It’s definitely worth reading Our Radicalized Republic from FiveThirtyEight.com. Lots of data to consider even if you disagree with some of the analysis.
Immediately after the last election I wrote this. Please read it before you read this.
I want to reiterate it today. I have meant it sincerely following every election in which I have been a voter, and I registered to vote at the first opportunity.
Speaking with respect is not agreement. It is a way to maximize the range of dialog. I believe deeply in the value of dialog, even with people who I may believe have not earned respect. Those in the military learn how to show respect to someone they may not respect because of that person’s rank and position. That could be a valuable lesson.
Especially with people who have not earned respect.
In their aim to express their anger at many things, sometimes even justified anger, people often rail at the MSM fact-checkers. Just using the MSM tag is an epithet indicating a lack of trust. On social media, especially Facebook, this anger goes against the efforts the company is making to correct false information.
As an aside, fact-checking done by the media is not the same thing as government censorship. The refusal of a media company to espouse or even publish your view is not the same thing as government censorship. In fact, challenging the truthfulness of things said by government agencies or political figures is a service done by the media for us. It is a service even if, after careful review, we decide that the media agency doing the fact-checking was wrong themselves. If you don’t like the platform, go somewhere else.
I have found that fact-checking organizations are a great resource, not because of their ratings, but because of the research they do. Most of them provide references for the information they used in checking that data.
Take, for example, a meme that has been posted repeatedly on Facebook claiming that there are just 133,000,000 registered voters in the United States, and thus that there were more votes, by millions, cast in the 2020 election than registered voters. I haven’t taken time to find out where one might have gotten that 133,000,000 figure. For all I know, someone made it up. But using the World Population Review site, and the page Number of Registered Voters by State 2020, and then putting the state by state data in a spreadsheet and adding it up, I find that the number of registered voters is 213,799,467, a number that makes the meme look rather silly. It also has the advantage of agreeing generally with the total population and the estimated number of eligible voters. The eligible voter population will be less than the population, of course, and in turn, not all eligible voters register.
You may think that took me too much time, though it really took very little, and before I’d take my stand on a set of values, I’d do even more research, but that little bit of work makes it pretty clear that the meme is not even in the range for consideration. It’s garbage.
I have repeatedly found this level of information in fact-checking posts, along with the information necessary to back-track and verify the work of the fact-checkers. When I disagree with fact-checkers, it is much more common that I disagree with their rating of a statement or with their analysis of their data. The greatest value is in the data they provide.
Bluntly, if you can’t take the time to check that far, you really should quit posting memes.
We live in a world of information. I think the MSM earned our distrust. They were often not careful enough with their facts and their presentation. Unfortunately, we then turned to “balanced” presentations, and from that to whatever news source caught our fancy. Reality is rarely a balance between opposing positions. Sometimes one of the extremes are correct.
In addition, many turned to “news” organizations with even less fact-checking than the so-called MSM. You have no business, no matter what your political views are, in claiming “TRUTH” when all you did was glean information from a few unaccountable web sites that happen to agree with your position. If you do that, you’re part of the problem.
People are going to lie. Governments lie. Politicians lie. If you want to have any sort of claim to truth, you need to check, double-check, check again, discern, and then express what you know, or at least have a reasonable claim to know. If that prevents you from posting large numbers of your favorite and most comforting memes, that’s all to the good.
If you only read headlines, or respond to fact-checking after reading only the rating, you’re part of the problem.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain
But I can paraphrase what supporters of gun rights say: Numbers don’t lie. People lie.
People use numbers to lie.
Sometimes it’s unconscious. I can say, “Most people believe X.” But that word “most” is imprecise, and sounds like I may not have studied the subject enough. So “Nine out of ten people believe X” sounds like I’ve studied the people and counted them.
I want to just post a few notes and recommend a couple of books.
- Many (notice that I haven’t counted them) misrepresentations involving statistics result from not noticing the margin of error when sampling is involved. Words like “surge” or “plummet” are used about polls in newspapers when the changes are within that margin of error. The context here is in understanding the precise nature of the numbers themselves. There’s a difference between “there are five books on my table” and “the average American will have five books on their bedside table.”
- Ask how the numbers were generated. If it was a survey, what was the question? In professional surveys, you can trace the numbers back to the survey. Reliable, ethical researchers show their work. For example, if you ask a number of people how many would kill their own mother for a million dollars, you don’t know how many actually would. You know how many say they would. The context here is the underlying basis for the numbers. It’s the difference between “I would guess that about 5 in 10 people do x”, or “I asked them”, or “I had a hidden camera on them and watched them.” All three methods generate numbers, but the meaning is different.
- Numbers don’t generate predictions on their own. They represent a state of affairs defined by the way they are collected and presented. The context of a numeric prediction can be complex. The prediction is only as valuable as the theory that generates it from the numbers, even if it is represented in numbers.
- Probability is a complex field. I enjoy reading about it. Numbers used to express probability are often difficult to follow and seem unintuitive. For those of us who are not mathematicians, a key point to notice is whether the person involved could actually have the necessary information. If you cannot model in detail an entire process, you don’t know the probability. Let me illustrate from Star Trek–the original series. Spock and Kirk are on Organia, and are unaware of the nature of the Organians. Kirk asks spock to rate their chances, and he gives a number including decimals. This number is irrelevant, because Spock doesn’t actually know what he would need to know.
- In number comparisons, the context of all numbers compared is important, as is their relationship. The data in a comparison is not so much in the numbers themselves but in the theory or theories used to connect them.
In my opinion, most (note how I say this) news articles and popular presentations that involved numbers misrepresent their meaning in some way. In most (note again!) that error is not that relevant to the readers. But in many unfortunate cases it is. If you count headlines, the misrepresentation is worse.
So when reading numbers, look for the source, check the context, understand the theory. The numbers may be correct, but the theory and presentation may make them deceptive.
Herewith a couple of books that are quite readable on this subject.
How to Lie with Statistics. This is an older book, but provides the basics in a readable format.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. I found this more politically slanted, but the principles expressed are quite good, in my opinion. The bias I noted was in the examples. Note that I did not statistically check my impression of bias!
Statistics: A Spectator Sport. I haven’t read this book, but it’s on my reading list. The description notes that it uses examples largely from education. I suspect that could be valuable as it may be less controversial than using primarily political or media examples.
One of the least accurate elements of the news, in my opinion, is the reporting of opinion polls. If you think this is always someone else, you may be part of the problem.
Polls are not precise measurements and results vary. That’s why you have a probability (often 90% or 95%) that the results fall within a range. Headlines that report a rise or fall in poll results are frequently based on changes that are within that margin or error.
I’ve seen several reports on polls regarding president Trump, as in his approval is falling, or no it’s not. This is not for or against the president. It’s about accurate data.
Got to FiveThirtyEight.com, scroll down the sidebar until you see the graph of the president’s approval ratings. You can get a good deal of information just looking at the graph, but you can also click on the link to get more. This graph represents an aggregate.
In general, I dismiss all headlines. But I definitely do not believe any headline that talks about polls, or generally about numbers.
I have seen a number of posts suggesting that those who won’t recite or stand for the pledge of allegiance are disrespectful, or perhaps just badly behaved. Good people, by implication, will say these words and join in the group.
My view of this is formed by my upbringing. I am a United States Air Force veteran. I was not wounded. I really didn’t feel great fear for my life, but I have the “been there” medals for three different overseas military actions. I am both proud to have served, and believe I did right by doing so.
My father, on the other hand, was a conscientious objector. He was a Seventh-day Adventist, and believed that taking lives even in war was wrong. He would have served in a medical capacity, but was not allowed that option in Canada during World War II. Some Canadians were accepted into medical roles, but many were not. So he spent World War II planting trees.
This was not a matter of disrespect for his county. It was a matter of conscience. He believed that training with and then carrying a rifle into combat was wrong. Obviously, I disagree. My participation in the military was without limitations. No, carrying a rifle is not the Air Force thing, but however distant we may be, in war people die partially as a result of our actions.
My dad also respected my choice, as much as he disagreed with it. He would have preferred that I not go into combat. We didn’t discuss it that much, but we knew the score.
So when people say that by protesting a war or any policy of the government someone is disrespecting my service, I firmly disagree. One of the things I am proud of is that my service helps defend a country where a conscientious objector can be diverted to service in some other way in war time.
I also defended a country which has, as one of its founding stories, the revolutionary and protest action of dumping tea—a commercial product of value to its owners—into the harbor in protest of the taxes imposed on it.
Some of the folks I see commenting today would surely have been incensed at this action. Destruction of public property! Against the law! Disrespectful! Aren’t they grateful for the defense provided by the British troops?
These protesters, however, felt that this was an important issue, with underlying principles that were worth breaking the existing law in order to protest. They were very, very disrespectful.
I know there are people who just don’t care for any form of authority. But the majority of cases come from two groups of people: 1) Those who have a reason of conscience for their actions, and 2) Those who believe they have been so badly handled by our society that they need to shake things up to get noticed.
Like my dad, who believed that in spite of conscription laws, God’s law said he could not fight in the war, some believe that they cannot swear oaths. This might be because Jesus said that (Matthew 5:33-37). Now I have a different interpretation of that passage, but some people believe that this is a specific and literal command. They don’t believe they can take oaths.
I’m glad that I served in defending a country that makes exceptions for those who do not believe they can swear an oath. There is alternative language that is permitted. I’m glad of that, I support it, and I am glad that I defended it.
Others don’t believe they can swear allegiance, or even affirm allegiance to any earthly power. Thus, “I pledge allegiance to the flag” is, to them, a denial of the sovereignty of Christ and acceptance of a lesser power. I don’t agree with them, as I believe every claim or affirmation I make falls into a category that is less than my allegiance to God, but that doesn’t change their consciences.
Again, I am glad to have served to defend a country that allows this right and I am disturbed when people mock them or make fun of them. They are following their conscience and are right to do so. I would say that they need to be “convinced in their own minds” (Romans 14:5, mildly out of context, I think!).
Further, if someone believes they have been so mistreated by our society that their best recourse is to call attention to the problem through acts of protest, whether or not I approve of their approach, I am not the one who has been treated unfairly. It is not for me to judge the depth of either pain or conviction, or more probably a combination of both, that has led to an act of protest.
I am again glad to have served to defend a country that will allow such protests. It is important that they be permitted. Don’t complain if the person doing the protest is privileged (yes, think Colin Kaepernick), because that person may well be using a position of influence on behalf of others less privileged.
Further, I don’t have to approve of the cause. The important thing about freedom of expression is that one is free to express things of which I (or anyone else) disapproves. Freedom of speech or expression is not for the things of which society approves. You don’t need a bill or declaration of rights to protect the things the majority wants to do. It’s there to protect the things that the majority disapproves.
The cause is separate from the method as well. I don’t have to approve even of the aim of the person protesting to approve of his or her right to protest. That again is why we need a right to freedom of speech. It’s for the things that make us angry. It’s for the people we want to shut up. Those are the people who need, and should have, protection.
There are religions of which I do not approve. No surprise there! You can note my disapproval because I haven’t joined those religions. But that is what freedom of religion is for. It protects the practice of religions that are not in the majority and may not be approved. And yes, this includes Islam, which, contrary to many assertions recently, is a religion.
And yes, I extend this to those of differing political views. This continues to apply whether they’re wearing MAGA hats or have Bernie Sanders bumper stickers. It’s most important that we have a free exchange of ideas in our society.
If this annoys you, just remember this: I also support your right to be annoyed. Enjoy!
There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.
Key Questions which I Might not Answer
The key issues I encounter are:
- How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
- Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
- Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
- Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
- Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?
First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.
Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.
I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.
Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?
My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.
Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.
Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.
One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.
I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.
Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!
So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.
Rand and Her Christian Followers
Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.
Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.
It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.
My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)
A Note on Economics
I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?
What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)
So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.
But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.
I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.
In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.
Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.
The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.
God and Satan
Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.
Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.
For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.
(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)
Let me first warn you that this post contains nothing whatsoever that’s exciting. 🙂 Well other than the three interviews I conducted with Energion authors about the election.
Tomorrow I will go to my polling place and cast my vote. I’m a traditionalist. I go to the polls on election day. I’m happy that there are other methods that help those who might have more difficulty going to the polls. The first election after I turned 18, I not only went to my polling place and voted, I was an official poll watcher for a political campaign (Reagan in 1976 for what it’s worth).
I believe in voting whenever it’s possible, and have a hard time understanding people who don’t show up for midterms or for local elections that don’t line up with presidential years. The president gets blamed for many things he couldn’t control (whichever president), and also gets credit for many things he could not control. Your school board members, council members, state representatives, and many others have a large amount of influence on your life. You should show up to vote.
I do understand a principled stand not to vote. What I do not understand is not showing up due to apathy. It’s worth going out of your way to do.
A few notes:
- I have not read a single social media post that influenced me on an issue.
- I have not seen a single political ad on TV that influenced me favorably with regard to the sponsor. I saw a number, even for people I will vote for tomorrow, that gave me second thoughts.
- I didn’t even read the vast majority of the direct mail. What I did read demonstrated that the mailouts haven’t improved.
- I found that most candidates had uninformative web sites. I appreciate those who had a good summary of experience and political positions. Neither “conservative” nor “liberal” attract me unless I see specifics. I have encountered nuts under every label.
- Actually discovering useful information about candidates took much, much more time than it will to vote. Much more.
- Most decisions between candidates were difficult, not because there is no difference. There definitely is a difference. Rather, the problem is that so many candidates have positions or have done things that I would normally say disqualify them for my vote. There are a few candidates that I will vote for with satisfaction. I don’t agree with them entirely.
- Character is now, and always has been, central to my voting decision.
I’m not going to share my vote. I don’t think that would actually have any more influence on me than yours would on me. I don’t think it should.
Oh, and I really dislike the way elections have been taken over by political consultants. Here’s a near future science fiction story I wrote about it in 2012.
The nature of a free press is not that it is always right, always responsible, or required to print what any person or group wants, but that it is free. It can challenge authority and it can be challenged.
If I get an ad in the mail from your campaign asking me to vote for you, you are a politician. I don’t mind that you are a politician. I consider that a potentially honorable profession, but I object when you lie about it.