William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Tolkien Wants A King, Cheating With Statistics

Cheating With Statistics

Reader Matt Lewis points us to Planet Moron, to an article which tears apart a statistical argument used by the Washington Post, an argument which sought to prove the that majority of cop killings committed were committed with guns legally purchased.

The Post used one of the better known ways to cheat with statistics to claim the exact opposite of what was true—which is that about 70% of cops are killed with illegally obtained guns. The Post‘s sleight-of-hand, statistically speaking, is equivalent to the linking rings: simple enough to fool the causal onlooker, but utterly transparent to the careful observer.

I don’t want to steal Planet Moron’s punchline, for it is deftly delivered: go to their site to see how. But they caught the Post with their pants down and have administered to them a well deserved spanking. However, I’ll happily pass on their aphorism. “Statistics: It’s Like Making Stuff Up, Only With Charts.”

Tolkien Wants A King

David Hart in First Things, after having read of J.R.R. Tolkien’s support for anarchist monarchies in a letter that Tolkien wrote to his son:

These occasional bloodless bloodbaths [elections] are deeply satisfying at some emotional level, whatever one’s party affiliations, because they remind us of what a rare luxury it is to have the right and the power periodically to evict politicians from office.

But, as is always the case here below in the regio dissimilitudinis, the pleasure is accompanied by an inevitable quantum of pain. The sweetest wine quaffed from the cup of bliss comes mingled with a bitter draft of sorrow (alas, alack). Tragically—tragically—we can remove one politician only by replacing him or her with another. And then, of course, our choices are excruciatingly circumscribed, since the whole process is dominated by two large and self-interested political conglomerates that are far better at gaining power than at exercising it wisely.

He also says that “If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it.”

It’s hard to disagree. But it is difficult to find sympathy with Tolkien’s (vaguely expressed) monarchy as a substitute for democracy. Consider: most people have it pretty good nowadays. Very little starvation, violence is rare, disease is occasional and not rife, technology has eased the burdens of all of us. It can be argued that this happy state has been brought about by the blessings of democracy.

It can be argued; but not, I think, successfully. This country, and many like it, began as aristocracies (untitled, in our case) which offered only limited participation in governance. As that participation increased, as, that is, more questions were put to more people, societies became, and are becoming, fractured and factional. When government was an aristocracy it was men that people looked up to, and those men at least attempted to resemble what was expected of them. If someone from the lower class wanted to participate he could, but only by first becoming himself an aristocrat. This process might take a generation or more, but it was not impossible.

Our leadership is now closer to the democratic ideal, where everybody can participate. Or seem to. But because those who used to be aristocrats have had to appeal to everybody and not just other aristocrats, and because the masses have different standards than the aristocracy, and because the masses are always more numerous, the means of winning support of the masses has caused the aristocracy to transform into something more resembling an oligarchy whose only firm ideals are two: money and power. Just look to California to see what happens when the power to decide every small question is put into the hands of all.

People no longer admire men, but an entity, a capital ‘G’ Government, an otherworldly thing from which, magically, all benefits flow. And our leaders no longer talk about people, but The capital ‘P’ People, a mythical set of like-minded folk whose only goal is to support the politician.

This is the key to understanding what is happening. Both sides have divorced themselves from reality and speak of what does not and cannot exist. It will be fascinating to see what flows from this.

11 Comments

  1. The frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathon may be in point.

  2. ‘Leviathan’.

  3. Only education can save us from direct democracy which is indeed tyranny. We the People can use our power if we will by imposing ourselves in local and State government. We must de-program from the corrupt media and press. Use the internet. Learn the Constitution, it’s a contract and can be enforced as one. Know your state law. When the law applies to all then liberty issues.

  4. Unfortunately I’m afraid that over all, the WaPo spanking by Planet Moron ranks as high as one received from a two year old.

    “It will be fascinating to see what flows from this. ”

    Fascinating in the same sense as “it will be fascinating to know what being run over by a locomotive feels like”? I’m more curious about when the system will break down. Guaranteed to be an interesting time.

  5. I hate it when that happens

  6. Sander van der Wal

    23 November 2010 at 11:06 am

    Mr Briggs

    If the “masses” have a single, unanimous standpoint, you have a point here. But if the masses have lots of different standpoints, what appeals to some part of the masses will not necessarily appeals to a different part.

    Having two political parties might hide this, as people are forced to choose between the two, and so can only show three different choices (one, the other,none). Having lots of political parties means more choice and a bigger change of finding a standpoint closer to one’s own.

  7. Some random thoughts:

    Almost all the guns used in crime (including the shooting of police officers) were legally obtained – at some point in their history. If there were no guns, nobody would be shot. (but the murder rate might not go down much)

    OTOH,

    The last time I checked, almost every house in Switzerland had some kind of military firearm. Switzerland is not exactly the murder capital of the world.

    Guns aren’t the problem per se. Gun violence is just a manifestation of deeper problems. Lazy, unobservant people, and the politicians who exploit them, think that getting rid of guns will magically solve the crime problem. MBE (male bovine excrement)

  8. Perhaps Tolkien would have agreed with Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worse form of government, except for everything else. Admitting democracy’s flaws is not the same as advocating monarchy. Also, limiting the scope of life that is subject to political control is not the same thing as advocating anarchy.

  9. Tolkien’s king — Grant me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you dare call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that—after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world—is that it works and has only worked when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way.

    If the United States was ever run by an untitled aristocracy, that era ended by the early part of the 19th century. Certainly by the administration of Andrew Jackson, electoral campaigns were built on muckraking, mudslinging and celebrity.

  10. “It can be argued that this happy state has been brought about by the blessings of democracy.”

    The predominant advantage of ‘government by consent of the people’ is that the proportion of GDP spent on ‘imposing order’ is substantially less.

    A benevolent dictatorship is a far more efficient form of government if one can guarantee the continued benevolence of the dictator. Unfortunately the only way to guarantee the benevolence of a dictator is by having an inexpensive means of removing the dictator. Elections are the least expensive means of removing a dictator. Which brings us full circle back to democracy.

  11. Is it too late here to remind folk the US is not really a democracy? [If we were we would most likely be in worse shape than now]. Our strength lies in that we are a democratic republic, which though similar in many ways, has enough of a difference that the minority still have some degree of protection from voter greed or anarchy. We need to use that difference wisely, or our future is bleaker than the Washington Post’s.

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