Quick hits (part II)

1) Not sure if I’ll get around to watching Netflix’s “Unbelievable” though it sure sounds like I should.  That said, this review reminded me of the terrific Pro Publica story that I hope I was wise enough to recommend back in 2015.  So compelling.

2) Stuart Rothenberg analyzes the state of the presidential election and quite rightly admonishes to beware confirmation bias and that it’s not a three-person race:

“The next debate is do or die for many Democratic hopefuls.”

Andrew Yang “is on fire.”

Elizabeth Warren is “surging.”

“It’s a three-way race.”

I’m betting you can think of a long list of other things you’ve heard on television or read in print to explain what is going on in the presidential race. Many of them will need to be revised eventually.

I’ve written often over the years — and even this cycle — that you shouldn’t believe the hype, so I don’t need to warn you about that again, right?

Just remember that people in the media covering elections invariably (with important exceptions) have an interest in showing “movement” and “change” — and they want to be the first to identify a trend and offer predictions — so tone down most of what they say…

It’s simply too early to know, but Biden will be put to the test many more times in debates and on the stump.

The former vice president’s reliance on the support of the African American community is a red flag, given the presence of two well-credentialed black candidates in the race in Harris and Booker.

Should Biden lose a chunk of that support, his campaign would be in serious trouble. Hillary Clinton had excellent support in the black community until Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, for instance…

A majority of Americans seem to have decided they don’t like Trump and they don’t like what he has done to the country.

That’s disastrous for a president who was elected almost three years ago and who dominates the news almost daily.

Trump will need to demonize the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable — which guarantees a scorched earth reelection campaign by the GOP and additional risk of an anti-Trump backlash…

Do we really need another national poll that shows how unpopular the president is or that the national Democratic race is stagnant?

What we should be getting from the major media are high-quality surveys in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. What we have seen from those key states is very limited polling that shows Biden (and normally Sanders) significantly ahead of Trump — again, not where an incumbent would want to be at this point in the election cycle.

However, the one truth we can count on is that we don’t know what lies ahead — not in the Democratic contest and not in the general election.

3) The documentary “13th” draws a necessary throughline from our racial history to today’s mass incarceration.  But it’s not actually all about race.  One part that really annoyed me was bringing on “experts” to somehow argue that the Willie Horton ads are what did in Michael Dukakis in 1988.  I don’t think a single serious political scientist would agree with this.  John Sides had a great Monkey Cage on the matter back in 2016, “It’s time to stop the endless hype of the ‘Willie Horton’ ad.”

4) Oh my the overly-woke sure really do take this “privilege” thing too far (and, yes, I do appreciate the benefits I get as a heterosexual white man).  Terrific example of the disgusting extremes from Conor Friedersdorf:

That brings us back to The Guardian, which went even further in twisting a concept intended to increase compassion and empathy to achieve the opposite.

The occasion was the publication of former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s memoirs. Many Americans will be unaware of the conservative politician’s family life. His first child, Ivan Reginald Ian, was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The little boy required intense medical care for his entire life. He died at 6.

What ordeal could be more harrowing for a parent than watching a child suffer all his life before dying prematurely? Yet The Guardian, a left-wing newspaper, diminished the gravity of this event:

Mr. Cameron has known pain and failure in his life, but it has always been limited failure and privileged pain. The miseries of boarding school at seven are entirely real and for some people emotionally crippling but they come with an assurance that only important people can suffer that way. Even his experience of the NHS, which looked after his severely disabled son, has been that of the better functioning and better funded parts of the system.

That no parent of a dead child would be comforted at all by this “privilege” clarifies the editorial’s absurdity.

To its credit, the newspaper quickly apologized and amended the editorial. Its editors are usually more careful, and I do not write to pile on. But it’s worth considering what led to the error, so that others might avoid repeating it.

The Guardian editorial illustrates how the privilege framework, or rather its perversion, can cause people to lose sight of their shared humanity. Suffering and grief are universal––and that awful burden can unite us. But like any framework that divides people into different categories, especially along fraught lines such as race, gender, ideology, and class, the concept of privilege is vulnerable to tribal power-seeking and othering. Sadism and cruelty inevitably follow.

Those who invoke the privilege framework need not abandon it entirely due to such abuses, but they should better understand its perils and how to guard against them.

5) Lots of otherwise liberals were piling on Felicity Huffman’s sentence on twitter.  Those who actually get what’s wrong with criminal justice were on top of this.  Nice column:

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani sentenced award-winning actress Felicity Huffman to two weeks in prison, a $30,000 fine and 250 hours of community service for paying to inflate her daughter’s college entrance exam score. That punishment, the first to result from the Justice Department’s indictments in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, sparked comparisons to the fate of Tanya McDowell, a black woman who received a five-year sentence in part for using a false address to register her son in a better school district.

I’m intimately familiar with McDowell’s case: I was incarcerated with her. But as a white Princeton University graduate, I got a sentence of similar length for 13 felony convictions (they remain under post-conviction review). And while I understand the frustration about these disparities, I’m glad Huffman got a lenient sentence. When leveraged properly, it could set a precedent that could free a lot of people and get others more humane and appropriate sentences in the first place.

One response to these numbers is to seek harsher punishment for people blessed by judicial forbearance; in this case, that would mean a harsher sentence for Huffman. But when we try to cure disparities by simply incarcerating more white, or wealthier , defendants, the entire population ends up getting punished more severely. Astudy conducted by the sentencing commission found that a decline in racial disparities in sentencing has been driven not by shorter sentences for everyone but by more people being sentenced to longer periods under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. If our sole goal is to reduce disparities, we can lock up the Huffmans of the world more often and for longer. But that doesn’t provide any relief to a poor, black inmate whose freedom was felled by structural racism.

Instead, we need to start using sentences such as Huffman’s to get less-privileged people the same justice.

6) I love that #MoscowMitch actually seems to have worked and McConnell is now actually allowing the election security we need.

7) Garrett Epps, “The Electoral College Was Terrible From the Start.”

When Trump won the electoral contest, the republic was in danger. Would it have been saved by an Electoral College that sabotaged or reversed the result? Citizens should support such an electoral démarche, I think, only if they would also support a military coup to block Trump. Either alternative would inflict near-mortal damage on our system of elections.

Meanwhile, the residue of the Hamilton idea is a system more, not less, prone to misfiring. In the event of a near-tie next year, I can imagine that a losing candidate, or powerful forces backing him or her, would use bribery, threats, violence, and blackmail to try to flip one or two electors. The Constitution should not be read to empower such corruption, or to open the door to such chaos.

The electoral system is a disaster; those concerned with its dangers would do better to support the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which states bind their electors to vote for the popular-vote winner. That has its own risks—a rogue legislature might try to violate its pledge. But they pale beside the Hamilton alternative.

8) Very much enjoying Gladwell’s new book (as with everything Gladwell writes).  You know what I really hate?  All the Gladwell haters.  No, he’s not perfect, but he writes brilliantly and engagingly about social science while tying disparate research into larger themes that aim to change our perspective on the world.

9) Drum on cigarettes and vaping:

There’s no question that vaping is less harmful than cigarette smoking. No one debates that. It’s also true that vaping can help smokers quit cigarettes. No one debates that either.

As usual, though, the question is: how much? No one can tell you for sure, but here’s a chart that provides a hint:

Cigarette smoking has been steadily declining in the US since the ’60s. Vaping products started to take off in the US in 2013 and have increased their popularity every year since then. So if vaping were really making a serious dent in cigarette smoking, you’d expect to see the trendline for smoking bend downward starting a few years ago.

But you don’t. That doesn’t mean vaping has had no effect on adult cigarette smoking, but it does mean that the effect has probably been tiny at best. Now compare that to the rise in teen vaping:

For many years the big question about vaping was its net health impact. On the one hand, it helps smokers quit cigarettes. On the other hand, it gets teens hooked on nicotine. The net impact depends on which effect is bigger.

There’s no serious question about that anymore: vaping overwhelmingly acts as a way of getting teens addicted to nicotine and has only a tiny impact on cigarette smoking. This doesn’t automatically mean that vaping should be outlawed, but it’s the factual background for making a decision about what to do. If it were up to me, I’d make vaping capsules available via prescription only. That’s unquestionably a smallish inconvenience for some, but worth it if it stops the huge rise in teens developing lifelong nicotine addictions for the benefit of corporate profits.

10) Though, I also agree with Megan McArdle on a vaping ban, “A vaping ban would be hysteria masquerading as prudence.”

At this point, the best information suggests that a recent spate of deaths from a vaping-related lung disease — six at last report — had little or nothing to do with legal e-cigarettes. Rather, the deaths, and more than 300 confirmed cases of the disease in dozens of states, seem to be linked to illegal cartridges, mostly using marijuana derivatives that had been emulsified with vitamin E acetate, according to Food and Drug Administration investigators. The FDA has warned against using it for inhalation, and it isn’t used in legally manufactured e-cigarettes.

Naturally, the government wants to ban legally manufactured e-cigarettes.

President Trump is proposing to ban flavored cartridges, apparently endorsing the theory — common among people who neither smoke nor vape — that these products appeal only to children. In fact, the majority of adult vapers select flavors other than tobacco because — and I speak as a former smoker — tobacco tastes kind of gross. Most smokers merely endured it for that divine rush of nicotine.

11) Heather Hurlburt on Trump’s new NSA:

But what I see in Trump’s choice and the dance that led up to it is a GOP foreign-policy establishment that thinks it has no options other than Trump and little future beyond him. O’Brien and his peers — men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s — could choose to wait Trump out, or depart, in the expectation of serving more honorably in a future Republican administration. They look to the GOP national-security leadership in the Senate and see little inclination to challenge either Trump’s policies or his ethics. And the GOP leadership in turn looks back at the willingness of respectable men to serve (yes, I am intentionally using “men” here) and uses that as a data point to tell each other that everything is fine.

12) Some pretty cool ideas on how to “disagree better.”

13) This is interesting, “Scientific research on how to teach critical thinking contradicts education trends”

Critical thinking is all the rage in education. Schools brag that they teach it on their websites and in open houses to impress parents. Some argue that critical thinking should be the primary purpose of education and one of the most important skills to have in the 21st century, with advanced machines and algorithms replacing manual and repetitive labor.

But a fascinating review of the scientific research on how to teach critical thinking concludes that teaching generic critical thinking skills, such as logical reasoning, might be a big waste of time. Critical thinking exercises and games haven’t produced long-lasting improvements for students. And the research literature shows that it’s very difficult for students to apply critical thinking skills learned in one subject to another, even between different fields of science.

“Wanting students to be able to ‘analyse, synthesise and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal,” writes Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”

Willingham’s reading of the research literature concludes that scientists are united in their belief that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking. And he argues that the best approach is to explicitly teach very specific small skills of analysis for each subject. For example, in history, students need to interpret documents in light of their sources, seek corroboration and put them in their historical context. That kind of analysis isn’t relevant in science, where the source of a document isn’t as important as following the scientific method.

Willingham wrote a paper, “How to Teach Critical Thinking,” in May 2019 for the Department of Education of New South Wales in Australia. But it is entirely applicable to the American context.

%d bloggers like this: