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June 22nd, 2018 (Permalink)

Fact Vs. Opinion

The Pew Research Center performed a large survey earlier this year to find out whether Americans can tell the difference between factual statements and opinion statements1. Included in Pew's reporting of the results of the survey is a short quiz where you can test your own ability to use this distinction. I suggest taking this self-test before you continue reading2, as I discuss the distinction below and don't want to influence your results.

Welcome back! I hope you did well, but then I expect that readers of The Fallacy Files are better educated on this subject than the average person. If your results were disappointing, all the more reason to keep reading and learn this important distinction.

What is a fact? In this era of fake news and fact checking, it's valuable to be able to tell the difference between factual reporting and expressions of opinion. One common form that propaganda takes is opinion masquerading as straight reporting, so an important skill for unmasking propaganda is to be able to tell the difference.

Unfortunately, the Pew poll seems to indicate that people do only slightly better than chance in telling the difference between factual statements and opinion. The results show that greater education is correlated with greater ability to tell the difference between factual statements and opinion3, but either education doesn't make a big enough difference or it's not reaching enough people.

One thing that may have affected the survey's results is confusion about the difference between a fact and a factual statement. Some people may well assume that these are the same thing, but they're not, at least not for the purposes of this survey.

First of all, what is a statement? It's a sentence that is true or false. Not all sentences are true or false; for example, neither questions nor orders are statements. A fact, is at the very least, a true statement but there's more to it than that4, which I'll discuss below. A factual statement is a statement that, if true, would be a fact. So, a fact is a true factual statement.

This means that there can be false factual statements, which will sound like an oxymoron if you think that fact = factual statement. Anyone thinking this while taking the Pew survey or quiz could be led to misclassify false factual statements as opinions. The survey and the report on it are actually fairly good at explaining this; for instance, the report defines the difference between these two types of statement as: "…factual―something thatís capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence―or…an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.5"

Factual statements, not facts, are actually what fact-checkers check. There is no need to check facts, since they are true. What we need to check is a factual statement, which may be true or false, in order to find out which it is.

What, then, is a statement of opinion? Clearly, it is a type of statement, which means that opinions are either true or false. So, a question or an order is not an opinion. The difference between matters of fact and opinion is not black or white, but a scale with fact at one end, opinion at the other, and a gray area in between. Roughly speaking, a factual statement is a statement whose truth-value any competent researcher ought to be able determine. In other words, "factual statement", in this sense, is the sort of statement that a fact-checker would be able to check. For instance, one of the statements in the quiz is: "Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget." This is a factual statement because anyone ought to be able to check the federal budget to see whether it's true, and it's a fact because it is true.

However, not all factual statements are true. For instance, the negation of the above quiz question is also a factual statement: "Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid do not make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget." This is a false factual statement that can be checked in exactly the same way as the affirmative statement.

In contrast, consider another statement from the quiz: "Democracy is the greatest form of government." This is a statement of opinion, rather than a factual statement, because it involves a value judgment. You may think it's true, and it may even be true, but it's not a fact because it's not a factual statement. Statements of value, in general, are matters of opinion rather than of fact.

As an exercise, the next time you read a news report, try classifying every statement in it as either a factual statement or a statement of opinion. Has the reporter kept to factual claims, or have matters of opinion been included among the facts? If the latter, do the opinions expressed support one side of a controversial issue?

Notes:

  1. Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthell & Nami Sumida, "Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News", Pew Research Center, 6/2018 (PDF).
  2. "Quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements?", Pew Research Center, accessed: 6/20/2018.
  3. Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthell & Nami Sumida, "2. The ability to classify statements as factual or opinion varies widely based on political awareness, digital savviness and trust in news media", Pew Research Center, 6/18/2018.
  4. "Fact", like most words, is highly ambiguous, and some philosophers and logicians do treat it as a synonym for "true statement". See, for example, Monroe C. Beardsley, Thinking Straight: A Guide for Readers & Writers (1950), p. 5.
  5. Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthell & Nami Sumida, "Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News", Pew Research Center, 6/18/2018.

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May 30th, 2018 (Permalink)

New Book: Hype

I'm not a doctor1, and I don't even play one on TV, but the author of this new book, Nina Shapiro, is both2. The title of the book is not very revealing, since there's a lot of hype in the world, but its subtitle tells all: "A Doctor's Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice―How to Tell What's Real and What's Not".

What is "hype" and why should we care about it? Here's Shapiro's answer:

We live in times filled with suspicion: Every day the media delivers swarms of health-related information that can swiftly trigger fear or inspire us to change our habits overnight. From the headlines about brain-eating amoebas in freshwater lakes to the alleged ills of gluten, sugar, vaccines, foods from genetically modified organisms…, and the chance of getting cancer from tap water, the onslaught of news can be downright overwhelming―and is potentially harmful. One day coffee is good for you and protective against dementia, the next day it's declared a potential carcinogen. Claims that routinely circulate are frequently overblown, misleading, based on shoddy research or completely false.3

Usually, I would not mention here a new book primarily about medical matters, even "medical myths, exaggerated claims and bad advice", but this one appears to be different. The first four chapters, in particular, deal with the general problem of how to not be hyped, with examples drawn from health and medicine, and much of the advice here ought to generalize to non-medical matters:

  1. How to use the internet to research:
    Unfortunately, many individuals don't know where to turn for unbiased, trustworthy advice, and the ease with which misinformation is propagated on the internet leaves people's heads spinning. Hence the purpose of this book.4
  2. How to understand risk: Risk is an area where hype has a detrimental effect, as people often fear minor risks that have gotten big play in the media more than greater ones―such as cigarette smoking or impaired driving―that they take for granted.
  3. Cause vs. correlation: What do the words "link" and "association", which you often see in news reports of medical studies, mean? I constantly hammer on this here, and regular readers are probably sick of hearing about it, as I'm kind of sick of reiterating it. However, confusion of cause and correlation is one of the most common logical fallacies, and also one of the most damaging, especially when it comes to health. It's especially common in media reports of medical research, which brings us to the next chapter:
  4. How to read medical studies

The remaining chapters discuss particular types of health hype: food; diet; dietary supplements; bottled water; "alternative" medicine; the anti-vaccination movement; medical tests; aging; and exercise.

Of course, I haven't finished reading this book yet, but I certainly intend to do so.

Notes:

  1. That is, I'm not a physician; I do have a doctorate, but not in medicine.
  2. According to the book's dustjacket, she's a surgeon and a regular on the show The Doctors, which I've never seen. The book's co-author is Kristin Loberg, a writer.
  3. Pp. ix-x.
  4. P. x.

May 27th, 2018 (Permalink)

Risky Thinking1

I've mentioned before the old riddle of why white sheep eat more than black sheep2. If you haven't heard it before, think about it for awhile before peeking at this endnote3. Here's an example that reminded me of it:

Figures provided by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration reveal some interesting facts about car accidents. Of all collisions that occur in the United States, approximately 52% occur within a 5-mile radius of home while an astounding 69% occur within 10 miles.4

"Astounding"? This is a logic check, not a fact check, so I'm going to assume that those figures are correct, and they certainly seem plausible. In fact, if anything I'm mildly surprised that they're not higher, as opposed to astounded. Stephen Campbell discusses a similar example:

The National Safety Council [NSC] informs us that…65 percent of all accidents occur within 25 miles of home. Using these facts, much public service advertising points out that accidents are not…limited to long trips. … What such advertising doesn't tell us, however, is that most driving is done within 25 miles of home…. No wonder there are more accidents under such conditions; there is more opportunity for accidents to occur. This omission could lead one to misconstrue such well-intentioned advertising and conclude that the wise thing to do is…always make certain you are more than 25 miles from home when driving…. Granted, that would be a pretty dumb conclusion to draw….5

An even dumber one, suggested by an accompanying cartoon6, is that whenever you're driving within 25 miles of home, you should drive as fast as possible to limit the amount of time you're in this frightening danger zone. Still dumber is another suggestion I've come across: you should move at least 25 miles away to get out of this dangerous area. However, the dumbest of all is based on a related statistic: 80% of crashes occur at less than forty MPH7, so you should drive over forty at all times, but of course especially when you're within 25 miles of home.

The problem with these statistics is that by themselves they tell us nothing about safety, for we need to know how much of our driving takes place within ten miles―or twenty-five miles, or whatever―of home. If about 70% of driving took place within ten miles of home, that would suggest that distance from home doesn't really affect safety. In contrast, if three-quarters or more of driving is that close to home, that would indicate that it's actually safer to drive near home than farther away. Only if significantly less than 70% of one's travel by car were close to home could you conclude that it was less risky to drive far away.

To judge the comparative riskiness of driving close to home or far away, what we need to know is not what percentage of accidents take place at these distances, but the rate, which would be measured in something like number of accidents per mile8 driven. To figure the rate, divide the total number of accidents close and far from home by the total miles driven at those distances. In this way, the amount of driving done at varying distances would be taken into account in the denominator of the fraction. By comparing the rates we could determine whether it is riskier driving in our own neighborhood, far from it, or it just doesn't matter.9

So, without this other figure to compare, we really can't conclude anything about the safety, or lack of it, of near-home driving. Despite this fact, the source of the example that I quoted above seems to think the figures it cites require some special explanation. It claims that drivers have a false sense of security and are more easily distracted while close to home, and that you should be twice as cautious when driving in your own neighborhood4. However, the statistics cited just don't support these claims.

The article concludes with a good point to keep in mind when you get behind the wheel: "Simply being aware dramatically reduces the chance of you being in a car accident, regardless of whether youíre just cruising down the street or traveling in another state.4"

Notes:

  1. Thanks to Michael West for asking about this topic.
  2. See: The Riddle of the Sheep, 10/13/2011, and Ron Paul on Drugs, 11/26/2011.
  3. There are more white sheep than black ones.
  4. "Nearly 70% of Car Accidents Occur Within 10 Miles of Home", The Babcock Law Firm LLC, 10/21/2012.
  5. Stephen K. Campbell, Flaws and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking (1974), pp. 103-104.
  6. P. 104.
  7. Wayne Tully, "Seat Belt Use Statistics", National Driver Training, 6/7/2011.
  8. Or kilometer, if you're metrically-inclined.
  9. This is ignoring another important factor, namely, the severity of the accident. The same source that provided the original statistic (see note 4, above) also mentions that the farther from home an accident occurs the worse it tends to be, presumably because of greater speed. For this reason, common sense is probably right in thinking that it's safer driving near to home than far away, but the relevant factor is speed rather than proximity to your house.

May 11th, 2018 (Permalink)

Book Review: Open to Debate

Title: Open to Debate

Sub-Title: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line

Author: Heather Hendershot

Publisher: Broadside Books

Date of Publication: 2016

Quote: There is simply no equivalent [to Firing Line] on TV today. Conservatives have Fox News, liberals have MSNBC…. Overall, politically oriented broadcasting has become a vast echo chamber…, with many tuning in largely to have their views confirmed and to hear the other side vilified. This is not a scenario that encourages dialogue between those holding different political convictions.1

Review: The author of this book is a professor of film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of previous books, including ones on conservative and religious broadcasting. Thankfully, the book is well-written and largely free of the theory-laden jargon so common to academic books in this field.

If you're unfamiliar with Firing Line, here is how Hendershot describes it:

…Buckley's program was…often a space for liberalism to meet conservatism, for the left wing to meet the right wing. The result was no-holds-barred, honest intellectual combat, a space that both liberal and conservative viewers could turn to [to] have their ideas confirmed, but also challenged…. You could actually learn about other points of view, and thereby become a better liberal or a better conservative from watching the show.1

If you've never seen the show, the book includes several excerpts of some length that can give you an idea of what the argumentation could be like, though there's really no substitute for seeing some episodes2.

The Preface briefly discusses Buckley's career in the '50s and '60s leading up to the creation of Firing Line in 1966, including a debate with writer James Baldwin and Buckley's quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City. The introduction, then, discusses how the show was started, and each subsequent chapter examines the way the show handled specific issues, namely:

  1. Conservatism, especially its position in American politics after Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat in 1964.
  2. Anti-communism, including McCarthyism.
  3. The civil rights and black power movements.
  4. The women's liberation movement.3
  5. Richard Nixon's presidency and the Watergate scandal.
  6. Ronald Reagan's presidency and the apparent triumph of Buckley's style of conservatism.

I'm rather nostalgic for a kinder, gentler era of politics when it seemed possible for people of different political persuasions to actually talk to one another. Nowadays, politics seems so polarized that either people of different ideologies and parties do not communicate at all, or they do so by shrieking and fighting. However, Firing Line began its run in 1966, so that its first several years were during the period of the Vietnam war and Watergate. Political civility was probably at as low an ebb then as it is now, a fact which is reflected in some of the early shows.

One lesson of this history is an optimistic one: things may seem bad now, but they've been as bad or worse in the past and matters improved. The "golden age" of political discourse on television is partly an illusion and partly a product of the changed times. Thus, there's a basis for hope, even an expectation, that things will improve with time. Moreover, Firing Line was always a small oasis of polite political discussion with "exiguous"4 ratings, as Hendershot mentions5:

It is easy to pine for the days when news and public affairs were (theoretically) smarter, before the rise of cable news, but this is nostalgia plain and simple. Firing Line mostly stood alone in a TV news and public affairs environment that was not particularly cerebral.6

This is a work of history more than a scholarly study of debate, political rhetoric, or argumentation, though there is much in it of interest on those topics. I'm not an historian, but as far as I can tell the book is historically accurate, though Hendershot has problems with chronology7. For example, there is a howler in the following passage concerning "…the 1968 episode with Eldridge Cleaver:

Now, keep in mind that at this moment Nixon was particularly concerned about PBS liberalism and even had the Corporation for Public Broadcasting defer funding for public affairs programs. The president was hoping to eliminate white-produced PBS shows that sought to radicalize "the silent majority" of white middle-class Americans. … Nixon felt…that there was "no such thing as good publicity" where the TV presentation of liberals or radicals was concerned. So this episode was radical by virtue of even existing at a moment when the president was pulling out all the dirty tricks up his sleeve to limit the broadcasting of radical perspectives.8

There are three anachronisms in this passage:

  1. 1968 was an election year and Nixon was only elected president for the first time in November of that year9, and was not inaugurated until the following January10. So, Nixon was not even president at the time of the show.
  2. Firing Line did not move to PBS until 197111.
  3. Nixon didn't try to cut off funding for PBS public affairs shows until 1973, according to Hendershot herself12.

I think Hendershot was misled here by her enthusiasm for the notion that Firing Line was good for the left even though Buckley was the most famous representative of the American right during its run. She does make a solid case that it was one of the few television shows where liberals, and even radicals, could be heard for longer than a soundbite, though I think this was more true in the show's first decade than in its last.

In the Conclusion, "In Praise of Honest Intellectual Combat", Hendershot recommends―or at least considers the prospects for a reboot of the show with a new host. I don't know whether this book influenced it, but a new Firing Line with host Margaret Hoover is scheduled to begin airing next month13, though I expect that its ratings will also be exiguous.

Recommendation: I enjoyed this book immensely, but I wonder whether younger folks who don't remember Buckley or the show will find it as fascinating as I did. I'm old enough to have lived through the entire run of the show and remember watching some episodes over the years, though I was never a regular viewer and saw only a tiny fraction of the total number of shows. Perhaps a new audience will be inspired by the new show to take an interest in the history of the old one. Highly recommended for a select audience, like Firing Line itself.

Notes:

  1. P. 292. Page numbers in these notes refer to the book under review.
  2. A fraction of the total number of episodes are available for viewing on DVD, YouTube, and perhaps other venues.
  3. Most if not all of this chapter can be read here: Heather Hendershot, "William F. Buckley Was No Feminist, But He Was an (Unintentional) Ally", Politico, 10/2/2016.
  4. This was Buckley's word for it, meaning "scanty". See his The Lexicon: A Cornucopia of Wonderful Words for the Inquisitive Word Lover (1998).
  5. P. Lvii.
  6. P. 293.
  7. For instance, Hendershot seems to think that the My Lai massacre took place when Nixon was president (p. 210), whereas she elsewhere writes that it occurred in March of 1968 (p. 207), when LBJ was still in office.
  8. Pp. 129-130. Emphasis in the original.
  9. "Richard Nixon elected president", This Day in History, accessed: 5/10/2018.
  10. "Richard Nixon takes office", This Day in History, accessed: 5/10/2018.
  11. "Firing Line broadcast archive: Preface to the program catalogue", The Hoover Institution, accessed: 5/10/2018.
  12. P. 200.
  13. "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover Renews Iconic Public Affairs Talk Show, Delivering a Civil and Engaging Contest of Ideas", Thirteen, 4/26/2018.

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