Claim Assessment – Winter Break Edition (“The Ford Dealer” Email)

U.S. Federal Spending in 2011

U.S. Federal Spending in 2011. From Ref. 2.

I’ve been seeing a lot of friends and family over the last week during the Winter Break. One of my friends presented me with an email – it’s unclear whether they wanted me to read it and agree with it or read it and debunk it. It was a chain email, and after reading the first four or five paragraphs it was clear that this was fodder for critical claim assessment.

The email is discussed briefly over at snopes.com [1]. They collected it in August of this year. It is clearly intended as a hit piece on people who receive government assistance, and was circulating prior to the Presidential election. Broadly speaking, it’s an attempt to create a straw man – the cheating lazy American who games the system and makes a ton of money – and then blame that straw man for all the financial woes of the U.S. The version I saw was slightly modified to appear clearly in support of Governor Romney’s comments about the fraction of people receiving government assistance and the quality of those people. Here are the added pieces I saw in the mail. At the beginning of the message, prior to the introduction:

This is exactly why Mitt Romney said that 40 some odd % of the people are too dependent on the government. They have learned to work the system.

At the end of the mail is a plea to send the mail to 10 people. It then says,

Many of us believe business oriented leadership by Romney and Ryan would have helped turn disaster into recovery . . . the Business of America is Doing Business!

So, we realize this doesn’t seem like we’re doing much when we pass these on to our 10, but take a look at what the polls said.

Yes, we CAN help by getting the word out. Media refuses to cover such issues. PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO YOUR 10!

The common content listed at snopes.com is sandwiched in between these added sections. The use of conditional simple tense – ” . . . would have helped . . . ” – suggests that the added text was written AFTER the election’s outcome, as a “told you so” warning. However, the story clearly predates the election itself.

I found the piece overall interesting as fodder for critical claim assessment. I invite you to read through it and look for the many logical fallacies involved – for instance, there is reliance on anecdotal evidence (we cannot even know if the story is true as reported, including the specific numbers), hasty generalization (extrapolating to a large population based on a very small sample size), appeal to emotions, etc. I found one part of the mail specifically interesting. Let me excerpt the pieces and then discuss what I found so interesting.

[The woman purchasing a car at the Ford dealership] said the gov’t sends her $1500.00 a month in 1 check. And she gets $700.00 a month on an EBT card (food stamps), and $800.00 a month for rent.

Oh yeah, and 250 minutes free on her phone.

That is just south of $3500.00 a month . . .

Do the math and then ask yourself why the hell should she go back to work.

If you multiply that by millions of people, you start to realize the scope of the problem we face as a country.****

The socialists have nearly 51% of the population in that same scenario, so we are about finished.

So the claim is that based on this one woman (whose existence we cannot independently verify and whose numbers are not sourced), this is typical of what all people on government assistance receive. The claim is also that 51% of the population is on such government assistance.

Does that add up? Well, if every such person receives $3250/month for 12 months, and we take the population of the U.S. to be about 310 million [2] in 2011 (you’ll see why 2011 matters in a moment), then the cost to the Federal government is:

$3250.00 x 12 x 0.51 x 310,000,000 = $6.2 trillion

What is the total Federal budget of the U.S.? In 2011, the total Federal budget was $3.6 trillion [3]; however, only 43% of that budget is spend on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That means a maximum of $1.5 trillion. Only a fraction of that money is spent in the way outlined above – on the food program ($78 billion [4]), or on a monthly stipend.

So if we take the claim at face value – as the author of the email clearly wants a reader to do – it is physically impossible for the message to be true. Given the basic falsehood of the premise for the final claim – that this “kind of person” is to blame for all the financial woes of the United States – how can we trust anything else stated in the mail. A major flaw like this financial extrapolation deconstructs the entire argument.

Is it possible that there is such a person? In a system as complex as ours, it’s possible. But is every person who receives any such money receiving such generous benefits? That’s not only extremely unlikely, it’s financially impossible.

That’s why I called this mail a “hit piece.” It’s intended to go straight for your emotions and by-pass your brain. If you apply a little critical thinking and some very basic math to the email, its power is robbed.

Coda:

There were two particularly worrying things about this email. The first is that it claims to be derived from the Facebook post of the owner of a Ford Dealership – ostensibly, a businessman who says “The Business of America is Business!” This businessman is also apparently willing to air the private financial details of his own customers, a practice that is already distasteful (assuming it’s even true at all!). The second worrying thing is that the copy I saw had been sent internally within a business from a supervisor to his subordinates. This was being circulated intentionally by management within a business organization, asking employees to pass it along. At best, that is abuse of a corporate email system.

Both of these observations implies a total misunderstanding of basic money and math by management in either of these two businesses. The Ford Dealership owner used the hasty generalization fallacy to project the situation of a single person to the whole of those who receive any financial support from the U.S. government. Neither of these particular two businessmen stopped and did the math – if they did, they would have realized the core claims of this mail are impossible. At the risk of drawing my own hasty generalization fallacy, if anything spells doom for American business, it’s weak sense critical thinkers running the businesses that participate in our economy.

More info:

Is Tom Selkis a real person? If so, is he connected to Latham Ford?

Latham Ford is real. Tom Selkis is real; he is the owner and a dealer. See the snap of their page below. Does that mean he is really the origin of this mail? Not necessarily, because this information is publicly available and anyone could fake the origin.

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[1] http://www.snopes.com/politics/taxes/forddealer.asp

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget

[4] http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226

[5] The full mail, from [1]:

A Ford Dealer’s Report – From Tom Selkis’ (Latham Ford) Facebook – True story yesterday at the dealership.

I’ll try to make this as short and to the point as I can.

One of my salesmen here had a woman in his office yesterday wanting to lease a brand new Focus.

As he was reviewing her credit application with her he noticed she was on social security disability.

He said to her you don’t look like you’re disabled and unable to work.

She said well I’m really not. I could work if I wanted to, but I make more now than I did when I was working and got hurt (non-disabling injury).

She said the gov’t sends her $1500.00 a month in 1 check. And she gets $700.00 a month on an EBT card (food stamps), and $800.00 a month for rent.

Oh yeah, and 250 minutes free on her phone.

That is just south of $3500.00 a month.

When she was working, she was taking home about $330.00 per week.

Do the math and then ask yourself why the hell should she go back to work.

If you multiply that by millions of people, you start to realize the scope of the problem we face as a country.
Once the socialists have 51% of the population in that same scenario, we are finished.

The question is when do we cross that threshold if we haven’t already, and there are not enough people working to pay enough taxes to support the non-working people? Riots?? Be prepared to protect your homes.

She didn’t lease the Focus here because the dealer down the road beat our deal by $10.00/month.

Glad to know she is so frugal with her hard earned money.

Christmas flashback

The best part about Christmas when you’re and adult is reliving the ones of your youth through the fresh eyes of your nephews. Same toys, new generation. You go, Santa!

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Six Great Memories from 2012

My top six favorite memories from 2012. In reverse order. Guess who's involved in number 1?

My top six favorite memories from 2012. In reverse order. Guess who’s involved in number 1?

Facebook recently added a “Your 2012 Year in Review” feature. It claims to show you the “20 biggest moments” in your life in 2012.

It sucks.

In no way did it capture anything that was important in my life this year. Why? Well, first and foremost, I don’t post strongly personal and important things on Facebook. I post things on Facebook that I don’t mind coming back to haunt me in a decade. By taking my most personal information out of the hands of Facebook and, instead, culturing my own creative outlets (like this blog), I happily defeat Facebook’s automated attempt to “get to know me” so well it can tell me what was important to me in 2012.

Since I refuse to let services like Facebook dictate the details of my life, I decided to instead write this. 2012 was, indeed, a year to remember. Unlike 2007 (prior to now, the most memorable year of my life simply due to the sheer number of awful things that happened that year), this one was a year of personal growth, global discovery, and the making of history. Here, in sort of a “Top 6 list,” are the memories of this year that I will not only cherish forever, but likely live to rue.

Number 6: Teaching the SMU Course on the Scientific Method and Critical and Creative Thinking

Introduction to the Scientific Method and Critical and Creative Thinking

Introduction to the Scientific Method and Critical and Creative Thinking

When I was first offered an interview at SMU, I did the first thing I always do when wanting to learn about a new place: I waited for my dad to beat me to a web browser and then tell me all about the place. Sure enough, dad sent me a letter on December 7, 2012, that contained a link to the course website (http://www.physics.smu.edu/pseudo/). He stressed in the letter that what was impressive about this course was that it was taught in the physics department as a physics course. In fact, this is one of the distinguishing features of this course; there are almost no other places (of which I am aware) that host such a course so consistently in its physics department. Much of the time, courses on scientific process and thought are left to philosophers, who have almost no experience actually practicing science.

This year, I had the privilege of teaching this course with Profs. John Cotton and Randy Scalise. It was an eye-opener in many, many ways. First, it was a chance to engage with students who represent a true cross-section of SMU, not just physics majors and minors, engineers, and pre-meds. Second, it was a chance to learn to teach in a highly varied and entertaining way, while challenging students to dig deeper and stop writing essays. Third, it reminded me about why I also like teaching physics (you know, all that math stuff), and got me thinking about how I might incorporate lessons from this course into my normal physics courses (e.g. for the pre-med and pre-dental students).

Number 5: Earning my First Federal Grant

This year marked a new epoch in my professional life as I was favorably reviewed by a panel in the U.S. Department of Energy and received my first Federal Grant. 90% of high-energy physicsĀ  (HEP) research is funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Its total budget for HEP is less than a billion dollars (closer to $700 million) for the entire country, including national laboratories and university programs. To write you first favorably reviewed grant proposal is a key step in becoming a mature physicist, and since writing proposals was a skill I learned only once I became a faculty member, it was a nail-biter for me right up until my grant proposal passed review.

Sure, the money was barely enough to sustain the research effort (e.g. pay my post-doctoral researcher, Aidan, the beating heart of my research effort on ATLAS), but it was well spent. I was able to support Aidan’s salary and even send him to a workshop where he was the face of his ATLAS Higgs analysis.

The key now: repetition, repetition, repetition. In order to sustain this effort, the U.S. needs to get past the “fiscal cliff” so agencies like DOE can plan for the budgets they were supposed to allocate back in October. Everything is on hold until that mess is sorted out.

Number 4: The Completion of our First Year in our Home

Turkenfunken 2012

Turkenfunken 2012

We bought our first house in 2011. Just a week later, the house was partially destroyed by a flood when the attic water heater let go. That summer was spent watching a team of outstanding contractors put the house back together, good as new (and, in fact, better than the condition in which we bought it). This past summer marked the completion of our first year in our home, and we have been very happy.

We put in a small garden in the back. I installed some daisy-chained rain barrels to help with conservation and watering of plants. The water is pumped purely by gravity and feeds the front and back yards. We ripped out the beds of lava rock left by the previous owner, turned the soil and repaired it (with mushroom compost and expanding shale to break up clay), and planted bushes and flowers. The house became as home as we put our own personalities into it. We love to entertain here. We love to have family visit here. It’s a big house, but in Dallas such a place is not only within our budget, but a welcome way to have family and friends join us for long stays in comfort and privacy.

And we NEVER get tired of hosting a good Turkenfunken here!

Number 3: Applying Science to Alter my Weight

Weight Loss 2012

Weight Loss 2012

Weight loss involves changing the balance of energy in and energy out from the body. It sounds simple. It’s not. But with focus, patience, and dedication – something I lacked until this year – it can be done. Between regular exercise and long walks with Jodi, and cutting the calorie intake, I lost 35 pounds this year (starting at 248 lbs on Jan. 10). I have more to go – another 25 and I’ll be relatively well outside the danger zone of my BMI – but it’s already had a tremendous effect on the quality of my life and my health. It’s been especially good for my stress levels (as in, I don’t get so easily stressed anymore).

How did I do it? A combination of data and dedication. Data were entered and gathered using LoseIt (http://www.loseit.com), a Withings Scale (http://www.withings.com), and Fitbit (http://www.fitbit.com). Calories in were countered with calories out. There are always stalls – I was in one in the spring and I am in one now – but patience and perseverance pay off. ALWAYS.

Number 2: The Discovery of One (Maybe Two?) New Subatomic Particles

Announcement of the New Subatomic Particle Discovery

Announcement of the New Subatomic Particle Discovery

A multi-decade investment of people, money, time, and brainpower paid off this year when both my experiment, ATLAS, and our competitor experiment, CMS, announced on July 4 the discovery of a new subatomic particle. The particle is so far consistent with the Higgs Boson, the particle that is a manifestation of the Higgs Field, which gives mass to subatomic particles (e.g. quarks, leptons, and gauge bosons).

I was there on July 4 during the announcement, near the front of the line of people waiting to get into the auditorium.

There are mysteries that still remain. What is the exact nature of the coupling of the Higgs with different particles, including fermions (like tau leptons and bottom quarks) and some gauge bosons (like photons). The coupling to the di-photon final state is still curiously stronger than predicted by the Standard Model. This could just be an experimental effect (some systematic error) or purely a statistical effect (more data will show that the upward movement of the coupling was a fluctuation). Or, it could be hints of unexpected physics right there in the Higgs.

The mass of the Higgs is also an unresolved puzzle. There are two channels that dominate the measurement of Higgs mass: H -> ZZ and H -> photon photon. These channels measure the masses to be slightly different, with tension between their values (they are consistent within uncertainly, but not close enough to make use think something isn’t going on). Again, this could just be an experimental effect, or statistics, or it could be something else. Might we have observed TWO new subatomic particles close in mass?

We’ll be pushing out all kinds of new analyses in 2013 with the data we finished taking a few weeks ago. We’ll all have to wait and see.

Number 1: Ten Years of Marriage

Jodi and Steve 2012

Jodi and Steve 2012

This year marked the 10th anniversary of my marriage with Jodi. Of course, we spent the anniversary as we usually do these days – with Jodi returning from a trip and me departing on a trip. We missed each other at the airport by just a few hours. That’s life as a physicist sometimes.

It doesn’t matter. The day matters less than the marriage. What’s important is that through three changes in jobs (MIT, Stanford/Ohio State, and SMU), four moves (my move from CA to WI and her move to a new apartment after we got married, our move to MA, our move to CA, and our move to TX), and ten years we are happy and finding new adventures. One thing we are looking forward to after the tenure process is a road trip to see some of the places we’ve heard about since coming to Texas, but which we never have time to see. So we’re still planning for things that are years away.10 years of marriage to Jodi – definitely my number one memory of 2012.