured by ABC to pick underdog Amanda over Trista.

The emails started with a note from a member of the Harvard group Fly to Michel, a Harvard alum who was also in Fly. The current Fly member sent Michel’s reply to friends of his but failed to remove Michel’s address, so one of those people sent this note to Michel:

From: Locker, Jonathan
Sent: Thursday, April 25, 2002 8:39 AM
To: ‘[email protected]
Subject: The Bachelor

Alex, Jeffrey Sahrbeck was giving out your email address so I figured I would shoot you an email telling you how disappointed I was with your decision. Do you like fat girls or something? Amanda is nasty– she is packing extra lbs all over the place. Trista is smoking hot AND she is a Heat dancer. Anyway, I lost a lot of faith in both you and the ABC network.
Regards, Jon

Michel replied as follows:

From: Michel Alex
Sent: Thursday, April 25, 2002 12:42 PM
To: Locker, Jonathan
Subject: RE: The Bachelor

Jon,

Please do not email me anymore and tell Jeff that if I ever meet him, I will kick his ass for giving my address to all of his high school friends. Anyway, there is no doubt that Amanda is much fatter than Trista, but the producers made me pick the underdog. Don’t worry, I bagged Trista.

Alex

I don’t buy this for three reasons:

  1. It’s ridiculously easy to forge email. The other two emails Rubalcava provides show the same time and date as these two – the first mail to Alex has the same time and date as the second, and the first reply from Alex has the same time and date as the second. Rubalcava offers no explanation for that, saying that’s how they appeared in the mail as it was forwarded to him.

    I’m not worried about the synchronicity here as I am about the possibility that Rubalcava or the person who sent him these notes is faking the whole thing. I know a thing or two about SMTP mail protocols and email headers, and I know people who know a whole lot more about them than I do. Until I can see the full headers and show them to some pros I trust, I will remain skeptical about this. It’s just too easy to be a joker.

    For reference on how to read email headers and determine what is real and what may be forged, see the following links:
    Pobox: How to Read Email Headers
    Pobox: Examples of Forged Headers
    StopSpam: Reading Email Headers
    Email Protocols: SMTP, MIME, POP & IMAP

  2. If Alex Michel is pissed enough to kick Jeff’s ass for passing his email address on to people Alex doesn’t know without his permission to do so, then why in the world is Alex insulting his bride-to-be and bragging that he “bagged” Trista to this total stranger? Is he that stupid and/or indiscreet? You’d think the networks might have learned something about background checks after the whole Rick Rockwell/Darva Conger thing. If it turns out this is genuine, I’d say that Alex’s marriage to Amanda will make the Rockwell/Conger union look like Ward and June Cleaver.
  3. Any man who thinks that a 5’10” woman who weighs 130 pounds is “fat” is not living on Planet Earth.

That last one isn’t really a valid objection to the possibility that all this is the truth, but it needed to be said anyway.

I don’t mean to be harsh to Alex Rubalcava, who may have stumbled on a nifty little scandal here. I just don’t believe this is anywhere near sufficient proof. Really, the people who have to come forward with the proof are Jeff Sahrbeck and Jonathan Locker. Forwarding Alex Michel’s replies erases their original headers as far as the new recipient is concerned. Only those two, who purportedly have the originals, can prove that they’re the real thing.

By the way, it may sound like an insulting question, but do we know for sure that “Jeffrey Sahrbeck, Harvard Fly 1999” is a real person? Don’t scoff, many legends from multiply-forwarded emails have fallen because no evidence that the principals involved exist could be found. Go take a look through the Urban Legends Reference Page for plenty of examples.

For what it’s worth, InstaPundit seems to accept Rubalcava’s claim without question. Max Power doesn’t. War Liberal is undecided but skeptical. Protein Wisdom is undecided but not as skeptical. I had no idea I was this far behind the commentary curve. The curse of a day job, I guess.

Religion v. science, round N

A “businessman and civic leader who also teaches Sunday school” named Bill White has penned an editorial about science and religion in today’s Chron. I give him high marks for his attempt to distinguish between the two domains. I’m always happy to see a person of faith recognize the value of science, but I’ve still got a nit to pick:

Last week the Houston Chronicle reported remarks by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, critical of Texas A&M and Baylor universities, as part of a debate concerning the teaching of evolution. Let’s not allow a false conflict between science and scripture to divide us. Many people of both science and faith have flourished at great Texas universities. And let’s respect the rights of DeLay and other public figures to express their own beliefs in a house of worship.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a false conflict, certainly not from DeLay’s point of view or the point of view of the person who complained that Texas universities aren’t teaching creationism. DeLay has followed his original remarks about Texas A&M and Baylor by expressing the firm conviction that Christianity is the only way to live. It’s certainly his right as an American to believe this, but it’s more than a bit distressing to hear a high-ranking government official speak with such utter disregard for Americans who don’t share his faith, never mind Americans who live quite happily without one. Private Citizen Tom DeLay can think and say what he wants, but Public Official Tom DeLay has a higher responsibility to the Constitution. The whole reason why this was news in the first place was because this was a powerful Congressman speaking.

Furthermore, the anti-science forces very surely see this as a real battle that must be fought fiercely. Creationists figure prominently in this group, but they’re far from the only ones. Leftist academics who think all truth is subjective and that science is just another worldview (one which is racist and sexist, naturally), pyschics and supernaturalists, Luddites of all stripes – they all reject science. I wish Bill White were correct and this were just a disagreement among friends, but it’s not. Those of us who do value science and want to keep it separate from matters of faith and belief need to take this battle seriously as well. Take a look at the Talk.Origins Archive, especially the Feedback section to see how vehement and uncompromising the opposition can be. Take a look at the James Randi Educational Foundation for even more depressing examples of ingrained ignorance and willful disbelief. Every time you turn your back, the other side is gaining ground.

For that reason, I disagree with White when he says we should accept DeLay’s apology and move on. Tom DeLay isn’t going to move on, he’s going to keep pushing the idea that religious dogma belongs alongside, or even in place of, science in the classroom. That’s one place where we can’t cut him any slack.

Also in the “why didn’t I think of that?” category

Anyone can be a patent holder! It’s true! Take a look at Patent 6,368,227 and see for yourself. Maybe there’s something to all those intonements about there being nothing left to invent.

Via James Randi. Be sure to scroll down the page and read Mark Evanier‘s hilarious story about a Psychic Reading Gone Wrong at the opening of the immortal movie Flesh Gordon.

Samizdata responds

Samizdata Illuminatus (Arkham) responds to my tax protester followup, in which I take him to task for assigning credibility to We the People. I’d also received a very polite note from Illuminatus/Arkham (how should I address you, anyway?) about this. I/A says that I misrepresented him; he says he agrees with me that WtP have no legal credibility.

In retrospect, I think he’s right. I was too harsh on him here. I guess I didn’t think he’d disavowed them strongly enough. That’s hairsplitting and it’s not really fair. I still maintain that Dale Amon did more than merely point out what WtP are saying, and I stand by my response to Joshua Trevino, but I retract my criticism of Illuminatus/Arkham. I appreciate the feedback, and I hope this sets the record straight.

(Yes, I’m up really late. Too much caffeine between sessions at the bridge tournament, I’m afraid.)

Tax protester followup

Joshua Trevino, who doesn’t use permalinks, critiques my critique of Dale Amon regarding tax loonies We the People. Here’s the crux of Joshua’s argument:

Dale clearly doesn’t harbor an opinion either way on WTP’s specific agenda — he provides a link and urges readers to decide for themselves. No editorializing at all, which is a rarity for Samizdata (or any blog, really). That’s not good enough for Kuffner:

Had Dale Amon taken a few moments to do some research, he would have discovered what kind of arguments, legal and otherwise, that We the People use against the income tax.

What? Okay, Amon’s post wasn’t a model of thoroughness. But Kuffner is positing a blogging standard that I’m willing to bet he doesn’t always meet. (Heck, I know Yglesias doesn’t meet it.) The crux of his critique of Amon is that Amon simply didn’t do adequate background research on his subject. Come on. Posting links of possible interest is what blogs do. Heck, I put up a link for chihuahua vindaloo, and I’m afraid I was suckered into posting a fair amount about the probably-baseless allegations of Israeli art students-cum-spies. So what? Live and learn. It’s blogging, people. Just because we’re better than the New York Times doesn’t mean we’re Real Journalists.

The real motivation behind this trio of leftist bloggers is, I suspect, a generalized dislike for Samizdata and its ideology per se. War Liberal says it “drives [him] crazy,” Kuffner discusses the “tooth-grinding factor” inherent in his reading of it, and Yglesias simply engages in routine petty mockery against it. The result is cases like this, wherein War Liberal is unecessarily caustic; Kuffner is inappropriately condemnatory; and Yglesias is a pathetic bandwagoner. While two of the three mount effective assaults on WTP, none of them can build a realistic case against Dale Amon.

I have several things to say to this. I’ll start by reminding everyone what exactly Amon said:

US income tax is illegal

The We The People Foundation held their own hearing as the US Federal Government broke its word to do so. They claim testimony taken under oath shows the entire income tax system to be unconstitutional.

Decide for yourself. The hearing webcast is available here.

Link to webcast omitted. I’d argue that Amon is in fact expressing an opinion on WtP’s position. It’s right there in the header to his post. He didn’t say “Group claims US income tax illegal”, or “Group to hold hearing on legality of income tax”. If he had, I’d agree with Trevino that Amon was merely pointing to some possibly interesting thing that one might wish to peruse. What he said was “US income tax is illegal”. How is that not expressing an opinion?

Even if Amon had hedged, I’d still consider him to be at best disingenuous in pointing out this so-called “argument”. Let’s take a look at the introduction to the Tax Protesters FAQ to see why:

[T]he assertions addressed in this FAQ are not merely false, but completely ridiculous, requiring not just ignorance of law and history, but a suspension of logic and reason.

In this FAQ, you will read many decisions of judges who refer to the views of tax protesters as “frivolous,” “ridiculous,” “absurd,” “preposterous,” or “gibberish.” If you don’t read a lot of judicial opinions, you may not understand the full weight of what it means when a judge calls an argument “frivolous” or “ridiculous.” Perhaps an analogy will help the attitude of judges.

Imagine a group of professional scientists who have met to discuss important issues of physics and chemistry, and then someone comes into their meeting and challenges them to prove that the earth revolves around the sun. At first, they might be unable to believe that the challenger is serious. Eventually, they might be polite enough to explain the observations and calculations which lead inevitably to the conclusion that the earth does indeed revolve around the sun. Suppose the challenger is not convinced, but insists that there is actually no evidence that the earth revolves around the sun, and that all of the calculations of the scientists are deliberately misleading. At that point, they will be jaw-droppingly astounded, and will no longer be polite, but will evict the challenger/lunatic from their meeting because he is wasting their time. That is the way judges view tax protesters. At first, they try to be civil and treat the claims as seriously as they can. However, after dismissing case after case with the same insane claims, sometimes by the same litigant, judges start pulling out the dictionary to see how many synonyms they can find for “absurd.”

What I’m getting at is not just that WtP have a weak case. They have no case at all. Giving them any credibility, which Amon did with his post, is like giving credibility to creationists and the Flat Earth Society. Not only are they not adding anything to the discussion, they are actively hindering it. For Amon to cite them uncritically either means he’s favorably inclined to their arguments, in which case Amon himself loses all credibility when it comes to discussing this issue, or he hopes to throw sand in everyone else’s eyes, in which case he’s actively dishonest. The most charitable interpretation is that he’s just plain lazy.

And Joshua? My “motivations” were to point out a stupid argument. You are correct that I don’t much care for what the Samizdata folks have to say. A big part of the reason for that, as you must have read since you cited my “tooth-grinding factor” comment, is the way in which they present their arguments. I’m willing to listen to people with differing viewpoints until they insult my intelligence. What Amon did here was like citing the Clinton Death List or Alien Autopsy.

Oh, and surely now that several people (myself, Matthew Yglesias, Mac Thomason, Max Power) have pointed out the idiocy of WtP the Samizdata folks would admit that they were wrong in assigning them any credibility, right? Not quite.

I stand by everything I said.

More on the tax morons

Max Power notes my response to Samizdata and provides a link that I’d overlooked to the Tax Protesters FAQ. This is a thorough overview of the idiot arguments that We the People advance and why they are not just wrong but from another planet altogether. The link I gave is a collection of legal citations with a few footnotes, whereas this is a genuine FAQ with complete sentences and all that.

Thanks much for the assist, Max. I had actually seen this FAQ before – it’s how I knew that “frivolous” is a very strong term for a judge to use – but couldn’t remember enough about it to do a coherent search. Nonetheless, I missed it and you found it, and for that I thank you.

Tax idiocy

Via War Liberal, we get this silly post from Dale Amon of Samizdata. Dale cites a “public hearing” by a group called We the People which claims to prove that the income tax laws are unconstitutional.

Here’s a blurb from their web site which discusses the “startling, compelling, disturbing and irrefutable” proof of their thesis:

The record of the hearing proves conclusively for history:

  • The Internal Revenue Code does not make most Americans liable to file a tax return and pay an income tax.
  • People have a right to the fruits of their labor; the income tax is a slave tax, and is prohibited by the 13th Amendment.
  • Congress lacks the authority to legislate an income tax on the people except in the District of Columbia, the U.S. Territories and in those geographic areas within any of the 50 states where the States have specifically approved it, in writing. No legislative jurisdiction means no taxing authority.
  • There is no income tax exception to the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of the Peoples’ unalienable right not to be compelled to be a witness against themselves; individuals do, in fact, waive their 5th Amendment (Miranda) right not to be a witness against themselves when they sign and file a Form 1040 tax return.
  • Personal income taxes polarize and divide an otherwise united nation and promote class warfare and mistrust of our government.
  • The IRS, the courts and even the NY Times cite the 16th Amendment as government’s authority to impose a tax directly on the People’s labor. However, the 16th Amendment did not come close to being lawfully ratified by ¾ of the states as constitutionally required, and was fraudulently declared to have been ratified in 1913 by Philander Knox, the Secretary of State. The 16th Amendment is null and void.
  • The IRS routinely violates the 4th Amendment due process and privacy protections of Americans by seizing assets without lawful authority or a court order and by denying citizens their right to statutorily-prescribed, administrative remedies.
  • The IRS willfully and illegally manipulates taxpayers’ Individual Master Files for the purpose of creating time-barred assessments, creating and providing fraudulent certificates of official records to the court to support illegal assessments, manipulating master files to short-pay taxpayers’ legal interest owed by the government, collecting social security from taxpayers via levy in direct violation of the law, willful and intentional creation of fraudulent penalty and interest against taxpayers, and willful and intentional violation of taxpayers rights to due process.
  • The IRS, without legal authority, routinely and illegally prepares “dummy returns” with inflated assessments for taxpayers who legitimately do not file a tax return as a means of punishing those who stand on their legal rights in choosing not to file.

There’s a word that we have in the States for people who believe this kind of stuff, Dale. We call them “fruitcakes”. There’s another word which applies to their arguments, one which is given to them by the courts: “frivolous”. You need to understand just what this means. When judges call your argument “frivolous”, they’re not merely saying that you’re wrong and you’re wasting all of our time. They’re saying that your argument is so totally misguided or has been so frequently and completely refuted that it has no place in the courtroom. In some cases, judges will hold people in contempt for using “frivolous” legal arguments.

Had Dale Amon taken a few moments to do some research, he would have discovered what kind of arguments, legal and otherwise, that We the People use against the income tax. Setting aside the parts of their attack which are merely personal opinion (i.e., the tax “polarizing” an otherwise united nation), a few more minutes of research would have led to the inevitable dicsovery that all of these arguments have been shot down in court multiple times, with many of them attaining “frivolous” status. Go take a look at the Casebook for Dealing with Extremist Legal Arguments. See how often the arguments that the income tax only applies to Washington, DC, or that the 16th Amendment was never properly ratified, have been tried and thoroughly rejected.

You want to argue that the IRS does and has done Bad Things to ordinary taxpayers, I’m there with you. It’s a million miles from there to the notion that the 16th Amendment is illegal and has been for nearly 100 years, and the journey you have to take to get there goes straight through Crackpotville and Kookytown. People who advocate these arguments are either criminally obtuse or just plain criminals. People who cite these advocates favorably are dupes. Shame on you, Dale.

Afghanistan and the lessons of Y2K

After reading Gary Farber’s thorough takedown of The Guardian‘s resident idiot, I got to thinking how a presumably intelligent person could be so utterly off-base. It’s not so much that Mary Riddell and those like her are guaranteed to be wrong about their conclusions – the US-Iraq situation could very well turn into the kind of disaster that she seems to be rooting for – it’s the way they get to those conclusions.

Alarmists in general seem to be extremely adept at tailoring logic to fit their conclusions. They ignore or shout down opposing views, and when the facts come in against them, they shunt them aside and hunt for any dark cloud they can point to as proof of their inevitable correctness. We saw this behavior quite a bit in the weeks leading up to the successful invasion of Afghanistan, and I daresay we’ll see more screeds like Mary’s in the future if and when the US decides to act against Iraq.

This line of thinking led me to another event for which doom was frequently, loudly, and incorrectly predicted. I’m speaking of the once-feared Y2K problem, in which outdated computer systems would melt down on January 1, 2000, causing worldwide chaos and destruction. I think it’s instructive to look at what some of the Y2K doomsayers were saying then, and what they said afterwards when it became clear that they weren’t just wrong but not even close.

The Y2K doomsayers made claims like the following:

  • The scope of the problem and its potential for catastophe are bigger than the mainstream media and its anointed experts would have you think.
  • There are zillions of lines of code which may have the Y2K bug in them. Fixing this will take jillions of person hours and cost gazillions of dollars.
  • Government and business have a vested interest in downplaying the problem. Those of us who dare to question their claims and tell the truth about what’s going on will be harassed and silenced.

Sound familiar? Even after January 1, 2000 came without civilization ending, most of them refused to back off their predictions. They never said that all problems would manifest themselves right away, after all. Wait and see, there will be problems later.

Ed Yourdon was one of the big Y2K doomsayers. If you poke around his website, you can find some hindsight from him on this issue. On this index page, he admits he was wrong, in a roundabout way, anyway:

I was wrong about Y2K. Not about the magnitude and pervasive nature of the problem, and not about the likely consequences if millions of computer systems and embedded chips around the world had not been repaired or replaced. But I was wrong about the likelihood that enough of the repair/remediation would be finished in order to prevent serious disruptions. Indeed, it has gradually become apparent during the first few weeks and months of 2000 that Y2K has caused a number of moderate-to-serious problems in various parts of the world — but it has not turned out to be the crisis that some of us had anticipated.

Italics his. This last sentence is a masterpiece of understatement, since the “crisis” Ed Yourdon and others anticipated was in fact the fall of the United States government amidst worldwide panic and economic catastrophe. In this essay Yourdon wrote responding to President Clinton’s speech at the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, Yourdon gives a fairly clear idea of what he had anticipated:

If the lights are out, if the phones are dead, if the banks are closed, if the airplanes are not flying, and if the hospitals are not accepting patients, I can assure you that the average citizen will not be spending much time wondering whether he still has more computer power than MIT.
[…]
[P]lease tell the American people that several of the oil companies are terrified of the problem they face here, because many of the chips are down on the bottom of the ocean floor — and thus incredibly difficult to find, fix, or replace. If the oil rigs shut down, our supply of oil is threatened; if we don’t get enough oil, you’re going to be faced with the alternative of rationing gasoline or shutting down the oil-fired electric utilities.

Yourdon goes on in the introductory essay to downplay his erroneous vision and to point to any and every glitch that did occur as vindication. It’s in this essay where Yourdon shows that he truly did not and does not understand why he was wrong about Y2K. This was a postmortem look at accusations that he had been “shouting fire in a crowded theater” with his dire predictions:

In any case, we didn’t know how Y2K would work out in 1998. Perhaps there are a few who can honestly say that they absolutely, positively knew that Y2K would be a non-event, but the vast majority of us had to admit, if only in private, that we wouldn’t really be absolutely sure. And, in the context of this postmortem, I’m not sure if it would work out the same way — i.e., a Y2K non-event — if we had it all to do over again. Indeed, my mental image of the whole situation is that God flipped a coin to determine whether to decide whether to make Y2K a disaster or a non-event. This time, the coin came up heads, and God shrugged and let the world off with only a few glitches. But if we rolled the calendar back a couple years and went through the whole process again, that same coin-toss might come up tails — in which case, God might have decided to let a few electric grids shut down, a few banks collapse, and maybe even a few airplanes fall from the sky. I know that this is an area of intense debate and controversy, and that many people are deeply convinced that there was no possible way — no way, no-how — for the incipient Y2K bugs to have caused a serious disaster. But there are others of us, myself included, who feel that we were incredibly lucky, and that the outcome could easily have been much, much different.

I’m now going to get to the point of this essay, in which I tell you why the Y2K bug was in fact a nonproblem, why Ed Yourdon fails miserably at understanding this, and what it all has to do with all those equally wrong doomsayers about our mission in Afghanistan.

The people who forecast doom in Y2K were actually right about a few things. They were right in that the problem was widespread, and that fixing it would be a massive and expensive undertaking whose success would be in doubt. They were wrong in assuming that the problem had to be fixed, or more to the point that it had to be fixed on the problem’s terms. From my experience inside the IT department of a large multinational company, the problem was largely fixed by getting rid of the problematic pieces.

For example, rather than upgrade our mainframe systems that ran a non-Y2K-compliant version of VM, we migrated all the applications off it and onto client-server systems, then retired VM a good six months before 2000. This also obviated the need to edit those oft-cited millions of lines of COBOL code, since most if not all of that code lived on VM. Rather than upgrade BIOS chips on older PCs, we threw them out and installed new PCs. What’s more, a lot of this work was done well before “Y2K” became part of the national consciousness. It was done as part of our normal cycle of upgrading old systems and installing new technologies. By the time we got around to creating a Y2K team (in 1997 or 98, I forget), most of the problem had already been solved.

Given that, it’s pretty clear that while no one could truly say what Y2K would be like, the vision of God tossing a coin is ridiculous. Ed and his ilk never clued in to the fact that they were looking at a vastly different problem than the rest of us were.

Now think about the people who predicted doom when the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan and take out the Taliban. They threw around words and phrases like “quagmire”, “VietNam”, “failed Soviet invasion”, and so forth. They talked about how the Taliban troops were master guerrila warriors who could hide in the mountains and inflict massive casualties on ground troops. They dismissed air attacks as being ineffective and vulnerable to ground-based missiles. They warned about how the locals would be against us because of the number of civilians we’d kill with our bombs. They scared us with visions of the “Arab Street” rising up to take arms around the world.

In other words, they saw the strengths of the enemy and assumed we would have to fight them on their terms. They didn’t give the people whose job it is to solve these problems any credit for thinking of ways to use our strengths and to fight these battles on our terms. They drew on our failures of the past without realizing that we did in fact learn from them. That their predictions were invariably wrong should surprise no one.

Now I’m not saying that any future invasion of Iraq will be as quick or successful as the invasion of Afghanistan was. Nor am I saying that we’ve licked the whole problem in Afghanistan – we’re still fighting, and we will be for the forseeable future. Many people, such as Steven den Beste and Sgt. Stryker have written intelligently and in depth about how things could go in Iraq. I just want to point out that the people who raise the loudest alarms are not necessarily the best sources for how to resolve the problems we face, usually because they’re not talking about the problems we are actually facing.

(By the way, Ed is working on a new book called Byte Wars, in which he discusses security, risk management, and the “strategic implications of September 11”. You can read the introductory chapter here. Ed also has a blog, which he supposedly updates “most every day”, though the latest entry is February 10.)

There’s one final thing to consider about doomsayers in general, which is that some of them are not making an honest attempt to predict the future but are instead merely rooting for the outcome they wanted. This was especially true with Y2K doomsaying, as many people interpreted the beginning of a new millennium as the beginning of the end times described in the Book of Revelations. Some people saw the possible breakdown of technology, commerce, and government as being necessary to restore God’s rule on earth. Surely some people who predicted dire consequences for the United States if it invaded Afghanistan did so because they hoped to see the imperialist oppressor humbled. For these people, what was true about Afghanistan will be true about Iraq and wherever else the war on terror may lead.

So what happens to these prognosticators whose forecasts turn out to be so wrong? Well, most of them seem to just keep going. No one ever remember these things, right? And surely, they figure, one of these days God’s coin toss is bound to come up favorably for them. So they go on with business as usual. As this Wired article notes about Gary North, someone Yourdon frequently cited and whose web site is very different now than it was three years ago:

What will the Internet’s best-known doomsayer do if Y2K results in just minor disruptions? “A few years later he’ll reappear with another apocalyptic scenario,” Berlet predicts.

Surely the same is also true about the Mary Riddells of the world. We would be well advised to keep that in mind.

You keep using that word…

Megan McArdle takes issue with liberals’ use of the word “fascist” as a code word for “people I don’t like”. She suggests the following experiment:

1) Find a liberal
2) Get him to say someone is a ‘fascist’
3) Then say, “Other than one fascist’s regimes penchant for genocide, what specifically do you have against fascism?”

That sure is a ringing endorsement for fascism, I gotta say. Sorta like the old joke “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

If you want to play that game, I’ll point out that libertarians and conservatives have their own code word for people they don’t like, too: “jackboot”. Go to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, look up “jackboot”, then click on their link for the Ten Most Popular Sites For “jackboot”. Among them (it actually returns 20 links), you’ll find four references to John Perry Barlow calling proponents of the Clipper chip “jackboots of the InfoBahn”, this quote from The National Review which says “Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy”, this article from the Cato Institute entitled “‘Jackboot Liberalism’ Residues”, and this guest comment from The National Review calling Janet Reno a jackboot for daring to enforce the law by returning Elian Gonzales to his father.

I wonder what the response would be if I said to these folks “The primary definition of ‘jackboot’ is ‘a heavy military boot made of glossy black leather extending above the knee and worn especially during the 17th and 18th centuries’. What, specifically, do you have against jackboots?”

By the way, weren’t Generalissimo Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini both fascists as well? That’d be more than one objectionable fascist regime, I think.

Oh, and one last thing: Why are jackboots also a metaphor for people we don’t like? Because of who wore them.

And that would be?

Say it with me now…Fascists.