Sep 12, 2008

Physicist drinks Kool-Aid

When stupid people cheer Sarah Palin and accuse Obama/Democrats/liberals/"the left" of smearing her, you can almost feel sorry for them. But when intelligent people twist logic to discredit legitimate attacks on her positions and actions, it becomes tragicomic.

So here is Matt Springer, a graduate student of physics and ScienceBlogs contributor, leaping to Palin's defense against the accusation that, when she was mayor, her town had the policy of charging rape victims for forensic tests.
Let's see what the article actually says. Notice, contra Neurotopia, that it does not mention Palin at all. Nor does it mention tax cuts. It certainly doesn't say that "[s]he justifies it as necessary to cut taxes". That's simply fabrication. This is what the article says in its entirely about Wasilla:

While the Alaska State Troopers and most municipal police agencies have covered the cost of exams, which cost between $300 to $1,200 apiece, the Wasilla police department does charge the victims of sexual assault for the tests. Wasilla Police Chief Charlie Fannon does not agree with the new legislation, saying the law will require the city and communities to come up with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams. "In the past we've charged the cost of exams to the victims insurance company when possible. I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said. According to Fannon, the new law will cost the Wasilla Police Department approximately $5,000 to $14,000 a year to collect evidence for sexual assault cases. "Ultimately it is the criminal who should bear the burden of the added costs," Fannon said.

Oh my. It doesn't mention Palin at all, except that it mentions the town of which she was the mayor, the police chief who reported to her (in fact, she had hired him), and a municipal policy for which (even if it is from God), the mayor has some responsibility in this world.

And no tax cuts? Pedantically, no, but the police chief justified his opposition to the state law on budgetary grounds. I am not going to argue with Matt whether it was about cutting taxes or merely preventing tax increases; I'll let him choose his preferred interpretation.

The new law prevented departments from billing insurance: the departments bear responsibility themselves. The article says nothing to indicate that any actual victim was ever forced to pay money out of pocket.

Nothing? Let's see what Matt Springer calls "nothing":
Until the 2000 legislation, local law enforcement agencies in Alaska could pass along the cost of the exams, which are needed to obtain an attacker's DNA evidence. Rape victims in several areas of Alaska, including the Matanuska-Susitna Valley where Wasilla is, complained about being charged for the tests, victims' advocate Lauree Hugonin, of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told state House committees, records show.

In cases when insurance companies are billed, the victims pay a deductible.

The supreme irony is that Springer's blog is called "Built on Facts". He continues:
The only conceivable possibility is that there may have been cases for which insurance didn't pay (the article provides no evidence of this), in which case the most likely scenario would be the department paying as in the city of Palmer.

I guess uninsured rape victims are inconceivable (Is Matt related to Vizzini?) and his mere speculation suffices to determine the most likely scenario, despite what the "nothing" above says.

Besides, the town's policy, and its opposition to the 2000 law, is abhorrent enough on its face. Palin owes American voters an explanation regardless of whether any rape victim was actually charged for the test in Wasilla.

Apparently, Matt would ask the victims, not the mayor:
This could be easily checked by examining the individual cases: in the four years Palin was mayor before this law was passed, there were only five sexual assaults.

I guess it's also inconceivable that examining individual cases may raise some privacy issues. But the link Matt provided turns up some rather interesting information.

There were 8 sexual assaults in Wasilla in 1994 and 5 in 1995. In 1996, the year Palin became mayor, there were 3, and in the three subsequent years, 0, 1, and 1, respectively. Could it be that she was a miracle worker who made violence against women disappear? Maybe not; the number of sexual assaults increased to 7 in 2000 (when the law passed), 4 in 2001, and 16 in 2002, the last year of Palin's mayorship.

That does not look like mere statistical fluctuation; something is fishy about those numbers. I can only speculate, so what follows is not a conclusion, but merely a question I'd like to ask Palin, Fannon, and others who may know:

Is it possible that reporting of sexual assaults dropped in 1997-99 because the police became hostile to victims in some way? Was the policy of charging victims for tests just a symptom of a broader approach - the tip of an iceberg? After all, the evidence shows that the policy was instituted on Palin's watch, rather than being some forgotten relic from the past.

Matt probably thinks that's inconceivable, because he doesn't think Palin would be responsible even if victims actually were charged:
And even if the Police Chief turns out to have done something so horrible (again, no evidence), there's nothing at all to indicate the mayor would have been aware of a detail of police procedure for a crime that happened about once a year. There's no evidence that Palin was even aware that such a thing was even a possibility under the law.

It must not be relevant that she hired the police chief (she fired the old one allegedly over political loyalty), that he reported to her and submitted the annual police budget to her, and that she, as mayor, approved and signed the town budget. It must not be relevant that the contingency budget for rape kits decreased from $13,000 to $3,000 in two years, from 1996 to 1998. If she didn't authorize the change, wouldn't she want to know the reason for it? Wasn't it her responsibility to know?
If any of those things were true, you'd think the governor who signed that law would have brought this up as an issue when Palin defeated him, after all.

When Sarah Palin defeated Tony Knowles, he was not the incumbent. There was another governor in the meantime, Frank Murkowski. The Palin-Knowles race was 6 years after the law was enacted. A gubernatorial race in a small state doesn't have the same profile as a presidential race and it is not clear that bringing up the issue would have been helpful to Knowles. (Then again, to turn his style of arguments against him, does Matt have a proof that Knowles did not bring up the issue in 2006?)

All of Matt's debunking so far amounts to nothing more than stating that he doesn't believe Palin was responsible for her city's policy. His arguments certainly weren't stronger than those for the other side. But how does he conclude his post? Decisively:
I understand Palin is not exactly the queen of popularity here at ScienceBlogs. But that is absolutely no excuse for promulgating this kind of desperate garbage.

Up to that point, he was merely a fool, but now he promoted himself to a rude and arrogant fool.

A commenter soon pointed out the following detail:
the police chief says it'll cost 5 to 14 thousand a year, for tests that cost 3 to 12 hundred dollars each...
That's between 4 (= 5,000/1200) and 46 (= 14,000/300) tests a year...taking averages gives about 12 (= 9500/750) tests a year...
that seems distinctly at odds with your claim that rapes requiring rape kits is "a crime that happened about once a year.".

to which Matt responded
It's not my claim, it's the actual court data for crimes reported. That's why I linked straight to the source.

Um, okay, but we really don't care whose claim it was. We want to know if it is true.
My guess as to the high estimate is that there's a baseline cost for the ability to process kits which is much greater than the cost of the physical kit itself. The police would need to cover the cost of processing equipment and possibly qualified hospital staff. If I understand correctly, rape kits are fundamentally a medical procedure and regardless of who pays, it's the hospital which is actually conducting the exam. Though the fundamental nature of sexual assault certainly merits an exception, police departments don't (as far as I know) make a habit of paying for medical examination after a mugging or other non-sexual violent crimes either.

Nice rationalization, but how would those costs depend on who pays them? Remember, you are trying to explain a five- to tenfold difference in costs of tests paid by the police and those paid by insurance, and all you came up with is that there is fixed cost involved - in both cases.

Responding to another comment, Matt says
I am aware that sexual assault is underreported, however, the issue at hand here is the specific need for rape kits. Every unreported sexual assault is an awful thing, but obviously the whole issue of who pays for a rape kit is moot if the crime isn't reported in the first place.

But, as I mentioned before, reporting is influenced by the way the police treats the victim. And the Wasilla Police Department statistics show a so far unexplained dip in rape reporting in the years between Palin's hiring Fannon as police chief and the passage of the state law banning the practice of charging victims.

Matt's ability and willingness to process new evidence were tested when a commenter pointed out that TPM had linked to another article that included the following statement:
And according to former Gov. Tony Knowles, the law was passed specifically in response to Wasila's policy. "There was one town in Alaska that was charging victims for this, and that was Wasilla," says Knowles.

Matt found the following objections:
1. It quotes as its source the governor Palin beat in the AK governor's election. He's approximately the most biased source possible.

2. Especially given the small number (demonstrably 5 or less) of rape kits required in Wasilla before the law, it's unlikely Palin would have known about this police procedure for a rare crime, even if what the former governor says is true.

3. There's still no actual record that anyone ended up having to pay anything. If one ends up being found, the police chief certainly had an awful policy and it would reflect negatively on this particular hiring choice of Palin. Much less so however, than (say) someone like Tony Rezko.

Objection 1 is ridiculous. The original commenter poked two holes in it - Knowles appears to have said it in 2000, 6 years before Palin ran for governor, and he is no less credible than the police chief appointed by Palin. I would add that nobody - not Fannon, not Palin - ever contradicted what Knowles said, so what is the point in questioning his credibility?

I have already explained why the second objection is invalid: a mayor has a responsibility to know about his or her city's policies and important events. As the commenter put it:
What does it tell us about Palin if she ignored the follow-up of every rape in her small town during her entire mayoralty?

But Matt's third objection is bordering on pathological. As soon as he is cornered into admitting this could be at least somewhat relevant for Palin as a candidate ("it would reflect negatively on this particular hiring choice of Palin"), he throws a dung bomb out of the blue, bringing up Rezko. He may have realized it was stupid because he soon tried to disown his words:
The Rezko bit is a cheap shot designed to make a point: the people you hire sometimes do things you'd highly disapprove of, but you may not know about it until it's too late. That's life. I don't think it's Obama's fault Rezko turned out to be a crook, and if this police chief turns out to have put budget above compassion I don't think it would be Palin's fault.

However, even with that spin, it is still utter bullshit. Rezko's crimes are unrelated to his business with Obama. They have no more bearing on Obama than Enron's accounting had on other clients of Arthur Andersen. It is preposterous to compare that with the relation between a mayor and the police chief whom she hired and whom she had the power to fire at will. Even as a "cheap shot designed to make a point", Matt's argument is dishonest.

The theme that unifies Matt's arguments is that he insists on proofs when Palin's priorities and judgment are questioned, but at the same time, he has no problem calling those questions "garbage" and "smears" based on nothing more than his own speculations and wishful thinking. That is a profoundly hypocritical stance.

Finally, a word of caution for the confused. Palin's defenders (who, don't forget, are ultimately the defenders of McCain's judgment and integrity) are first trying to impeach all criticism as personal and sexist. When that fails, they try to frame the argument as if Palin was on trial and her accusers have the burden of proving allegations beyond reasonable doubt. That frame is completely bogus. When we, as voters, scrutinize politicians, we do not - we definitely should not - presume that they are innocent (good, right) until proven guilty (bad, wrong). We must hold them suspect all the time. We have the right to know the facts about any reasonable allegations that could be relevant to the performance of their duties if elected. Only in authoritarian regimes would citizens be required to prove their allegations before they could criticize a politician. What the Republicans are demonstrating these days is that a McCain-Palin administration would be authoritarian beyond anything this country has ever experienced.

UPDATE (9/24): This article tries to sort out the confusion over which budget item actually represents rape kits.


Michel van der Hoek said...

You write:

"When we, as voters, scrutinize politicians, we do not - we definitely should not - presume that they are innocent (good, right) until proven guilty (bad, wrong). We must hold them suspect all the time."

Ehm, no. I do not agree. It is true that, while scrutinizing politicians, we should hold them suspect and investigate any evidence that might shed light on their career or character. But in the end, you must hold them innocent until proven guilty. There is no moral justification for assuming them guilty until proven innocent. Considering the enormous amount of false accusations against Palin (see a debunking of vicious internet rumors against her here at, the burden of proof is on those making the allegations. Until they prove their case or you yourself find corroborating evidence from another source, the voter--and any intelligent being--must dismiss the allegations as lies and slander.

bullfighter said...

Don't give me that crap about "false accusations" and "vicious rumors". If all you can do is repeating Republican talking points, how the hell am I to know if I am listening to a human or a cockatoo?

Matt Springer said...

My original post apparently bounced off a spam filter or timed out or something. Long story short, I think readers of our posts can make their own decisions and I don't think my case is damaged even slightly. Further points have been raised and addressed by commenters at my site and between us I think we've covered everything. And at the absolute worst, even if everything you say is true, Palin is guilty of not micromanaging a police department. I can live with that, though clearly the Police Chief would deserve a serious reprimand.

The only thing new I added was a note about the statistics: the N for each year is far too small for you to read a "more reporting" interpretation on it. But even if it's not a statistical fluctuation, the much more obvious factor to consider is population growth. Wasilla exploded in size during and after Palin's tenure, and so crime numbers would be expected to reflect that.

bullfighter said...

Matt, your intellectual dishonesty is astonishing. Wasilla was also growing when reported cases dropped sharply from 1994 to 1997. That you would cite population growth as an explanation for the later increase in the number of rapes and ignore this obvious fact shows that you have no business analyzing this issue (and perhaps anything).