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December 19, 2004

30,000 hits

Sometime today, this weblog got its 30,000th hit. Yeah, yeah, I know, the big guys get that many in an hour, but still, it's a milestone. Thanks to all my readers for helping me reach it.

December 19, 2004 in Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 13, 2004

Recount in Washington

Time once again for me to dissent from the Republicans with whom I usually ally. Let none accuse me of blind partisanship.

So as political junkies far and wide know, the state of Washington is currently undergoing an unprecedented statewide manual recount of an election... the gubernatorial race, to be specific, which Republican Dino Rossi led after the initial tally by 261 votes, and by 42 votes after the legally mandated machine recount. State law permits a candidate to demand a manual recount, either statewide or partial, provided he's willing to pay for it. If the result of the recount changes the outcome, the money is refunded (and the tab is picked up by the state), and if the recount was partial the rest of the state is manually recounted, also on the state's dime. Rossi's opponent, Christine Gregoire, demanded a statewide manual recount and forked over the dough.

Republicans have been howling bloody murder and demanding that Gregoire concede. They're infuriated about the recount. I am not.

Look, imagine the shoe on the other foot. Suppose Gregoire was the one who led by 261 votes, and Gregoire's lead dropped to 42 after the machine recount. Would you, Republicans, want a recount in those circumstances? I know I sure as hell would, and I'm betting Rossi would too. In fact, if Rossi conceded in that case, I'd be upset with him.

So I can't be mad at Gregoire for calling for the recount. It's her legal right, and it's what I'd do if I were in her position. And honestly, I find the brouhaha from the Republicans to be a bit embarrassing.

Republicans have also been lambasting Gregoire for calling the race a "tie". Stefan Sharkansky over at Sound Politics, who's been doing a fantastic job covering the race, has been particularly harsh. Stefan writes:

Christine Gregoire continues to insult the intelligence of Washington's voters:

"I've said all along, 42 votes out of 2.9 million is literally a tie," Gregoire told The Associated Press on Friday.

No, 42 votes is a victory as is 261 votes.

Sorry, Stefan, I love your site and I respect you, but I have to disagree.

Yes, 42 votes is as much a victory as a million votes. And if an omniscient being examined the ballots and declared a 42 vote margin of victory, I'd accept it as being perfectly legitimate. The problem is that we don't have omniscient vote counters. We have vote-counting machines, and vote-counting humans. Machines occasionally make errors, and humans do so with somewhat greater frequency. That's why each count has produced a different result.

Vote counting is a statistical process. Each ballot has a certain (slim) chance of being mistallied. It's very likely that the officially certified outcome of any race is not the exact content of the ballots. We're back to normal distributions, with the curve centered on the certified result. For most races, this doesn't matter at all... the bell curve tapers off to insignificance well within the margin of victory. But a margin of 42 votes out of over 2.8 million cast... well, the area under the curve to the left of X-42 is too large to say with any reasonable degree of certainty that the outcome is known.

Look at it this way. 1,372,484 votes were tallied for Rossi, 1,372,442 were tallied for Gregoire. If each ballot had an, oh, 0.05% chance of having been mistallied, what is the probability that Gregoire was the winner? Let's see, the sum of C(1,372,442, N) as N goes from 0 to 1,372,442, multiplied by 0.0005 to the power N and 0.9995 to the power (1,372,442 - N), carry the one... shoot, I don't remember how to do this. You're good with this sort of analysis, Stefan, you tell me. But I'm guessing it's relatively high... below 50% certainly, but probably higher than 10%. Statistically speaking, this race is a tie. Gregoire is right.

And at this point, I think she's likely to win. As of tonight, Gregoire has gained one ballot in the manual recount for every 1,610 tallied for her, while Rossi's gained one ballot for every 1,672 tallied for him. And there are more Gregoire ballots left to tally: 1,140,279 for her, only 1,054,194 for him. If the trend holds, Gregoire can expect to pick up 703 more votes, while Rossi will only pick up 630. Added to the gains they've already made, that's a net 852 for Gregoire, 820 for Rossi, a swing of 32 votes in Gregoire's favor, which would cut Rossi's lead to only 10 votes.

A lead that small will be overwhelmed by the 561 uncounted absentees from King. And yes: if those are valid votes, if real registered voters really cast them, and if they were really rejected because of an error by the county, they really should be counted. Even if it means Rossi loses. And I hope the GOP doesn't fight to keep them uncounted. I'd rather be honest than victorious. Wouldn't you?

And yes, I know that as attorney general, Gregoire opined that valid votes that were nevertheless untabulated in the initial canvass were not eligible to be included in recounts. So she's a first-class hypocrite. That's no surprise. But it's her earlier opinion that was wrong, not her current stance.

I've heard Rossi fans crying fraud. But I haven't seen any evidence. If you have some, please use it. I'd love to see Rossi pull this thing out. But if you don't, quit hurling unfounded accusations. Or go to DU... you'll fit right in.

December 13, 2004 in Election '04 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Arnebeck mystery solved

Cliff Arnebeck was going to file a lawsuit contesting the Ohio presidential results. No really, he was. He was going to do it two weeks ago. Then he was going to do it on Monday of last week. Then Tuesday of last week. Then Thursday. Then Friday. Then today.

Why the holdup? Well, he's finally gotten around to doing it... six minutes too late. I gotta admit, the man knows what he's doing. Had he files his suit in a timely manner and it gotten laughed out of court due to an absence of evidence, that would have settled things for many people. But summarily dismissed for lack of timeliness, that's a different matter. Now the shriekers can shriek. Now they can complain of being railroaded. Arnebeck, being a lawyer, was surely aware of the importance of the deadline. But he can count on his lay followers being ignorant.

If anyone has a copy of the suit, I'd love to read it.

December 13, 2004 in Election '04 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Abrogation of duty

What I'm about to discuss is kind of old news. But it's been weighing on me, and I have to get it off my chest. I find it deeply disturbing.

Most jobs are just jobs. But certain professions carry with them a duty, a sacred obligation that one must uphold in order to meet basic ethical standards. Doctors have a duty never to harm their patients. Lawyers have a duty to always represent the best interests of their clients. Journalists have a duty to report the truth. And academic researchers have a duty too: the purpose of academic inquiry must be to broaden our knowledge, not to hinder it. The prestige of a reputable journal must never be used to mislead.

Which brings me to Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey, by Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Jamal Khudhairi, Richard Garfield, and Gilbert Burnham, hereinafter RLKGB. This study, out of Johns Hopkins University, was published in the British medical journal The Lancet, and purported to investigate, well, mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

What did they find? Why, that 98,000 additional Iraqis were killed as a result of the war. And that's how the study was sort of reported in the news media, which, as I've said, has a duty of its own. Take a gander:

Study puts civilian toll in Iraq at over 100,000, International Herald Tribune
More than 100,000 civilians have probably died as direct or indirect consequences of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, according to a study by a research team at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

100,000 Civilian Deaths Estimated in Iraq, Washington Post
One of the first attempts to independently estimate the loss of civilian life from the Iraqi war has concluded that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died because of the U.S. invasion.

Iraq death toll 'soared post-war', BBC
Poor planning, air strikes by coalition forces and a "climate of violence" have led to more than 100,000 extra deaths in Iraq, scientists claim.

Note the phraseology in each of these: "More than 100,000 civilians", "at least 100,000 civilians", "more than 100,000 extra deaths". Never mind the rounding up from 98,000 to 100,000, note the comparatives setting 100,000 as a minimum threshold. We'll get to that.

So, this academic study found that 100,000 or more civilians died as the result of the war. Fine. What was their methodology?

They didn't go around and count body bags, death certificates, or graves or anything like that. Admittedly, these methods would be difficult, especially in a war-torn country. So instead, they sampled. They interviewed a subset of the population and extracted the results.

Now, this is perfectly valid. Contrary to popular belief, sampling -- polling -- isn't guessing and it isn't voodoo, it's science. If you randomly sample a population, you can make definitive probabilistic statements about that population. But it's tricky. Things can go wrong in polling, which can mess up your results.

For starters, there's the quality of the sample. The ideal sample is totally random, meaning each member of the population has an equal probability of being sampled. In thought experiments, like pulling marbles out of a jar, this ideal can be achieved. In the real world, we never come close. We do the best we can, but we recognize that sampling error can skew the results. For example, public opinion polls in the United States are generally conducted by telephone. But some people do not have telephones, or do not have telephones that can be legally called for polling purposes. Some people are rarely home at times when pollsters call, making them less likely to be sampled. Less obvious but also a factor is that some people have more than one telephone, making them more likely to be sampled. And some people, gosh darn them, just don't like to answer pollsters. Unless all of these subpopulations are exactly representative of the main population -- and they're not -- the results are less accurate than they could be.

So how was the quality of the sample in the RLKGB study? Well, maybe not so good. Rather than attempting to randomly sample the entire population, they used a technique called a "cluster survey", where certain areas were chosen in the hopes that they were representative, and those areas were sampled exclusively. Door-to-door interviews were used for data collection, and households were interviewed until enough samples were collected for that cluster. Were the clusters truly representative? Possibly, possibly not. Were the households that were not home when the interviewers came calling and the households where interviews were refused representative of the whole? Possibly, possibly not.

But this isn't really my point.

Another potential pitfall preventing polling precision is that of recall bias, which is also known to pollsters by the more technical term "lying". This happens whenever sampled individuals perceive some benefit from answering the poll a certain way and skew their answers accordingly. This perceived benefit need not be very large, and in fact many lie to pollsters simply to feel good about themselves. For example, according to author Michael Fumento, a poll was taken during the energy crisis of the 1970s to measure public response. The poll found that many Americans, consciencious of the need to be good citizens by conserving energy, had taken a number of steps to curb consumption. Good for them. Except among other things, repondents were asked if they'd installed a thermidor in their cars to save fuel, and a number responded in the affirmative. Again, good for them, except "Thermidor" is either the eleventh month of the briefly-used French Revolutionary calendar or a lobster dish which takes its name from the month, neither of which does much for fuel economy.

Pollsters are aware that respondents may lie if they will either feel good about the false answer or bad about the true answer, and for other motives as well. RLKGB discuss recall bias, which is to their credit, but only to dismiss it:

We believe it unlikely that recall bias existed in the reporting of non-infant deaths, because of the certainty and precision with which these deaths were reported, and the importance of burial ceremonies in the Iraqi culture.

No? I can think of a number of reasons why someone might misreport a death. The Coalition invasion of Iraq enjoys wide but not universal support among Iraqis. Iraqis are not stupid, and an Iraqi who is polled regarding civilian fatalities in his household can deduce that if the results of the poll show a high death toll, that would not be helpful to the Coalition. An Iraqi opposed to the Coalition's aims might easily make the leap to indulging in a little "recall bias".

And then there are the fatalities in the pre-Coalition period. Is it not possible that a household which had a member "disappeared" might be reluctant to disclose the fact to a stranger with a clipboard? Any underreporting of fatalities during the reign of Saddam's Ba'athists would tend to skew the sample in favor of a greater increase of casualties after his fall.

But this, again, is not my point, which I will now finally get to.

Let's for the moment stipulate that RLKGB's methodology was ironclad. Let's say they got a perfectly representative statistical sample, as unlikely as that seems, and let's say their fatality count was 100% accurate.

This brings me to the concept of margin of error. Sampling is a statistical process, and as such it results in not certainties but probabilities. After collecting your sample and doing your math, you wind up with a set of probabilities that follows a normal distribution, better known as a bell curve. You can't say that certainly 55% of the population favors Candidate X, you can only say that the probability is, say, 60% that between 54% and 56% of the population favors him. In technical terms, 55% of the population favors Candidate X with a 60% confidence interval of ±1%.

The margin necessary to achieve a confidence interval of 95% is what pollsters usually mean when they refer to margin of error. Odds are nineteen out of twenty that a poll is accurate within the margin of error. That twentieth poll won't be.

As I said, the probabilities form a bell curve. The area under the whole curve is exactly 1.0, and the area under the curve for a given interval is the probability that the characteristics of the population fall within that range. The peak of the curve is at the distribution of the sample, representing the fact that (in the example) 55% support for Candidate X is more likely than any other level. The smaller the margin of error, the sharper the peak of the bell curve, representing the fact that a narrower range is necessary to cover an area of 0.95. Polls with a wider margin of error have flatter, gentler peaks, representing the large range necessary to achieve that area of 0.95.

As it happens, the key factor in determining margin of error is sample size. Population size matters too, but not nearly as much as sample size, which is why a sample of 1,000 individuals suffices to establish a margin of error of only ±3% over the entire United States. So, again, let's assume that RLKGB's sample is the theoretical ideal. As it happens, they sampled a grand total of 142 post-invasion fatalities. That's an exceedingly small sample for a population in excess of 25 million. What's the margin of error it produces?

Well, uh, ±92%. Yes, that's right, ±92%. That's not a typo, there's not an extra digit in there, that's their margin of error. I'll spell it out just to make sure: ninety-two percent. The actual number of excess fatalities might have been as many as 194,000... or as few as 8,000. Yes, that's right, they might have overstated the number of fatalities by a factor of twelve.

The graph of this thing wouldn't look like a bell. It'd look like a nearly perfectly horizontal line, with a very, very slight hump in the middle. In a nutshell, and not to put too fine a point on it, this study is absolutely worthless. A wild guess would be about as accurate.

Now, getting back to the reports of this study in the media, where it was trumpeted as finding "more than" or "at least" 100,000 extra fatalities as a result of the invasion? Those reports are baldfaced falsehoods. The study found nothing of the sort. But as much as I'd like to blame the media for this -- and I would, and I do -- RLKGB deserve a big chunk of it themselves, for the papers were just reporting what they were told. From the study itself, right after they admit their absurd margin of error, the authors claim:

Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Right.

The media still shares the blame for this, because if they'd done their jobs and actually read the study, they never would have swallowed this crap whole, and I suspect their own bias and eagerness to embarrass the Coalition played a part in their inaction.

But what really disturbs me about this is that this garbage was done by researchers at an extremely reputable University, published by an extremely reputable journal, and presumably reviewed by extremely reputable peers. As I began this rant, those who produce research have a duty. The purpose of research is supposed to be to educate. This study, which makes me shudder even to dignify it with the name "research", had one purpose: to deceive. The so-called academicians who produced it intended that those who learned of it would come away with serious misconceptions about the world. And that, to me, is utterly inexcusable. May they all be damned.

December 13, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The secret to great comedy

I didn't intend to turn this blog into a critique of DU, honest. But I'm having fun with it, so let's see how far it goes. This post in particular had me chuckling:

I've just been shut out of freerepublic.com!

Yesterday for the first time I checked out what these guys are talking about, and decided to join so that I could have an ongoing discussion with them. Call it an argument if you like - but I never attack somebody who hasn't attacked me first.

I just tried replying to the latest comments in our ongoing discussion, and WHOOPS - my priviliges have been revoked. Not only that - ALL MY POSTS WERE DELETED from the thread! I feel like I've been mugged.

...

So it turns out that only Republicans are allowed to post at freerepublic.com. Simple as that. No debate allowed. Tell me - am I dreaming? I honestly didn't think it was this bad in the "free world". Check out the thread, and note the deleted posts. My comments appear occasionally when someone quotes me, but they left out the best parts(!) I wrote LONG and carefully worded mini-essays...all gone. What a waste of time. I was honestly expecting them to enjoy calling me names and such, but I guess they can't handle serious debate.

As I've said before, one of the main reasons I read DU is for the comedy. And what's the secret to great comedy? Timing. In this case, it couldn't be better.

A few posters in that thread tried to kill the fun by pointing out that DU itself is hardly a free speech zone, but the original poster kept the entertainment alive:

Maybe I'm REAL naive since I didn't spend much time on political forums before recently, but I was really surprised to see that NOT ONLY I was shut out their forum for simply debating them, but that my posts were removed by the moderator! It's like wearing a sign on you back saying 'WE WILL NOT TOLERATE DEBATE IN THIS FORUM!'. My point is that the situation concerning free speech and healthy debate is FAR worse than I imagined. I figured they'd LIKE debating me, but I guess not.

...

Are you telling me there's actually a RULE stating that if you're a Republican then you can't post here? That would be just as bad.

As a matter of fact, the DU forum rules have this to say about "Who is welcome on Democratic Underground, and who is not":

We welcome Democrats of all stripes, along with other progressives who will work with us to achieve our shared goals.

This is a "big tent" message board. We welcome a wide range of progressive opinion. You will likely encounter many points of view here that you disagree with.

We ban conservative disruptors who are opposed to the broad goals of this website. If you think overall that George W. Bush is doing a swell job, or if you wish to see Republicans win, or if you are generally supportive of conservative ideals, please do not register to post, as you will likely be banned.

"Just as bad". I look forward to DUer thephaseshift's post castigating DU as an example of what's wrong with the quote-unquote "free world".

December 13, 2004 in Democratic Underground | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Aw, they're so CUTE!

So the DUers have noticed me. If any of 'em happen to be reading this... hi, DUers! You're all nuts! (Well, maybe not all of you, but definitely most.)

The latest over there is that Kerry has apparently sent a letter to the Ohio boards of election. The directors of these boards are rather pissed at Kerry at the moment for signing on with the Glibs to force them to undergo an expensive recount and waste badly-needed funds, so I'm not sure how they'll receive his request, but the gist of it is 1) the Connally thing, which is already well and truly debunked, and 2) apparently 92,000 ballots did not register a preference for President.

Well, leaving aside the fact that even if every last one of those 92,000 ballots had gone to Kerry it wouldn't've changed the outcome, by my count that means that approximately 1.6% of ballots had no vote for President. Is that so hard to understand? Pick almost anything, almost anything at all, and you'll probably find 1.6% of the populace will do it.

There's also some buzz about some blue states withholding their electoral votes in protest of the "obviously fraudulent" (pause to roll eyes) results from Ohio. Fat chance, guys. Contrary to a DUer's assertion that the electors can meet whenever they feel like it, federal law (3 USC 7) mandates that the electoral votes be cast on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December... today, in fact. And it's going to happen, all your wishful thinking to the contrary notwithstanding.

It's such a weird mixture of laughter and tears watching these guys at work. Their hopes keep going up only to be dashed, but that doesn't stop them from getting their hopes up when the next false Messiah comes around. It's like watching Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown over and over and over again.

December 13, 2004 in Election '04 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 07, 2004

Three cheers for academia

I realize that I'm spending way too much time on Democratic Underground, but I can't help it. Behold this post, whose author apparently has never heard of lawyers and can't conceive advocating a position one does not believe:

Something must be in the water at this university. This is the second time this semester I've been in a debate on the WRONG SIDE - the one that I disagree with.

They told me then and they tell me now, "you don't have to agree with an issue to debate it."

Excuse me? WTF kind of reasoning is that?

Get a load of this question:

With a republican president, republican congress, republican-appointed Supreme Court and a republican-drafted Patriot Act, is the United States losing he ideals advocated by Locke and becoming a totalitarian state, that exercises tyrannical control just as deTocqueville suggested?

Now, we all know the answer is OF COURSE IT IS, WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE.

But I've been designated to debate the OTHER side. How am I supposed to argue with a straight face that the US is NOT turning into a fascist state?

BTW, the professor is a liberal and knows that I am too. I tried to reason with her but she would hear none of it.

"You don't have to agree with an issue to debate it." What a crock!

Yeah, there's a crock with this assignment all right, but it's not in who was chosen to advocate which side. Get a load of that question... "are the Republicans turning America into a totalitarian state?" I find that an offensive topic for debate, every bit as offensive as "Are homosexuals disgusting perverts or are they merely misguided?" Something tells me this professor never questioned whether Democrats were leading America down the road to fascism during the decades they maintained a grip on power.

Of course, the poster is mentally subpar in many ways, from his inability to conceive of debate as a mental exercise to his off-hand "duh" acceptance of the proposition that America is becoming fascist. But he's just a random idiot. The person who came up with this assignment is a university professor... and, I fear, is not unrepresentative of her profession.

December 7, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 01, 2004

The media continues to carry Kerry's water

So the Green Party and the Libertarian Party have finally joined forces. Not to lobby the American public for a new voting reform such as Instant Runoff or Condorcet (which would be an extremely useful thing to do) but to attempt a ridiculous recount to no apparent purpose whatsoever. This has done nothing but firmly cement my conviction that I'm doing the right thing by remaining a small-L libertarian. The big-L party won't waste a dime of my money.

One of the results of the Glib recount noises has been Delaware County Prosecuting Attorney's Office et al v. National Voting Rights Institute et al. The attorney and board of elections of Delaware County filed a suit seeking to enjoin the Glibs from compelling a recount, arguing no possible benefit and public harm in the form of unnecessary expense. A temporary restraining order against the Glibs was granted, with a hearing scheduled to take place today. The Glibs have successfully had the case transferred to federal court.

The Kerry campaign filed to join the Glibs in defense, but the only way you'd know it is to either go to the Delaware County Clerk of Courts office and read the notation:

11/30/04 MOTION OF KERRY-EDWARDS 2004 INC TO INTERVENE
11/30/04 ANSWER BY INTERVENOR-DEFENDANT KERRY-EDWARDS 2004 INC

Or to visit the Cobb campaign website and read their press release.

Ohio — Today, attorneys representing the Kerry-Edwards campaign filed papers in Delaware County, Ohio to intervene in legal proceedings in defense of Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, Libertarian Michael Badnarik and their legal counsel, the National Voting Rights Institute, who are seeking a recount of all votes cast for president in the Ohio 2004 general election.

What's missing? How about a press release from the intervenors themselves, Kerry-Edwards 2000? How about a statement from them saying what they're doing, what they believe, and what their intentions are?

Barring that, where are the media questions to Kerry asking what he's failed to volunteer? He is still a public figure, you know, and I'm sure he still has a press secretary. These are the sort of questions journalists should be asking:

  • Senator, why have you filed to intervene?
  • Do you still concede the race to President Bush?
  • If so, why are you paying lawyers to compel public funds to be spent on a recount?
  • If not, why are you not going public?
  • Do you believe there was massive voter fraud in Ohio?
  • Do you agree with Jesse Jackson, who has asserted that you support his efforts, that the results in Ohio do not pass the "smell test"?
  • Do you agree with Cliff Arneback, the attorney who is filing a suit seeking to overturn the election results in Ohio, that the "only possible explanation" for the results is voter fraud?

But, of course, these are difficult questions to answer, so Kerry will not be asked them. At least, not by anybody in the mainstream media.

December 1, 2004 in Election '04 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack