Todd Akin: Common B.S. Artist

August 22, 2012

Akin still defiant, but leaves door open to quitting Senate race | Reuters

Inside the GOP wheelhouse, it’s harder than you might think to say something that’s so wrong even your own party turns against you. Look at all the Republicans who tried and failed. But somehow Todd Akin has managed it. I’ll skip the recap of all that. He admits now that he was wrong. Anybody can be wrong. But it’s how he was wrong that bothers me.

Akin’s comments were based, he said, on “what I understand from doctors”. He didn’t say what doctors he spoke to, and I doubt he could even identify them today. We do know that those comments must have sounded just as stupid coming out of a doctor’s mouth as they did coming out of Akin’s. He now admits they were incorrect, but it evidently never crossed his mind to question them at the time. Why would he question them if they were what he preferred to believe anyway? He might if he actually cared about whether they were true. But as long as they suited his purposes, he didn’t care.

That makes Todd Akin the sleaziest, laziest kind of liar: a common bullshit artist. He’s not the guy who holds back information he knows is true. Not the guy who makes a statement he knows isn’t true and hopes you accept it. He wants you to accept his statement even though he doesn’t really know or care whether it’s true. He’s a bullshitter. He’ll say what he needs to say to win the point, win the argument, win the election. Concern for the truth is strictly a last resort, something to try when nothing else works.

What can we learn when bad things happen?

August 1, 2012

Bruce Schneier knows more than most people about security and risk, and he has some interesting things to say about the discussion following Aurora:

Installing metal detectors at movie theaters doesn’t make sense — there’s no reason to think the next crazy gunman will choose a movie theater as his venue, and how effectively would a metal detector deter a lone gunman anyway? — but understanding the reasons why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries does. The particular motivations of alleged killer James Holmes aren’t relevant — the next gunman will have different motivations — but the general state of mental health care in the United States is.

Even with this, the most important lesson of the Aurora massacre is how rare these events actually are. Our brains are primed to believe that movie theaters are more dangerous than they used to be, but they’re not. The riskiest part of the evening is still the car ride to and from the movie theater, and even that’s very safe.

You know how people are always moaning that they don’t use mathematics in real life? This is one reason why they should. Probabilities are a branch of math, and you have to understand probabilities to make a decent assessment of risk. Most people don’t understand that.

There are plenty of other public policy issues that can’t be understood without knowing how probabilities work. People who reject biological evolution often think it’s obviously not true, but they have no idea of the math involved, and that’s where the real story is.