Thursday, September 25, 2014

Who needs books when we already have a dictionary?


In a recent online discussion, which began with a post about Darwin Day, and soon turned into an argument about evolution, one opponent wrote the following:

"The theory of evolution, if it were removed from the consideration of science wholly, would not register a blip if it weren't for its role as a guiding materialist philosophy for atheists and agnostics in academia."
He wrote rather more, but this was the bit I thought worthy of response. Which I did...
By this line of reasoning, because we understand electricity and magnetism then we have no need of Maxwell's Equations showing us that electricity and magnetism are same thing. We could easily do away with a lot of that complicated stuff in physics textbooks, because there is no need for it.By this line of reasoning, because we have dictionaries to tell us the meaning of words, then we may as well discard all of our books, because the ordering of those words can't tell us anything we don't already know. Stupid books! [/sarc]
Evolution is a theory that ties together everything we know from biological and medical science. Like the electromagnetic force describes what we once thought of as different forces, evolution explains why we see so much similarity among life, and guides our studies of of how life works. In the same way that books are more than just collections of random words, evolution is a meaningful collection of knowledge and the connection between it. Nothing in biology, or in medicine, make sense except in light of evolution.
As for the bit about guiding philosophy Methodological Naturalism is not atheism. 
There were no further replies on the thread, so the person I was responding to either never saw it, or was so awed by my witty reply that they gave up in despair. I'm gonna go with the latter, and make a blog post out of it.


Here is a link to the original discussion on G+. Not that anyone needs to see it, this is for my own future reference.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Discussing Firearms Insurance

There has been considerable commentary on G+ to my post The Case for Firearms Insurance, and it has been almost entirely constructive discussion. I was surprised the conversation has not been a lot more rancorous, because this topic seems primed to bring out the worst in the internet. Not everyone agreed with me, but nearly all everyone gave it serious consideration. This post is a collection of link to various discussions:

Dave Hill posted his thoughts on his blog, and there are a number of comments.

I found this article on Justin Tapp's stream: Is Gun Liability Insurance the Next Big Thing? which is news of similar legislation actually having been introduced in Illinois. There are two discussions ongoing:
my G+ stream and in the Respectful Politics community.

Finally, more discussion in the Respectful Politics Community.

I have some additional comments, which will hopefully be appearing as new posts soon.

Oh, and one more thing, I wrote my Senator.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Word about "One Good Person with a Gun"

Following on my Firearms Insurance post from yesterday, I'd like to address a common argument in discussions about gun control: The hypothesis that "One Good Person" is all that is need to put an end to murders and crime, and therefore more people should carry guns, not fewer.

The argument goes, that one good person armed with a gun could put a stop to tragic mass shootings when they start, greatly reducing the harm done. The problem I have with this that it’s practically mathematically impossible. Without getting directly into the numbers, here is why I think this:

1) One is not enough: If the "One Person" knew in advance where the massacre would be, it would work. In practice we would need thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of armed individual carrying firearms on a regular basis. A significant portion of the population would have to be armed at all times in order that one of them might happen to be in the right place, at the right time, often enough, and soon enough, to make a difference.

2) "Good" is not enough: The "Good" person refers to intent, but they also must be very good at handling a firearm. And more than good, they must be nearly perfect. Accidents occur even to trained professional police officers, and the "Good Person" would need to be at least this good, if not considerably better.  Consider that thousands of people carrying firearms in public also means thousands of opportunities for accidents to happen. This risk will occur every day, not just on the day that some misguided soul decides to Go Postal take out their anger on innocents. Even a tiny risk of accident, multiplied by thousands and thousands of opportunities, will soon lead to more accidental shootings than the good people could ever prevent. **

** Add to this even a few gun owners that might want to "play Cowboy", and the harm could be far worse.

Put 1) and 2) together and it is pretty easy to see that the "One Good Person" hypothesis just doesn't work. It's a myth. The intention is fine, but the cure is worse than the disease. I could have looked up some statistics and put numbers on this, but then someone would just argue with my numbers. That is also my point - don't believe me - try it yourself: Find a source for firearms crime and injury statistics and put it to the test. I invite anyone to look up their own numbers and work this out for themselves. The math involved is fairly simple, but I can be available to help should that be needed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Case for Firearms Insurance

We require automobile owners to carry vehicle insurance. It's time we did the same for firearms.

The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut are in the news this weekend. Tuesday it was a shopping mall in Oregon, and before that the salon in Brookfield, WI, just a few miles down the road from me. Before this topic fades into the news cycle again, I'd like to put forward my suggestion of a way to address the problem: Require gun owners to purchase insurance which will compensate victims wrongfully injured by weapons they own.

I don't like it when others drive recklessly, because I know that careless or uninsured drivers make my insurance rates higher. I'm a pretty careful driver, and I don't want my rates to go up, therefore I want other drivers to be careful too. Purchasing and maintaining a car is expensive, but that cost is dwarfed by the liability costs for possible injuries should I be responsible for an accident. Few people could afford to cover this cost themselves, but we have a system of automobile insurance which helps to share the burden of the high cost of injury and accident. This sort of insurance is such a good idea that is has been adopted as public policy in many places.

I suggest that firearms insurance can do the same thing, removing some of the burden and cost from the victims of a crime and placing it back on gun owners. There would be some amount of government regulation needed, but no more than  is needed for vehicle insurance, and the private insurance industry would handle the rest. I have been told that "gun control doesn't work", but it seems clear that our system of automobile control works. There are flaws, but on the whole it works very well. Why shouldn't this form of gun control work too?

If this seems like it might be expensive, realize that it is already expensive. We pay a huge cost for firearms injuries, most of which are paid for with public funds (see this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7869455). We can shift that cost from a public tax burden to a private insurance burden. Quoting from the conclusion of the abstract (emphasis added):
"Ninety-six percent of the patients in this report had their costs of care covered by the government, because they had no primary insurance coverage. Primary prevention of firearm injuries, especially those caused by handguns, may be the most effective cost-control measure."
There is even potential here for lower taxes. If firearms injury rates come down, the taxes needed to pay the medical costs come down too. It could be argued that the private insurance industry is likely to be much more efficient about distributing money to victims that would otherwise be handled by Medicaid and Medicare.

Almost done, but I think I need to add a word or two about Second Amendment Rights. Suppose I were to say ...
"I have a right to happiness. If I had more money I could do a lots more fun things, and that would make me happy. Somebody give me $100,000 please, it's my right."
Which of course, it complete bullshit. No one is going to give me money just because I say it makes me happy. Likewise, I don't care to pay for the burden of irresponsible gun owners. I don't even want to remove anyone's rights. I want recognition that this right bears a heavy price tag, and a more equitable means of sharing that cost. If someone wants or needs a gun that's OK by me, but along with the Right of gun ownership they should be willing to accept the costs that come with it, and be prepared to pay for it themselves.

Update:
A follow-on, regarding my objection to the "One Good Person with a Gun" hypothesis.
Addendum: Is Gun Liability Insurance the Next Big Thing?




Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Future of Political Journalism

Nate Silver's predictions on FiveThirtyEight are starting to draw a lot of attention - and a lot of criticism. Almost all this criticism seems to be people interpreting statistical estimates as the blathering of a typical pundit, leading them  to very irrational claims, or concocting elaborate speculations why Silver cannot be right. They could not be more wrong, and in a few days I am not going to be shy about saying "I TOLD YOU SO".

(more after the break) 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

More Survey Analysis

I'm repeating my previous post, since it seems relevant to review the data again before the election. I accessed all these sites at about 9:00 PM CST. I

Real Clear Politics
Obama 201
Romney 191
Toss Ups 146
Obama by +1 ECV

Intrade Presidential Election 2012
Obama ~67% win
Romney~33% win

FiveThirthyEight 
Obama 303.2 +/-56 ECV
Romney 234.8 -/+56 ECV
~81% Obama wins

HuffPost Pollster

Obama  277 ECV
Romney  206 ECV
Toss Ups 55 ECV
Obama has enough certain electoral votes to win.

Obama 285 ECV
Romney 191 ECV
Toss Ups 62 ECV (but 44 of those lean strongly towards Romney)

Election Analytics 
Obama 296.7
Romney 241.3
~99.4% Obama wins

As before, I have arranged these in roughly increasing order of favor for Obama winning the 2012 election. The last three sites (HuffPost, TPM, EA) are making strong claims that Obama has the electoral votes to win already. 538 is not far behind that claim.
RCP seems to be sitting on the fence, not making strong claim about the toss-up States, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Other notes:
HuffPost Pollster has been added to the results. (but you saw that already.)

FiveThirtyEight: Last time I made the claim that Nate Silver's analysis is as close to neutral as can be found. Today though, I saw this: Nate Silver bets Joe Scarborough $1000 that Obama wins. It is not clear if this was intended as a partisan statement, or simply a good bet. It's not wrong to claim Obama is a good bet.

Should I update again tomorrow?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Survey Says ...

After discussing politics with a friend this morning, I was inspired to make the rounds of sites that accumulate political polling results and see what they all are saying. All results accessed on the web late afternoon on November 6th.

Real Clear Politics
Obama 201 +/-61
Romney 191 -/+61
Toss Ups 146
Obama by +10 ECV
(edit: those error bound probably belong to the 538 analysis, not RCP).

Intrade Presidential Election 2012
Obama 64.6% win
Romney 35.4% win

FiveThirthyEight 
Obama 294.6 ECV
Romney 243.3 ECV
~72.9% Obama wins

Obama 265
Romney 206
(Comment: therefore 67 are not certain)

Election Analytics 
Obama 291.4
Romney 246.6
~95% Obama wins

I have arranged these in increasing order of favor for Obama winning the 2012 election. Real Clear Politics and Talking Points Memo are sites I do not regularly follow, so I have no clear opinion of their methods. I suspect these sites have a conservative and liberal biases (respectively) but I have not direct evidence for that. Certainly if they are both presenting statistical results in an unbiased manner, they ought to have about the same conclusion. All I can really say here is that RCP doesn't offer much of a direct election forecast.

Edit: Intrade is another site I don't follow, but it has been getting a lot of media attention too.

I personally favor the methods Nate Silver uses on FiveThirtyEight, as I consider it to be the most technically sophisticated analysis, and it takes economic data into account as well. Silver offers a lot of day-to-day commentary on daily polling and his predictive model. Since the Democrats have lead the elections since the blog started in 2008, many of those prediction have been that Democrats are going to win. Some people interpret this an a liberal bias, but Silver's Senate predictions have been very good, and it not a bias if he is correct.  I have never seen Silver make anything close to an endorsement, and so on that basis I think FiveThirtyEight gives the most unbiased political analysis available.

Election Analytics is different from the others. It's a small academic page rather than a news site. Their statistical methods are sound, but they make some strong assumptions, which seems to be why they are able to make such a strong prediction for Obama winning. I haven't looked into just what these assumptions are, so I can't say if they are justified or not.

All this might not make my friend happy, but all the data is saying pretty much the same thing, with varying degrees on certainty.

Update: Added Intrade prediction at the suggestion of +Kevin Clift. Accessed the morning of 10/31/12.
Edit: next time I'll include this site too: http://electoral-vote.com/