Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Secretary DeVos doesn't understand what I do

As a university professor, I was profoundly disappointed in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' remarks at CPAC regarding higher education. Speaking directly to the university students in attendance, she said:
The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you're a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.
Everything about this statement, from the assertions made to the manner in which those claims are presented, is utterly false.

The goal of any reputable university is not to tell students what to think. It is to teach students to think critically and to think for themselves.

In my admittedly young career, I have worked as an instructor, lecturer, and assistant professor at three universities in three different states. That goal has always been the standard: How do we mold the next generation of young people into thinking, critically engaged adults ready to enter civic life and prosperous careers?

We wrestle with this every day. We literally lose sleep over it. And we don't always have a ready answer to this question given the delicate environment we face.

Generally speaking, college professors are a liberal bunch, oftentimes more liberal than our students. But we know that. And we also know that we exercise influence over our classrooms by virtue of our position.

With these considerations in mind, I've had numerous conversations with diligent and thoughtful peers and mentors about how we may temper our personal biases. We strive to avoid anything resembling indoctrination and work to maintain a free flow of ideas through honest debate.

We try to engage with students regarding current events and controversies in ways that allow students to express and debate a multitude of opinions. Oftentimes that means checking our own biases at the door, playing devil's advocate, and ensuring that oftentimes heated discourse among students remains civil so all feel confident that their voices will be heard and respected.

But remarks like those from Ms. DeVos and the underlying attitudes about ivory tower elitism make an already difficult task that much more so.

Professors and lecturers have in many cases become so fearful of accusations of undue influence that they actively avoid discussions of politics or any controversial topics for that matter. Such an approach is antithetical to the very idea of what education should be, and it has dangerous consequences for our democracy.

You can determine the quality of your education by answering a simple question: Was I ever made to feel uncomfortable? 

I spend most of my days as a professor making students uncomfortable. I challenge their worldviews, regardless of what they are. That makes them uncomfortable. I ask them to explain why they say what they say, or think what they think. That makes them uncomfortable. I don't reward students for simply having opinions, but demand they justify their stances. That makes them uncomfortable.

A good educational environment allows students to test ideas in the marketplace, to learn that they are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and to refuse to accept any statement or truism without reason or evidence. Depriving students of this opportunity creates a form of self-indoctrintation, where we all view ourselves as correct and the ultimate arbiters of truth because we never questions ourselves or others. 

This insidious effect is more common than many might think, and it threatens our ability to sustain a democratic society. The inability to honestly debate ideas cripples our capacity to effectively address serious problems.

Educators, and the public writ large, must also understand that challenging an opinion is not the same as silencing one. If a student voices opposition to childhood vaccinations or support for school vouchers, I am not silencing her by asking, "Why?" 

I want to know if her opinion is informed. I want her to think about the sources that inform that opinion. I want her to ask whether those sources are credible. I want her to ask what makes for a credible source. I want her to critically evaluate her own thought processes. I want to know if she's echoing someone else's thoughts, or if she is thinking for herself.

That is education. If Ms. DeVos has a differing opinion, I welcome her thoughts on the matter, but I'm going to ask her why she thinks as she does.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Margin of Error

Trump, like all politicians, preys on certain ignorances among the population to advance his political agenda. And when I say "ignorances," I don't mean that in the nuanced sense, as if to refer to racism, sexism, xenophobia, or the like. I mean it in the literal, Webster's dictionary sense: "lack of knowledge, education, or awareness."

And, I suppose if I'm being super specific, it's the ignorances of our ignorances -- i.e., not knowing what we don't know -- that have been exploited most by the recent travel ban. If there's two things every politically engaged American claims to be, yet most certainly is not, it's Constitutional lawyer and an expert on opinion polls. We tend to cite both sources badly, and often only when the most tertiary readings support our position.

Apparently, our president is no different, at least according to his Feb. 6 tweet:
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.
First and foremost, to Mr. Trump: you're the goddamn president, and also a 70-year-old man. There's no fucking reason for Twitter to be your primary mode of communication.

But to my main argument, I assume that Trump is referring to the widely circulated CNN/ORC poll conducted last week, in which 47% of respondents approved of the ban, while 53% disapproved.

The CNN/ORC poll in question appears fairly sound (some might argue the travel ban question is a bit leading, though if that's the case I would say if anything it skews in favor of the ban). In either case, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3%, so a 50/50 split in public opinion is actually fairly likely. Unfortunately, many news outlets fail to report this all-important margin of error, and even when they do they fail to seriously consider it.

So let's talk about margin of error as it relates to opinion polling.

If you want want to know exactly what public sentiment is on any given issue, you'd have to ask every member of the population. This process is called a census. As the population increases in size, taking a census becomes more expensive and time consuming. Imagine how long it would take to poll all of the 200 million registered voters in the U.S.?

That's a huge reason why pollsters sample, or question a subset of the total population that reflects its general make-up. A representative sample of about 1,000 people can give you an immensely reliable estimation of how the total population feels.

But sampling, though efficient and reliable, is not exact. That's where the margin of error comes in. It basically operates as a cushion to indicate how good a pollster's estimate is. For most professional political polls, plus or minus 3-5% is the norm. Essentially, that means it's highly likely that the true opinion of the public lies within 3-5 percentage points of what the poll reports.

So, returning to our CNN/ORC poll, it doesn't actually state that 53% of American adults disapprove of the ban. It states that the pollster is highly confident that 50-56% of Americans disapprove of the ban.

What I'm saying is Trump should stop bitching. He may very well have the support he claims to have. And even if he didn't have that support, his grounds for complaining -- namely that the election polls were wrong -- has no standing in reality.

It's true that Trump's electoral win constituted an upset, but just barely. There were a variety of models that predicted a Clinton win, some narrower victories than others. Perhaps the most followed prognosticator was Nate Silver, who missed on five states. But if you take a look at the average polling numbers in those states, you'll see why the margin of error is so critical:

Florida: Trump, +0.2 (Trump won by 1.2)
North Carolina: Trump, +1 (Trump won by 3.7)
Pennsylvania: Clinton, +1.9 (Trump won by 0.7)
Michigan: Clinton, +3.4 (Trump won by 0.3)
Wisconsin: Clinton, +6.5 (Trump won by 0.7)

Real Clear Politics, which aggregates these polling averages, interprets them with a 5 point margin of error. That means the only state on this list pollsters "got wrong" was Wisconsin, which fell 2.2 points outside the margin. Every other result was well within the expected range.

So long as the poll is conducted with representative samples, well constructed questionnaires, and otherwise sound methodology -- common for organizations like Gallup, Reuters and Pew (among others) -- you can and should trust the results. But equally important is learning to interpret those results, both as individual questions and on the whole.

It's incredibly dangerous to dismiss good information out of hand, especially if the major reason for your dismissal is that you simply don't like the results. That's largely how Trump appears to operate, not just with polls, but with everything, though that's a longer conversation best left for another day.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trump and his Media Magicians

In the days since President Trump’s inauguration, news consumers have watched members of the press all but implode over the recent barrage of “alternative facts.”

In the administration’s first full day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, presumably under direction from Mr. Trump, used his first press briefing to claim the president’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history. Not long thereafter, Mr. Trump reiterated his belief that he lost the popular vote because 3 to 5 million illegal residents voted fraudulently, and has since indicated he plans to investigate this alleged voter fraud.

From all the available evidence, these claims are demonstrably false. And not false in the maybe-sort-of-kind-of way that has dominated our politics in recent years. Flat out false. Easily observable false. Unbelievable that anyone in a position of power would suggest them false.

That’s what journalists have found so utterly baffling. It’s not what Mr. Trump and Mr. Spicer said that so confounds them, but rather why they would say it. Writers, reporters and pundits’ heads are spinning frantically as they attempt to wrap their minds around these lies. In general, the narrative that has dominated the news cycle during this first week is that Mr. Trump would only make such assertions if he were incompetent, insecure or some combination of the two.

And therein lies the answer to the ultimate, “Why?” No, not that the president is incompetent or insecure – though he perhaps may be. The answer is that Mr. Trump has been able to dominate the news cycle. Or, to be more precise, he has dictated it.

Since taking office, Mr. Trump has taken a variety of actions, many through executive orders, that have potentially far reaching effects on numerous fronts: access to health care, abortion rights, trade policy, climate change. These are all crucial issues that may significantly impact the lives of American and global citizens alike.

To be fair, these actions by Mr. Trump have garnered some media attention, though that attention seemingly pales in comparison to time spent debunking and debating alternative facts – or falsehoods, in the old tongue.

But that’s the media magic of the Trump administration. Magic is the practice of slight-of-hand. We’re only mesmerized by the magic act if we focus so much attention on the magician’s left hand that we overlook what he does with his right. That’s essentially been the playbook for Mr. Trump’s first week. In the left hand are outlandish lies concerning voter fraud and crowd size, so ridiculous in nature that both the public and the press have paid too little attention to the orders Mr. Trump has signed with his right.

Whether Mr. Trump’s administration is putting on this magic show purposefully or by accident is hard to say. After all, much of the press response to these false claims has been understandably negative. However, if the primary and general election contests are any indication, this stunning behavior will be rationalized (The tax returns can’t be released because of an audit) replaced by something as, if not more, shocking (He grabs women where?!), and ultimately forgotten, buried amidst the seemingly endless array of past blunders.

I’m not arguing that media outlets should ignore these falsehoods. In fact, I think most journalists have done right by the public to hold the administration accountable. But there must be some perspective, some proportionality of response. Do we really need five days of around-the-clock coverage of the administration’s inauguration crowd claims when even cursory comparisons of photographs, Nielsen ratings data and DC Metro records can quickly and clearly demonstrate to any reasonable person that these statements are false?

Perhaps the limited resources of our press might be better spent in helping the public understand how sometimes complex bills and obscure executive orders might affect their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. Adding context to Mr. Trump’s actions of public import is more greatly needed than adding conversation to Mr. Trump’s actions of self-delusion.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Trump's Inaugural Address: Adding Heat to a Failed Cold War Logic

Hope. That was the message Barack Obama rode into office eight years ago. Now, as Donal Trump transitions into office, hope is again the operative word. This time, however, the shades of optimism have been stripped away. In 2017, our national hope focuses less on what we might achieve than what calamity we might avoid.

Clearly I don't speak for everyone. Some will certainly greet Trump with enthusiasm, but it's certainly worth noting that group represent a minority. And even among Trump voters there likely exists some uneasiness about what he may or may not do as president. We know astonishingly little about his ideological grounding, and virtually nothing about policy specifics.

If you listened closely, you could almost hear the sphincters of 200 million Americans clinch simultaneously as Trump took his oath of office. For students of history, that puckering became tighter as Trump launched into his inaugural address, charting a course backward to revisit our national missteps, most notably those of the Cold War era.

No sooner did he finish shaking Obama's hand did he go about delegitimizing his tenure in office, and those of all the presidents who preceded him:
"What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again."
When exactly did we stop being the rulers of this nation? As I recall, every president in our history was freely elected to one degree or another, up to and including Trump. Sure, there might be concerns about the influences of gerrymandering or a debate to be had on the necessity of the electoral college, but presidents have generally won fairly based on the rules of the time regarding who could vote. 

This democratic rule is one of the reasons Sen. Mitch McConnell's blocking of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was so puzzling. The people should have a voice in the nomination, McConnell said. But they did. They voted for Obama.

This process of not only undermining but flatly denying the legitimate authority of elections not your own sets a dangerous precedent. Simply because polls are unfavorable doesn't make them rigged. Simply because the press treats one critically doesn't makes the coverage inaccurate. Simply because a leader shares a different view doesn't make him illegitimate. It's as irresponsible for Democrats to behave this way toward Trump as it is for Trump to behave this way toward Obama.

Frightening as this demagoguery may be, Trump at least made that accusation in more abstract terms. His specifics regarding America's place in the world and our right to assert that authority absolutely set the stage for reckless and dangerous action in the near future, not just for America, but for the entire globe.

He followed the authoritarian (if not autocratic) playbook to perfection:

  1. Assert the rightful dominance of your nation relative to others.
  2. Claim absolute -- if not divine -- right to exercise that dominance.
  3. Define that dominance largely in military terms.
  4. Select an enemy toward which to direct that military might.
  5. Overstate the existential threat of that enemy, and in so doing create a baseline of fear from which to rule and expand your authority.
These elements were present in Trump's inaugural at varying moment, but I'd like to present some specific exerts emblematic of this patter:


1. Assert the rightful dominance of your nation relative to others.
"At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other." 
"Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."
2. Claim absolute -- if not divine -- right to exercise that dominance.
3. Define that dominance largely in military terms
"We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world -- but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first."
"We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God."
4. Select an enemy toward which to direct that military might.
"One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world."
"We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones -- and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth."
5. Overstate the existential threat of that enemy, and in so doing create a baseline of fear from which to rule and expand your authority.
"For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we've defended other nation's borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay."
We may gather some understanding of Trump's ideology from his speech: He's defined America as a hellscape and himself as the only one capable of rescuing us. For now, we possess military and economic dominance that, despite waning over the past decade, can still be exercised to unilaterally advance our national interests while ignoring the interests of other nations. We will advance our interests by standing up to nations that hurt us economically, largely through stealing our jobs and crippling us through poor trade treaties, and defeating the existential threat of terrorism -- specifically Islamic terrorism.

There are a variety of problems with this worldview, not the least of which being the falsity of its underlying assumptions. From an economic perspective, the American recovery from the Great Recession could certainly have been stronger, but unemployment sits below 5 percent and, at least relative to other nations, we've outperformed. It's also worth noting that our military is the best, most well-equipped of any in history. That's unsurprising considering we spend more on our military than the next seven greatest arms-spending nations combined.

Then there's the inherent danger of overstating the power and influence of our nation's enemies. I'm not going to argue that terrorism isn't a threat. It absolutely is, and not just the radial Islamic variety. But it's not an existential one unless we treat it as such, nor is it one we can defeat with traditional military might.

The current face of terror, ISIS, has been steadily losing ground for the last two years. The manner in which the world deals with the crisis in Syria, both within the nation and regarding its refugees, will play a major role in how much this brand of terrorism proliferates. Regardless, the defeat of ISIS in Syria will not mark the defeat of terrorism, just as the weakening of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban didn't. Ideologies don't surrender on aircraft carriers. To some degree or another, the war on terror will continue in perpetuity. We will never win in the traditional sense. We can curb and contain the influence of radicalism through intelligent and cooperative efforts, but that's about it.

Unless terrorist groups gain access to nuclear or biological weapons, their threat is minimal at best. However, it may become an existential threat if we allow fear to grip us and fundamentally alter our way of life, turning American against American, or overcommitting our resources to unneeded militaristic responses -- the very resources that could be allocated to rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure Trump claims to care so deeply about. I worry that we'll make the same mistakes with Islamic terror that we made with the USSR. Yes, the USSR was a threat, but we responded disproportionately, developing an unnecessarily large missile gap. The effects of that response continue to shape our foreign policy today. We only remember that we won the Cold War, not that we could have potentially avoided it, deescalated it sooner, or fought it more efficiently.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Trump's ideology is the extent to which he puts "America first." I'm all about domestic growth and investments, but we must strike a balance between nationalism and globalism. We can't simply role back 70 years of globalization just because we feel like it.

Trump likes to complain about China and Mexico stealing our jobs, but they didn't steal anything. U.S. business leaders moved factories freely to save money on labor, resources, and distribution. If recapturing those jobs requires a race to the bottom, forcing workers to accept lower wages with poor benefits, I don't see that as a victory. Perhaps the better approach would involve leveraging our international influence to improve working conditions globally, making outsourcing less profitable while simultaneously raising the working class' quality of life worldwide.

Moreover, outsourcing isn't the only reason why many blue collar factory jobs have vanished. Increased efficiency through changing production practices and automation has played a massive role. Instituting tariffs and launching trade wars will do nothing to slow these factors.

And a trade war, which I assume would be Trump's economic "America first" response, would be equally shortsighted. For better of for worse, the American economy is inextricably entangled with those of several other nations, China especially. Economic harm to one invariably causes economic harm to the other, and China is more apt to deal with that downturn than the U.S. for a variety of reasons, in particular it's ability to adjust economic policies quickly due to its dictatorial ruling style. Talking tough on China makes for a great soundbite, but what happens when acting tough on China causes skyrocketing prices on consumer goods?

All of these factors taken together point to the inability of Trump and his supporters to grasp the nuances of global affairs. America cannot unilaterally dictate terms to advance its own interests. We don't have, nor have we ever had, that power. Our interests are intertwined with those of other nations, so oftentimes putting America first necessarily means putting China, Japan, Mexico, or the EU first as well -- or at the very least taking their national interests into consideration to preserve the larger global peace and prosperity.

The free-for-all, every-man-for-himself approach that may have served Trump well as a businessman will doom him as a president. Defeating your enemies in corporate America means putting them out of business. Defeating your enemies as the leader of American government means crushing them economically -- which we can't do without the support of other nations -- or wiping nations off the face of the earth -- which we can't do without a level of brinksmanship that seriously endangers the survival of not just our nation, but our species.