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August 16th, 2019 (Permalink)

Wake up, Marianne!

Everyone seems to think you're too much, Marianne
Everyone seems to think they know you, Marianne
Why, you don't even know yourself
Poor little girl, you're out of this world, Marianne
Wake up, Marianne!1

In a previous entry on presidential candidate Marianne Williamson2, I raised the question of what someone who quoted with approval the claim that "reality is an illusion" thought about the reality of disease. Williamson got her start in the public eye with her book A Return to Love, which was actually a book about another book, A Course in Miracles. I haven't read either book, but here's a brief summary of the latter:

It’s impossible to summarize "A Course in Miracles'" doctrine concisely because it’s not coherent. But let me give it my best shot: The external world isn’t real. All of our problems are illusions. You are the son of God, so am I, so is every other sentient being, so is Jesus, who is writing the book. There is no sin. Evil does not exist. Sickness is an illusion.3

And Williamson's take on it:

According to Williamson, not only is the real world an illusion, everything is an illusion, except love. God is love. We only think that we are separate from each other and separate from God―in reality, we are all one. All of our problems, including sickness, are illusory. If we could just get beyond the illusion of sickness, we wouldn’t be sick. If sickness is all in our mind and our minds can be changed by miracles, you might assume that miracles can cure disease. "Sometimes a miracle is a change in material conditions, such as physical healing," Williamson writes in "A Return to Love." "At other times, it is a psychological or emotional change." This is the bait-and-switch at the heart of Williamson’s teachings. Maybe you’ll get well, or maybe you’ll feel better about being sick….3

I haven't read any of Williamson's books yet4, so I can't verify that this is an accurate description of her views. The description makes it sound very similar to the ultra-silly book The Secret, which I have read and reviewed5. If it is accurate―and it's certainly in line with the fake "Einstein" quote―then Williamson's statements about vaccines aren't surprising.

If diseases are "illusions", then the way to prevent them is simply to recognize that they are. Vaccines, on this view, are not only unnecessary, but may be counter-productive by encouraging a belief that the diseases they prevent are real. If illness is all in the mind then so is health, and being healthy is not a matter of vaccines, drugs, surgery, or any other medical intervention, but of mental state. Refuse to acknowledge that you're sick, and you aren't!

The attraction of this doctrine is that it means that you have god-like powers, but a downside is that when you do get sick―and you will―it's all your fault. You just didn't keep the right attitude. A bigger problem is that it's not reality that's the illusion, but the claim that it is. If you get ill and refuse to face facts, you may delay treatment and die prematurely.

I mentioned in the previous entry that Williamson is already as skillful as any politician at dodging questions. Here's an excerpt from a recent interview displaying her prowess at doubletalk:

Ari Melber: You had cast skepticism on vaccinations. I wonder if you could better explain to us where you come down on that given the science and the concern that vaccinations do work and people need them to keep these communities safe.

Williamson: …I think it's an overstatement to say that I cast skepticism on vaccinations. On the issue of vaccinations, I'm pro-vaccination, I'm pro-medicine, I'm pro-science. On all of these issues, what I'm bringing up that I think is very legitimate and should not be derided and should not be marginalized, particularly in a free society, is questions about the role of predatory big pharma. … When I was a child we took far fewer vaccines, and there was much less bungling, and there was much less chronic illness. I don't know why….

Melber: But do you think vaccinations are contributing to things being worse now? Is that what you're suggesting?

Williamson: No, no, no. What I'm saying is that in 1986 there was this vaccine protection law. There was and there have been $4 billion in vaccine compensation payments that have been made, and there was much less chronic―there was something like 12 percent chronic illness among our children previous to that law, and there's 54 percent now. I don't see why in a free society―you know, what is going on here? When you look at the fact that big pharmaceutical companies lobby Congress to the tune of $284 million last year alone as opposed to oil and gas which is lobbied Congress to the tune of $125 million last year. When you look at all the money that is spent by pharmaceutical companies even on our news―on our news channels, when you look at the fact that there are two pharmaceutical lobbyists for every member of Congress, and even when you look at the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been paid into the conference of even presidential candidates, why are we so OK with the complete shutdown of any conversation about this topic? …

Melber: …[J]ust so we're clear, your view though of federal or state government vaccination requirements is they are valid or you may impose them?

Williamson: Absolutely, with any medical intervention, there are benefits and there are risks. The government always has to come down on the side of the public good. Absolutely, I was vaccinated, my daughter was vaccinated. …6

Notice that Williamson claims to not have "cast skepticism on vaccinations" right before she casts skepticism on them. She first does so in her remark: "When I was a child we took far fewer vaccines…and there was much less chronic illness." So what? Williamson is older than I am, and when we were children things were different in a myriad of ways than they are now. Why pick on fewer vaccines and more chronic illness if she's not suggesting that the one causes the other? If that isn't casting skepticism on vaccination, what is it?

After Melber then asks her whether she's suggesting that vaccinations have contributed to higher rates of chronic illness in children, she strongly denies it―"no, no, no"―and then immediately suggests it again! She brings up the "vaccine protection law" of 1986, saying: "there was something like 12 percent chronic illness among our children previous to that law, and there's 54 percent now."

This is primarily a logic check and not a fact check, but it's difficult to even make sense of what Williamson was claiming without delving into some factual questions. For instance, you may wonder, as I did, what law is she talking about? In brief, over thirty years ago manufacturers of vaccines were being sued out of the business. In 1982, there were three companies that made the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine, but by 1984, only one was still producing it7. Then, in 1986, that company announced it would no longer make it8.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a disease that killed thousands of infants every year in the United States prior to the introduction of the vaccine9. Just as in the supposed vaccine-autism link, the DPT vaccine was blamed for causing brain damage in vaccinated children; also, as in the case with autism, it turned out that the vaccine did not cause brain damage10. Nonetheless, scientifically-ignorant juries were awarding multi-million dollar verdicts against the companies that manufactured it.

The 1986 law was designed to save the vaccine industry in the United States, and in fact did so11. Presumably, Williamson would be happier if they all had gone out of business. What else can she be claiming than that the law has led to more vaccinations, which have led to an increase in childhood chronic illness?

Speaking of which, has there really been a rise in chronic illnesses in children from 12 to 54 percent? No, not really. The logical problem here is the vagueness and ambiguity of the notion of "chronic illness". There are a large number of chronic illnesses: asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, etc. Is obesity a chronic illness? Depending on how you define "chronic illness", on what conditions you consider both "illnesses" and "chronic", you can get a wide range of percentages.

In particular, the numbers cited by Williamson were cherry-picked: the first percentage comes from a 2010 study while the latter one comes from a 2011 study12. Now, you might think that the latter percentage was chosen from a different study because the first one did not provide a recent estimate of chronic illness in children, but you would think wrong. The study in question examined three cohorts of children, the first of which was followed from 1988-1994 and produced the number 12.8% for the "prevalence of any chronic health condition". However, the same study had a later cohort followed from 2000-2006, which had a prevalence of 26.6%13. Even though this is a doubling of chronic conditions, apparently it wasn't alarming enough. So, the later number was taken from a different paper, which used a list of twenty chronic illnesses, and then added obesity, overweight, and "being at risk for developmental delays" to get 54.1%14.

To return to the logic check, whether there has been a quadrupling or only a doubling of chronic childhood illnesses in the past thirty years, there's no reason to think it has anything to do with vaccinations15. Either Williamson is committing the post hoc fallacy, or she is setting up a logical boobytrap to trick others into doing so. The only reasons she gives for thinking that the rise in such illnesses in children is related to vaccines are the before and after claims about the 1986 law and the apparent rise. In other words, post hoc ergo propter hoc: "after this therefore because of this.16"

Of course, I suspect that Williamson's views on the unreality of disease have contributed to her willingness to jump to such unsupported conclusions, as I discussed above. She was primed by her beliefs to downplay the physical factors, such as viruses, that are responsible for some diseases, as well as those factors, such as vaccines, that can prevent them.

When it comes to talking out of both sides of her mouth at the same time, Williamson has most professional politicians beaten. She can assert something, deny it in the next sentence, then turn around and immediately assert it again in the sentence after that!

Who are you going to believe: Marianne Williamson or your lying ears?


  1. Stephen Stills, "Marianne", Stephen Stills 2, 1971.
  2. C'mon, Marianne, 7/30/2019.
  3. Lindsay Beyerstein, "Marianne Williamson’s philosophy is a New York phenomenon", City & State New York, 7/24/2019.
  4. I dread doing so, too, since I fear they will be undiluted drivel.
  5. The Secret, The Fallacy Files Bookshelf.
  6. "Democrats tackle liberalism and electability. TRANSCRIPT: 7/31/19, The Beat w/ Ari Melber.", MSNBC, 7/31/2019.
  7. Paul A. Offit, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (2010), p. 19.
  8. Offit, p. 21.
  9. Natalie Zarrelli, "Whooping Cough Killed 6,000 Kids a Year Before These Ex-Teachers Created a Vaccine", History, 4/16/2019.
  10. Offit, pp. 28-32.
  11. Offit, p. 22.
  12. As I said, this isn't a fact check; for the full story behind these numbers, see: David Gorski, "Is today’s generation of children 'the sickest generation'?", Science Based Medicine, 8/5/2019.
  13. J. Van Cleave J, S. L. Gortmaker & J. M. Perrin, "Dynamics of obesity and chronic health conditions among children and youth.", JAMA, 2010 Feb 17;303(7):623-30. This is the abstract; I haven't read the full paper.
  14. Christina D. Bethell, et al., "A National and State Profile of Leading Health Problems and Health Care Quality for US Children: Key Insurance Disparities and Across-State Variations", Academic Pediatrics, Volume 11, Issue 3, Supplement, May-June 2011.
  15. Williamson appears to have taken her arguments and cherry-picked statistics from propaganda put out by a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is notorious for peddling conspiracy theories about vaccines, among other things; see Gorski, above, linked in note 12, for details. On Kennedy, see: Sarah Kaplan, "The truth about vaccines, autism and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy theory", The Washington Post, 1/10/2017.
  16. For more on this logical fallacy, see under "Post Hoc" in the alphabetical listing of fallacies available from the menu in the left navigational pane.

August 9th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 71: Aim at objectivity!

Objectivity seems to have a bad reputation nowadays, so the first thing I need to do is explain why you shouldn't be prejudiced against it. Unfortunately, "objective" and "subjective" have several different meanings, which is one reason for the confusion surrounding the topic of objectivity.

Objectivity, of course, contrasts with subjectivity2, and it's easier to get at what I mean by the former by talking about the latter. The relevant sense of "subjective" is at least similar in meaning to "biased", "prejudiced", or "partial", so that as I use it the word "objective" means "unbiased", "unprejudiced", or "impartial". This means that other ways of stating this rule would be: Aim at being unbiased (or unprejudiced, or impartial)!3

Why is there a bias against objectivity? There are two broad categories of argument4 against it:

  1. Objectivity is impossible: Is objectivity possible? The arguments that it is not are hard to pin down, but they seem to involve pointing to the fact that everyone has biases. We all see the world from a particular point of view, and there's no way to see it through someone else's eyes, let alone from a God's eye viewpoint that sees everything.

    All that's true enough, and if I was recommending that you adopt a God-like viewpoint you'd be right to reject it as impossible. God, if such a thing exists, is perfectly objective and, of course, I am not asking you to be perfect.

    Consider the following argument: we are all imperfect and, therefore, sinners. It is impossible for us not to sin. Since "ought" implies "can", and we cannot fail to sin, then it's not the case that we ought not sin. That is, morality is impossible, and therefore non-obligatory. Therefore, do what thou wilt!

    What's wrong with the above argument? It's a non sequitur: while it may well be true that it is impossible for anyone to be perfectly moral, that doesn't mean that we cannot be more or less moral. It's true, as the argument says, that "ought" implies "can", which means that we are not morally required to be perfect. Rather, the rule is that we should be as moral as we can be.

    If you subtitute the word "objective" for the word "moral" in the above argument then, mutatis mutandis, you have the argument against objectivity on the grounds that it is impossible. Perfect objectivity may well be unachievable5 but, just as we can be more or less moral, we can be more objective or less objective, and the rule is: Be as objective as you can be!

    It may be objected that you can't even aim at what you can't achieve, but it's no argument against aiming at morality that it can never be achieved. While perfection may be unattainable, we can always get closer to it. Moreover, we will certainly approximate these goals to a lesser extent if we don't even aim at them.

  2. Objectivity is undesirable:

    Given that one accepts the above argument that it is possible to aim at objectivity, a fall-back position for those who oppose it is that objectivity is undesirable. The notion that objectivity is not desirable usually comes from passionate advocates for causes. For such advocates their causes are all-important, and there's no guarantee that an objective examination of the facts will support those causes.

    For instance, one characteristic of objective research is that the results are not determined in advance; if they are, then it is advocacy research6. Similarly, the outcome of objective journalism is not pre-determined to support one's favorite cause, unless the reporter is engaged in advocacy journalism7.

    The goal of objectivity is to discover the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whereas advocacy at its best usually leaves out the middle one of this triad: the advocate only tells that part of the truth that advances the cause. At its worst, advocacy researchers and journalists suppress information, distort the facts, or even lie to advance their preferred causes8.

    In order to be an honest and effective advocate of a position, one must be able to objectively evaluate the other side's arguments as well as see the strengths and weaknesses in one's own. If you don't know or understand your opponent's arguments, how can you expect to answer them?

    Moreover, the way in which objectivity is pursued in some of our social institutions―notably, in the Anglo-American legal tradition―is through an adversarial process in which each side advocates its position. Similarly, the social institution of debate involves two or more advocates presenting cases for and against some position. While each side presents a one-sided case for its position, the goal is for the whole truth to come out through the entire process. In these institutions, the role of an honest advocate advances the cause of objectivity. Finally, in any such adversarial process, a decision must be reached by a judge or jury, and those who judge must aim at justice, fairness, and impartiality―in a word, objectivity.

    So, there is a place for open and honest advocacy, and there is also a place for objective research and reporting. Objectivity does not preclude advocacy, and honest advocacy need not reject objectivity. Advocacy and objectivity are not enemies; rather, objectivity is the friend of honest advocates and the enemy of only the dishonest ones.

Given that you accept the goal of being less biased and more objective is both possible and desirable, even in your role as an advocate, how can you do that? I have three simple and practical suggestions:

  1. Know your biases! You should know your biases better than anyone else does. What is your religion if any? What are your moral beliefs? What are your political opinions? Knowing your biases won't by itself make you any less biased, but it's a necessary step to take before the following one.
  2. Compensate for your biases! If a boat is listing over to one side, you can compensate for it by moving heavy objects to the other side until the boat levels out. Similarly, once you know your own directions of bias, you can compensate by bending over backwards―or sideways, as the case may be―to give the side you are biased against a fair chance.
  3. Don't be afraid to change your mind! Rule 2, you may remember9, is: Be ready to be wrong! That is, be open-minded to changing your beliefs if confronted by sufficient evidence. The attitude I was recommending there is a positive one towards changing your beliefs. People often react to arguments against their existing beliefs as if they are being personally attacked, especially if those beliefs are religious, moral, or political ones. These beliefs are often central to one's sense of self, but do you want your identity founded upon falsehoods? If you realize that changing a false belief to a true one is a gain, rather than a harm, you won't be afraid to change your mind.

If you follow these simple steps, I can't guarantee that you will be completely objective, but if you don't even know your own biases, if you make no effort to compensate for them, and if you're afraid to change your mind, then you will be more biased than if you make an honest effort to follow these suggestions. I guarantee it.

Next Month: Rule 8


  1. Previous entries in this series:
    1. Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
    2. Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
    3. Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
    4. Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
    5. Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
    6. Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
  2. Another relevant contrast is between metaphysical objectivity, which has to do with whether there is an objective world independent of the human mind, and epistemological objectivity, which deals with whether the human mind can know that objective reality. This entry deals with the latter type of objectivity, and I assume here that there is an objective reality.
  3. One reason that I don't actually phrase the rule in one of these alternative ways is that in this series I'm trying to be as positive as possible, so I use "objective" instead of "unbiased", "unprejudiced", or "impartial" due to the negative prefixes in the latter words. Another reason is that the prejudice against the word "objectivity" is unwarranted, as I argue below, and should be resisted. However, if you prefer to avoid the anathema word "objectivity" and think of this rule instead in terms of "unbiased", "impartial", "neutral", or "intellectually honest", be my guest.
  4. This note is a digression relating to the recent theme on this weblog of fact-checking: If objectivity is impossible or undesirable, then fact-checking is also impossible or undesirable. If objectivity is impossible, then either there are no facts to check or the fact-checker cannot do so; and, if objectivity is undesirable, then the fact-checker shouldn't do so.
  5. I'm not so sure that it is, but I don't need perfect objectivity to be attainable for my argument above to work; all I need is that it's possible to be more or less biased, which seems to be undeniable.
  6. For an egregious example, see: Headline, 12/11/2011.
  7. I've discussed advocacy journalism further here: New Book: Skewed, 7/7/2017.
  8. There are many examples throughout these files, but here's a good one of advocacy journalism: Fake News Headline, 12/19/2016.
  9. If you don't, you might want to revisit it. See under note 1, above.

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July 30th, 2019 (Permalink)

C'mon, Marianne

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.―"Albert Einstein"1

Marianne Williamson is running for president and participated in the second of the stand-up comedy shows―oops! I mean "debates", of course―of Democratic candidates last month. The first part of the next one takes place tonight and Williamson made the grade again2. Is she just "a passing fling and not a permanent thing3", or will she be the next President of the United States?

Williamson is a long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination, let alone winning the election. However, Donald Trump was also an unlikely candidate for the Republican nomination, not to mention winning the presidency. Trump and Williamson have a lot in common: neither had any government experience before running for president and both were primarily known as celebrities.

One reason Trump was able to gain the Republican nomination is that the field of candidates was so large in 2016 that it was hard for any one of them to stand out―except for Trump, of course. Moreover, though there was considerable opposition to Trump within the Republican party, it was never able to come together around a single opposition candidate.

The current field of Democratic candidates is even larger than the Republican one three years ago, and most of them are minor figures like Williamson with minimal support. So, there is at least a chance of a replay of 2016, but this time in the Democratic party.

Trump and Williamson have another thing in common: both have expressed doubt about the safety of vaccination. Remember this?

Trump: Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control. I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Because you take a baby in―and I've seen it―and I've seen it, and I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two or three year period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump―I mean, it looks just like it's meant for a horse, not for a child, and we've had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic. …I'm in favor of vaccines, do them over a longer period of time, same amount. … But just in little sections. …I think you're going to see a big impact on autism.4

Here's what Williamson said about vaccination at a campaign event in New Hampshire:

To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate. The US government doesn't tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.5

The next day, appearing on The View, Williamson back-pedaled:

Meghan McCain: You came out as the anti-vaxxer candidate.

Williamson: No, I did not.

McCain: Let me finish. You said, calling a mandate on them would be, quote, Draconian and Orwellian. What about the kids exposed to measles and all of that, and the people suffering because of the measles outbreak? Why would you say that?

Williamson: I am not anti-vax. I think I misspoke in that one sentence, but I would like to express myself. … The fact that you have a problem with the revolving door policy by which big pharma and the CDC and the FDA are so cozy, so that millions of Americans who are not anti-science and are not anti-vaccine have some deep concerns. The days of blind faith in big pharma are over. The days of blind faith in the idea that our government agencies are doing the proper oversight and proper advocacy for the American people, against the times of overreach against profit-making industries that are putting money before people, that is not an irrational or unreasonable thing.

McCain: Now you're okay with mandatory vaccines?

Williamson: I haven't changed since yesterday. I misspoke on that one sentence, but I will say this. If I were president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, there will be a commission of scientists talking about―learning so that the American people see what's going on with these vaccines―who are not paid by big pharma. …

Sunny Hostin: I don't know that you have answered Meghan's question. Do you support mandatory vaccinations?

Williamson: …I understand that public safety must come first, but I also understand that we must have a balance between public safety and the issues of individual freedom. I do not trust the propaganda on either side. I would have to say that there are situations where there are absolute outbreaks and I understand there are epidemics where vaccines are life-saving. I support vaccines.6

In a chirp she made almost exactly the same claims as on The View, showing that she's carefully worked out her vague and ambiguous position:

I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives. I recognize there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines. I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma. I am sorry that I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke.7

The View is a silly show, but I have to give The Viewers credit for trying to get a straight answer out of Williamson. However, as you can see from the above exchange, Williamson has already mastered the ability to dodge questions, so in that respect at least she's ready for prime-time politics.

Williamson claims that she "misspoke" on one sentence, though it's unclear what sentence she's referring to. Perhaps she meant the one where she condemned mandatory vaccination, but there's little chance that she was misspeaking. She might have changed her mind given the negative reaction to her statement, but that's different from having misspoken. However, if she did change her mind, then why didn't she affirmatively answer McCain's question as to whether she supports mandatory vaccination?

All she really said is that some vaccines are life-saving, but then some may not be. So, she can still deny the safety and effectiveness of other vaccines, such as those that some think cause autism. Either that, or she can use the same out that Trump did, namely, blaming autism on the vaccination schedule, rather than the vaccines themselves.

What she does say near the end suggests that she would only support mandatory vaccination in "situations where there are absolute outbreaks" and where "there are epidemics where vaccines are life-saving". But part of the point of vaccination is to prevent outbreaks of diseases before they start, and you can't do that if you wait until an epidemic is ongoing. Moreover, if the vaccines are indeed life-saving, as she admits, then lives will be lost by waiting for outbreaks or epidemics.

In addition to appearing on The View, Williamson cheeped:

… I am not anti-science (that one is almost funny, given how much I quote Einstein). And I am not an anti-vaxxer. …7

The notion that quoting Einstein a lot means you're not anti-science is not almost funny, it's entirely funny. Moreover, Williamson doesn't actually quote Albert Einstein, the famous physicist, she only thinks that she does. Instead, she quotes "Einstein", a mythic figure of profound wisdom who miraculously manages to say exactly what Marianne Williamson wants to say. This is yet another eerie parallel between Williamson and Trump, who also likes to quote "Einstein", even using some of the same quotes9.

Now, I don't think that Williamson is "anti-science". Rather, I think she doesn't know enough about science to be against it. Marianne Williamson is no Einstein.

I'm puzzled by what a person who quotes with approval the sentiment that reality is an illusion would think about vaccines. Perhaps she thinks that diseases, being part of reality, are part of the illusion, so we don't need vaccines. Or, it could be that vaccines, being part of the reality illusion, don't really work. In contrast, she could support involuntary vaccination and if anyone complains, just point out that it's an illusion that you're being jabbed in the arm with a needle. So, it seems that you could go either way.

It will be interesting to see tonight whether any of the moderators or other candidates challenge Williamson on vaccines, but to judge from her performance on The View she probably won't give a straight answer.


  1. Of course, reality, by definition, is not an illusion, but that Albert Einstein, the famous physicist, said that it is is. See: Matt Novak, "Marianne Williamson Loves Spreading Fake Quotes From Albert Einstein", Gizmodo, 7/23/2019, for a discussion of this and other bogus Einstein quotes used by Marianne Williamson.
  2. Stefanie Marsh, "Marianne Williamson: the 'leftwing Trump' preaching the Politics of Love", The Grauniad, 7/30/2019.
  3. L. Russell Brown & Raymond Bloodworth, "C'mon, Marianne".
  4. Debate Watch, 9/17/2015.
  5. Julia Jester, "Marianne Williamson leans in to vaccine skepticism in NH", Twitter, 6/19/2019.
  6. "Marianne Williamson says vaccines must 'balance' public safety and individual freedom", ABC News, 6/20/2019.
  7. Marianne Williamson, "I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives….", Twitter, 6/20/2019
  8. Marianne Williamson, "I am not a cult leader….", Twitter, 7/23/2019
  9. See the article linked in note 1, above. I've discussed the prevalence of "Einstein" quotes in general, though not specifically those used by Williamson, in the following entries:

July 26th, 2019 (Permalink)


Since I'm continually criticizing people's mistakes on this weblog―it's my job, after all―it's incumbent upon me to be forthright about my own. I now believe that the solution of a Christmas puzzle that I posted over three years ago was incorrect. I've added a correction to the puzzle that explains why I think the original "solution" is incorrect, together with the correct solution*. However, it occurs to me that some regular readers who may have seen the original puzzle with the incorrect solution are unlikely to see the correction unless I draw attention to it here. So check it out.

* See: A Puzzle for Christmas, 12/25/2015

July 18th, 2019 (Permalink)

The Second Draft of History

The recent theme of this weblog has been fact-checking or, more precisely, the lack of it. Of course, mistakes will happen, but some recent ones are egregious errors that can only happen because those who commit them fail to make even a minimal effort to check them. Here's a recent example from the beginning of a newspaper article on the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 to the moon:

A few days before the historic walk on the moon, Apollo 11 took off from the earth―50 years ago on July 16. Four days later John Glenn would step onto the only other planet we have ever walked on, and uttered the famous words "on [sic] small step for a man, one giant step for mankind."1

Putting aside the grammatical and spelling errors, there are three mistakes in the second of these two sentences2:

  1. John Glenn never walked on the moon.
  2. The moon is not a planet. Sadly, no human being has ever walked on another planet.
  3. It was Neil Armstrong who spoke the words: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."3

First of all, it surprises me that anyone would not know the first two of these facts. Secondly, even more surprising is that a newspaper would publish this without someone catching and correcting the errors. A quick visit to NASA's page on the mission4 would be enough to correct the first and third errors. The second is an elementary error in astronomy, and could be corrected by consulting a dictionary of astronomy, but you could also just type the question: "Is the moon a planet?" into Bing, and it would helpfully inform you otherwise5.

Of course, none of this will help any if you don't do it. The primary problem is not that it would take lengthy research to discover these facts, since doing so should take no more than five minutes. Nor is the main problem even factual ignorance, though that is indeed a concern. Rather, the crux is ignorance about ignorance―meta-ignorance, if you will: the illusion of knowledge that led the author and editors to not have bothered to spend those five minutes checking.

An old journalism saying is: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." In other words, even if you're convinced you already know something, check it anyway. Don't trust anyone, least of all yourself! As Richard Feynman said: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself―and you are the easiest person to fool.6"

There's another old journalistic saying that news is "the first, rough draft of history"7, but the launch of Apollo 11 was half a century ago so this is at least the second, even rougher, draft. At this rate, in another fifty years it will be Yuri Gagarin who was the first man to set foot on the moon.


  1. Alex Griswold, "New York Daily News Reports That 'John Glenn' Was First Man on 'Planet' Moon", The Washington Free Beacon, 7/16/2019. The following is the corrected version of the original article: Theresa Braine, "Relive humanity’s journey to the moon, starting with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 launch day", New York Daily News, 7/16/2019. The original, uncorrected version of the story seems to have been removed without notice by the Daily News, but there was also a Facebook post publicizing the article which contained its first two sentences. That post, too, has disappeared from Facebook, but Google still has a cache of it; see: "New York Daily News", Facebook, 7/16/2019. It's understandable that the Daily News is embarrassed by these mistakes, but concealing them in this way risks removing an incentive to get things right, namely, reputational damage. For this reason, the newspaper should also be embarrassed for sweeping this under the rug.
  2. It would be a hasty generalization to conclude based on this one instance that the New York Daily News averages one-and-a-half mistakes per sentence on all of its stories. However, this may answer negatively the question whether newspapers do any fact-checking.
  3. Armstrong intended to say: “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, but a lot of people―myself included―didn't hear the "a", and it is still sometimes given without it. However, without the "a" the sentence doesn't make any sense, since "man" and "mankind" both refer to the human species. So, Armstrong would have been saying that the first human step onto the moon was both a small step and a giant leap, which is impossible. What Armstrong meant was that this was a small step for himself―"a man"―but a giant leap for humanity. See: "Armstrong’s famous “one small step” quote―explained", The Associated Press, 7/13/2019.
  4. Sarah Loff, "Apollo 11 Mission Overview", NASA, 5/15/2019.
  5. I'll leave it to you to check this for yourself.
  6. Richard P. Feynman, "Cargo Cult Science", Caltech, 1974. Feynman, of course, was talking about science, but the principle applies to any attempt to find out something about the world.
  7. This saying is often attributed to publisher Philip Graham, but versions of it appear to have been around before Graham popularized it. See: Jack Shafer, "Who Said It First?", Slate, 8/30/2010.

July 7th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 61: Defend your position!

This is how arguments usually start: someone makes an affirmative claim that someone else either denies or at least doubts and challenges. If you are the person making a claim and someone challenges it, the burden is on you to defend that claim. If you cannot or do not wish to defend it, then you should withdraw it2.

You may be familiar with the notion of burden of proof in the Anglo-American legal system. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At the very least, the prosecutor must present a prima facie3 case for guilt. If the prosecution succeeds in presenting a prima facie case then the burden of proof switches from the prosecution to the defense. However, if the prosecutor fails to present such a case then the defense wins, that is, the defendant need not even present a case unless the prosecution meets its burden of proof.

Another way of making this same point is that in the Anglo-American legal tradition there is a presumption of innocence, that is, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The presumption of innocence is the other side of the burden of proof coin: the burden is on the prosecution and the presumption is in favor of the defendant. If the prosecutor meets the burden with a prima facie case, then the burden and presumption switch: the burden is then on the defense to rebut the prosecution's case sufficiently to show a reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt.

The notions of burden of proof, presumption, prima facie evidence, and the shifting of the burden of proof can all be extended from the legal realm to argumentation in general. However, it's not obvious who gets the burden and who gets the presumption, that is, who plays the role of the prosecutor and who the defendant?

The answer is that the burden is on the affirmative rather than the negative, that is, on he who affirms as opposed to she who denies. The reason for this is an asymmetry between affirmative claims and denials, namely, that it is much easier to find evidence for an affirmation than a negation4. Moreover, unless they just blurt out claims for no reason, those who introduce a claim should be able to produce some evidence to support it. In contrast, you may be skeptical of a claim without having studied or considered the matter enough to present evidence against it.

The burden of proof is not all or nothing, but comes in degrees. If you assert a plausible claim then the burden of proof will be light, whereas an implausible claim places a heavy burden on you. This is the basis for the familiar saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence5.

Logical fallacies that result from attempts to evade the burden of proof include6:

So, the burden of this rule is that if you make an affirmative claim, be prepared to defend it. If, in contrast, you are the challenger and the proponent of the challenged claim makes a prima facie case, then accept the burden of proof. It is now up to you to either make a case against the claim, or to accept it.

Next Month: Rule 7


  1. Previous entries in this series:
    1. Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
    2. Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
    3. Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
    4. Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
    5. Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
  2. As with all the rules discussed in this series, this is a rule of thumb, that is, a rule that has exceptions. For this rule, common sense is an exception. For instance, a person who asserts that every living thing eventually dies does not bear the burden. Instead, those who challenge such a claim must make a prima facie case against it, and only then does the burden shift to the claimant.
  3. Latin for "at first sight". See: Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985). A prima facie case for a claim is one that is sufficiently strong to prove the claim unless successfully rebutted.
  4. It is often said that you can't prove a negative, which is over-stated but a good rule of thumb. For an explanation of how much truth there is in this saying, see: Logical Literacy: "You can't prove a negative.", 3/14/2015.
  5. Popularized by the astronomer Carl Sagan, see: Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1980), p. 73.
  6. For more on each fallacy, see the entries under the names of the fallacies available from the drop-down menu in the navigation pane to your left.

July 4th, 2019 (Permalink)

An Independence Day Puzzle at the Logicians' Club

In July of 2019, the Logicians' Club* held its monthly meeting on the fourth. To celebrate the holiday, the members played a game. On this day, its three regular members were in attendance: Mrs. A, Miss B, and Mr. C. It was the latter who suggested the game and organized it for the other two members to play. They met in a private room of the tavern where the club meetings were held.

"Fellow logicians," Mr. C began impressively after clearing his throat, "I have here a bag of patriotic hats," he said, holding up a large opaque bag. "Two of the hats are red, two are blue, but only one is white." He reached into the bag, pulled out a white hat and placed it on his own head.

"In a few minutes," he continued, "I will turn out the lights and pull two hats out of the bag. Then I will place a hat on each of your heads. When I turn the light back on, both of you will be able to see the color of the other's hat, but you won't be able to see your own. I will ask each of you to guess the color of your own hat by whispering in my ear so that the other player won't know your guess. If at least one of you is right, you will both win a prize which you can share.

"Now, I'm going to step out of the room for a few minutes and allow you time to confer. It won't be cheating if you agree between you on a strategy for playing the game. Remember two things: first, only one of you has to guess the color of her hat correctly in order to win the prize―it doesn't matter whether the other player's guess is incorrect; second, if you win you will share the prize, so this is not a competitive game. Good luck!" And he left the room.

Is there a strategy that the two logicians can use to ensure that they win the prize? If so, what is that strategy?

* For other meetings of the club, see:

(Added 7/9/2019) An anonymous reader wrote in wondering whether Mr. C could have taken the white hat that he put on his own head and put it on one of the two players when the lights were out. Of course, he could have, but rest assured that he didn't.

(Added 7/5/2019) Thanks to Lawrence Mayes for pointing out a loophole in the description of the game which has now been closed by amending this sentence.

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