You Don’t Have to Give Bullshit a Platform

After the 2016 election, the New York Times underwent a cynical rebranding. Blithely ignoring its own role in perpetuating decades of anti-Clinton propaganda, up to and including a front page spread featuring five(!) stories on what eventually turned out to be a complete nothingburger in the form of Comey’s letter, the Times decided to brand itself as the #voiceoftheresistance. Subscriptions skyrocketed, presumably driven by gullible liberals who wanted to believe that someone, somewhere might actually pretend to care about the truth.

Naturally, the Times then decided to take all this goodwill, shit on it, set it on fire, and then dump the flaming shit on their readers when they hired Bret Stephens as an opinion columnist. Stephens’ schtick comprises nothing more than the standard conservative tropes about how very intolerant liberals are, how diseased Arab minds are, and how fake global warming is. This last one turned out to be what Stephens would lead with when he wrote his first column (you want to work your way up to the thinly disguised racism), and as you might expect from 750 words hastily typed up on the john, it’s shit. Not even the good shit, but the kind of shit you wouldn’t turn in if you were a college freshman, much less a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist[1].

Here’s Bret:

In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.

This is a classic denialist trick: at one point people were certain about X, but look, X turned out to be false! Thus, other people who are certain about a different thing are also wrong! I am very intelligent!. The poverty of this rationale is so stunningly obvious and indefensible that Stephens then spends two paragraphs detailing the provenance of the above anecdote, like a child padding a book report. Several more paragraphs are devoted to revolutionary ideas like “sometimes models are wrong” and “you should update your models when you get more data.” You can tell this is Pulitzer-level writing because it takes an inordinate amount of time to get to a point we knew was coming all along. Either that, or it’s pornography.

Bret goes on for a bit more, setting up the rhetorical frame on which he intends to hang his “evidence”, misrepresenting along the way both the statements of Andrew Revkin and the IPCC. Ultimately, like every scientifically illiterate swamp-dweller nurtured by the right-wing welfare gravy train, Stephens lays bare the true source of his incomprehension and dishonesty:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

This is the sort of statement that could only be made by someone with no comprehension of what a climate model is, or what a scientific model more generally is, or how evidence is processed and incorporated into models, or, indeed, any part of the actual process of generating scientific predictions. To castigate a model or a theory for only offering a “probability” is, in the possibly-apocryphal words of Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong. It’s tantamount to attempting to make a chess move while playing poker. It is a category error of the gravest nature, a product of either a fundamental confusion or a fundamental dishonesty. Or both.

It is in fact the case that our most successful physical theories run on probabilities. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, two foundational theories that give rise to such miracles as me typing these words and you being able to read them, are fundamentally probabilistic at their core[2]. The more complex global climate models that power projections like those made by the IPCC are built on top of those theories: you start with the basic theory of quantum transitions in molecular systems, work out a theory of radiation transfer in the atmosphere, and build in higher-order effects such as feedbacks[3]. Because your model is going to have some free parameters that aren’t part of the basic theory, you perform measurements to try and come up with plausible values for them. Typically this means coming up with a range for those values, and any given model is going to contains many of these parameters, so you then run your model across an entire range of the multidimensional space spanned by your parameters. And because different models themselves make different assumptions about the relevance of various mechanisms, you end up with entire ensembles of models, run across many sectors of parameter space, which you then average into some overall projection[4].

So the probability that Stephens expends so much rhetorical effort to decry is in fact the primary piece of information yielded by any empirical model. The range of model outcomes represents different assumptions and different trajectories within the parameter space, but they are all based on the same underlying physics. And in the end, it turns out that the models have been quite good at tracking observations.

That models, of any kind, do not generate “certainty” is not actually a knock against them. Metaphysical certainty is not the kind of thing that exists in the real world; there are only better models and worse ones, and the only way to judge them is by measuring them against observed reality. This observation, by the way, is an incredibly difficult thing to perform; vast amounts of technical work goes into things like instrumentation, calibration, and data analysis, all in the service of getting the highest quality data. People devote their entire lives to finding better methods of reconstructing temperature from tree rings or ice cores, or developing better statistical methods for analyzing time-series. Thousands of highly skilled professionals devote an incredible amount of time and effort to solving these problems, and here comes Bret Stephens and shits on their work with his child’s understanding of probability.

Of course, Stephens wouldn’t even have a platform to peddle this garbage if it weren’t for the fact that the New York Times decided to give him one. Many other commenters have pointed out the problems with the Times’ editorial page; I will instead confine myself to the response to this fiasco given by Liz Spayd, the Times’ Public Editor. After Stephens dropped his turd on Times readers, they understandably were less than enthused and let Spayd know it:

Jim Thomas is a gay man living in a red state. He has friends who voted for Donald Trump and he interacts daily with people whose political views he finds questionable. Which is fine, because he believes that hearing perspectives different from your own is essential to healthy public discourse. Only not the views of Bret Stephens, the newly hired conservative columnist on The New York Times’s Op-Ed pages.

Why not Stephens? Thomas sees in him a provocateur who intentionally tried to incite his audience by choosing for his first column a subject of urgent concern to the left. “What troubles me is that he had to have known that writing about climate for his debut column was a meaningful and disturbing choice,” Thomas said. The Missouri resident believes Stephens is trying to create niggling doubts about the dangers of climate change by employing a tactic similar to that of some industries that stand to lose from stiff environmental regulation.

Jim Thomas… is right. He’s entirely correct. He has sussed out the essence of Stephens with an uncanny accuracy. Jim Thomas for public editor of the New York Times.

Thomas is among the thousands of readers who have written in protest since Stephens, a conservative, took a seat among the elite,

If you don’t think the guy who went to boarding school, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and followed that up with stints at various right-wing op-ed shops is elite, you are a sucker. I’m not sure whether Spayd is a sucker, liar, or both, but she definitely has no respect for the intellect of her readers.

and mostly liberal, ranks of Times Opinion writers.

The Times employs walking sexual pathology Ross Douthat and David Brooks, a conservative who unironically taught a class on humility before marrying the woman who was his research assistant on a book about character. I wouldn’t call Thomas Friedman a “liberal” because it’s not even clear whether Friedman is even writing in any known human language. The farthest-left voice allowed at the Times is mainstream liberal Paul Krugman.

His first column last weekend — arguing that climate data creates the misleading impression that we know what global warming’s impact will be — produced a fresh geyser of complaints, either to the public editor, on the letters pages or posted on the column itself. No subject since the election has come close to producing this kind of anger toward The Times. Among the scores who have taken to social media are several of Stephens’s new colleagues in the newsroom, some welcoming him aboard, others not so much. I expressed my own concerns about Stephens after his hiring, but I support the general principle of busting up the mostly liberal echo chamber around here.

This is the point where Spayd really exposes the ideology that drives the Times’ op-ed page. Her argument is based on multiple false premises: first, as shown above, the Times’ op-ed page is hardly some liberal echo chamber, even “mostly”, and Spayd knows this. She’s comfortable lying to her readers about even the most trivial, easily fact-checked things in the service of preserving the fake neutrality that is the Times’ hallmark. But more importantly, she is miscasting the question of factual accuracy as a question of political affiliation.

Now, this is not a claim that the operations of science are somehow apolitical. Science, like any human activity, is subject to the vagaries of human experience and behavior; this is inescapable. Nevertheless, we are not, in fact, locked in some Foucauldian discourse prison where only power dictates what is true. There is an objective physical world out there[5] and objective physical processes that determine what is true and what is not. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics do not care about your politics, so for Spayd to argue that this is in the service of “breaking up the liberal echo chamber,” is actually to admit that she is fine with having a professional liar and obfuscator on staff on the grounds that his lies and obfuscations are different from the “echo chamber” that is the truth.

Institutions that take truth-seeking seriously as an activity do in fact perform gatekeeping functions to keep out cranks, and appropriately so. Serious AIDS researchers steer clear of Peter Duesberg; serious cosmologists don’t publish “electric universe” theorists in their journals; (most) serious economists don’t entertain gold bugs. The reason for this is that these people are wrong because the empirical evidence does not support their views. Spayd thinks that the basics of climate science are debatable in the way that, say, the proper level of taxation or Constitutional interpretation is debatable, but it isn’t. There are people who are correct, because they’ve worked for decades to come up with physics-based models that reflect reality, and there are people who are wrong, because they are bullshitters. If Spayd was honest with herself and her readers, she would say, “Bret Stephens is a bullshitter and that’s fine; we have him on staff mostly to rile people who know what’s what.” She cannot say this, of course, but it is still true.

Since his column published last weekend, I’ve been sifting through the rubble, poring over complaints and reaching some readers by phone. The goal wasn’t to resolve the finer points of atmospheric physics, but to get an answer to a simple question: Do you actually want a diversity of views on the Opinion pages, and if so, what’s the matter with Bret Stephens?

Again, Spayd pulls a procedural maneuver where the situation calls for a substantive one. I do not want a “diversity of views” on climate science because there is no virtue in this diversity. I do not want it any more than I want a “diversity of views” on the question of whether abortion causes cancer, say, because it does not. This is not a question of diversity, it is a question of who is right or wrong.

This of course is a perfect illustration of the sort of procedural liberalism that is practiced by the Times. If you are an honest person, then you must confront the question of whether the arguments presented to you are actually true, but if you are a dishonest both-sides hack, then the only thing that matters is that there are multiple arguments. The substance of the arguments doesn’t actually matter because truth-seeking is not the function of the op-ed page (though it should be). In general, faced with real, genuine conflicts of truth and value, the standard liberal maneuver is to retreat into proceduralism and hope that the whole thing will work itself out somehow. But procedural norms on their own are useless, except insofar as they encode substantive norms that we think are valuable. Spayd believes that the fake “marketplace of ideas”-style neutrality is the overriding norm, but in fact that norm is only useful because it serves as a kind of first-order organizational principle for debate. Once an idea has been shown to be false, it needs to be kicked out of the marketplace; it no longer merits the real estate taken up by its stall. And Stephens is peddling exactly such false and discredited ideas. That Spayd is comfortable allocating space to this bullshit indicates that she doesn’t actually understand (or doesn’t accept, which is even more troubling) that truth ought to be an actual standard that institutions like the Times should be held to.

It’s worth pausing here to note a very obvious thing: there are absolutely limits to what the Times will tolerate. The Times’ op-ed page unquestionably acts to police the bounds of acceptable discourse. Here’s a small sampling of views you will not find there: anti-interventionism, left-wing economics, crude right-wing racism (scientific racism a la Nicholas Wade is fine though), gold bugs, homeopaths, conspiracy theorists. This of course is not to say that the Times should give a form to all of these people, but if they were really committed to disrupting the “liberal echo chamber,” then these views would do just as well. Why not, as Jesse Myerson said on Twitter, give space to someone who thinks Jews have horns and drink the blood of Christians?

The fact that the Times doesn’t give space to any of the above is prima facie evidence that it is engaged in discourse policing of a particular sort. The kinds of opinions allowed on its op-ed page are carefully curated to range from “median Republican” (which in our present world amounts to “frothing mad lunatic”) to “just a hair’s breadth left of the median Democrat”, so, Paul Krugman. That’s it, that is who is allowed to opine with regularity at the Times while drawing a salary from it. This is a direct outcome of the fetishization of a procedural neutrality and procedural diversity at the expense of substance; in reality, you end up limiting the substance anyway (how could you not?) but you give yourself a kind of cover to pretend you’re not doing it.

This, in my view, is the deepest dishonesty of all. Bret Stephens is a bullshitter, but we know how to deal with bullshitters. What’s much harder to do is to combat a media organ that at once presents itself as a neutral forum for ideas while factually discriminating against all sorts of ideas that it finds unpalatable. By allowing Stephens space in its op-ed page, the Times is trying to say, “look, we’re not just a liberal echo chamber,” but of course exactly this kind of faux-diversity and slavish devotion to both-siderism is emblematic of the hollowed-out post-value elite liberalism in which the Times traffics.

There is no virtue in playing this shell game. If you are legitimately willing to open your forum to all kinds of dissenting voices, do so. I do not believe that every idea is worth discussing or deserves a private forum, and I’m fine with publications that choose to filter their content on a substantive basis. I no more expect to read paeans to the free market in Jacobin than I expect to read paeans to Marx in the National Review. It’s hard to see why the Times’ op-ed should be any different, especially in light of the fact that the Times’ climate desk actually does some excellent reporting on the issue of global warming. But what the Times should not do is to present itself as a neutral arbiter while being very much engaged in a filtering process that keeps voices it deems unacceptable out of the public eye. That is rank dishonesty.

Spayd goes on:

That’s an important question. The Times, both in the newsroom and on the Opinion side, has proclaimed a public commitment to reflecting a broader range of perspectives in its pages. What its mostly liberal or left-leaning base of readers thinks about that strategy obviously matters. They represent the business model, after all, and many are threatening to cancel their subscriptions (although three weeks in, relatively few have).

There it is again, the same dishonesty as before. Substantive disagreements are transformed into a “someone said/someone else said” fake neutrality. Gotta hear both sides!

Most of the people I spoke with said they welcome opinions they don’t share and resent the suggestion that they prefer an ideological safe house. But many are incensed by what they felt was the gall of Stephens to take on climate change as his first column, and then to obliquely suggest that the data underlying climate science may be flawed, just like the data that predicted a Hillary Clinton win in November.

Most of the people Spayd interacts with on daily basis are almost certainly the same sort of milquetoast process liberals like herself, who think that it’s important To Be Scrupulously Fair to cranks and charlatans. It’s telling that apparently even many of those people are incensed at the obvious bullshit being published by the Times; apparently there are lines that even some milquetoast liberals won’t cross.

Rich Posert of Portland, Ore., said he would be happy to see a libertarian on the Op-Ed pages, or someone like Ross Douthat, another Times conservative columnist. But Posert said he doesn’t understand giving a platform to a columnist he sees as intentionally casting doubt on climate science. “It’s just too important,” Posert said. What made matters worse was when he saw the comments of two Times editors dismissing angry readers as people who reject free speech or alternative viewpoints. That’s when he canceled his subscription.

It turns out that if you publish someone who is openly misleading about the state of the science, people will object to this open dishonesty. That anyone could see this as a “free speech” issue just speaks to the utter derangment of senior people at the Times.

Ella Wagner, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, said she too favors a mix of opinions, but given the cast of mostly older white men on the Op-Ed pages now, she doesn’t see Stephens as some wild departure. “Instead, they found someone whose point is to destabilize the current science on climate change,” she said. “What really annoyed me was seeing Times ads promising to pursue the ‘truth’ and then you get this alert saying, ‘Read this column that questions the fundamental believability of facts.’”

Ella Wagner, a person who understands the difference between “things that are true” and “things that are not true,” is rightfully annoyed that the Times has chosen to give space to a person who peddles the latter.

Also among the readers was a climate scientist, who in an email went on for many paragraphs challenging Stephens’s “fallacious and misleading argument.” And a priest, who told me that, unlike the others, he took it upon himself to subscribe to The Times, as a gesture of reward for letting all voices speak.

A person who knows what they’re talking about is up in arms about a bullshitter who doesn’t know.

The bottom line: Few readers question the notion of having a conservative on the Op-Ed pages, with some caveats. But they thought it was a pugnacious move on Stephens’s part to choose climate change as his first target, a subject as flammable to many younger readers as the Middle East has long been to older ones.

“It turns out that unlike the straw-objector that I made up, actual people who understand how this game works object not to general conservative views, but to the specific proliferation of lies and obfuscations which the Times has abetted!”

That’s the readers’ side. Up the elevator on the 13th floor was Stephens, who sat beneath empty bookshelves in his new office. He was answering questions from readers for his next column, and was ready to take mine.

No one gives a fuck what “Stephens’ side” is. His “side” is to lie about climate science.

“It’s been an education,” he said of his maiden voyage into Times territory from the more conservative compound of The Wall Street Journal. “Some reader comments have been really smart and engaging,” he said, while many on Twitter, he said, have been less so. One tweet in particular left him explaining to his 11-year-old boy what it meant that someone wanted his dad “Danny Pearl-ed.”

Some people tweeted gross things at Stephens. All objections are therefore null and void. Give this man another Pulitzer!

He says he chose climate not to intentionally incite anyone, but because he was being attacked on that subject before he even arrived. He felt he couldn’t dodge it. What about the assertion that his broader purpose, like that of many industries, is to stoke doubt about global warming and thus reduce the need to act?

He chose to troll the readers of the Times because he knew they could be trolled. He’s in this respect no different than the people who use racial slurs because they know that it annoys decent people.

The first column was meant to recognize our fallibility. When I quoted the old Jew of Galicia, about someone who’s 55 percent right, that meant me. I am far from infallible, and I screw up all the time. I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth. What I’m trying to do is offer statements about issues that matter in hopes that they approximate the truth. Just as I want to persuade readers, I understand that they might end up persuading me.

More dishonesty; if Stephens had been interested in the truth, the truth has been publily available to him for decades. He could have done the reading, he could have reached out to actual climate scientists, he could have educated himself in any number of ways. Instead what he did was to provide a glib and false summary of the state of climate science and then tried to pass off his bullshit as “wisdom.” When challenged on this, he takes refuge in an anecdote; I’m sure we’ll be hearing from Stephens in short order about how climate science is actually anti-Semitic.

The thing is, Stephens didn’t make any of the efforts he should have made because he knows there are no consequences for people like him. Incompetent mainstream pundits never die, they just fail upward into heaven! There’s no incentive for Stephens to be informed or honest because those would both require effort and self-reflection, whereas snarking on his readers is easy. The odds that any argument that a reader could make would “persuade” Stephens are less than epsilon; if he actually wanted to know the truth, it was there fore the knowing all along.

That may be where conciliation ends. From Stephens’s perspective, the gulf between his intentions and reader reaction is partly explained by how liberals tend to approach ideas with which they disagree.

“People who dare to point out that I’m wrong on the merits are actually suppressing my free speech.” –conservatives generally, Stephens particularly

“The dominant mode of liberal disagreement in many cases is to express contempt,” he said. “That’s a real problem, really for liberals.” Especially in the wake of Trump, he said, “The New York Times is a last bastion of objectivity and human civilization to many liberals. My presence here suggests there is a Fifth Column(ist) in the Citadel.”

People who are wrong and who peddle bullshit deserve noting but contempt. Stephens is actually contemptible, a loathsome, snarky little toad whose job is to defend the powerful from his position of privilege.

After a little prodding about whether conservatives share the same attribute, he maintained that they do not, but said that they have their own behavioral issues: They can be overbearing.

Ah, the “I hit you because I love you” defense. Very good, I think there’s a third Pulitzer Prize here.

If that’s how Stephens feels, life on The Times’s Op-Ed pages should stay interesting for a while, though maybe not productive.

Fuck his feelings.

For Stephens to win over new readers he’ll need to make a strategic pivot, from preaching to a choir of Journal conservatives to winning over a Times audience of suspicious liberals. Being steadfastly anti-Trump, as Stephens is, might count for something, but whatever trust was built up among Journal readers may be back on empty here. Showing some patience and respect for the new audience could start filling the tank.

Everything is measured in “winning readers,” not “telling the truth” or “being right.” Of course if you fetishize the market, you’re going to think that “number of readers” corresponds to “value of idea.” That Stephens would cynically exploit this is unsurprising; that the Times accedes implicitly to this framework should tell you everything you need to know about its leadership’s substantive commitments.

Readers, on the other hand, face the serious test of whether they can show tolerance for views they don’t like, even those they fear are dangerous. Stephens questioned the models of climate science, but isn’t it possible to take him at face value — to accept that he thinks global warming is at least partially man-made — and see where he takes his argument over time? He may not change opinions in the end, but at the very least he might concede that his stereotype of the contemptuous liberal is overly broad.

No, they actually do not face any such test. There is not a reasonable debate here; there is one person misrepresenting the state of the science, and a bunch of people pointing out that this is bullshit. It is not “possible to take him at face value,” because his arguments have no face value. They are utterly devoid of content and uninformed by any understanding of the relevant science. “Where he takes his argument” is irrelevant because the argument has moved so far ahead of him that he’s in the position of arguing for phlogiston at the 1911 Solvay Conference and then complaining that no one is taking him seriously. The place where his argument belongs is in the trash bin with Stephens’ entire career.

As for Stephens, I’m taking him at his word, that he has no intention of manufacturing facts and that he will be transparent with his audience about his ideas and intentions. That seems like a good place to start.

Yes, let’s extend good faith to liars and bigots. Because the most important thing is that we hear from another conservative who definitely does not have a platform for his views.

Ultimately, the problem of centrist media as gatekeeper that promotes conservative bullshit in the interests of faux-neutrality is much more serious than the conservative bullshit itself. There’s no obligation to give these charlatans a space to promulgate their falsehoods, but the Times does so anyway because it wants to be considered a “serious” paper. Of course, the people that it’s trying to pander to will never respect it anyway, and the people who would otherwise be its natural allies are going to be turned off. The Times can’t break out of this trap because it’s trying to have it both ways, to be a respectable filter while pretending its serving the cause of intellectual diversity. The way out is of course to decide that you aren’t going to publish things that are categorically false, but unfortunately that is a stronger commitment than the pillars of late liberalism are willing to sustain.

[1]: Not that a Pulitzer Prize, especially for commentary, has much intrinsic value. Any prize that Peggy Noonan can win can’t be worth much.

[2]: Don’t @ me, Bohmians.

[3]: Yes, I am aware that real climate models are substantially more complicated. This is just a general schematic.

[4]: Again, the process of aggregating the results climate models is much more complex than my brief sketch.

[5]: Don’t @ me, anti-realists.

Ruminations on Science

The text below was modified slightly from a comment I left over at Crooked Timber. After writing it, I thought it held up ok as a separate piece of writing, divorced from the comment thread, so I’m just posting it here with minimal alterations:

Science is hard. It’s just really difficult to even achieve a small amount of mastery in an area of your own alleged expertise. There’s just so much of it, and so much more appearing every day. There are varying responses to this problem. One response is to just write off any results that disagree with conclusions that one has already reached by other means. Another is to set up institutions in which legitimate queries after truth can actually be carried out and debated. That’s a great meta-solution, in my view, but unsurprisingly it comes with its own meta-problems. Now you’ve got this whole other layer of professional scientists that, to the untutored observer, appear interposed priestlike between you and the truth. As with any sufficiently complex (i.e. involving more than 5 people) institutions, mystification sets in. If you’re already predetermined to disregard what the scientists are saying in the first place, what is in reality an imperfect mechanism for adjudicating truth claims begins looking like a conspiracy to suppress your great uncle’s naturopathic cure for cancer. And the thing about conspiracies is that they can never be disproven; any evidence counter to the conspiracist conclusion is merely additional proof that those who offer the evidence are in on the conspiracy.

In the right (wrong) sorts of circumstances, this problem becomes a horrible vicious circle. It can only be resolved by taking a step back and trying to understand science as a human institution and scientists as human practitioners; in other words, trying to figure out what scientists are doing and why. That is also very hard, especially if you come from outside a scientific discipline, because you’ll be entering into discussions in which you lack the requisite terminology for understanding all the little details. That’s why scientific communication is a two-way street: if the average person holds some responsibility for trying to understand how science gets done, then scientists have commensurate responsibility to explain that process in a way that’s understandable. Sadly, scientists have often failed at this task; those who can do it well, like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and P.Z. Myers, are worth their weight in gold because they’re quite rare.

The problem with people like global warming deniers and the anti-vax crowd is that everything they do undermines these institutions. If you only care about being right instead of getting it right (parsing the distinction is left as an exercise for the reader), then all this stuff like peer review and independent verification is just so much cruft that you can discard when it runs up against something you want badly to be true. The danger of that is that sooner or later you’ll cut down the very tree you sit in, as the Russian expression goes, and when you actually require those mechanisms and institutions to function properly because they impact your own life, they won’t.

Movie Recommendation: Chasing Ice

Last night I went to see Chasing Ice at the local art-house theater, and I recommend the film to everyone without reservation.

Chasing Ice is a documentary film that focuses on the work that photographer James Balog did in setting up the Extreme Ice Survey. The EIS’s purpose is to chronicle the no-longer-gradual disappearance of the Arctic glaciers, and the result is perhaps the most visually stunning depiction of the consequences of global warming that I have ever seen. Despite some added schmaltz about Balog’s personal life, Chasing Ice is a fairly straightforward story about what is happening to Arctic ice year in and year out; if you have a friend or relative that likes to blather on about how “the science isn’t in yet,” I suggest taking them to see this film. Actually, you should go see it even if you’re up on the science, because it features some absolutely phenomenal photography by Balog. I won’t spoil it for you, but the final ten minutes contain some literally jaw-dropping footage (I kid you not, I watched with my mouth literally hanging open) that is damn worth seeing in theaters and justifies the price of admission by itself. I don’t hesitate to say completely sincerely that Chasing Ice, for all its somewhat dry tone, is as much a work of art as anything you could see in the theater; if it goes any appreciable distance towards convincing people of the immediacy of the climate change problem, it’ll be far more influential.

Slavery is Freedom

No, this isn’t about politics. You can stop reading now if that’s where you thought it was going. If, on the other hand, you thought this was going to be about basketball, I congratulate you on your perspicacity and invite you to accompany me on a magical journey.

One of the things that I’m struck by as I look at advanced basketball analytics is how relatively model-free the whole enterprise seems. There are a couple of good methods that you see show up over and over again: regression analysis, adjusting plus/minus stats to remove bias, and estimating overall player contribution, usually in terms of either points or wins produced or some similar derived statistic. Nothing wrong with any of this of course, and it yields a certain amount of valuable insight. But coming from the science world as I do, and particularly coming from a recent background in working in cognitive science, what I find interesting about these analytics is that they seem mostly unconstrained by the game itself.

What do I mean by that? I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying “this is a terrible thing” or “everyone is an idiot” which is not the case. All I’m saying is that the way these models are constructed relies very heavily on box scores and backing out weights of various elements of player performance via regression. What they don’t do in any explicit way (modulo a few exceptions, like 3-point shooting and per-minute analysis) that I’ve seen is incorporate top-down constraints from the actual game itself into the analysis.

What would such constraints look like? One very obvious thing that comes to mind is the shot clock: you have 24 seconds to put the ball in the hoop, and if you fail to do so your opponents get the ball. Another constraint is the ball itself: there’s only one, and only one player (and one team) can possess it at any given time. The court boundaries are obviously also constraints, as is the fact that you can’t camp in the lane (on either offense or defense). And so on.

At first glance these seem like trivial statements, as anyone who pays the slightest amount of attention to basketball will understand them to be obviously true. We can debate the value of LeBron James (really high or really, really high?) all day if we want, but no one is arguing that the shot clock is anything other than 24 seconds. But I think that because the information is so obvious, it may have escaped incorporation into interesting analyses. I’m really just throwing thoughts out there, but if the end goal of each possession is to get the ball in the hoop, and you’re looking for a method which accomplishes this with maximum efficiency, you are really optimizing within the bounds set by the constraint of the shot clock. In a completely unsurprising turn of events, each possession becomes a constrained optimization, although not one that is expressed in terms of any simple objective-function (indeed the landscape here is certain to be very complex).

The reason such constraints are valuable in other fields is because they set hard limits on what you can and can’t do. In physics, for example, you know that whatever happens, you can’t extract work by moving heat from a cold body to a warm body; that’s the second law, and if you find that your theory has violated it, you know you’ve done something wrong. In cognitive modeling, life is a bit more complex because the constraints are often empirical; for example, ACT-R, a cognitive architecture I work with, commits to a certain (experimentally validated) model of working memory decay. That’s an architectural constraint on the kinds of dynamics that an ACT-R model can exhibit. Other architectures make other assumptions, etc. The point of the constraints is that, although you may sacrifice the freedom of your model to generate any output by embracing them, you gain the security of reducing your outcome space and the freedom to focus on things that you think are relevant. The nice thing about basketball is that the constraints are baked-in via rules, so we don’t have to guess at what they are; we “just” have to take them into account.

The reason I think this is important for basketball is because I think the box score analytics game is largely played out. By this I don’t mean that the analytics are useless, but my strong suspicion is that virtually everything that can be extracted from such information, has been. Obviously people are doing more complicated stuff now with line-ups and stuff, but since “keep your best line-up on the floor for 48 minutes” is not a viable strategy (another constraint!), a coach is faced with a complicated process of decision-making when it comes to rotations. The question for analysts is this: is there any way that a systematic breakdown of basketball dynamics which takes seriously the various constraints presented by the game rules can aid coaches (and players) in making decisions on the floor? I think, optimist that I am, that the answer is “yes” but the work of getting there will require a lot more than just box score information.

Fuck your numbers, hippie

tThere’s a stupid and disturbing trope that arises again and again in much American commentary, whether dedicated to sport, art, or politics. That trope is contrarianism; in one variety, it takes the form of locating a generally derided specimen from one of the above categories and making the case that said specimen is actually great. Or if not great, at least not irredeemably awful. You can see this trope at work amongst people who try to defend Michael Bay or insist that Michelle Bachmann is a credible presidential candidate. The converse form of contrarianism is to locate a concept of some merit or utility and try to argue that it sucks donkey balls. In general, this is actually generally more defensible; people love a lot of stupid shit and once in a while it’s great to have someone come along and remind people that the shit is stupid. But when you make a charge of this nature, you have to be prepared to back it up. Preferably with facts.

Few places is the contrarian impulse of the second kind more prevalent than in writing about sports and its relation to statistics. If there’s one thing that sportswriters hate, it’s numbers; yes, John Hollinger is tolerated at ESPN (although if I were looking for statistical wizards to trumpet Hollinger would hardly be my example) but for the most part sportswriters treat numbers like they are invading aliens from an alternate universe, when they dare acknowledge their existence at all. In baseball, it’s pretty hard to escape the importance of advanced statistics, what with Moneyball and what have you, although old and stupid writers don’t give a shit about that. In basketball, advanced metrics are relatively less well established, basketball being a more dynamic game with more possibilities and ways to assess a player’s value. And that of course gives idiots an opening because when someone tries to figure out how good a player is using statistical methods, you can just throw a tantrum about INTANGIBLES and perhaps dribble applesauce down the front of your shirt.

This is all expected from old and stupid people; it’s a lot less expected from someone my age, someone who has a scientific background, someone who was a Rhodes Scholar. Enter into this “debate” (I put that in quotes because there is no debate here, just as there’s no debate about the validity of evolution; there are people who are right and people who don’t understand how evidence works) a dude by the name of Jonah Lehrer.

You may remember Lehrer from such fiascos as this article in which he bemoans how hard it is to prove things in science and how can we really know anything is true, really? (note: I am aware that Lehrer has posted a followup to the article attempting to explain what he was going for, but it’s not much better than the original). Of course upon reading this a whole bunch of professional scientists jumped all over him, explaining that his understanding of science (or at least his rendering of that understanding for popular consumption) was hopelessly flawed and sounded a lot like freshman philosophy “What is truth anyway, man?”-type discussions.

Ok, whatever, Lehrer doesn’t get science. But he also doesn’t get numbers. Or basketball.

A few days ago, this article by Lehrer appeared on Bill Simmons’ new venture, Grantland. I like Grantland; a lot of good stuff has appeared there in the scant few weeks of its existence, some of which was even written by Simmons himself. I don’t know how Lehrer got on there; presumably his celebrity as a “science writer” catapulted him to such heady heights, although what his qualifications are for opining on basketball or math is unclear (presumably a Rhodes Scholar would know at least some basic math, you know, division, addition, basic stats, that kind of shit). The basic premise of Lehrer’s piece is: aren’t numbers terrible and haven’t they ruined sports? Naturally Lehrer answers these questions in the affirmative (spoiler: the correct answers are “No.” and “No.”) and he gets where he’s going by way of some of the most convoluted, ignorant, and just plain incorrect reasoning that I have ever had the displeasure to see in writing outside of conservative blogs.

Lehrer starts his discussion with an analogy to buying a car and pointing out that some variables you would think are important when purchasing a car (horsepower, fuel consumption) are less important to owner satisfaction than various amenities (reliability, comfortable seats). Right off the bat this should raise some red flags. For one, while sports teams certainly value fan satisfaction, that satisfaction is primarily correlated to an objectively measureable metric of performance; namely, winning. Fans are satisfied when their team wins and not when it loses, and that’s quite a bit different than being satisfied with a car. Secondarily, it is truly bizarre to try and make the case against advanced metrics, which seek to find ways beyond the obvious box score numbers to measure player performance, by drawing on the example of obvious metrics providing less satisfaction than less obvious ones. If Lehrer wanted to make the argument for advanced metrics, it would have made sense to start with this analogy; as it stands, his example is simply incoherent. (It’s worth noting here that Lehrer uses the term “sabermetrics” to encompass all advanced metrics, which is wrong).

What follows is garden-variety idiocy which could have been lifted straight from the nursing home about how, sure, numbers might help here and there but THEY HAVE RUINED THE GAME AND WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE INTANGIBLES. I mean, Lehrer literally trots out the “what about things that can’t be quantified” argument, which is so stupid that it doesn’t really deserve a response. As arguments go, it’s on par with the guy on the bus trying to talk to you about UFOs in Roswell or ranting about how science can’t prove he loves his wife; there are only two valid responses, backing away slowly or ridicule (and you can tell which route I’m taking here). And what about having playoff experience you guys?!

But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.

Yeah, there it is, right on schedule. Wait, Jonah Lehrer, are you sure you’re not missing some key sports cliches?

But that’s not what happens. Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions. After all, there is no way to quantify the fierce attitude of a team that feels slighted, or the way even the best players can be undone by the burden of expectations, or how Kendrick Perkins meant more to the Celtics than his rebounding stats might suggest.

Ok, there we go.

It’s rather beside the point that the “excessive” focus on numbers is something that Lehrer simply made up for the purpose of setting fire to some straw statisticians (Deadspin has a more eloquent summary). It’s not even the greatest offense Lehrer commits in his article, since this is just garden-variety invention and mendacity, hardly rising to the level of egregiousness. No, Lehrer greatest mistake is to draw “evidence” for his moderately idiotic position by making a really idiotic argument, one that happens to be very much in my wheelhouse to refute.

This is the moral of the Dallas Mavericks.

Let me tell you something. I have watched somewhere in the vicinity of 50-60% of Mavs games this year during the regular season. Other than a few post-season games I missed due to travel, I have watched every game of their postseason run. I have also watched the majority of the games in the other series starting with the second round. So I’ve probably watched more NBA ball in the last three months than Lehrer has ever seen, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve watched more Mavericks games in that time than he has. All that is to say, I have some basis for talking when I talk about the Dallas Mavericks, a team I’ve been a fan of for years and that I follow pretty closely. And let me tell you, using the Mavs as an example of a team that won despite the numbers is so unbelievably wrong that it’s like trotting out the fossil record to prove that evolution is a hoax. Thanks for doing my work for me, chump!

The fact is that the Mavericks are one of the most notorious teams in the NBA (other than perhaps the Rockets) for their reliance on advanced metrics. The Mavericks are coached by Rick Carlisle, hired very much for his willingness to rely on statistics and for his remarkable track record of fielding the statistically best five players available in any situation. The Dallas coaches’ bench is home to Roland Beech, only the guy who started Mark Cuban chaired the motherfucking Sloan Conference on Sports Analytics, for fuck’s sake! This is the team that, more than any other team, is defined by their scrupulous adherence to the optimal lineup and performance!

And to compound the stupidity, Lehrer cites none other than… J.J. Barea? Apparently, Barea got the start because Carlisle “saw something” in him that couldn’t be captured by stats; just loved his grit and hustle, you know? It can’t possibly be because Barea destroyed Mike Bibby in the matchup battle; or because he was able to get his shot against two seven-footers who were unable to keep up with his speed; or because he could run a devastating pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler, using Nowitzki as a decoy. None of those things (all quantifiable via matchup analysis and points-per-play and so on) could possibly have made Carlisle change his lineup! It must have been Barea’s monster intangibles and hella hustle!

These are not grand mysteries of the cosmos; the facts in the above paragraph are known to any basketball-competent observer of the finals (so, you know, not Jonah Lehrer) and certainly to me, as someone who has watched Barea all season. To make everything even worse (you didn’t think it was possible, but you were wrong), Lehrer actually undermines his own earlier car analogy by pointing to Barea’s shooting stats to claim that his introduction was not statistically motivated since he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. But if your claim is that the most obvious statistics (horsepower, mileage; shooting percentage, PPG) don’t tell the whole tale, but supplemental statistics do, you can’t then go and say that it wasn’t statistics but intangibles that made the Barea substitution logical, because you’re explicitly ignoring those same supplemental statistics you said were needed for a complete view earlier.

The patronizing anecdote from Philip Roth at the end is only the final dingleberry on the shit sandwich that is Lehrer’s article. All I have to say to people who think like that is: go fuck yourselves. I will enjoy my sports however I want, you sanctimonious assholes; in fact, I will enjoy them even more if I can make ignorant fools like you madder about my enjoyment.

Lehrer’s phobia of numbers is all too sadly representative not only of conversations that we have about sports but conversations that we have in general. It’s not that things that are unquantifiable (which exist) are not worthy of consideration; it’s rather that instead of figuring out which statistics are useful in which contexts and what they tell us, we have these worthless screeds against those horrible nerds who are taking all the fun out of life or something like that. Instead of trying to understand the usefulness of the data we have available to us, we cut ourselves off from that avenue of knowledge by inventing things that are ex hypothesi unquantifiable and then claiming that numbers are worthless because they can’t quantify those things (even when it turns out that numbers can quantify them). And worst of all, ostensibly intelligent people who should know better take these contrarian positions without bothering to collect even the most rudimentary evidence for their arguments. Lehrer’s entire article is almost as wrong as one could possibly be when discussing basketball, and yet he’s given national exposure with minimal fact-checking to air his stupidity. Turn him into a right-winger and you’ve got pretty much everyone at Fox news. The rot goes deep, and Lehrer is only its most superficial manifestation.

Civility: a mug’s game

If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the Synthese brouhaha, you can do so here. There’s a lot of material flying around, including open letters from the special issue editors, various unsatisfactory replies from the actual Synthese editors, and an elaborate “Who? Me?” act from Francis Beckwith. The details are sufficiently covered at Evolving Thoughts and Leiter Reports, so I’m not going to bother to repeat them here. What I’m interested in is the rhetorical maneuvers underlying this so-called scandal. Keep in mind that the whole thing got off the ground with a prefatory note by the Synthese editors saying that they thought the essays in the special issue, particularly that of Barbara Forrest, were… how to put it… less than generous to the ID position? Perhaps even… uncivil?!

Naturally this represents and undermining of the very purpose of the special issue. I haven’t actually read the original papers by Forrest and others, but what I would argue is that even if the editors’ preface was entirely accurate and the essays were in fact “uncivil,” (having read other things by Forrest, I know that she pull no punches against bad philosophy; I assume that this was in fact the point of contention), well, they should have been. Because ID proponents and creationists do not deserve civility. They are liars and frauds who graft disparate pieces of math, physics, and philosophy (all misapplied, natch) in the service of a religious agenda. The ID crowd wants to have it both ways, claiming to be a scienfitic undertaking while blatantly identifying with Christian theology. The entire structure of ID advocacy is a ploy to put a “scientific” face on religious promotion; and of course, ID advocates acting “outside” of their official ID affiliations have absolutely no problem calling atheists and secular humanists immoral or worse. But dare to breathe an unkind word in their direction, and the double standard kicks in. How dare you accuse them of the things they openly advocate! How dare you suggest their so-called science is a fraud and a sham! Why, that kind of evidence-based judgment is terribly uncivil, dontcha know!

These are not people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. They are, at the very best, cranks; at the very worst, they are active participants in the subversion of secular ideals to religious orthodoxy. They cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, and they must be called out at every possible opportunity. And most importantly, their false civility cannot be allowed to silence debate. The tactic of accusing your opponents of being uncivil has a long history of being used to marginalize voices in sensitive debates and it cannot be allowed to advance any farther, especially not in cases of scientific questions.

You know what’s uncivil? It’s when you demand all the emails from a professor’s university account because you don’t like his evisceration of your historical ignorance. It’s when you tell your followers to go protest outside of a kid’s house because his family was a poster case for what happens when you lose your health insurance. It’s when you launch frivolous lawsuits against actual scientists who show demonstrate that your “alternative medicines” are full of shit. It’s when you aim your gun at the only doctor in the entire state who can provide late-term abortions and pull the trigger. That’s uncivil. Being called out for your shitty reasoning and repeatedly exposed as the lying religionist you are? That’s reality, motherfuckers.