One thing I have learned from more than a decade of teaching mathematics is that it is very easy to bamboozle people with numbers and equations. I do it all the time in my calculus classes, and that is when I am bending over backward to be as clear as I possibly can.
Creationists are especially unscrupulous about exploiting this fact about mathematics. At one creationist conference I attended, the speaker went on for close to an hour spouting the sheerest nonsense about information theory and probability. He received a standing ovation for his troubles. Another time, in a small, classroom setting, the creationist speaker tossed off some very small numbers said to represent the probability of this or that complex structure evolving. During the subsequent Q and A, one very serious fellow in the audience asked, “When scientists are confronted with numbers so small, what else can they do but just stare helplessly?” Later I suggested to the questioner that perhaps the scientists might question the ridiculous assumptions underlying the calculations, but he was not amused.
You would think, though, that better educated, more savvy people would not be so easily impressed. Surely our top political pundits, perfectly familiar with the sort of rank dishonesty and cynicism that emanates from politicians, would not accept at face value so much phony number crunching.
Alas, that’s too optimistic. Here’s William Saletan, proving once more that the online magazine Slate is seldom worth reading any more, swooning over Paul Ryan (Mitt Romney’s new running mate, for those who have been out of touch for several days).
A wonderful thing has happened for this country. Paul Ryan will be the Republican nominee for vice president.
Ryan is a real fiscal conservative. He isn’t just another Tea-Party ideologue spouting dogma about less government and the magic of free enterprise. He has actually crunched the numbers and laid out long-term budget proposals. My liberal friends point out that Ryan’s plan leaves many details unclear. That’s true. But show me another Republican who has addressed the nation’s fiscal problems as candidly and precisely as Ryan has. He’s got the least detailed budget proposal out there, except for all the others.
Ryan refutes the Democratic Party’s bogus arguments. He knows that our domestic spending trajectory is unsustainable and that liberals who fail to get it under control are leading their constituents over a cliff, just like in Europe. Eventually, you can’t borrow enough money to make good on your promises, and everyone’s screwed. Ryan understands that the longer we ignore the debt crisis and postpone serious budget cuts—the liberal equivalent of denying global warming—the more painful the reckoning will be. There’s nothing compassionate about that kind of irresponsibility.
That’s pretty dumb. Ryan is just a standard-issue right-winger. His only contribution to the discussion is the sort of faux-intellectual, super-serious demeanor so useful for making nonsense seem reasonable. Happily, we have Paul Krugman to explain what is really going on.
Look, Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal.
So why does Saletan believe otherwise? Has he crunched the numbers himself? Of course not. What he’s doing – and what the whole Beltway media crowd has done – is to slot Ryan into a role someone is supposed to be playing in their political play, that of the thoughtful, serious conservative wonk. In reality, Ryan is nothing like that; he’s a hard-core conservative, with a voting record as far right as Michelle Bachman’s, who has shown no competence at all on the numbers thing.
What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.
Go to the original for relevant links. Krugman, as usual, is completely correct.