Saturday, August 9, 2014

An Explanation of my Ratings Criteria

When I review books or films or products, I tend not to award very many five-star ratings, causing a few people to inquire what my criteria are for rating things.  Generally, I view the written review itself as explaining the reasoning behind each individual rating.  However, I have decided that the meaning of the numerical values I assign could use some explanation, so the following are the basic criteria by which I make my ratings.

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For example: A book which receives a rating of 0 might be so poorly written that it can't be understood.  A book which receives a rating of 0.5 would be recommended only if it is the only way to acquire some technical information the reader might want.

1: This product is seriously flawed and is not recommended for most audiences, but has sufficient redeeming quality to make it worthwhile for a tiny minority of audiences.

For example: A book which receives a rating of 1 might find itself and the proper level of poor writing that it is (barely) readable, but so bad that it's low quality itself provides entertainment value.  Alternatively, a book that is generally bad but has a particularly good chapter or an interesting thesis might warrant this rating.

2: This product is flawed, but may appeal to some audiences.

For example: Non-fiction books which are a pleasure to read but contain significant errors will likely receive a rating of 2.  Novels might receive a rating of 2 if they have little literary merit but might still be enjoyable to certain readers.  Note: a rating of 2 means a work is somewhat below average to average (bearing in mind the old chestnut that most of everything is crap).  They're below average for my personal collection, but about average for the entire marketplace.

3: This product is good, and is recommended.

The products that receive a rating of 3 can be trusted to be mostly accurate, well constructed, and worth purchasing.  There may be some flaws, but they do not detract from the overall experience of the product.  Note that a rating of 3 does not indicate a work of "average" quality.  While I tend to primarily rate better works (making my average ratings higher), I would consider a 3 to be a product well above average.

4: This product is very good and is strongly recommended.

These are considered to be among the best of the best products.  Flaws are minimal.

5: This product is near-perfect.  Purchase it immediately.

I reserve a rating of 5 for a very small number of products.  It is generally safe to consider a rating of 4 to be highest marks because a 5 is reserved for those products one might call transcendent.

Intermediate scores (eg., 3.5, 4.5) should be considered to fall within the broad category of the number preceding the decimal.  For instance, a 4.5 is meant to be a product that is a bit better than a 4, but it is still considered to be in the "family" of 4-rated products.  It is closer in meaning to a rating of 4 than it is to a rating of 5.

Occasionally, a work might receive two different ratings.  While I try to avoid this, it is necessary from time to time because a work has two distinct audiences who will find it to be of different value.  When this happens, the ratings follow the same criteria as above, and the distinction of which rating is which will be made clear within the review.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Review of Attack of the Theocrats by Sean Faircloth

Sean Faircloth has been a fairly successful politician.  He served five terms in the Maine legislature with appointments to the judiciary and appropriations committees, and served one term as Majority Whip.  He helped to spearhead the creation of a children’s museum, the Maine Discovery Museum.  He served as the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America and is the director of strategy and policy for the U.S. branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

A couple years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Faircloth at a private reception for leaders and noted supporters of the secular community in Colorado preceding a public appearance at which he opened for Richard Dawkins.  Meeting both of these gentlemen was a highlight of that year, and it was at that meeting that I acquired a copy of Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All-And What We Can Do About It, Faircloth’s small book on the intersection of religion and public policy.  Though I intended to read it immediately, I’m ashamed to admit that other commitments served as a distraction, and my copy of this marvelous book went unread on my bookcase until today, when I read it in a single sitting.

If you have not had the pleasure of hearing Sean Faircloth speak, I suggest you should spend some time on YouTube listening to his oratory.  I might humbly recommend beginning with his short speech at the Reason Rally in 2012 which can be found here, though I suspect that if you do so, you might lose considerable hours clicking through to his other speeches linked on that page.  In many ways, oratory is a lost talent, particularly amongst the secular.  In his 2011 TED Talk, Atheism 2.0, Alain de Botton spends a small portion of his time making the case for oratory.  While I will not profess complete agreement with his talk, I think he’s right about this point, at least to some extent, and I think that’s a skill Sean Faircloth possesses that has been lacking in much of the secular community.  Yes, Richard Dawkins is a brilliant speaker, as were Christopher Hitchens and a handful of others.  But it is a rare person indeed who, like Sean Faircloth, can make me applaud while sitting on my couch at home watching a YouTube video.

It is probably fortunate that Faircloth’s book does not match on every page his skill at oratory.  Particularly because he tackles some very disturbing issues, I think the experience of reading that book would be physically exhausting.  However, when his written words do carry the same impact as his oratory, those are the passages that will command one to stop reading and reflect upon the importance of the book’s subject.  For instance, consider this passage from the book’s third chapter on the harms caused by religious bias in law:

“So, where are the self-proclaimed ‘right-to-life’ groups when it comes to Amiyah White dying alone in that van? Life is sacred, they say. Where were they for fifteen-year-old Jessica Crank?

“More importantly, where were we? Why aren’t all of us who care about basic human rights organizing and calling Congress right now? Federal law should have one standard for protecting children from abuse and neglect--not one standard that applies to most of us but that allowed a chosen few to intentionally ignore the desperate medical needs of their children, all in the name of religion.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, that passage packs a punch.  It seems to me, as Faircloth brilliantly makes the case in his book, that lives are literally at stake in the battle for the preservation of a secular republic in the United States. While no one is suggesting that all people must devote their entire lives to the elimination of faith-based exemptions in child-care laws, with stakes such as these, it causes one to take account of whether or not one has done enough in his or her life.  I think we all remember the scene in the classic film Schindler’s List in which a sobbing Oskar Schindler remarks that despite having saved as many as eleven hundred people, he could have done more.  I’m not saying that religious bias in law is as bad as the Holocaust (at least not in the United States--not yet), and I’m not saying that all of us should aspire to rise to the standard of Oskar Schindler.  But one cannot escape the feeling, when reading Faircloth’s brief account of the torture and deaths caused by religious exemptions to the law (yes, even in the United States), that one could have done more.

That, in essence, is the book’s thesis: a theocratic minority have seized disproportionate power in the United States, their influence harms all of us, and we have not yet done enough about it.  “Secular Americans,” writes Faircloth in the Preface, “remain a sleeping giant, a huge demographic that has thus far failed to flex its own muscle, much less galvanize the general population. We ignore people suffering under religious privilege while shaking our fist at a slapped-together manger with a plastic baby Jesus in the town square at Christmas time. While symbols are meaningful and these particular symbols on public grounds do violate Madison’s Constitution, Secular Americans must do better to reach all Americans. We must explain the human story--the human harm and the outright abuse of our tax dollars that result from religious privileging in law.”

The book’s format is straight forward and simple.  Richard Dawkins’ Introduction, Faircloth’s Preface, and the first chapter outline the thesis (essentially as I have stated it above, though obviously with significantly more detail).

The second chapter provides a brief history of the founding of the United States, particularly dismissing the ludicrous notion proffered by even high-ranking members of the United States Congress that the country was founded on particular Christian ideals (when in reality the United States was founded by a collection of Enlightenment thinkers including atheists, agnostics, deists, and yes, even Christians, who were devoted above all else to principles of secular government).

The third chapter, and hardest to read, provides an overview of the specific religious exemptions, exceptions, and biases in the law and the harm they do both to American society as a whole and to unfortunate individuals such as “a [child whose] untreated tumor results in the amputation of a limb, because the parent believes that the child was being punished for sin that could only be cured through prayer.”

The fourth and fifth chapters mark a difference between religious morality and secular morality and a difference between religious hucksterism and secular innovation, respectively.  Though important discussions in their own right, and in many cases with consequences even more far-reaching than the matters discussed in the previous chapters, these provide a welcome breath of fresh air after having read the third chapter’s laundry-list of abuses ranging from unjust tax laws to the murder of small children.

The sixth chapter is arguably the most enjoyable to read.  In those pages, Faircloth names names.  Specifically, he names the fifty legislators who he feels have most heinously bastardized the First Amendment and most egregiously supported an anti-secular agenda while in office.  Of course it includes names such as Michele Bachmann, but many readers might be surprised at other inclusions, such as both Ron Paul and Rand Paul.  Though both of these politicians express libertarian ideals in some of their speech and writing, Faircloth points out specific examples in which both of them have expressed decidedly anti-libertarian ideas when it comes to religion.  While true libertarianism includes secularism as one of its most basic tenets, both of the Pauls have made statements such as “The U.S. Constitution established a Republic rooted in Biblical law” (Rand) and “The notion of a separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers” (Ron).  Indeed, both have supported decidedly religious and anti-libertarian proposals, despite their fame and respect from some of the more vocal libertarian corners of the United States (and particularly certain parts of the Internet).

However enjoyable this chapter is, it remains the book’s weakest chapter for the simple reason that it will be outdated much faster than the rest of the book will.  While I would love to envision an America in which as soon as the American people regain their sense and kick these fifty out of office in shame, all of the theocratic leanings in the corridors of power will have been expunged, this is not likely to be the case.  Individuals will come and go, but though these individual battles may be won or lost, the war at large will be fought over a longer time and on a grander stage.  Faircloth’s book is right to publicly name the worst offenders, but readers in five or ten years might find that some of the problems Faircloth discusses remain, but the individuals may have changed.  This gives the sixth chapter a decidedly shorter span of relevance than the rest of the book.

The seventh chapter is directly related to the sixth.  While the sixth is a listing of the worst (though by no means only) offenders, the seventh is a listing of the openly nonreligious members of Congress.  It contains only one name.  Though Faircloth later alludes to twenty-five members of American high political office who have privately and confidentially expressed their nonreligious status, they have not done so publicly, rendering this the shortest chapter of the book.  Of course, while there is only one member of Congress who is openly nonreligious, there are others who, while still professing religious belief, recognize that inclusive secularism is a superior form of government.  These people are to be commended, though Faircloth rightly points out that one nonreligious Congressman and a handful of religious secularists in high political office are not enough.

The eighth, ninth, and tenth chapters are a charge for all secular-minded people, regardless of individual religious belief or lack thereof, to spend a little more time and energy working toward repairing the secular republic of the United States.  These are amongst my favorite chapters because it is here that Faircloth becomes unabashedly optimistic.  While much of the book presents a depressing view of the state of affairs in the United States, these chapters offer a hopeful outlook.  There are no touchy-feeling affirmations to be found here.  No, I suspect Faircloth’s decades of experience in law and politics have given him a much more pragmatic view of the world.  It will take a lot of hard work.  But then, the most worthy things always do.  However much work it might take, Faircloth’s optimism for a secular future is infectious.  These chapters will make you want to set the book down, get up out of your seat, and go DO something.  In fact, it is a testament to Faircloth’s skill as an author that such interruptions are likely to be few.  You will want to keep reading, and THEN you will want to get up and do something.

My favorite part of the book, however, is not any of the substantive chapters.  It is the brief afterword.  In this more personal part of the book, Faircloth discusses an end-of-year tradition he has of remarking upon the lives of famous or noteworthy people who have died in the previous year.  It may sound a macabre sort of tradition, but it is anything but, for it provides the background for a discussion of very important ideas of life, death, and legacy.  To the religious, it is easy to let this life pass by because there is a belief in an afterlife.  However to the nonreligious, this life is all we have.  Faircloth’s words eloquently express my own ideas about the meaning of life.  Our lives have great meaning, and it is meaning we can decide for ourselves.  The meaning of our lives is to do enough good work to be remembered.  Faircloth notes the far-reaching and long lasting impacts of scientists who developed life-saving technologies and judges whose opinions have shaped life for millions of people after their deaths.  If we have only one life in which to get things done, and only one lifetime for which to be remembered, we better make it count.  I think this book provides a strong argument for one of the many worthy causes toward which we should dedicate some of our sadly so-limited time.

The book is not without faults, some of which are necessary to a book of this type.  In any book about current events, there is bound to be some percentage of the information which is outdated by the time it reaches the reader.  Attack of the Theocrats is no exception.  For one simple example, the book mentions the Defense of Marriage Act, of which a significant portion was eviscerated by the Supreme Court in the time since the book’s publication.  Similarly, already several members of the “Fundamentalist Fifty” have left their offices (though it is worth noting that many remain in office).

While not a fault, it is also worth pointing out that this is not a work of serious legal scholarship.  This is a work of persuasion whose goal is to light a fire beneath the reader and spark a new secular rival in the United States.  I would personally have liked some greater detail in the book’s several examples of harm done by religious bias in the law.  However, it can be argued (probably correctly) that providing the level of scholarly detail that a reader such as myself might want would defeat the purpose of this book.  It would make it lengthy, arcane, and would probably limit its appeal to a status of “preaching to the converted.”  As it stands, the book remains slightly weak on scholarly argumentation but immensely strong on persuasion.   It is probably true that this is exactly what is required right now.

This is an important book.  It is brief and easily readable.  Throughout its 150-or-so pages of text, Faircloth alternates between a light conversational tone and the sort of passionate tone you may have experienced if you watched the video to which I provided a link above.  While it’s certain that such a small book will not make you an expert on First Amendment law, it is probable that it will introduce some readers to the breadth of the problem, and encourage many others to take more action.  For myself?  I’m not yet sure exactly what I’m going to do, but I can guarantee that I’ve been convinced that I ought to do more than I have.


Attack of the Theocrats may be purchased from Amazon here, or from your favorite bookshop.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Review of Math on Trial by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

In my previous essay, I pontificated on the importance of mathematics and suggested several possible underlying deficiencies in mathematics education that has led to a general public (particularly in America, though it remains true throughout the world) which is woefully unprepared to engage with the mathematical challenges we all face in our day to day lives.

Today, I return to this topic in the form of a review of Math on Trial: How Numbers get Used and Abused in the Courtroom by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez, a mother-daughter team of mathematicians and members of the Bayes and the Law Research Consortium, an international organization of mathematicians dedicated to the construction of a set of criteria for the proper use of probabilities in courts of law in order to avoid miscarriages of justice.  Their book is certainly related to that quest, as it is essentially a catalogue of miscarriages of justice committed in the name of mathematics by people who failed to understand the nuance of the mathematics they were erroneously using.

Each of the book’s ten chapters presents a different case study intended to help the reader explore some mathematical error which has affected legal proceedings.  The cases range from the historic to the current and cover both criminal trials and civil affairs.

Students of mathematics who read this book will find little mathematical knowledge they do not already possess.  Indeed, many of the mathematical lessons are so simple (mathematicians might say elementary or obvious) as noting that it is improper to multiply non-independent probabilities.  For instance, that exact error comes up in the book’s first chapter, in which Sally Clark was accused (and later convicted) of murdering her two children.  Her defense was simple: the children, tragically, were victims of cot death, not of murder.  There was no medical evidence to the contrary, but a pediatrician, Roy Meadow, calculated that the odds of a single family experiencing two cot deaths was 1 in 73 million.  Thus it was argued that Sally Clark’s probability of innocence was 1 in 73 million.  However, as the book points out, this is a gross misuse of statistics.  He obtained the figure by squaring the odds (about 1 in 8500) of cot death under similar circumstances.  It seems reasonable.  We know that to determine the odds of two separate events, we multiply the probabilities together.  The odds of one cot death are 1 in 8500, so the odds of two are (1/8500)^2, or just under 1 in 73 million.  This elementary error, however, assumes the probabilities are independent.  Unfortunately, a family who suffers one cot death is in fact more likely to suffer another.  This could be due to environmental or genetic influences, but certainly does not point to murder.  Similarly, even if the calculation of the probability were correct, its interpretation was incorrect.  The value of 1 in 73 million was not the probability of innocence, but a calculation of the number of people for whom those conditions would be true.  They got the math wrong, and Sally Clark spent several years in prison, wrongfully accused of the worst crime, before the mistake was corrected.

However obvious the mathematical lessons might be to students of mathematics, the lessons on law will likely be eye-opening.  I suspect there are many mathematicians who remain unaware of how large a problem institutional misunderstanding of mathematics has become in the judicial system, and Schneps and Colmez provide a succinct primer.

Similarly, students of law (or those generally interested in criminal trials) may be very well aware of the cases mentioned in the book.  I suspect even most members of the general public are at least peripherally aware of cases such as the Amanda Knox murder trial or the Alfred Dreyfus affair of the 1890s (if you’ve forgotten the name of the latter, your memory might be jogged by recalling the famous open letter published in a French newspaper in 1898 by Emile Zola entitled “J’Accuse…!”).  However, these people who maintain a knowledge of the law might not be expected to have great depth of understanding in mathematics.

For both groups of people, as well as for those who would seek to expand their knowledge of both fields of inquiry simultaneously, this book is highly recommended.  While its depth of analysis in both mathematics and law is minimal (no reader will ever become an expert on the basis of this short book’s treatments), it provides an important introductory text.  It would behoove members of the legal profession in particular to heed its warnings about misuse of mathematics in the courtroom, because lives really do hang in the balance.

In the book’s concluding chapter, the authors mention the argument by Lawrence Tribe (in his article, “Trial by Mathematics: Precision and Ritual in the Legal Process”) that mathematical argumentation actually does not belong in trials at all.  However sympathetic they seem to his argument (which essentially hinges on the notion that juries are ill-equipped to handle mathematical arguments and should instead be expected to employ a more heuristic approach to determining guilt), they correctly point out that the advent of DNA forensics has rendered this argument moot.  Probabilistic arguments will and must now appear before juries if DNA is to remain in use as a forensic tool.  Since dispensing with DNA seems neither likely nor a good idea, we will continue to use mathematics.  Therefore, it is argued, a greater mathematical literacy amongst both legal professionals and the general public (from which juries are selected) is necessary, as is the development (as is the Bayes and the Law Research Consortium’s goal) of a set of criteria for the allowable use of probabilistic arguments in trials.

I, for one, find the latter to be a worthy goal indeed, but do not at all feel sympathetic to Tribe’s argument in the first place.  I remain of a mind that mathematics in the courtroom is not only necessitated by the advent of more advanced forensic techniques, but should be generally encouraged as providing one more set of tools for the determination of truth.  Tribe certainly is correct in his argument that this presents unique challenges, but I believe these are challenges we must face head-on with greater access to high-quality education in mathematics and the statistical sciences.  It would not serve justice to ignore an entire branch of evidence simply because it is thought too confusing for jurors.

Of course it is true that many jurors will lack the mathematical background to properly evaluate some of these arguments.  However, the same can be said of any particular branch of expert testimony.  Jurors are expected to become educated--in a relatively short time--on matters of fingerprint identification, handwriting analysis, genetics, psychology, and any number of complex disciplines whose experts may be qualified to speak with authority on the evidence in any particular trial.  Greater education amongst the public in any number of fields is to be desired, but the more important and more immediate solution is immensely greater education within the legal profession so that prosecutors and defense attorneys can confidently analyze each others’ arguments and know which experts to call when the edges of their own mathematical abilities are probed.  It becomes the duty of these attorneys and their expert witnesses to educate the jury.

Still, despite some minor disagreements, the book holds great value.  Students of mathematics should read it to better understand their field’s application, and students of law should be required to read it to better understand how their colleagues have made devastating (if often subtle) mathematical errors.  And of course, members of the general public should read it simply to remain informed about world events and the precarious nature of human liberty when courts of law fail to understand their own evidence.

Some readers will find certain errors, inconsistencies, or disagreements.  The errors are unfortunate but fail to impact the overall message of the book and so might be forgiven.  Readers may also disagree with the authors’ interpretation of some events, especially since legal analysis is minimal throughout the book.  This is to be expected.  While I do not necessarily disagree with the authors on any particular point, even if I disagreed with their interpretation of all ten case studies, the important points of mathematical error within those cases would remain unchanged, and so the book’s value would remain unaltered.


The book is available for purchase through Amazon here, or at your favorite bookstore.