Sunday, June 7, 2009

N of One

My sense of American political discourse is that it is often shabby, and that one of the key contributing factors to the shabbiness is the absolute lack of scientific and mathematic literacy among the vast majority of its citizens. Mind you, I don’t mean “scientific and mathematic literacy” in its traditional, narrow sense; I don’t really care if your person on the street can tell me whether Pluto has been reclassified as dwarf planet, or if he or she knows how to demonstrate a side-angle-side proof given pencil and paper. I am talking about the kind of math/science literacy that engenders a sophisticated understanding of public policy (not just science policy). This kind of literacy is well within the grasp of persons who are not unusually stupid, and would make political dialogue in the US an order of magnitude better. And the first place where that dumb-dumberry starts, that willful ignorance of even the most basic concepts that centuries of very bright people have toiled to make accessible to the masses, is with the mainstream media. Let me explain.

Let’s take just two examples from the mass media—one extremely well-publicized but not directly related to medicine, and one less well known but that bears directly on the state of medicine. Both stories hinge on a willful misrepresentation of the facts, and at least in the former case an entire brouhaha has resulted because very few pundits have understood the simple mathematical misconception that has formed the basis of the misunderstanding. In the latter case, which I will discuss in a separate entry in the days to come, the same mathematical twit-headedness is used in a different way, but one much loved by the mainstream media.

By now, anyone with a pulse who has been following “real” news (read: not Jon and Kate Plus 8) will be aware that President Obama has nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States. Sotomayor, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, has had one of those heartwarming, kid-from-the-neighborhood-makes-good stories that undoubtedly must have played a major consideration in Obama’s choice to nominate her. I am not a lawyer but from all the reports I have read, it appears that she is not an especially highly-charged ideologue as a nominee, less like Judge Robert Bork (one of Reagan’s failed SCOTUS nominees) or Anthony Scalia (one of Reagan’s successful SCOTUS nominees) and more like, say, John Roberts—which is not to say that Sotomayor and Roberts have the same judicial philosophy or temperament, only that they aren’t or weren’t obvious ideological firebrands as nominees. If anything, and despite the loud farts that I have smelled from the right-wing about her being a virtual communist in disguise, I have concluded that the word that best describes her is “establishment.” (And, for what that’s worth, I don’t mean that as a glowing compliment.)

Conservatives have had a hard time deciding their line of attack against Sotomayor. It is theoretically clear that on a variety of constitutional issues she is more likely to side with the court’s so-called “liberal” wing than its “conservative” one (though one should take the example of the very justice she is replacing, Justice David Souter, appointed by the senior Bush, as a warning about making confident predictions of future decisions on the court), and as a consequence the conservatives have drawn battle lines against the President on this. The problem is: how to attack a woman whose hard-work-reaps-benefits feelgood story resonates with so many Americans—and in particular the much sought after Hispanic population, who have been leaving Republicans in droves despite a fairly progressive policy adopted by the Bush administration?

The answer is that conservatives—many of whom all but in name “run” the Republican party—have decided that Sotomayor—a Latina woman from decidedly humble beginnings—is...a racist. No, I am not making this stuff up. Assuming that the readership of this blog is already familiar with this, let us zero in on the smoking gun: the words that the right-wing talking heads have used to make their case. Sotomayor, in a speech in 2001, said the following:

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.

It is this quote, this single quote—along with her single decision in a case involving the City of New Haven in which she sided with a district court judge in ruling against a group of white plaintiffs alleging reverse-discrimination (see here)—that has formed the basis of charges of racism. After discovering this ammunition, the blowhards on Fox News, Newt Gingrich on his blog, and of course the right-wing’s leading pundit, Rush Limbaugh, began to beat the drum of Sotomayor’s racism (covered nicely by Dana Milbank here).

But this is absurd—and it’s absurd not because Sotomayor represents Light and Truth or because Limbaugh represents the forces of Darkness. No matter the relative truth of at least the latter half of that equation, the political positions of Sotomayor’s proponents and opponents are totally irrelevant. The key point here is that, as a judge, Sotomayor has generated thousands and thousands of words in hundreds of decisions. Going bananas over one brief quip, or even one decision (one unsigned decision!), reveals the naked contempt that these commentators have for their audience. You cannot make particularly good judgments about anything when you have a sample size of one.

But wait!—you say. Isn’t what Sotomayor said above racist? Doesn’t the logic of this sentence imply that, simply by virtue of being a Latina woman, that one has an inherently richer life experience than a white male, and that as a consequence she reaches better conclusions? And how can’t that be racist?

I don’t know. It is true that this small clip of Sotomayor’s speech leaves an unfortunate taste in the mouth—assuming that she said precisely what she meant. It may have been that you nudge a few words in a different direction, and you have something perfectly reasonable that a kum-ba-ya doc such as me would welcome with open arms: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman…would at least as often reach as good a conclusion than a white male…” Or she might have been trying to say something else entirely, or she might have just not realized the implications of what she was saying. I don’t mean to imply that she gets a free pass on the statement—it will require explanation, and it is entirely fair game to come up in the hearings. But this statement has to be viewed in the context of all of her decisions and speeches, or for that matter even the rest of her speech, which can be found here.

After careful consideration of that large volume of material, should one wish to make the case that Sotomayor is some crazed Hispanic nationalist legislating hatred of the white man from the bench, then by all means one should do so. But my guess is that no such ideology is to be found in her public or judicial statements, and that absence explains the level of volume in the criticism of her. When they ain’t got nothing good, they just shout louder.

Lest anyone mistake this entry for a cheer-on-the-liberals, boo-the-bad-conservatives piece, thus missing that the key point here is that you can’t have thoughtful political dialogue of any kind when you trot out sample sizes of one to make a point, Bob Somersby at The Daily Howler (one of Billy’s very favorite blogs) discusses the Sotomayor kerfuffle here and here in a way that may make some liberals unsettled. Money quote:

As the Cult of the Offhand Comment advances, are journalists and liberals even capable of shaping intelligent discourse? […When taking quotes out of context to attack opponents,] we ourselves have shown an occasional tendency to sign up with this dim-witted cult. John McCain said he wants a hundred-year war! We had some fun with that gong-show claim until we learned an unfortunate fact: When we talk sh*t about Saint McCain, the mainstream press corps won’t go along! But we’ve already seen some liberals on TV explaining what Sotomayor meant; their explanations aren’t necessarily all that convincing, however dogmatic they’re willing to be.

Remember: whenever you hear a political discussion about anything, and the entirety of said discussion rotates around sample sizes of one (which in the biz is referred to as “n=1,” whence the title of this entry), you can elevate the level of dialogue just by inquiring how much you can conclude from one single fact without context.

Later this week, I’m going to demonstrate a different way in which an “n of 1” is used and abused, this time about something closer to Billy’s heart…the scariness of the generic medicine industry. Boo.

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