It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, August 7, 2009

Denialist Denial of Service

OK, so I usually leave politics off this blog. I am very much in favor of universal health care; I'm willing to leave the insurance companies alive if that's what it takes to get it in America. I don't hide this opinion, but I don't use this blog to flog it.

What is relevant is the disastrous turn the debates have taken. In the typical congressional recess, American congressmen hold lightly attended town hall meetings to discuss issues with the more engaged fraction of their constituencies. This tradition has been badly disrupted by concerted efforts to disrupt these meetings with loudly and urgently repeated misrepresentations of the legislation.

There was an incident here in Austin, one among many, apparently centrally organized, apparently funded in part by Republicans and in part by insurance interests, although drawing upon genuine backwoods fear and paranoia, as well as whatever racism might be handy to the purpose. (Despite the fascist methods, one common disruptive claim is to accuse Obama of being like Hitler. It's an interesting defense; brownshirts accusing the establishment of being brownshirts.)

The lies extend to absurd extremes.

This turn of events is now a crisis in itself. Obama is hamstrung: there's very little he can to to quell it. The press tries to handle it without "taking sides" validating the disruption; the weird skew the press seems to have decided to take (thanks to King of the Road for the link; I heard a very similar spin on NPR) is that the "country" is "terrified" of "too much change", which is horseshit so far but may end up a self-fulfilling prophecy soon enough. There's little alternative for concerned people other than to show up at these events and scream back, which in now way repairs the problem.

I gave a talk last month making an equivalence between policy and a feedback control mechanism. I am still planning to write it up, but things have been too interesting of late. It was already in my mind that the function of organized misrepresentation in a feedback mechanism is essentially the equivalent of introducing a large volume of noise into the feedback loop. In most engineering situations, that is not a good idea.

Meanwhile, in other news. Twitter was down for several hours yesterday. (One fellow lamented "I don't know what to do. It's like all the voices in my head have gone away.") Various other large web services had problems. It was what is called a "distributed denial of service attack", and here is how it goes. Over time, via various methods, various unobtrusive viruses are inserted into people's computers. Then, at the time of the denial of service, the viruses are invoked and make what looks like legitimate requests to the targeted service. But the requests are not real, and so do not complete, sending various protocols into various fallbacks. Ultimately the system itself breaks down and cannot provide the intended service.

As we see this DDoS happening to the town hall process, it is interesting to reflect on what is happening to the various branches of science that are under attack as well. The analogy is clear. Every bogus argument not only weakens the effectiveness of the communication between science and policy loop but also wastes the resources of the scientific community on defending itself. Bogus argumentation is distributed denial of service.

Consider another alarming fact for us Americaphiles:

Treehugger argues that this ridiculous circumstance is due to the prevalence of funded denialism in the US. (Other countries with strong denial movements, notably Australia and Canada, are not represented, unfortunately.) I think this is right. And it comes from people deliberately injecting noise into the social systems that used to be adequate to make reasoned decisions.

Ultimately these are difficult areas for law but easy ones for common decency. In a civilized world, people do not abuse systems for purposes other than those for which they are designed. The obvious decline of civilization has as one of its key causes the breakdown of purpose under an onslaught of cynicism. Promoting lies to a gullible public may not be illegal, but if there is a Hell (unlikely, alas) there's a special circle there for those who do it.

Update: The NYTimes has a thoughtful article about the collapse of the town hall mechanism under assault by partisan groups. There seems little question that the left has engaged in similar tactics in the past, though perhaps with less success. It's denial of service either way. Swamping information channels defeats nuanced governance, of societies as much as of machines.

18 comments:

Scruffy Dan said...

I guess a calm honest debate was too much to ask

Aaron said...

Two wicked smart posts. Somedays Michael is better than The Atlantic and New Yorker put together.

Michael Tobis said...

Aaron. Thanks so much! I'm very glad you think so.

My stuff would be even better if I had time to polish it up, which I would if I did this for a living, which I could do if I had more readers.

So please pass it on! Digg, Twitter,
word of mouth much appreciated.

bigcitylib said...

I've seen other surveys where we Canucks tend to rank up around the U.K. (http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/view/33922/global_warming_a_fact_in_three_western_countries/) and a bit better than U.S.

OT Are you a displaced Canadian? Some things you've written previously suggest maybe.

Michael Tobis said...

I'm originally from Montreal, and while a tad sentimental about the place, in many ways a great world city unjustly ignored, I'm generally happier in the States.

My parents are/were refugees from central Europe. I've spent most of my adult life in and around Chicago. Not a single member of my high school class has ever made any effort to contact me since graduation, despite my internet visibility, for no reason I can identify. I last saw any of them 18 years ago.

So in actual fact I am almost totally socially disconnected from Canada. But my politics are very Canadian. I consider myself a Trudeau Liberal.

gravityloss said...

I think the article has a great point and very well made analogies, but from my external point of view you are very partisan, and that waters it down very much...

Maybe you should contact someone like Derbyshire to write stuff.
(Why Radio Wrecks the Right was very interesting.)

Things are often too simplified.

I've for example thought about euthanasia and the social pressure people can feel.

If it's allowed, then there's possibility of it becoming the expected thing of people in certain situations which could be very problematic.

I'm not a religious person or anything.

Just trying to discuss really, though it probably doesn't work.

Anna Haynes said...

> Somedays Michael is better than The Atlantic and New Yorker put together.

Aaron, ahem, "ditto".

I will say that the "health care town hall meetings" debacle feels like deja vu all over again - here in Nevada County Calif. we already did this, 6+ years ago. It was called Natural Heritage 2020, and was a public input planning-for-the-future project.

They brought in outside thugs, disrupted the meetings, there were death threats against the progressive county supervisors, and one of the (local) right-wing-group leaders even ended up in prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill his neighbor.

They successfully derailed the process and polarized the community, and in the next election, via a razor-thin margin they managed to oust the progressive majority running the county - despite (if I recall and heard correctly) telephone polls indicating a comfortable margin of support for the progressives.

(FWIW, Doolittle was our representative, and a top Republican donor has been a county resident.)

Michael Tobis said...

gl, you misunderstand. The Democrats would not propose euthanasia, far less enforced euthanasia, specifically because it is politically untenable.

The claim that they are doing so is a lie. It is a lie which is widely believed and promoted. The abrupt appearance and acceptance of this incorrect belief are very concerning and very relevant to matters more at the core of this blog's interest.

Widely believed lies are exactly the issue at hand. Look at the first few postings on this blog. That is what we are about here.

If you don't believe that there are successful efforts to promote beliefs that are simply wrong, not ethically dubious (though they are often that as well) but wrong in the sense that they have a factually incorrect basis, you don't understand the climate problem.

If you actually want to discuss how to handle euthanasia, I would prefer if you did it elsewhere. That's not my point at all, and indeed it's only tangentially relevant to anything I am trying to say.

The point is that the legislation does not propose it.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, that's absolutely tragic.

I really appreciate the encouragement, but I must not be the writer as I'd like to be, because I'm finding it difficult to express or explain how sad your story makes me feel.

Please accept my deep heartfelt sympathies.

Let us hope the lessons we are learning through these experiences help us learn how to cope with this sort of vicious tactic in the future.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Similar stories from blogger interrupted:

"A teabagger at the event suddenly realizes who she’s joined up with. [...]

"Freedom loving patriots celebrated liberty by knocking down a disabled woman and starting a fist fight with someone. I feel sorry for the people who went there to learn, whether it was to support or criticize. Too bad they weren't allowed to speak.

"Enjoy your new friends, sister."

-- bi

Michael Tobis said...

The bill has a provision for allowing government funding of counseling regarding end-of-life decisions, including how an individuals can issue orders for THEIR OWN care in end of life situations. This is being represented as follows:

"Part of this process is called end of life counseling and part of the end of life counseling can be an end of life order.

Let me repeat that, part of this end of life counseling on line 429 of HR 3200 deals with an end of life order.

What does that mean?

End of life. Another word for that is death.

Order. What's another word for that? A sentence.

Now, you folks review with me a little bit as I recall Stalin in 1920 issued about 20 million end of life orders for his fell Russians.

Pol Pot did it during the Vietnam war. He issued about two million end of life orders.

It's being done in Africa today, Mugabe is doing it every day.

Adolph Hitler issued 6 million end of life orders. He called his program the final solution."


Yes, Obama is being called genocidal because of his support for counseling old people. Do you not think this goes beyond a question of interpretation? Consider also that it's generally accepted that assassinating Hitler would have been a good thing, and that the target audience for these representations is heavily armed.

See also this interview.

Gravityloss, in the light of this do you still think I am exaggerating the seriousness of this situation?

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Anyway, here's my take on this whole debacle.

-- bi

gravityloss said...

I did read some "healthcare myths debunked" page at Daily Kos, as well as a few witness accounts from disrupted town hall meetings.

Of course I oppose lying to the public, and I think it should be punished.

I've read my share of nazi history and Orwell.

This blog commentary we engage in is just a very limited way of messaging - we don't know what the other person knows.

Anyway that healthcare myths debunked page (that I can't find anymore) did have some text that talked about counceling people about euthanasia etc..

I guess it's just offtopic here.

I would recommend you to take a vacation abroad. Perhaps ten days. It helps to get out of the battle for a while - all things don't seem so overwhelming when you return. When you see stuff from the outside and are not in the middle of it.

Scruffy Dan said...

From now on when I complain about the sorry state of the health-care debates here in Canada (we also need some reform), I can at least reassured that it could be worse.

I am having a hard time believing the 'death camp' claims are real. They are so absurd.

Where is the rational right? We need them now more than ever.

Marion Delgado said...

The people who used to do this in the late 60s and early 70s were the tiny but fanatic sectarian Marxist-Leninist cults - mostly Maoist - the worst one being the Progressive Labor Party/INCAR. They disrupted a speech by E O Wilson, I believe, and the sociobiology dogmatists, many of whom were pushing a right-wing agenda, tried to smear their opponents with it.

I just bring this up because inevitably one of the rent-a-mob crowd or their dupes will bring up the heckler's veto of left-wingers at universities (it was also the excuse they used for pushing Free Speech Zones there), and really, it was always a tiny minority and it was usually one with complete contempt for the groups that they try to pin it on - even more for them, usually, than for the Charles Murrays and Richard Herrnsteins.

And as awful as, say, the PL was, at least they weren't hired guns saying their lines, they were real fanatics.

Hank Roberts said...

From Pharyngula:

Sean Carroll has a very interesting post on appropriate arguments — he illustrates it with this grid of disputation.

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/upload/2009/08/grid-of-disputation.jpeg

Steve Bloom said...

Re the update, Michael, I think the analysis from the St. Pete paper fails to hold up. They couldn't point to a single 2005 meeting that came anywhere close to being shut down by demonstrators, or to any sort of organized campaign intended to have such an outcome. As this DailyKos post points out, a much more apt historical parallel to the current campaign can be found in the South of the 1960s.

Scruffy Dan said...

I know you have moved on, but the latest post over at the Denialism blog is well worth a read.
http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2009/08/welcome_back_to_denialism_blog.php