10/7/14

Their Shoddy Potemkin Villages


Dirty PoliticsIn 1787, the Empress Catherine II took a long trip to the Crimea along the Dnieper River. She wanted to see how her subjects lived. Not wanting her to see the actual poverty and hardships of the peasants, her lover – and the region’s governor – Grigory Potemkin, had pretty, fake villages of canvas and clapboard built along the way, with his own people acting and dancing the roles of happy peasants. After she visited one, the village was disassembled and rushed down river by barge to be rebuilt further away.

These have become known as Potemkin villages. According to Wikipedia, the term is used today,

…in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.

But there’s also the opposite: when it refers to an imaginary construct that is negative: when such constructs are used to divert attention from an embarrassing situation or condition. Or, in some cases, an inconvenient truth.

Politicians have been accused of creating Potemkin villages to embellish situations and put a Pollyanna face on social or political ills. But their opponents – especially during election campaigns – also create their own facades to make the reality look worse. They create shabby Potemkin villages; cardboard slums, ugly-looking facades simply to make themselves look good by making the incumbents look bad.

Collingwood’s municipal election has its own shoddy Potemkin villages. Opponents have created a shabby, fake facade on the economic situation, on the recreational facilities, on economic development and on this council’s many achievements. They would have their followers believe that little if any good has been accomplished this term. They’ve erected not a few of these faux derelicts on social media.

As the Vermont Political Observer blog notes

See,that’s the problem with Facebook: it only takes one person to erect a plausible a Potemkin village.

Here are some of the campaign’s rickety Potemkin villages we’ve all heard during Collingwood’s municipal election, and the more solid truths they attempt to hide:

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10/1/14

Plato’s Apology


Walk AwayPlato records the trial and death of Socrates in four dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. I’ve been reading The Apology this week and finding in it references that reflect well in today’s world, particularly in politics.*

In The Apology – which meant defence in Greek, not saying sorry as it does today – Socrates defends himself against his accusers in a deft and bold way, but he loses his case anyway. Still, he defended himself by telling the truth, off-the-cuff and spontaneously.

The Jowett translation of this dialogue opens with these words…

How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.
But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; – I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!
Well, as I was saying, they have hardly uttered a word, or not more than a word, of truth; but you shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator – let no one expect this of me.

I sympathize. Socrates faced accusers who slandered and lied about him and he found himself on trial in public, wrongfully accused and unprepared for the spiteful accusations against him, the misguided opinions.

I know that feeling. He then asks the jurors to

…think only of the justice of my cause, and give heed to that: let the judge decide justly and the speaker speak truly.

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09/27/14

Reflexology: another daft New Age idea


BunkumAs medicine, reflexology is bunk. Just like iridology and phrenology. Of course, you knew that. But not everyone does.

Reflexology popped up recently in a shared post on Facebook (a popular venue for moving codswallop and cat photos from one user to another at the speed of light…). Coincidentally it appeared right after a post promoting a piece in the New York Review of Books called, The Age of Ignorance.

How apropos. (I’ll get to that NYRB piece in another post, along with some comments about Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows.)

As a massage, reflexology offers the same benefits for your feet as any other type of massage. It’s just not medicine.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary says:

Reflexology is based on the unsubstantiated belief that each part of each foot is a mirror site for a part of the body. The big toe, for example, is considered a reflex area for the head. As iridology maps the body with irises, reflexology maps the body with the feet, the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponding to the left side of the body. Because the whole body is represented in the feet, reflexologists consider themselves to be holistic health practitioners, not foot doctors.

They’re not doctors at all, but let’s not dwell on correspondence-course graduates handing out medical advice.

The National Council Against Health Fraud has an article on reflexology that warns,

Reflexology has almost no potential for direct harm, but its ability to mislead well-meaning people into believing that it can be used for screening for health problems, or that it has real therapeutic value could lead to serious problems…

Penn and Teller chime in on this and related quackery with their usual, acerbic wit:

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09/26/14

The Utility Animal


In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

09/23/14

The Trolley Problem


The Trolley ProblemI had read about the “trolley problem” in the past, but not given it much thought until recently when I saw Thomas Cathcart’s little book of that name in the philosophy section of an Indigo bookstore. It’s subtitled, “Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum.”

I, of course, was so intrigued I had to buy it. I have read others of Cathcart’s books and liked his work in introducing/popularizing philosophical concepts.

The original trolley problem is a thought experiment that goes like this, as Wikipedia puts it:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

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09/21/14

No Data Are Better Than Bad Data


Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts: