Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What a Bunch of Caucus


You may or may not have heard this, but just in case I thought I would bring it to your attention. The voters in Florida and Michigan did not get to choose their democratic presidential candidate. A few years back, the Democratic National Party revised the timing of presidential primaries and caucuses, setting February 5th for the earliest possible date (not including Iowa and New Hampshire). This revision also laid out the penalties for violating the timing—a state going too early will forfeit their delegates. And in case you slept late during this lesson in American Government class, we, the people do not actually vote for presidential candidates. We vote for delegates.

I was stunned to learn that the legislatures of Michigan and Florida then passed bills that set the date of the primaries in January, in full knowledge that this was against the rules! I was so confused by this that I felt compelled to do a little investigation of my own. Whose fault was this violation of democracy? Did these states just not get the memo?! Was the national party's language ambiguous, lending itself to be misinterpreted?

What I have found out so far has shocked me even further. They did get the memo, they knew they would forfeit their delegates, and they voted overwhelmingly to do it anyway. Here is a little snippet from the report of a House committee, headed by republican David Rivera, that was considering the date-setting amendment to their bill:

As most observers of presidential politics would agree, national conventions in the modern era have become proforma exercises organized to coronate a pre-determined presidential nominee rather than a genuine selection or nomination process where the outcome is in question. The role of a delegate in a modern day political party convention has been relegated to that of rubberstamping the decision made in each delegate's respective state during that state's presidential primary. Under these conditions, priority should be placed on the role Florida will play in selecting a presidential nominee rather than on the opportunities for a select few Floridians to attend a national convention.

After I read that, I felt sick. Not only did these congressmen purposefully forfeit the people's say in the election, they did so based on faulty reasoning!! A little demonstration will help here to illustrate just what I mean:

A couple of riddles
As a student of science education, I have learned a very important lesson—intelligence is context dependent. Let me give you a quick and dirty example of what I mean. Here is a puzzle that is supposed to judge your 'logical reasoning ability'. There are four cards, each with a number on one side and a letter on the other. The rule is: if there is a vowel on one side of the card, there must be an even number on the other side. Which card or cards must you turn over in order to check that these cards follow the rule?

If your answer is to just turn over the card with "E" on it, you are wrong. There are some who assess your mistake to mean you have deficient logical reasoning skills. Don't worry—this claim is wrong, and I can prove it.

Here is another riddle: you are a bouncer at a club where everyone is required to carry a card with their age on one side, and their drink on the other. In America, the law says that if someone is under 21, they must have a non-alcoholic beverage. Which card or cards must you turn over to make sure that everyone is following the law?

Easy huh? Now let me call your attention to the fact that these two puzzles are the SAME puzzle! Perhaps you can answer the first one now…but even if you still can't that's beside the point. The point is that reasoning becomes much easier when you are familiar with the topic.

A political riddle:

Here is another puzzle for you. Point out the error in the following line of reasoning:

Beavis: "The higher the payroll a baseball team has, the more likely it is to win a World Series. Take the 2007 Red Sox, for example—they had a payroll six times that of the last place Devil Rays. Therefore, in order to win the World Series, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays should give each of their players a six-fold raise."

Answer: Duh, Beavis. If there is only one lesson from statistics that you learn it should be this: Correlation does not imply causation!! The Red Sox paid more because, on average, they had much better players! That is the real cause behind the correlation—having good players is what really increases your chances of winning. Just paying the Devil Rays' crappy players more won't make them better (in fact, as Mo Vaughn taught us all, it can make them much worse!) The Devil Rays would have to get better players in order to win, which will most likely also cause a higher payroll.

Now compare this with the reasoning provided by Florida's House of Representatives for moving their primaries to a date that would strip them of all their delegates:
Butthead: "In the last two presidential elections, Florida has been one of the few states that have closely mirrored the final nationwide results.Florida's presidential election results for 2004 were Bush 52% and Kerry 47%. The national results were Bush 50% and Kerry 48%. This means money spent to win the Florida primary will also benefit candidates in the general election."
Butthead, oh, sweet, ignorant Butthead. When will you learn? Correlation does not mean causation!! You've made essentially the same bonehead argument as Beavis. Don't be embarrassed, others have made it too—it's called the fallacy of common cause. Here's another example: "The more firemen fighting a fire, the more damage there is going to be. Therefore, we should send less firefighters to all fires."

Here is the Floridian line of reasoning, which has more than just the common-cause fallacy wrong with it:
  1. In the last two presidential elections, the state results were kind of similar to the national results.
  2. Therefore, in order to win the national election, you need to spend more money to win the Florida primary.
  3. Therefore, the Florida primary should be sooner.
  4. As long as they are sooner, they don't have to actually count.
You don't have to be a logician to see how ridiculous that is.
Now, it would be understandable for a non-politician to get tripped up in the loquacious world of legislation, just as most people get the "S 20 E 13" card problem wrong. But these are politicians!! This is their world! This should be like the "Coke 16 Scotch 52" problem for them! Therefore, I have just proven that, even when accounting for context-dependence, Floridians are all idiots. Modus ponens.

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