Monday, December 15, 2014

GMO labeling debate in two panels

This is pretty much everything that needs to be said about GMO labeling.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Weaseling around federal gun laws

I was all set to write a simple post about a series of bills filed by state legislators that declare federal law doesn't apply to them, much the same way local food supporters in Maine attempted to use municipal ordinances to overcome state and federal law. I was ready to declare it stupid, then pay myself a big compliment for overcoming my own biases and taking a nuanced position against my own allies.

Instead, I found a complex issue that reveals a lot of hypocrisy and double-standards. For the most part, this is about exploiting loopholes and weaseling around federal laws that themselves only exist because of a loophole.

Here's what Washington Post wrote about these bills:

Two types of bills are the primary vehicles for the movement, both based on model legislation introduced in statehouses from Tallahassee to Juneau. 
The first type holds that federal laws do not apply to firearms manufactured and sold within a given state, relying on the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. It says Congress can regulate trade between states, but says nothing about trade within states. 
Under Utah law, for example, guns made, purchased and used in the state are exempt from federal laws. Commonly known as the Firearms Freedom Act, versions of the law have been debated during 78 legislative sessions across 37 states in the last decade. 
The other approach says gun regulation falls outside the scope of the federal government’s power, making it state territory. Such bills, often known as the Second Amendment Preservation Act, usually say state officials cannot enforce federal gun laws or limit the ability to do so, and some bills have tried to impose penalties on officers who help federal officials.

See the trick now? The federal gun control laws were written by abusing the commerce clause, the section in the Constitution that gives congress the power to pass laws on things that could effect trade between states. The commerce clause has long been twisted and stretched to justify the passage of virtually any federal law.

So some law makers are turning this around by saying, if we have guns manufactured within our state that never cross the border, than the commerce clause is irrelevant and the federal gun restriction is invalid.

Will that stand up in a federal court? No, but the sentiment is great. They are cheating the cheaters and playing the same stupid weasel game as the federal lawmakers.

So what about the second type of bill, where state lawmakers restricting their own agencies from cooperating with federal agencies who are enforcing federal gun laws? Well, this is clearly a weasel tactic, but it's nothing new.

Liberal states have been banning their police agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities for years, including my home state of Massachusetts. It's a practice I don't like one bit in any context, even though I want to see less restriction on immigration and gun ownership. If you're going to take a stand against one, you have to take a stand against the other.

State lawmakers can not overrule federal lawmakers, and these tactics are pretty lowly, but let's not pretend they are any worse than the existing laws on the books.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

No, GTA is not a game about killing prostitutes

Clueless critics of the Grand Theft Auto series, without fail, attach importance to the idea that the game involves murdering prostitutes. This is somewhere between an urban legend and a red herring, and four years ago I summed up neatly why it's wrong.

Grand Theft Auto games notoriously allow players to murder prostitutes, a point never missed by its critics. However, the games have never suggested players do so - they merely present an open world where people can shoot anyone, if they so choose. In the same vein, someone can draw a swastika in MS Paint or write racial slurs in a word document. The games also feature taxi drivers and there's nothing stopping a player from getting a ride somewhere then shooting the driver to "get their money back," but that point is never made to demonstrate how violent the games allow people to be.

This is pretty simple. The game has an open-world environment and a city filled with different people, and the player can choose to kill any of those people. Since some of those people are indeed prostitutes, yes technically, the player can kill them. The people who make this point are clueless about the game. Often they appear to be clueless about games in general and aren't worth responding to.

But then this article came out, where a "senior journalist" from video game website Polygon glossed over this fine detail and whine about the social justice ramifications of GTA games and how they prominently feature the murder of prostitutes.

This is something we absolutely should be talking about. It's one thing for games to portray the slaughter of soldiers and gangsters and even vanilla members of the public. It's another to show us victims being kicked in the teeth, and then pretend this is not worth talking about.

The entire piece rests of a foundation of sand, and Campbell takes his false premise and heaps more and more onto it. He informs us that all prostitutes are desperate, trod-upon victims of society. This is a false notion but not one worth exploring here, because even if that was universally true, his starting premise would still be false - that the game somehow encourages the murder of prostitutes, instead of a game that tolerates the murder of civilians in general.

Campbell attempts to address this issue, and by address I mean he tosses a half-baked conclusion out the window of a speeding car, fails to justify it, and resumes polishing his false premise.

I know a lot of people desperately want to believe that killing a prostitute in GTA 5 is the same as killing any other character, but it's really not. Unlike gangsters or cops or business dudes or hot dog vendors, prostitutes, as a class, are despised, marginalized and abused in real life, all the time. This means that GTA 5 takes its pleasure in humiliating and abusing victims of humiliation and abuse... 
My point is that this portrayal of them reinforces hard ideas about the worthlessness of prostitutes, in ways that are unique to this class of characters in the game. My point is that it is deeply distasteful to gleefully portray victims being shat upon by privilege.

Please note that homeless people are not mentioned even once in his entire piece, even though they exist in the game and fit his definition of a marginalized group in society. But then again, there's no legends in the popular culture about killing homeless people, and fewer social justice credits for defending homeless men than for female prostitutes.

Keep in mind, this was posted on a world-famous video game website, and the author is supposedly an expert on video games. That doesn't make any sense at first blush. The only way it makes sense is if one realizes that this is a Gawker Media website where social justice advocacy comes before anything else.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

We're all guilty when it comes to bad thinking

When we read about bias and critical thinking there is always the temptation to think of them in terms of other people. Straw men arguments are made by the people we disagree with because their real arguments are too weak. Our intellectual opponents are unable to consider evidence that challenge their world view. It's the wrong people who are blinded by their emotions.

That is completely missing the point. Bias and illogical thinking are the natural state for human beings, all human beings, and that includes you, yes you.

Ahem. That is to say, it includes me. Not merely you the reader, but me. I accept that I can never completely overcome my own biases, but I can chip away at them and catch myself when I slip into comforting thought processes.

Steve Novella perfectly sums this up when he reminds us that the Dunning-Kruger effect isn't just for other people. If you're unfamiliar, the Dunning-Kruger effect shows that most people with low skills overestimate their ability in those specific realms, while people with the highest skills tend to underestimate their ability.

Think about some area in which you have a great deal of knowledge, in the expert to mastery level (or maybe just a special interest with above average knowledge). Now, think about how much the average person knows about your area of specialty. Not only do they know comparatively very little, they likely have no idea how little they know, and how much specialized knowledge even exists. 
Here comes the critical part – now realize that you are as ignorant as the average person is every other area of knowledge in which you are not expert... The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just about dumb people not realizing how dumb they are. It is about basic human psychology and cognitive biases. Dunning-Kruger applies to everyone.

Ponder that one and while you do, try to think of what subjects you have very little training in. How would you really score on a test on that general knowledge in that subject? For me, I can think of a few social sciences that I've commented on but have never really studied.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The problem is people in general

There are a lot of complaints about specific groups of people that, upon closer examination, are really just complaints about human beings

As a member of the mainstream media, I take to heart the serious problem of false stories getting more attention then the corrections that set the record straight. This is a major problem that I think about a lot, and during my stint as a newspaper editor I fought my publisher (and lost) to give front page space to corrections.

However, I've noticed a similar issue among social media shares. I have a lot of Facebook friends who breathlessly shared news stories like Mike Daisey's accounts of labor abuse in a Chinese factory that made Apple products. Those same friends didn't say much, or anything at all, when it was revealed to be a lie.

The same is true for Rolling Stone magazine's story about a fraternity organizing a planned mass rape at the University of Virginia story. It appears an activist made up a story at a Take Back the Night rally and then kept the lie going when a reporter wanted to write about it. It's not a slam-dunk, Rolling Stone has not officially retracted the story, but has admitted it screwed up and numerous claims in her story have been disproved.

Again, the same people who shared that story are now mute. If you inadvertently helped spread a false story, aren't you honor-bound to make sure the correction gets the same amount of attention, if not more?

In a way, my friends have become the editors of their own newspapers with complete control and no profits to worry about, and yet they are making the same mistake. Perhaps they either lack an interest in issue a correction, don't want to admit they were wrong or lack the zeal they had for the false narrative.

There's a big possible lesson here. Maybe the reason newspapers fail to give as much attention to corrections is not that there is some flaw in the people that run them, but that they are staffed by mere human beings.

Look at Paul Piff's study where he had two people play part of a game of Monopoly and randomly gave one of them more starting money and an extra die to move around the board faster. He reported that they seemed oblivious to their advantages and credited their win to strategy and merit.

A lot of commentators used this study to condemn rich people who believe they earned what they have, but Piff's real conclusion was that people are malleable. After all, these weren't actual rich people but everyday people who were randomly put into a special category. The bad behavior on display was from people in general, and the only thing that made them special was that they were placed into a particular position.

This extends to the Wall Street workers who traded bad loans and helped cause the recession, politicians who give favors to special interest groups who give them money and police officers who shoot black suspects. When you judge a group of people negatively, check to see if the real issue isn't that mere human beings were placed in special set of circumstances.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lynch mobs never have due process

Racists are bad so anything we do to them is acceptable, right? Such as posting their personal information online (doxxing) and contacting their employer to demand that they be fired. That's exactly what the website Getting Racists Fired is doing.

But like all vigilante actions, eventually innocent people end up getting splattered. That's because lynch mobs don't necessarily go after guilty people. No, they go after the accused, and one of the first innocent causalities was Brianna Rivers, a normal everyday person with an angry ex-boyfriend.

Scott H. Greenfield doesn't make the lynch mob comparison, perhaps because it's become something of a cliche, but he does compare it to another social ill: revenge porn sites, where people share nude photos, often of ex lovers who they believe wronged them. The site is under both "Getting Racists Fired" and "Racists Getting Fired, and Greenfield uses the other name:

So RGF is, without a doubt, inherently evil. No, it doesn’t matter that you think she deserved it. No, lying about someone being a racist to harm her is still lying, no matter how truly you believe she (or he) deserves to be harmed. 
The point here is that angry people on the internet are nothing if not imaginative in finding methods of accomplishing the goal of causing people we don’t like harm. If it’s not naked images, it’s racist comments. And if it’s not racist comments, it will be something else. Don’t ask me what, as my mind doesn’t go there, but I’m sure others already have nasty ideas brewing. 

The vigilante website has responded by changing the guidelines for submissions. That's still going to end up harming innocent people, as there will always be ways to fool the gatekeepers. Ask yourself, are you really against doxxing in principal, or just against doxxing certain people. If not, you have some soul-searching to do. 

Whatever new form this crowd-sourced revenge approach takes, please do your part for justice and refuse to join in.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Idiot hunting skewered

Brilliant satirical Salon parody Twitter, SalonDotCom, sums up Idiot Hunting in a mere 15 words.