Smoking out the bogus: Martin Porter’s “Four Principles of a Quotation”

March 25, 2014

Commenter SBH put me on to this interesting set of principles from a mathematician, on bogus quotes, and how to determine that they are bogus, and most important, how to avoid creating a bogus quote by stripping context or altering the text.

‘After all, a study I once read said something like 86% of all statistics cited in speeches are made up on the spot.’*

I looked up Martin Porter.  What are his principles of quotations?  Who is he, and why should we listen to him?

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century.

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century. Self portrait.

Turns out he’s a mathematician who works in algorithms to study language, and a founder of Grapeshot.  Along the way, he grew intrigued with trying to source a very famous quotation attributed to Edmund Burke (confess, you don’t really know enough about Burke to describe who he was, or why that quote might not be his, right? See Porter’s last principle).

Porter wrote an interesting essay about the experience, and about the wide abuse of the real Burke quote and what he’d learned.

At the end of the essay, he posed principles for quotations, two involving how we might hold the necessary skepticism that helps smoke out quotes that are bogus for one reason or another.

The other two, I confess, sometimes are difficult to follow.  One of my favorite statements from George Santayana, in the upper right corner of this blog, stands out of context (he wasn’t writing about history, really), nor have I read the entire book.  Porter proposes very high standards indeed: It’s not enough that the quote be accurately phrased and attributed appropriately to its creator; Porter wants the quote to be used in a similar context.  In his essay on the Burke quote, he notes Burke was talking of factions, but when Ronald Reagan used it, even getting the phrasing right, Reagan used it to talk about arming nations.  Porter suggests such a usage can lead us awry.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Porter is right, of course.

2014 is a federal election year.  Here in Texas we also have municipal elections in May — a lot of opportunities, to vote, a lot of campaigning, and a in that campaigning a stunning wealth of opportunities for people to misattribute quotes, or to invent whole new inappropriate contexts, twists, and diversions to accurate understanding.

We should heed Martin Porter better, perhaps.

Martin Porter’s four Principles for Quotations:

I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the reliability of the information available on the world wide web.

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.
Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.
Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

* You knew that one was bogus. Right?

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Ted Cruz shows off his ignorance of free enterprise history with bad joke on garage startups

July 22, 2013

Oh, come on, Ted Cruz!

It’s a snarky enough Tweet — and it would even produce a smile from me — if it weren’t so inaccurate, historically.

Robert Scoble Leads the Way into the HP Garage

Robert Scoble Leads the Way into the HP Garage in Palo Alto, California (Photo credit: bragadocchio) Could Ted Cruz find Palo Alto?

Businesses starting in garages?

It’s too early to tell, but the past five years probably haven’t been great for garage startups.  Not for lack of Obama’s trying, mind you.  But there’s no demand.

On the other hand, Reagan didn’t do anything to push garage startups, either.

The two most famous garage startups are probably Hewlett Packard, and Apple.  H-P got started in 1939 — FDR’s administration (how’s that for being 180 degrees wrong, Ted?)  Apple got going late in 1976, in the last months of the Ford administration.  It did well enough in the Carter years to be a player by 1980, the year before Reagan took office.

So Reagan had nothing to do with those two.

Other startups?

An odd little site ambitiously titled Retire @21 lists ten garage startups — both Apple, and H-P, and eight others; as listed at that site, in alphabetical order:

  1. Amazon — Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in his garage in Bellevue, Washington, in 1994, the Clinton administration.
  2. Apple — 1976 founding in Los Altos, California, by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs — Ford and Carter administrations.
  3. Disney — 1923 in Los Angeles by Walt and Roy Disney; Warren G. Harding was president until  his death on August 2, 1923; he was succeeded by his Vice President, Calvin Coolidge.
  4. Google — “As Stanford Graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin started what’s now known as Google from Susan Wojcicki’s garage in September 1998.”  Clinton administration.
  5. Harley-Davidson — Founded in a garage in north Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson — Teddy Roosevelt’s first term.
  6. Hewlett-Packard — “In 1939, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded HP in Packard’s garage with an initial investment of $538.  Their first product was an audio oscillator and one of their first customers was Walt Disney, who purchased eight oscillators to develop the sound system for the movie Fantasia.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s second term.
  7. Lotus Cars — “In 1948, at the age of 20, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman started Lotus Cars by building the first Lotus racing car in stables behind The Railway Hotel in Hornsey, North London. Chapman used a 1930s Austin Seven and a power drill to build the Lotus Mark I.”  In London — Truman in the U.S., but more rationally, Clement Attlee was Prime Minister in England, the Labour Party’s standard bearer.
  8. Maglite — Tony Maglica, a Croation who emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, made precision metal machines parts in Los Angeles, incorporated Mag Instrument in 1974 and released his first, signature flashlight in 1979.  Nixon and Ford were presidents in 1974; Jimmy Carter was president in 1979.
  9. Mattel — Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler incorporated in 1945, selling picture frames out of a garage somewhere in Southern California.  They used scraps from the frames to make doll houses, and found a whole new business.  FDR was president until April 12, 1945; Harry Truman succeeded to the office when FDR died.
  10. Yankee Candle Company — Michael Kittredge started making candles in his mother’s garage in South Hadley, Massachusetts, before he graduated from high school, in 1969, during the Nixon administration.  He moved out sometime in 1974.

Ten of the most famous garage startups — none of them starting in the Reagan administration.  Can Ted Cruz name a garage entrepreneur who started out in the Reagan years?  I doubt it.

Maybe more to the point, can he describe what the Reagan administration did that would have made the climate better for entrepreneurs?  Reagan’s administration was particularly lackadaisical about small business and entrepreneurs, on the best days, and outright hostile on the worst.  When Reagan’s first head of the Small Business Administration announced he was resigning and moving on, SBA staff held a massive going away party, without inviting the guy — he was that much disliked by the small business advocates.

I imagine these past five years have not been happy ones for small business startups.  Banks aren’t lending money, and investors want bigger ponds to fish in.  But there’s absolutely no accuracy to the comparison Cruz made in his Tweet.  Especially on the Ronald Reagan side, the Reagan years were good for General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, and other defense contractors, but not particularly good for garage entrepreneurial startups, as the list of the top such startups show.  They weren’t Reagan-era miracles.

Cruz probably doesn’t remember.  He was ten years old when Ronald Reagan assumed office.

Sen. Ted Cruz at a May 9, 2013, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration - New York Times photo by Doug Mills

Sen. Ted Cruz at a May 9, 2013, Senate Judiciary Committee markup on immigration reform — showing the same attitude he has shown to funding aid for small businesses and garage startups. New York Times photo by Doug Mills, via Dallas Morning News. During the markup the committee rejected Cruz’s proposal to make it tougher for immigrants to become citizens.

Please don’t forget it was Ronald Reagan who tried to kill ARPANET, and was stopped by young Congressman Al Gore, who argued it could someday be an “information superhighway.”  Cruz wasn’t out of high school, then.  Al Gore sneezes better business ideas and  better support for business startups than Ted Cruz ever will.

Starting out in a garage to build a giant company is a great concept, the later-20th century Horatio Alger story — but unrealistic, as Watts Martin explained at Coyote Tracks:

The romantic notion is the unknown garage startup, the Apple of 1977, but garage startups only succeed in industries that are garage-sized when they start. Once they do succeed, they’re not going to be mad enough to bet everything on futuristic visions—after all, now they have something to lose. You wouldn’t have caught HP or Dell or Microsoft announcing the iPad. After it was announced, Apple was roundly mocked in the press for it.

And the fact is, Republicans especially in this current Congress — including Ted Cruz — have been hostile to almost anything that would help a garage startup in a new field.  Bad economies do not produce a plethora of entrepreneurial success.  Only the tough survive.

Ted Cruz never meets an up escalator that he doesn't think about how to stop.

Ted Cruz never meets an up escalator that he doesn’t think about how to stop. Getty Images via NBCLatino

For example, Cruz has voted against almost every bill with a beneficial small business impact to come before the Senate since he was sworn in.  He’s voted against student loan relief — startups have relied on highly-educated and technically educated  new graduates for years.  Cruz voted against confirmation of small business advocate Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.  Cruz voted to sustain the money sequestering that cut Small Business Administration loans and other aid to small businesses across the government.  Cruz voted against the Agriculture bill, with aid to small farmers.  Yeah, I know — he’s against regulation.  Can you name any garage startup that’s been stopped by the Dodd-Frank Act, or any EPA regulation?  No, they don’t exist.

The Tweet?  Not only does Cruz get the history dead wrong, it suggests he supports small business — and there’s no evidence of that on the record.  It’s a toss-away punch line for a stump speech — but in less than 140 characters it gets history wrong at both ends, and makes a mockery of small business and entrepreneur support from the federal government.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency wasn’t all that good for small, entrepreneurial startups; Obama’s hasn’t been that bad, especially if we subtract the anti-business actions of the GOP (odd as that is).  Cruz doesn’t remember, probably never knew, and he’s no big friend of entrepreneurs, either.

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Nope, Patrick Henry didn’t say that

April 8, 2013

More misquoting of “the Founders”:

For America misquotes Patrick Henry

For America’s poster featuring a quote falsely claimed to be from Patrick Henry.  The racial right wingers won’t tell you, but the painting is a portrait by George Bagby Matthews c. 1891, after an original by Thomas Sully.

It’s baseball season.  I love a pitch into the wheelhouse.

The radical right-wing political group For America — a sort of latter-day Redneck Panther group — invented this one, and pasted it up on their Facebook site this morning.

You know where this is going, of course.  Patrick Henry didn’t say that.  The poster is a hoax.

Your Hemingway [Excrement] Detector probably clanged as soon as you pulled the poster up.  Patrick Henry was a powerful opponent to the Constitution.

Opposed to the Constitution?  Oh, yes.  It helps to know a bit of history.

Henry was at best suspicious of the drive to get a working, central government after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution. While George Washington needed an interstate authority, at least to resolve disputes between the states, in order to create a commercial entity to build a path into the Ohio Valley, Henry was opposed.  To be sure, Washington was scheming a bit, with his dreaming:  Washington held title to more than 15,000 acres of land in the Ohio Valley, his fee for having surveyed the land for Lord Fairfax many years earlier.  Washington stood to get wealthy from the sale of the land — if a path into and out of the Ohio could be devised.  Washington struggled for years to get a canal through — seen today in the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Washington, D.C., up along the Potomac River.

Henry was so opposed to the states’ working together that he refused to notify Virginia’s commissioners appointed to a commission to settle the fishing and title dispute to the Chesapeake Bay, between Maryland and Virginia especially, and including Delaware.  When Maryland’s commissioners showed up in Fairfax for the first round of negotiations, they could not find the Virginia commissioners at all.  So they called on Gen. Washington at his Mt. Vernon estate (as about a thousand people a year did in those years).  Washington recognized immediately how this collaboration could aid getting a path through Maryland to the Ohio.

Perplexed at the abject failure of Virginia’s government, Washington dispatched messages to the Virginia commissioners, including a young man Washington did not know, James Madison.  Washington was shocked and disappointed to learn the Virginians did not know they had been appointed.  He suggested the Marylanders return home, and immediately began working with Madison to make the commission work.  When this group settled the Chesapeake Bay boundaries and fishing issues, and Washington’s war aide Alexander Hamilton was entangled in a separate but similar dispute between New York and New Jersey over New York Harbor, Washington introduced Hamilton and Madison to each other, and suggested they broaden their work.  Ultimately this effort produced the Annapolis Convention among five colonies, which called for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.  The Second Continental Congress agreed to the proposal.

When the delegates met at Philadelphia, they determined the Articles of Confederation irreparably flawed.  Instead, they wrote what we now know as the Constitution.

Patrick Henry opposed each step.  Appointed delegate to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, he refused to serve.  Instead, he was elected Governor of Virginia, and proceeded to organize opposition to ratification of the Constitution.  Madison’s unique ratification process, sending the Constitution to conventions of the people in each state, instead of to the state legislatures, was designed to get around Henry’s having locked up opposition to ratification in the Virginia Assembly.

Henry led opposition to ratification at the Virginia convention.  Outflanked by Madison, Henry was enraged by Virginia’s ratification.  Virginia had called for the addition of a bill of rights to the document, and the ratification campaign was carried partly on Madison’s promise that he would propose a bill of rights as amendments, as soon as the new federal government got up and running.  Henry sought to thwart Madison, blocking Madison’s appointment as U.S. senator, in the state legislature.  When Madison fell back to run for the House of Representatives, Henry found the best candidate to oppose Madison in the Tidewater area and threw all his support behind that candidate. (James Monroe was that candidate; in one of the more fitting ironies of history, during the campaign Monroe was persuaded to Madison’s side; Madison won the election, and the lifelong friendship and help of Monroe.)

When the new federal government organized, Henry refused George Washington’s invitation to join it in any capacity.  Henry continued to oppose the Constitution and its government to his death.

Consequently, it is extremely unlikely Henry would have ever suggested that the Constitution was a useful tool in any way, especially as a defense of freedom; Henry saw the Constitution as a threat to freedom.

There are good records of some of the things Henry really did say about the Constitution.  Henry regarded the Constitution as tyranny, and said exactly that in his speech against the Constitution on June 5, 1788:

It is said eight states have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve states and a half had adopted it, I would, with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it. You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.

In the same speech, Henry challenged the right of the people even to consider creating  a Constitution:

The assent of the people, in their collective capacity, is not necessary to the formation of a federal government. The people have no right to enter into leagues, alliances, or confederations; they are not the proper agents for this purpose. States and foreign powers are the only proper agents for this kind of government.

Probably diving into hyperbole, Henry portrayed the Constitution itself as a threat to liberty, not a protection from government:

When I thus profess myself an advocate for the liberty of the people, I shall be told I am a designing man, that I am to be a great man, that I am to be a demagogue; and many similar illiberal insinuations will be thrown out: but, sir, conscious rectitude outweighs those things with me.

I see great jeopardy in this new government. I see none from our present one. I hope some gentleman or other will bring forth, in full array, those dangers, if there be any, that we may see and touch them.

Anyone familiar with the history, with the story of Patrick Henry and the conflicting, often perpendicular story of the creation of the Constitution, would be alarmed at a quote in which Henry appears to claim the Constitution a protector of rights of citizens — it’s absolutely contrary to almost everything he ever said.

Perhaps most ironic, for our right-wing friends:  The quote on the poster above was invented as a defense against abuses of the Constitution by the right.  Wikiquote tracked it back to its invention:

The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.

  • As quoted in The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin. Though widely attributed to Henry, this statement has not been sourced to any document before the 1990s and appears to be at odds with his beliefs as a strong opponent of the adoption of the US Constitution.

“History?” For America might say. “We don’t got no history. We don’t NEED NO STINKIN’ HISTORY!”

And so they trip merrily down the path to authoritarian dictatorship, denying their direction every step of the way to their ultimate end.

The rest of us can study history, and discover the truth.

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Mermelstein: The man who forced us to remember

August 20, 2012

I first posted a version of this back in August 2006.  Since that time not much showed up on the internet to commemorate the story of Mel Mermelstein, nor to burn his deeds into the history books.  Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub had many fewer readers each day, then too.  This is a story that should not be forgotten about a story that must not be forgotten.

Mel Mermelstein, photo from Auschwitz Study Foundation

Mel Mermelstein, photo from Auschwitz Study Foundation

In early August 1985, Melvin Mermelstein struck a powerful blow against bogus history and historical hoaxes. Mel won a decision in a California court, in a contract case.

A group of Holocaust deniers had offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Mermelstein had watched his family marched to the gas chambers, and could testify. He offered his evidence. The Holocaust deniers, of course, had no intention of paying up. They dismissed any evidence offered as inadequate, and continued to claim no one could prove that the Holocaust actually occurred.

Mermelstein, however, was a businessman and he knew the law. He knew that the offer of the reward was a sweepstakes, a form of contract. He knew it was a contract enforceable in court.  He sued to collect the offered reward.  The reward was an offer, and Mel Mermelstein accepted the offer and, he said, he performed his part of the bargain. The issue in court would be, was Mermelstein’s evidence sufficient?

Mermelstein’s lawyer had a brilliant idea. He petitioned the court to take “judicial notice” of the fact of the Holocaust. Judicial note means that a fact is so well established that it doesn’t need to be evidenced when it is introduced in court — such as, 2+2=4, the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius, etc.

The court ruled that the evidence presented overwhelmingly established that the Holocaust had occurred — the court made judicial note of the Holocaust. That ruling meant that, by operation of law, Mermelstein won the case. The only thing for the judge to do beyond that was award the money, and expenses and damages.

You can read the case and other materials at the Nizkor Holocaust remembrance site.

Appalachian State University takes the Holocaust seriously — there is a program of study on the issue, reported by the Mountain Times (the school is in Boone, North Carolina — not sure where the newspaper is).

Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations

Mountain Times, August 17, 2006

As co-directors of Appalachian State University’s Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies, Rennie Brantz and Zohara Boyd are always eager to expand and improve the center’s methods of education. Seldom, though, does this involve airfare.

Brantz and Boyd recently visited Israel to participate in the Fifth International Conference for Education: Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations. The four-day conference was held in late June at Yad Vashem, an institute and museum in Jerusalem that specializes in the Nazi Holocaust. [link added]

“Yad Vashem is an incredible institute,” Brantz said. “It was founded in the ’50s to remember and commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust, and has been the premier international research institute dealing with the Holocaust.”

As Santayana advises, we remember the past in order to prevent its recurring. Clearly, this is a past we need to work harder at remembering.

Despite having been ordered to acknowledge the Holocaust, pay up on their sweepstakes offer, and apologize to Mr. Mermelstein, Holocaust deniers continue to publish claims that Mr. Mermelstein’s account is not accurate, or that it is contradictory or in some other way fails to measure up to the most strict tests of historical accuracy.  So it is important that you remember the story of Mel Mermelstein, and that you spread it far and wide.

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One more time: Intelligent design is a pig that still doesn’t fly

July 26, 2012

Gee, I think I first posted this more than a year before the Pennsylvania decision.  In any case, the subject has come up once again in another forum:  Why don’t we teach intelligent design as an “alternative” idea in public school science classes?  The answer is, simply, ID is not science.  It’s not an alternative hypothesis, it’s a chunk of minority cult religious dogma.
Most bad science claims recirculate year after year, until they are simply educated out of existence in the public mind.  We can hope intelligent design falls into that category.  But we might worry that modern creationism, begun as a backlash to the anti-Soviet, National Defense Education Act‘s effects on beefing up science teaching in American schools, survives.
Picture from Flying Pig Brewery, Seattle, Washington
Image: Flying Pig Brewing Co., Everett, Washington

[From 2006 and 2007]:

We’re talking past each other now over at Right Reason, on a thread that started out lamenting Baylor’s initial decision to deny Dr. Francis Beckwith tenure last year, but quickly changed once news got out that Beckwith’s appeal of the decision was successful.

I noted that Beckwith’s getting tenure denies ID advocates of an argument that Beckwith is being persecuted for his ID views (wholly apart from the fact that there is zero indication his views on this issue had anything to do with his tenure discussions). Of course, I was wrong there — ID advocates have since continued to claim persecution where none exists. Never let the facts get in the way of a creationism rant, is the first rule of creationism.

Discussion has since turned to the legality of teaching intelligent design in a public school science class. This is well settled law — it’s not legal, not so long as there remains no undisproven science to back ID or any other form of creationism.

Background: The Supreme Court affirmed the law in a 1987 case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578), affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment against a state law requiring schools to teach creationism whenever evolution was covered in the curriculum. Summary judgment was issued by the district court because the issues were not materially different from those in an earlier case in Arkansas, McLean vs. Arkansas (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 (ED Ark. 1982)). There the court held, after trial, that there is no science in creationism that would allow it to be discussed as science in a classroom, and further that creationism is based in scripture and the advocates of creationism have religious reasons only to make such laws. (During depositions, each creationism advocate was asked, under oath, whether they knew of research that supports creationism; each answered “no.” Then they were asked where creationism comes from, and each answered that it comes from scripture. It is often noted how the testimony changes from creationists, when under oath.)

Especially after the Arkansas trial, it was clear that in order to get creationism into the textbooks, creationists would have to hit the laboratories and the field to do some science to back their claims. Oddly, they have staunchly avoided doing any such work, instead claiming victimhood, usually on religious grounds. To the extent ID differs from all other forms of creationism, the applicability of the law to ID was affirmed late last year in the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Please go read that case!)

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Crank history assault on Alabama Public Television

July 10, 2012

Highly disturbing news from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Alabama Public Television Apparently Heading Far Right

Posted in Extremist Propaganda

by Mark Potok on June 18, 2012

Lord help us. Alabama Public Television (APT), a voice of reason in a state that often seems to have very little, is apparently succumbing to the crazies.

Last week, the two top executives of the network were summarily fired by the Alabama Educational Television Commission, APT’s governing body, after they resisted an effort by a new commissioner to air DVDs produced by a far-right theocrat who has been roundly condemned by historians. In the days that followed, three members of a foundation set up to raise money for APT also resigned.

The videos were produced by David Barton, an evangelical propagandist who claims falsely that America was founded as a Christian nation and has also become Glenn Beck’s unofficial — and completely untrained — “historian.” The DVDs were suggested by commissioner Rodney Herring, an Opelika-based chiropractor who was appointed to the panel last year and elected its secretary in January.

Immediately after meeting in executive session June 12, commissioners ordered APT Executive Director Allan Pizzato and his deputy, Pauline Howland, to clear out their desks and leave APT’s Birmingham headquarters. Pizzato had been APT executive director for 12 years; Howland was his deputy director and the network’s chief financial officer.

Pizzato would not comment on the reasons for the firing, other than to say commissioners were seeking to go in “a new direction.” But Howland, in an interview with Current.org, a news service of the American University’s School of Communication, said that Pizzato and his staff had “grave concerns” about airing the videos, which strongly advocate a religious interpretation of the past that historians say is simply wrong. She said she was “baffled” by the firings but recalled Pizatto asking his staff for advice on how to respond to Herring’s proposal.

Commission Chairman Ferris Stephens disputed Current’s report in an interview with The Associated Press, but gave no specifics. Herring, for his part, claimed that disagreement over the Barton DVDs played an “at best minimal” role in the firings, which he described as part of an overall restructuring effort. “We believe it to be a positive change,” wrote another commissioner, conservative talk radio host J. Holland, in response to AP’s queries about the firings. “Simple as that.”

As simple as that? Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe it.

Stephens told the AP that Barton’s videos had been discussed in the last meeting before the one that produced the firings last week. He said there was another item related to Barton’s organization, WallBuilders, on the agenda for last week’s meeting, but that the commission didn’t get to that item before adjourning. Herring, for his part, denied knowing that Pizzato and Howland had any opinion at all about the DVDs, although Howland told Current that Pizzato had made it clear that he thought the films were “inappropriate” for APT.

Why is it that Pizzato and Howland were fired just as the matter seemed to be coming to a head? Why won’t Stephens and the other commissioners cough up the real reason for the firings, if it wasn’t what seems obvious? When the AP story ran last week, Herring was quoted saying the station may indeed broadcast some of the Barton videos. In fact, he said the commission had consulted attorneys about that possibility. That’s a funny thing to do if you’re just deciding whether to show a film on public television, not making controversial personnel decisions.

The sad truth is, this kind of extremism is getting to be par for the course in Alabama. We passed the immigrant-bashing H.B. 56 and, when legal problems with it came up, our legislators responded by actually making the draconian bill even worse. Last month, the same legislature, after the John Birch Society warned hysterically about a United Nations global sustainability plan, actually passed a law saying that property here cannot be confiscated as part of Agenda 21 — even though that entirely voluntary plan does not and could not require that. One of our current congressmen even claimed a few years back that he knew of 17 “socialists” in the U.S. Congress — although, like Joe McCarthy, he declined to name them.

Why does Rodney Herring want to show Barton’s videos? He isn’t saying. But what Barton has to say should make Alabamians’ hair stand on end.

Barton doesn’t only not believe in global warming — he thinks reducing carbon dioxide emissions would actually devastate the planet. Barton fought to have the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and labor activist Cesar Chavez removed from public school textbooks. He says God set the borders of nations, so immigration reform is unnecessary. He argues that homosexuality should be regulated because gay people “die decades earlier than heterosexuals” and more than half of all gays have had more than 500 sex partners — both falsehoods.

It isn’t only liberals who dislike Barton. Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute on Church-State Studies at Baylor University, says “a lot of what he presents is a distortion of the truth.” J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, says his writings are “laced with exaggerations, half-truths and misstatements of fact.” Mark Lilla, a scholar who has taught at University of Chicago and Columbia University, says Barton’s work is “schlock history written by [a] religious propagandist” and uses “selective quotations out of context.”

But none of this apparently came up when the commissioners, in their great wisdom, decided to fire Allan Pizzato and Pauline Howland. Instead, it looks like Barton’s backers succeeded, by a reported 5-2 vote, in silencing their own eminently sensible executives, and then refusing to come clean with the public about their action.

Once again, Alabama will be the poorer. Lord help us.

Supporters of Alabama Public Television set up a website to provide information on the fight to save APT.

David Barton is, of course, the voodoo history promoter from Texas, former vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party who led the party into a variety of anti-education policies.  Barton’s organization to spread his bogus history claims is Wallbuilders.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Ellie.

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One more time: Recognizing bogus history

May 14, 2012

2012 is an election year, a time when we make history together as a nation.  Potential turning points in history often get tarred with false interpretations of history to sway an election, or worse, a completely false recounting of history.  Especially in campaigns, we need to beware false claims of history, lest we be like the ignorants George Santayana warned about, doomed to repeat errors of history they do not know or understand.  How to tell that a purported piece of history is bogus?  This is mostly a repeat of a post that first appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub six years ago.

Recognizing bogus history, 1

Robert Park provides a short e-mail newsletter every Friday, covering news in the world of physics. It’s called “What’s New.” Park makes an art of smoking out bogus science and frauds people try to perpetrate in the name of science, or for money. He wrote an opinion column for the Chronicle of Higher Education [now from Quack Watch; CHE put it behind a paywall] published January 31, 2003, in which he listed the “7 warning signs of bogus science.”

Please go read Park’s entire essay, it’s good.

And it got me thinking about whether there are similar warning signs for bogus history? Are there clues that a biography of Howard Hughes is false that should pop out at any disinterested observer? Are there clues that the claimed quote from James Madison saying the U.S. government is founded on the Ten Commandments is pure buncombe? Should Oliver Stone have been able to to more readily separate fact from fantasy about the Kennedy assassination (assuming he wasn’t just going for the dramatic elements)? Can we generalize for such hoaxes, to inoculate ourselves and our history texts against error?

Bogus science section of Thinkquest logo

Perhaps some of the detection methods Park suggests would work for history. He wrote his opinion piece after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which the Court laid out some rules lower courts should use to smoke out and eliminate false science. As Park described it, “The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.” The Court said lower courts must act as gatekeepers against science buncombe — a difficult task for some judges who, in their training as attorneys, often spent little time studying science.

Some of the Daubert reasoning surfaced in another case recently, the opinion in Pennsylvania district federal court in which Federal District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s order that intelligent design be introduced to high school biology students, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

Can we generalize to history, too? I’m going to try, below the fold.

Here are Park’s seven warning signs, boiled down:

Park wrote:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?

I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate. [I have cut out the explanations. — E.D.]

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Voodoo history

Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.  Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
  3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
  7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.

Any history account that shows one or more of those warning signs should be viewed skeptically.

In another post, I’ll flesh out the reasoning behind why they are warning signs.


If Stalin said America is “a healthy body,” why can’t anyone find the source?

March 14, 2012

Joseph Stalin, via Chicago Boyz

Joseph Stalin would have to have been drunk to call the U.S. “healthy,” and to have complimented America’s patriotism, morality and spiritual life. Even then, it would be unlikely. Why does this quote keep circulating?

This has been floating around Tea Party and other shallow venues for a while, but I’ll wager Stalin did not say it:

“America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold:  Its patriotism, its morality, and its spiritual life.  If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within.”

I can’t find any source for it; it’s mostly quoted on right-wing sites where people marvel over what a prophet Stalin was.  All requests for a citation in five or six different forums I’ve checked, are unanswered.  Nothing like it appears at the often-checked Wikiquote.  The Stalin Archive holds nothing close to the claimed quote.

Perhaps more telling:  Is it likely that Joe Stalin ever would have called the U.S. “a healthy body?”  Stalin was of a school that claimed capitalism was diseased, and America was infested with a soon-to-be terminal case.  If he called America “diseased” by patriotism and religion, it would be consistent with other statements, but his calling America healthy for patriotism and spiritual life, it’s inconsistent with other claims he made, about America and about capitalism (see Stalin’s 1929 remonstrance to the U.S. Communist Party, for example).

So, Dear Readers, my request to you:  Can you offer the source of this quote, Joseph Stalin or not?

Why would a false claim from Stalin get such a life on the internet?

Update, March 15, 2012:  I’m calling this one:  It’s a bogus quote.  Joseph Stalin didn’t say it.  Not as many comments here as e-mails and comments on other discussion boards and Facebook — no one has come even close to anything like the line above from Stalin.  No source quoting the line even bothers to give a decade, let alone a year, a location, and a citation that would pass muster in a sophomore high school English class.  Tea Partiers, you’ve tried to twist history again — stop it.

Update March 1, 2013: If you’re checking in here studying for a DBQ for an AP class, please tell us in comments, which AP class, and what city you’re in.  Thanks.


Whenever she opens her mouth

June 27, 2011

After the Republican presidential candidates’ debate, observers of the pageant opined that Michelle Bachmann had little command of history (as usual, in her case), but a great command of turning phrases that telegraph to particular interest groups that she is one of them.  For example, somewhere in the debate Bachmann sneaked in a claim that “we are the head and not the tail.”  This was said to be a cryptic shout out to fundamentalist Christians, a reference to Deuteronomy 28.13.

So, if Bachmann is so thoughtful, so careful to send coded messages to her supporters, one may wonder:  What group is she giving a shout out to, here, in her appearance in Waterloo, Iowa:

Nominally, one might think she’s sending a note to all of us in the John Wayne fan club.  But some of us in the fan club remember that Marion Mitchell Morrison  (John Wayne’s non-screen name) was born — in Iowa, true — but in Winterset, in the southern part of the state.

Waterloo was the home of another man who was born with the name “John Wayne.”  But that was John Wayne Gacy, the serial murderer who moved to Waterloo, Iowa in the middle 1960s.

Oy.  Wrong John Wayne to affiliate with Waterloo, or even to remind Waterloo residents about.  History that is, regretfully, bogus.  Or voodoo history, depending on whether one thinks Bachmann is conscious, not on drugs, and meant what she said.

Bachmann told CBS News that she’s running because “People are tired of being told things that aren’t so.”  Practice what you preach, Ms. Bachmann?

Sunday I watched Bachmann vs. CBS’s veteran report Bob Schieffer.  Schieffer asked her about her tendency to tell extremely tall tales — like her claim that the Obama administration had failed to approve any oil leases, when the total approved at that point was 270 leases.  Bachmann went off on a tangent.  Schieffer asked the question a second time.  She went on another tangent.  Schieffer asked a third time, a third tangent.

History challenged, veracity challenged: Every time Michelle Bachmann opens her mouth, it’s an adventure.


“When we’re telling whoppers about Obama and government, please don’t pester us with the facts” Department

June 27, 2011

First:  American Elephant, a blog that insults pachyderms with its mendacious ways, stretches for ways to complain about President Obama.  In a recent post, the author tried to poke ill-humored fun at Obama and companies he’s visited over the past couple of years.  It’s the headline that caught my attention:

“President Obama has never held a private job, but picks the winners and losers for the economy”

The premise is false, of course — it’s based on that Republican smear meme that Obama and his cabinet lack experience in the private sector, a smear that breaks down quickly if anyone looks at the biographies of the cabinet.  Obama also comes from the private sector, though when confronted with the facts the meme spreaders tend to make rash and foolish claims like “the Catholic church is public sector” and “lawyers all work for the government.”

Conspiracy theory cartoon by Chris Madden

Cartoon by Chris Madden, via TV Tropes

I left a response there, but don’t expect the blog owner to show the decency of allowing it through moderation:

President Obama worked for a private group providing services to people below the poverty line, and then he worked for a very large private law firm, while teaching at the privately-run University of Chicago.  He had never worked for government until his election to the Illinois State Senate (is that salaried?).

You should probably correct the headline.

As if.  Not only is the headline wrong, but the evidence doesn’t support the second premise, and there are other serious problems with the claims and arguments advanced there.  True American elephants probably take to drink to try to forget what’s being done under their name.

Second, and probably third:  There is the minor kerfuffle of the hoax report out of Pakistan that nuclear power plants in Nebraska are either near meltdown, or already melted down, and you don’t know about it because President Obama ordered a news blackout to avoid panic but at the same time condemning hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners to radiation poisoning deaths.  It’s an absurd story on several fronts and several levels — news of the flood plight of the power plants has been reported around the world, for example — but those bent on being suckered by every conspiracy claim to come down the pike, or bent on criticizing President Obama no matter how much they must twist the fact to do it, cannot be dissuaded.

Take for example this odd blog:  A discussion of the imagined meltdown quickly disintegrates into defense of holding on to birther views despite Obama’s release of his “long form” birth certificate (no good information goes un-urinated upon).  Then discussion veers off into all sorts of paranoia — UN “control” of U.S. lands, occupation of several states by rogue Transportation Security Agents (you didn’t hear about it due to the news blackout, most likely), Obama’s being controlled by or controlling GE (‘didn’t GE have something to do with the design of those nuclear reactors?’), Army Corps of Engineers plots to flood the Midwest (????), Obama’s overturning the Constitution through the use of executive orders (which no one there can find at the moment, but they’re sure they exist, somewhere . . .  gee, did we misplace it?) including a wholly imaginary order to take over all rural lands in the U.S. (why?), and complaints that the U.S. is not deporting U.S. soldiers or their families quickly enough.

Such a ball of delusional paranoia and errors of history, law, and other facts!  One might imagine these people so involved in tracking down misinformation and distorting real information that they forget to kick their dogs.  (Seriously, I’d tend to think these people could be helped by having a dog or a cat, except for the very real fear I have they’d forget to feed the creatures; like a drowning person, fighting all efforts to save them.)

Our nation has a collective inability to deal with the facts of too many situations, because too many people simply deny the facts in front of our collective national faceJonathan Kay’s recent book, Among the Truthers, gets at the problem — you can imagine how strongly any of these bloggers and commenters would resist even reading Kay’s book.  It’s not that they seek information to make good decisions on policy, but that they seek the misinformation to justify their paranoid claims that “we are all really, really screwed!

As with the blogs noted above, we witness the birth of voodoo history, bogus history, and intentional ignorance.

There is a great danger from these cesspools of willful ignorance.  As more people refuse to grant credence to facts, to reality, it becomes more difficult to muster a consensus on what to do about any particular problem.  Wildfires and drought in Texas this year already wiped out more than three-fifths of the state’s wheat harvest; floods in the upper Midwest will surely do serious damage to wheat crops there.  We face a shortage of the surpluses of wheat the nation has used to bring peace and vanquish hunger around the world for the past 60 years — think of our “sale” of wheat to the old Soviet Union, stopping the starvation death toll under 10 million and indebting the USSR to the U.S. and the non-communist West — a debt the USSR never could pay off, and a debt which was the hammer to start the crumbling of the foundations of Soviet Communism.  In short, we have a wheat supply problem, caused in no small part by weather extremes that are, mostly likely, aggravated by global warming.

Can we agree to take action?  Probably not, not so long as so many people deny that warming is happening and throw every roadblock in the path of action, in the name of “preventing government takeover.”

As a nation, we have problems with flood control, and emergency preparedness, and the management of undeveloped lands and farm lands — not to mention the many urban problems we face.  What are the odds we can get a consensus on any of those problems, at least enough of a consensus to take constructive action?

For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost, begins the old saw.  We can’t even get agreement that horseshoes should be nailed to a horse’s hoof — how can we get the consensus to make sure there are enough nails to do the job?


The Sarah Palin History Network 06/07/11

June 9, 2011

The Sarah Palin History Network explains the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Sarah Palin History Network 06/07/11, posted with vodpod

Is any comment really necessary?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Joan Samuels Kaiser.


What sort of crazy is the warming denialist?

April 21, 2011

I’ve got to stop looking over there.

Goddard’s got a post up showing the great disregard he has for the facts, and the law, and history, etc., etc., etc.  It may be an unintentional showing, but there it sits, “like a mackerel in the moonlight, both shining and stinking.”

Jerome Corsi, that serial fictionalizer of vital issues, has a book out promoting his slimy schemes besmirch President Obama.  Goddard urges people to buy it.

But they really pile on in the comments.  It’s almost as if Casey Luskin had a whole family just like himself, and they got together to whine about Judge Roberts again.

Warming denialism, creationism and birthers — is it all just three minor variations on the same brain-sucking virus?  Or could three different diseases produce the same sort of crazy on so many different issues?

I’m reminded of the old saw that you cannot reason a person out of a position he didn’t reach by reason.  These guys will never see the light.  Heaven knows, it ain’t evidence that gets ‘em where they are now.

Previous posts at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

Special kind of birther crazy:


Hawaii confirms Obama’s eligibility (again); but who knows where Donald Trump really came from?

April 11, 2011

NBC’s Michael Isikoff grubbed out the story to get Hawaii to confirm, once again, that President Obama’s birth certificate is archived and well, and says exactly what Obama said it says, and what Hawaii said it says, under seal.

The mystery deepens:  Why is Donald Trump making an issue about this now?

After the Bathtub noted that we don’t know where Trump was born, and that the story of his life can’t be corroborated exactly as he claims, Trump released what he called a birth certificate.

But it turned out to be bogus.

What is Trump trying to hide, with all his pointless fulminations?  At this point, anything he releases must be regarded as suspect.


Quotes that will live in infamy: Michelle Bachmann, another history “F” (“shot heard ’round the world”)

March 14, 2011

In Concord, New Hampshire, on March 11 and 12, 2011, apparently testing to see whether that little state has bad enough education standards before announcing a presidential bid, Michelle Bachmann butchered history and geography once again, according to the conservative Minnesota Independent:

“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord,” she said, referencing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” an ode to the lives lost at the start of the American Revolution in Concord, Massachusetts, not New Hampshire.

How many bites at the apple does stupid get?  Has Ed Brayton picked up on this yet?

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann

More:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pat Carrithers.

Update:  Oh, yeah, others noticed:

Jeff Danziger on Michelle Bachmann's mixing up Concords

Jeff Danziger


Historians: ‘Stop the Texas SBOE evisceration of history and social studies’

May 15, 2010

In a series of articles at George Mason University’s History News Network, historians from Texas and across the nation make a powerful case against the changes in social studies standards proposed by the politicians at the Texas State Board of Education.

Together, this is a powerful indictment of the actions of the SBOE, and strong repudiation of the raw political purposes and tactics employed in the War on Education by the “conservative” faction, including especially lame duck, anti-education crusader/jihadist Don McLeroy.

Texas scholars

Scholars outside of Texas

Historians can sign a petition set up for the purpose at a site that offers links to the essays, too, An Open Letter from Historians to the Texas State Board of Education.

SBOE will take up the issue again in meetings in Austin this coming week.


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