On Methods

May. 3rd, 2009 07:50 pm
pecunium: (Default)
We are a nation which has come to live by polls. Even those of us who discount (or even disregard them) have to live with the effects they have; because our elected representatives have come to rely on them, and our press corps to fetishise them (want to track the rise and fall of candidates for office, follow the polls. Want to predict when the guy who is willing to take the low-road will do it... look to the polls).

Polls, however, are tricky things. They can be skewed. Some are obvious... push polls aren't actually meant to measure public opinion, but shape it. The classic is the one George W. Bush used to torpedo John McCain in S. Carolina (I paraphrase: How would knowing John McCain had fathered a black love child affect your opinion of him: would you be more likely to vote for him, less likely to vote for him, or would there be no change in your chance of voting for him).)

Even when a poll isn't being driven by such intentions, how the questions are phrased can be very affective on the results. Take the recent Pew Poll on torture. We don't have all the questions (they have released some, but not all). One of them, and the answers to it, has been used to say, "religious people support torture," as well as to say the country is about evenly split on the subject.

I think neither conclusion can be fairly drawn from the results. Why? Because the question is full of some question begging assumptions, as well as building some answer framing assumptions in the mind of the respondent.

I say this because asking questions is what I did for a living. I did it as a reporter, and then I did it as an interrogator. As an editor I trained people to to a thorough job of getting facts to fill in the details, and the narrative of a story. I sent them back to get details they'd missed.

As an interrogator I was taught to do the same thing, in a far more organised, and orderly fashion. As an interrogation instructor I taught that same skill to people.

It's the last of those which did me the most good in learning to build questions. One teaches people to ask questions by answering them. Whatever the actual subject of the question was, I answered. Some of it seemed petty (esp. when I was the student).

"Can you spell your name?"

"Ok, do it."
"Do what"

"Spell your name."
"Y O U R N A M E" (we got very good at responsive spelling. Whatever came after, "spell" was going to be spelled out. Sometimes the students would use this to get back at us.... ever had someone ask you to spell syllogistic systems? That was the sort of thing some students did. It was irksome, but all in all not a bad thing. It showed both spirit, a sense of play, and an understanding of the systems they were learning to use, but I digress).

I did that for somewhere between 300-400 students, in the course of 14 years, as well as time teaching maintenance classes to my, and other, units. I got very good at building good questions, and at spotting the holes in bad ones.

Which is why I don't like this one in this poll (both are .pdf pages).

Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can

often be justified,
sometimes be justified,
rarely be justified,
or never be justified?

Whoo-Boy!.... how many ways can that be screwed up?

First, there are some inserted bits of information which shape the question. "Suspected terrorists" limits the group. It also calls into mind the prejudices of the respondent. I happen to think the most likely perpetrators of terrorism in the US are white males, between the ages of 25-40, who are right-wing in their politics, and a trifle fundamentalist in their religious views. This is based on the actual arrests of people planning terrorism in the US.

Then again, I think bomb threats to abortion clinics (and the shooting of providers), is terrorism, much of which flies below the radar of the terrorist threat in the press.

Then we have, "to gain important information". That trips the "ticking bomb" myth, the idea that the, "suspect" has this important information (which presupposes that this is only used on "real terrorists", since someone who isn't a terrorist can't give up "important information".

Which moves a whole lot of goalposts. If the person has important information they aren't suspects. Only people with, "important information" are included in the set they are being asked to think about torturing. If that's the case innocent people (such as the respondent, her family and friends) aren't going to be tortured.

If what we get is, "important information" then there is something we need to get. The implication is (again buried) that we know the person has this information, and only a person dedicated to hurting the US would refuse to give that information up.

All of which moves the odds of the question getting a positive response up.

Which makes the poll less useful than it might otherwise be.

The response choices don't help. The hypothetical (ticking bomb, important information, can be reliably extracted with torture) is one which is likely to incline someone to waffling. This is the whole point of the "ticking bomb" debating trick. It's the camel's nose.

"If lots of people are going to die, and doing this one slightly bad thing; out of pure necessity will prevent it, would you never do it, to save the innocent?" [which has in it the hidden statement that a guilty person is strapped to the table in front of you].

Of course you would... maybe you have lots of restrictions. You have to have proof the victim knows. It has to be lots of people; maybe it has to be a family member. All of those little things add up to increase the odds of the respondent copping to saying, "rarely justified," when in fact the caveats attached to that answer are so complex that the practical answer is never; but the honest respondent says to himself, "I might be willing to do it." (see Steven Barnes at Dar Kush who admits that, given the right set of incentives he'd be willing to cross that line. I disagree with a couple of his arguments (and you can see those in comments), but he's honest enough to look at it from a personal POV, as well as a structural one, and share the answers to both).

So, all things being equal, that poll is a piece of crap.
pecunium: (Loch Icon)
Well, a few pictures.

In the course of my various back and forths to the bunker, delivering things to storage, and arranging some already present, I took some photos.

I don't know if it's my mood at the moment, or a more general interest in the decaying flowers;; those blooms which are past their glory but not yet destroyed, the decrepit, which are still showing the signs of what they were, but I saw that the poppies I've been trying to grow for a few years finally managed some success. They are pretty enough, when fresh, but the way they look when they are just past it is something I've always found intriguing.

That,and the seedpods are just cool.

Flander's Fields
Flander's Fields

Tipping the Velvet
Tipping the Velvet

At home I have onion blossoms (they are perrenial, after the second year they bloom. Each year after that they send up a bloom from the flower they started the year before.

Bees, spiders, hoverflys, wasps, aphids, and I know not what all insects, take advantage of them. Planting flowers is one of the best things I can think of for those who want to take pictures of insects.


I also took a last look at the container-cars the Southern Pacific is still parking near Maia's folks' place. They rust is brighter,and the spiders have most decidedly set up shop. I treated it to the Kodachrome look. Something about it darkens the images, so I have to tweak the exposure. Thank goodness for RAW.

Cobwebs Kodachrome 200
Cobwebs Kodachrome 200

If all goes as planned/hoped for, I'll be travelling on Weds, and in Tennessee Thursday. I might get online tomorrow, but I have a bit of packing still to do (my bags are ready to go, but the small bits of crap... the things which resist sorting, are still taunting me by not being boxed up for the bunker).
pecunium: (Pixel Stained)
Blackwater has been told they are not allowed to operate in Iraq; again.

They have said they will leave; again.

If, that is, the US gov't makes them.

Which is what they said last time. Balckwater avers it is so essential to the safe operation of the US State Dept. in Iraqi that to force them to obey the Iraq Gov't's lawful orders to quit the country, "Wouldn't be prudent."

Ok, all snark aside, what was actually said was worse. "Our abrupt departure would far more hurt the reconstruction team and the diplomats trying to rebuild the country than it would hurt us as a business," Prince said in an exclusive interview with the AP.

Got that... Blackwater is so integral to the reconstruction that being kicked out (and one presumes losing the contracts which allow them to pay people $500-1,000 a day, for a 90/30 rotational schedule) would inconvenience them, and cripple the state dept.

Worse he seems to think making it seem the US is actually still in charge (what else can you call it when one gov't tells a private firm it has to stop doing business in the country it's supposed to be running and another one has veto power over the decision?), isn't going to hurt the reconstruction effort.

In fact, if Prince is to be believed, losing the contract would hurt, but given the huge growth of the modern condottierri we call "Private Military Companies" and "Security Contractors" and such other euphemisms to avoid saying, "Mercenaries", I suspect he'd right. It would sting, but they'll manage to pull down at least 3/4s of a billion dollars, next year. With airplanes, helicopters, and a Blackwater Navy I don't think they intend to close up shop.

One wonders what will happen if/when the huge market in guns for hire dries up? Historically the people who made their livings selling their swords didn't go back to the plough when the fighting dried up. Rather they took the trade they'd learnt (beating people up) and went independent (i.e. became bandits, or petty warlords), or found some new place where someone was willing to pay them to be the muscle.

I somehow suspect the people whoo are being paid to live the adrenaline filled lives of Dynacorp, Aegis, Blackwater, et. alia are going to be getting the same sort of money to sell things "back home" (and some of them weren't all that savory when they were hired).

Reports from New Orleans imply they aren't all that restrained when the law is said to explicity cover them (and let there be no mistake about it, there are laws; stateside, which cover these people. It's just that the last administration wasn't willing to use them, lest [I think] some light be shone into some dark corners).

So takng them down now (when they are small-ish) is probably the best thing, all things considered. Because the track record they have already Aint So Hot.

And those are just the overseas problems. Here At Home they have some problems too.

This isn't something which is going away, not without some effort. The citizens of San Diego (a "red" slice of California, not disinclined to supporting the military, with two Marine Corps Installations, and a trio of Naval Bases) went to the mat and recalled the members of the Land Use Board, when they were looking to let Blackwater build a training camp in the area.

It's tiresome, and repetitive, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and sunlight is the cure for corruption. Call your reps, call your senators; send them e-mails, faxes and post cards. Let them know the U.S. doesn't support mercenaries. We can put these people out of business.

We have to, because no one else will.


pecunium: (Default)

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