Aggregating Skeptical Thought

I’m being Framed by Mark Souder

I’ve recently received a mailer from my Congressman Mark Souder (R-IN). Besides the typical, “I’m doing this for you” type propaganda is a survey. And just to give you an idea of what the survey is like let me choose at random, well, let’s just pick Item #1 shall we,

If forced to choose, would you support more federal spending on education or alternative energy?

____ Education                                          ___ Alternative Energy

Well Mr. Souder, I pick alternative energy because I don’t really care if my children can’t read as long as they can’t read by solar powered lamps. Obviously this is a political stunt that as a taxpayer I’m paying for but nevermind that.

Ever since Matthew Nisbett and Chris Mooney authored there little article about Framing, I’ve become keenly aware of how the framing (or context) of a question or statement can dramatically affect my perception of an issue or person. Just in case you don’t know what I mean by framing and don’t care to follow the above links since they do go on a bit. Essentially “framing” is the term describing the different ways in which you can present your message to elicit (intentionally or otherwise) the desired response and that the “framing” of the message often bears more on the response than the message or content itself.

Now I won’t point out the obvious False Dichotomy that Mr. Souder is choosing to employ because quite frankly I’ve never accused Souder of even being a logical or rational person. Hey Souder, can’t wait to see what other road in Fort Wayne you can put Ronald Reagan’s name on. Ooh maybe you should try putting his face on the dime. Anyway.

Ready for more? Well you asked for it but this time be extra aware of the choice of words he uses,

Which of the following do you believe is the best strategy to reduce gas prices?

___ Drill for oil

___ Force further size reductions in vehicles

___ Nothing, the current strategy is working

___ Other

“Drill for oil” is put forward in very neutral terms that almost begs the question, “Aren’t we already doing that?” or “Why wouldn’t we do that?”

But the next one, “Force further size reductions in vehicles”, is an example of using both perjorative phrasing and quite frankly a misleading statement (my grandmother would simply call it lying). First notice the use of “Force”, just in case your not clear ANY government regulation is force, just see what happens when you choose not to comply. The statement “further size reductions in vehicles” to my knowledge doesn’t make any sense. I’m unaware of any regulation or law that currently requires the reduction in the size of vehicles. I’m not nearly as aware of regulations as Mark Souder but I’d like to see some proof of legislation or even a bill proposal on this. Clearly he’s referring to raising the CAFE standards on vehicles which says nothing about how big a vehicle has to be only the average miles per gallon that a fleet of vehicles from a car manufacturer must achieve.

And to cap off the idiocy, the third option is “Nothing, the current strategy is working”. Do I even need to comment.

You want more? You people are glut tons,

Would you support higher taxes on all taxpayers to fund government-run health care?

___ Yes      ___ No      ___ Maybe

Well at least I get a maybe. 2 words, oversimplification.

Mark Souder has been criticized for spending too much time working to help veterans, including by working to save the Fort Wayne VA hospital. What do you think?

___ I agree with the critics that he has spent too much time on veterans issues

___ I agree with Congressman Souder’s effort to boost veterans spending and save the hospital.

Personally I think once a veteran has gone past their usefulness, either they are too injured to fight or too old, they should all be shot and then their bodies should be recycled into a food product, and we should call it Soylent Green.

Seriously what kind of question is this? I hang with a fairly liberal group of people and I hear a lot, I mean a lot, of criticism of Mark Souder, spending too much time on veterans affairs is not one of them. Again, the question is used to paint Souder as a victim of partisan politics and is a pathetic attempt to cast him as a champion for the common man.

I have a new criticism though. How about Souder’s wasteful taxpayer spending on direct mailers that could otherwise go into processing old people as a renewable food source. Is Mark Souder’s 3-terms* in office up yet?

Now that I’m done ranting about Mark Souder**, let’s get back to the question at hand which is Framing. I can’t find an online version of this survey so I can’t send you off to see the whole thing but needless to say each question is carefully phrased and each response is carefully guided to a particular “right” answer. But the attempt to guide the reader to the right answer is so thinly veiled that it, at least to this harmless blogger, puts me into one of two frames of mind. Either I’m put off by the level of political hackery that’s involved or Mark Souder clearly does not understand the issues he’s being presented with.

Of course, being a rational person, and therefore unintelligable to people like Souder, I’m going to assume that this is just a political hack job. Quite frankly the other proposition is too depressing to think about. Plus let’s be honest Mark Souder didn’t put this survey together, he’s got a guy who does this stuff, he probably rubber stamped this thing without a second glance but if I were Souder I’d be checking on what image you are portraying to your constituency. This survey presented two Mark Souders, one of a Partisan Hackjob or an Incompetent.

* One of Mark Souder’s campaign promises, Gingrich’s Contract With America, was that he would only run for 3-terms in office. He was elected to Congress during Republican Revolution of 1994.

** In case you need additional reasons to conclude that Mark Souder’s grasp on reality is tenuous at best here’s his press release bragging about his recent appearance in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. If you movie is about the lack of intelligence then Souder is your man.

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Do Fort Wayne car dealers care about your identity?

Like many cities in the U.S. we have several local network affiliates, ABC & NBC are IndianasNewsCenter and CBS is WANE. These local affiliates have short news segments that do investigative journalism. The most notable report recently was an expose on whether or not you are really getting the fish you ordered from local restaurants.

The journalism is good if not a bit wasted on the frivolous. True, I want the fish I ordered not some generic whitefish at tilapia prices but granted not something that would ruin my life or finances. However, recently WANE ran an investigative report on online fraud via CraigsList or eBay. This is certainly an important report if nothing else it raises awareness and gives people some critical thinking tools to use. Unfortunately the Internet in this case is nothing more than a new mechanism for the same old kinds of fraud.

What I think is a bit more interesting when it comes to online fraud is the new ways businesses can cut corners and therefore become grossly negligent. It was recently brought to my attention that several local used car dealers have online credit application forms. Nothing unusual there. However these dealers are asking for extremely personal financial information and are not providing any security for your information.

Before I continue let me provide just some of the most basic online security information. When you fill out a form on the internet, for example, an online credit application and click the Submit buttton you are packaging your information into an envelope (technically a whole bunch of little ones) and transmitting it back to the retailer, in our instance the car dealer. However, in order for your letter to go from your computer to their computers your envelope must pass through a whole bunch of intersections, highways and traffic cops, we’ll call them “hops”. Most legitimate “hops” will simply look at the address on the letter and send it on it’s way, however, anyone of those “hops” has the option to actually open that letter and read the contents.

Well that’s obviously not very safe for private information, so someone invented a way of sharing a password or key between your computer and the car dealers computers. This password is then used to scramble the contents of the envelope so that now your letter contains a bunch of gibberish. The only thing anyone is allowed to see at those “hops” is the address, if they look inside the envelope all they see is gibberish. When your envelope arrives at it’s destination the car dealer’s computer knows which password to use and it unscrambles the message into something readable. Your private information is being transmitted securely through a public space. Think of it like a Brinks armored truck, the most you could ever find out is that something very important is going from Point A to Point B.

So what I tell people when they ask me how do they know whether their online transactions are “safe” is the following:

  1. Do you trust the company you are doing business with? Are they well known?
  2. When you are putting your credit card or personal information in the computer, does it say https:// in the address bar? And, most importantly, does it have the Gold Padlock?

If you answer No to any of these questions then I would not proceed. The answers to #2 aren’t quite as black and white but for the average Joe, I say “It’s a no go!”. It rhymes so it must be so. Ha, I rhymed again. Doh!

So now that you are armed with that bit of information let’s continue our conversation about our local car dealers. In order to provide this level of security your car dealer of choice must set themselves up to swap those passwords or keys between your computer and their computers. This method generally involves the exchange of an SSL certificate (this is the secret password or key). But because of how important these certificates are they can be a bit expensive and require some special setup to get them to work on a car dealers website.

I did an informal survey of local car dealers with a website in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area. Most of the used car dealers (even some dealerships like O’Daniels) simply provide a downloadable form that you print out and fill-in. Some used car dealers provide a secured, online credit application Best Deal Auto Sales and Preferred Auto Group. I give them kudos for providing excellent customer service even if their customers may not know it.

Bart’s Car Stores, a fairly well known local dealer, appears to be trying but fails to give me confidence that their online credit application is actually secured. When you go to their online credit application you get a warning that both secured and unsecured content appears on their credit application and no padlock is provided in my browser (which means my browser does not believe this is a secured transaction), despite the https:// in the address bar. As an uber-dork I can tell this page is actually protected but the average Joe could easily get scared off.

Dimension Ford provides a secure online application form but does it in such a way as to actually hide the fact that their form is secure. It is but it sure doesn’t look like it. Sure you can scroll to the bottom and it tells you it’s secure. I’m also a rainbow-farting unicorn.

But by far the absolute worst offenders and I would say the most negligent are the following, Instant Auto Finance (the one my friend told me about) as well as State Automotive Group and Professional Auto Sales. Each of these 3 websites appear to be professionally-created so one of 2 things has happened (or both), either the professional web development companies that were employed to provide these websites are unaware of the risks in transmitting people’s social security, address and employee history through Internet, which I doubt, or the individual car dealers “opted” not to pay for this additional service.

Gross negligence and the cutting of corners will always outweigh the overt frauds in the world. At least in a fraud situation there is an obvious victim and bad guy. When it comes to negligence, there are only the uncaring and uninformed.

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The Atheist Market in Fort Wayne, IN

I’ve been sitting on this USA Today article, Americans freely change, or drop, their religions, for a couple days now. I’m not really sure what to make of this survey. Part of me sees the statistic that atheist/agnostics make up about 4% of the U.S. population and see that in a pessimistic light. Just to put that number in perspective if you take the total population of the city of Fort Wayne, IN (where I am located) with a population of about 215,000 (500,000 if you include the Metro Fort Wayne area). This means about 8,600 of my fellow Fort Wayners are atheist/agnostic, about 19,000 if you inclulde the whole Metro area.

One of the statistics for Indiana particularly is the number of unaffiliated people. And of course the number of unaffiliated people is the whole point of the article. I wonder how many of them would simply declare atheist/agnostic if the social pressure to believe in God were removed. I think all these things in the hopes of understanding what percentage of those people would participate in an atheist group, like Freethought Fort Wayne. I don’t really have any stats on what is the likely percentage of any group to actively participate in a group of some kind. For example, let’s say that any given grouping of people will have 20% of its members actually participating in groups. Let’s say there are 1,000 people in a given area who self-identify that they are Bird enthusiasts so it’s reasonable to assume that the most members of an organized, self-identified group of Bird enthusiasts would be 200 members. Your job as the the Bird Enthusiast evangelist is to get your group to that magic 200 number. If for example you advertise or whatever and you can only ever get 75 people to join then you know that you are doing something wrong or missing a whole target group of about 125 people. But without that 20% number how could you ever know that 75 people isn’t supposed to be the max number.

It’s easy to say there are 8,000-20,000 potential members of an atheist/agnostic group in the Greater Fort Wayne Area and let’s be honest if you state that you are “unaffiliated” and not simply agnostic then you are very, very unlikely to join a group that self-identifies with atheism since you can’t even fill out an anonymous survey and say you are atheist. What percentage of those group members would be willing to actively participate in a group,  1%? 2%? 10%?

Part of me holds out hope because even with a 1%-2% participation rate that creates a pool of 80-400 members. Can you imagine that 80-400 possible members in Fort Wayne, imagine the potential pool of candidates in Indianapolis with 4 times the population. Actually I could probably find out the membership of CFI- Indiana and reverse calculate and estimate of what Fort Wayne could draw, I’ll re-edit when I get that information.

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