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October 20th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 91: Agree about what you disagree about!

If you recall way back in Rule 32, I asked you to “Keep your eye on the ball!” when arguing, by which I meant that you should focus on the subject of disagreement and not get distracted by irrelevancies. That rule was mainly an introduction to and an attempt to convince you of the importance of relevance in argumentation, and I didn't give specific advice about how to be relevant. The current rule is a follow-up giving such advice, and I'll assume that you have read and remember rule 3 and don't need another pep talk.

"Agree about what you disagree about" is an ambiguous sentence, since it may sound as if I'm suggesting you should find out what you and your partner in argumentation3 disagree about, then change that disagreement to agreement. Instead, the agreement and disagreement I'm talking about are on different levels:

  1. First-Level: Agreement and disagreement on this level is about whatever has prompted the argument. However, an argument won't even start unless you and your partner disagree about something, or at least think that you do. Given that you do both think that you disagree about something on the first level, then the next level of agreement or disagreement becomes important.
  2. Second-Level: Agreement and disagreement on level two is about the first level, that is, you either agree or disagree about whatever you think you disagree about on the first level. The rule asks you to seek agreement on this level, so that both you and your partner understand the nature of your first-level disagreement in the same way. If you do not understand it in the same way, you will be arguing past each other.

In other words, this rule asks you to seek second-level agreement with your partner about the nature of your first-level disagreement. A further complication is that there are two types of first-level disagreement, namely, substantive and verbal:

In order to determine whether the disagreement is verbal or substantive, you need to identify the point of contention. There are two steps to doing this:

  1. State: Decide in your own mind what you and your partner disagree about, then formulate that point as a statement, or proposition―that is, a sentence that is either true or false. If you cannot do this, then you're probably too confused to continue with the argument. However, if you have trouble doing so, you might want to ask your partner to formulate it.
  2. Verify: After you've formulated in your own mind the point of disagreement, you should verify it with your partner. It's at this point that you're most likely to discover that you don't even agree on what you disagree about. If you disagree about the point as you've formulated it, then either you disagree about the words you've used to state it or about some other substantive issue. If so, you might want to ask your partner to formulate such a proposition, then see if you agree with your partner's statement of the first-level disagreement. This may reveal either that that disagreement is verbal, or that there is some other substantive point on which the two of you disagree. In either case, you're making progress.

In any case, before proceeding to try to resolve your first-level disagreement, you and your partner should achieve second-level agreement about it. If necessary, repeat the above steps until you have done so. If you can't achieve second-level agreement, there's not much point in trying to resolve the first-level disagreement, since you don't even know what it is. If you succeed in establishing such a second-level agreement, then you, and hopefully your partner too, will be able to keep your eyes on the ball and focus your arguments on the point of disagreement rather than on various distractions and irrelevancies.

Next Month: Rule 10


Notes:

  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.
    7. Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
    8. Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
  2. The current rule would have come earlier in the sequence of rules―probably as rule 4―except that I've been producing the rules as I think about them rather than in logical order. In a future entry, after the entire set of rules is complete, I intend to provide a more logical ordering.
  3. By "partner in argumentation", or "partner" for short, I mean the person with whom you are arguing. I use this phrase in preference to the more common "opponent" in order to avoid the suggestion that this is a conflict that only one of you can win.

Debate Watch
October 17th, 2019 (Permalink)

Warren's Suicidal Stand

The fourth "debate" of Democratic candidates for president occurred two days ago, with twelve candidates instead of the now standard ten. While I don't relish the prospect of two debates, I think that ten candidates is already too many to have on one stage. So, the number of candidates is going in the wrong direction.

I've often pointed out the failure of candidates to directly answer questions in these forums, but this one contained a remarkable example. Here's how it begins:

Moderator Marc Lacey: Senator Warren, … you have not specified how you're going to pay for the most expensive plan, Medicare for all. Will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it, yes or no?

Senator Elizabeth Warren: So I have made clear what my principles are here, and that is costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations, and for hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down. You know, the way I see this is, I have been out all around this country. I've done 140 town halls now, been to 27 states and Puerto Rico. Shoot, I've done 70,000 selfies, which must be the new measure of democracy. And this gives people a chance to come up and talk to me directly. So I have talked with the family, the mom and dad whose daughter's been diagnosed with cancer. I have talked to the young woman whose mother has just been diagnosed with diabetes. I've talked to the young man who has MS. And here's the thing about all of them. They all had great health insurance right at the beginning. But then they found out when they really needed it, when the costs went up, that the insurance company pulled the rug out from underneath them and they were left with nothing. Look, the way I see this, it is hard enough to get a diagnosis that your child has cancer, to think about the changes in your family if your mom has diabetes, or what it means for your life going forward if you've been diagnosed with MS. But what you shouldn't have to worry about is how you're going to pay for your health care after that.1

I've included all of Warren's answer here, even though most of it is irrelevant to the question, in order to show her approach. The question was intentionally a yes-no one, but there's no direct answer in the reply. Instead, Warren goes off into what I assume is a canned campaign speech about how many "selfies" she's taken, some family's cancer-stricken daughter, and some young man with multiple sclerosis. Then she changes the topic from taxes to costs, which are not the same thing. As we'll see, this is Warren's way of dealing with questions about this issue, and nothing and no one is able to get a straight answer out of her.

To his credit the moderator, Marc Lacey, pressed her on the issue:

Lacey: Senator Warren, to be clear, Senator Sanders acknowledges he's going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare for all. You've endorsed his plan. Should you acknowledge it, too?

Warren: So the way I see this, it is about what kinds of costs middle-class families are going to face. So let me be clear on this. Costs will go up for the wealthy. They will go up for big corporations. And for middle-class families, they will go down. I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.

Again, Warren ignores the question and changes the issue from taxes to costs. Lacey then turns to another candidate to comment on Warren's replies:

Lacey: Mayor Buttigieg, you say Senator Warren has been, quote, "evasive" about how she's going to pay for Medicare for all. What's your response?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn't get a yes or no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. … No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for all plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in. And the thing is, we really can deliver health care for every American and move forward with the boldest, biggest transformation since the inception of Medicare itself. But the way to do it without a giant multi-trillion-dollar hole and without having to avoid a yes-or-no question is Medicare for all who want it….

The entire exchange is lengthy and involves multiple candidates, so I won't quote it all here but just snippets. However, it's worth looking at the whole thing to get a sense of just how long this ordeal went on. Warren continued reciting her talking points:

Lacey: … Senator, your response?

Warren: So, let's be clear. … Medicare for all is the gold standard. It is the way we get health care coverage for every single American, including the family whose child has been diagnosed with cancer, including the person who's just gotten an MS diagnosis. That's how we make sure that everyone gets health care. We can pay for this. I've laid out the basic principles. Costs are going to go up for the wealthy. They're going to go up for big corporations. They will not go up for middle-class families. And I will not sign a bill into law that raises their costs, because costs are what people care about. …

Lacey then turns to Bernie Sanders who tells us he "wrote the damn bill":

Lacey: … Senator Sanders? …

Senator Bernie Sanders: Well, as somebody who wrote the damn bill, as I said, let's be clear. Under the Medicare for all bill that I wrote, premiums are gone. Co-payments are gone. Deductibles are gone. All out-of-pocket expenses are gone. … At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health care bills. But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They're going to go up significantly for the wealthy. And for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less…than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

Buttigieg: Well, at least that's a straightforward answer….

Lacey makes one last attempt to get Warren to admit what is now obvious to everyone else, but she sounds like a vinyl record that skips:

Lacey: Senator Warren, will you acknowledge what the senator just said about taxes going up?

Warren: So my view on this, and what I have committed to, is costs will go down for hardworking, middle-class families. …I will not embrace a plan that says people have great insurance right up until you get the diagnosis and the insurance company says, "Sorry, we're not covering your expensive cancer treatments, we're not covering your expensive treatments for MS…".

That's the third time she's mentioned MS! Amy Klobuchar takes the opportunity to deliver the coup de grâce:

Lacey: Thank you, Senator. Senator Klobuchar.

Senator Amy Klobuchar: At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we're going to send the invoice….

That almost makes me feel sorry for Warren, except that she left herself open for this. I suggested in the most recent rule of argumentation2 that debaters should be willing to retreat from indefensible positions to more secure ones. Here, Warren has taken up a suicidal position, which in the above exchange is completely over-run, but she just won't give it up. It makes her look either stupid or pig-headed; I don't think she's stupid, but this is a stupid strategy.

The moderator, Marc Lacey, deserves credit for his persistence. No, he didn't get Warren to answer the question, but nothing short of water-boarding would have done it. Most moderators and reporters will let politicians get away with dodging questions and reciting memorized talking points, but Lacey made Warren pay a price for doing so. This may be the only way to change their behavior.

Why did Warren fall into this trap? I presume that it's because she's gotten away with it so many times in the past that she didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition3. Once she started in with her standard approach of answering the question she wished she'd been asked, instead of the one she actually was asked, she was trapped. If she suddenly confessed that, of course, taxes were going to go up on everyone, she would look bad. However, what she did made her look even worse.

There was a more defensible position that she could have taken, namely, the one that Bernie Sanders takes, which is that there's good news and bad news: the bad news is that under "Medicare for all" your taxes will go up; the good news is that your overall health care costs will go down even more. Warren tried to ignore the bad news and only talk about the good news. I don't know whether Sander's claim is true, though I'm skeptical, but at least it's a position that he can and does defend without looking silly.

Now, Warren, who already has credibility problems, has raised the following question: if she won't even tell us the truth about something that's obvious to everyone, will she be willing to tell us the truth as President?


Notes:

  1. The Fix team, "The October Democratic debate transcript", The Washington Post, 10/16/2019. All subsequent quotes are taken from this source.
  2. Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
  3. Of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

New Book
October 15th, 2019 (Permalink)

How Charts Lie

Title: How Charts Lie

Subtitle: Getting Smarter about Visual Information

Author: Alberto Cairo

Date: 2019

Quote: "Charts―even those not designed with ill intent―can mislead us. However, they can also tell us the truth. Well-designed charts are empowering. … Charts are often the best way to reveal patterns and trends hidden behind the numbers we encounter in our lives. Good charts make us smarter. But before that happens, we need to get used to perusing them with attention and care. Instead of just looking at charts, as if they were mere illustrations, we must learn to read them and interpret them correctly. Here's how to become a better chart reader.1"

The author of this new book, Alberto Cairo2, is a professor of communication and author of previous books on graphics. The book has rave blurbs from Jordan Ellenberg and Charles Wheelan, both of whose books I liked.

As is usual with "New Books", I haven't read the entire book yet, but I have read that part of it that is accessible through Amazon's "Look inside!" feature. What I've read is clearly if not excitingly written, and the author knows what he's talking about. As you might expect, there are a lot of examples of different types of charts and graphs, many of which are misleading, which is probably the best way to learn to understand them.

Judging more from the subtitle than the title, as well as the quote given above, the topic of the book appears to be graphical literacy3, that is, the ability to understand visual displays of information, such as pie charts, bar graphs, scatter plots, etc. After a prologue and introduction, there are six chapters, the first of which is on how charts work, and the remaining five on ways they fail. The five ways in which charts can "lie" are: being poorly designed, displaying dubious data, using insufficient data, hiding or downplaying uncertainty, and presenting misleading patterns.

One warning: surprisingly, at least to me, there is a short section of the introduction discussing a map used by the rapper Kid Rock which, perhaps unsurprisingly, contained a four-letter Anglo-Saxon expletive. I realize that standards of language use are changing, and I wouldn't have minded so much except that the whole section seemed of minor interest. Also, who expects that kind of language in a book on graphical literacy? Was it supposed to be funny? I didn't laugh4. In any case, teachers or parents considering using the book with their students or children should keep this in mind.

Notes:

  1. Alberto Cairo, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information (2019), "Prologue".
  2. The Washington Post has a recent interview with Cairo discussing this book: Christopher Ingraham, "You’ve been reading charts wrong. Here’s how a pro does it.", The Washington Post, 10/14/2019.
  3. Cairo uses the ugly portmanteau words "graphicacy" and "graphicate", but I'll stick with the longer phrases; see the "Introduction".
  4. This is not strictly true: I did laugh when Cairo referred to him as "Mr. Rock".

HEADLINE!
October 5th, 2019 (Permalink)

Canadian Bakin'

Are you a healthy skeptic? By that I mean, do you have a healthy skepticism about what you read and hear?

What is a healthy skepticism? It's one that lies between an unhealthy skepticism and an even unhealthier gullibility. Both unhealthy skepticism and gullibility are all-or-nothing attitudes: in the case of gullibility it's "all" and it's "nothing" for the skeptic. An unhealthy skeptic tends to dismiss everything that he or she doesn't agree with, whereas a gullible person tends to believe it all, no matter how implausible.

Test the health of your skepticism on the following alarming headline1:

1 in 20 young Canadians are hospitalized every day for substance use2

If this headline doesn't cause your internal alarm to go off, then your skepticism needs a check-up. The first thing that should set that alarm ringing is a lack of clarity. What does it even mean?

The verb "to hospitalize" usually means to admit to a hospital, so in that sense the headline would mean that 5% of the population of young Canadians are admitted to the hospital each day. However, unless the hospital stays were very short, after a few days a large percentage of Canadian youth would be in the hospital. Surely, then, the hospitals in Canada would be overwhelmed. Have you read or heard any reports about hospitals in Canada being over-run by young patients? If they were, wouldn't you have? Moreover, given what you know about "substance use", is it plausible that so many Canadian youngsters have a problem severe enough to require hospitalization?

In addition to a lack of clarity, another basis for skepticism is implausibility. How do you check plausibility? You use what you already know: you know many things, perhaps more even than you realize. Ask yourself whether the headline fits with what you know.

Perhaps "hospitalized" just means "in the hospital", so that the headline means that one out of twenty young Canadians are in the hospital for substance abuse on any given day. 5% of the population of Canadian young people would be a large number of patients, though not so large as if 5% were admitted every day. For this reason, this interpretation is more plausible than the previous one, but is it plausible? If 5% are hospitalized, what additional percentage would have a "substance use" problem not so severe as to require hospitalization? Surely, for every person with such a severe problem there are several with less severe ones. If Canada were suffering from such an epidemic of "substance use", wouldn't you have heard or read something about it?

Given both its ambiguity and implausibility, it seems likely that something went wrong with this headline, but to find out what we need to read the article itself. The first sentence reads: "A new report that looked at Canadian youths aged 10-24 finds that some 65 of them are hospitalized every day for substance use issues.3" That 65 Canadian youngsters are admitted to hospital every day seems plausible, but not that that represents 5% of the youth of the country.

As Lawrence Mayes, who submitted this article, commented in an email to me: "I know Canada's population is small but I'm sure it's not that small.4" Here Lawrence was using what he knows to test the claim's plausibility: he knows that Canada's population is small, but it's large enough that there must be more than 1,300―20 × 65―young Canadians.

Another way to check claims for plausibility is through cross-checking, that is, checking related numbers against one another for consistency. For instance, in the next full sentence of the article we read: "Between 2017-2018, there were more than 23,500 hospitalizations5 among youth―or 1 in 20 of those ages 10-24―because of substance use." So, apparently 23,500 is supposed to represent 5% of the Canadian population aged 10-24, which is certainly more plausible than 65. However, these two numbers are inconsistent.

At this point, our plausibility checks have shown that something went wrong with this article, but we don't know exactly what. Given that 23,500 is 5% of the population of Canadian youth, the total population of young Canadians would be almost half a million. Is that plausible?

Now, if you are a Canadian or happen to know at least approximately what the population of Canada is, you could continue to check this against what you know. Unfortunately, as an American citizen, I don't know the population of Canada, though I do know that it's less than the United States. So, I had to do a little research.

According to Wolfram Alpha, the total population of Canada is about 37 million and life expectancy is over eighty years6. So, an age group of fifteen years should represent almost 20% of the total population, that is, around seven million people. So, a half million young Canadians seems far too low a number.

That exhausts what we can find out from this short article, so if we want to learn more we'll have to turn to the study that the article is reporting7. Among its "Key Findings": "1 out of every 20 hospital stays among youth age 10 to 24 in Canada in 2017-2018 were related to harm caused by substance use.8" It goes on to say:

In 2017-2018, there were 23,580 hospital stays for harm caused by substance use among youth age 10 to 24. This is the equivalent of 65 youth hospitalized every day in Canada.8

Apparently, this is the source for the headline. However, these claims refer to 5% of the hospital stays of young Canadians, not to 5% of the youngsters themselves. Given that people in that age range are usually healthy and seldom spend time in the hospital, no wonder only 65 a day were involved. The report also reveals the origin of this number: it's the result of dividing 23,580 by 365 days. So, the reality is much less worrisome than the headline: 23,580 is .3% of seven million9, not 5%.

This article is an egregious example, which is why I selected it as an exercise in healthy skepticism and plausibility checking. If you approach every news article you read with an alert mind, a healthy skepticism, and armed with the ability to apply what you already know, you'll seldom uncover such an extreme error. However, critical reading is not only useful when it uncovers errors: if an article passes your skeptical scrutiny, it should give you greater confidence in what you read.


Notes:

  1. Shraddha Chakradhar, "Morning Rounds", STAT, 9/19/2019.
  2. This is not an entry on doublespeak, but notice the euphemism "substance use" in the headline and the article itself. As we find out later in the article, the substances were drugs, with marijuana and alcohol making up 65% of those used. The article doesn't say what the remaining 35% of the substances were but, according to page four of the report that was the basis of the article, they were other drugs―see note 7, below, for the citation. Why not word the headline: "1 in 20 young Canadians are hospitalized every day for drug use"? Other problems aside, this would be both more informative and shorter. See also: Close Encounters with Doublespeak of the Third Kind, 9/8/2019.
  3. Same citation as the first note. What does "issues" add to this, other than an extra word?
  4. Lawrence Mayes, private email, 9/19/2019.
  5. Notice that what is counted here is "hospitalizations", yet the article treats the number as representing the patients hospitalized. Given that there were probably some cases of individuals hospitalized more than once in the same year, the actual number of patients hospitalized would be lower than the number of hospitalizations. See note 9, below.
  6. "What is the population of Canada?", Wolfram Alpha, accessed: 10/3/2019.
  7. "Hospital Stays for Harm Caused by Substance Use Among Youth Age 10 to 24", Canadian Institute for Health Information, 9/2019.
  8. P. 5; see the previous note for the source.
  9. This is assuming, falsely, that every hospital stay is by a distinct young person. We learn on the same page: "17% of youth who were hospitalized for harm caused by substance use were hospitalized more than once for substance use within the same fiscal year." So, fewer than 23,580 youngsters were hospitalized in the year covered by the report.

Previous Month


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Recommended Reading
September 30th, 2019 (Permalink)

Taking Offense, Exaggerating, Admitting Ignorance, and Fact-Checking Books


September 25th, 2019 (Permalink)

A Puzzle in the Wild

Four friends drove to a cabin in the wilderness. When it came time to return to civilization, they discovered that the vehicle that brought them to the cabin would not start. Also, their cellphones didn't work in the wilderness, so they could not call for help. They would just have to hike back to civilization.

Unfortunately, the hike out would take eight days, and each one of them could carry enough food and water for only five days. Of course, it wouldn't be necessary for all four friends to make it out of the wilderness, for if even one could do so that one could bring help to rescue the others. The cabin was stocked with enough food and water to last any who remained behind until help arrived. However, if any of the friends were to hike in the wilderness for a day or more without food and water, that friend would surely die.

Is it possible for at least one of the four friends to make it to civilization without any of the others dying?


September 19th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 81: Consider all the evidence!

This rule could be considered a sub-rule of the previous one to aim at objectivity, because part of aiming for objectivity is considering all of the evidence before coming to a conclusion. However, I have a lot to say about this topic, so I've decided to make it into a separate rule.

The reasoning that you appeal to in your arguments can be divided into two broad categories:

  1. Deduction: Deductive reasoning has a nice property: if an argument is valid, then it will remain valid if you add an additional premissany additional premiss. In other words, a deductive argument that is valid will not be rendered invalid by new evidence. For instance, consider the valid deductive argument:

    All swans are white.
    Odette is a swan.
    Therefore, Odette is white.

    No additional premisses added to this argument will create an invalid argument. For instance, what about Odile, who is a black swan from Australia? Odile shows that the first premiss of the argument is false, but the argument itself is still valid, because if the premisses were true then the conclusion would also be true2.

    Though new evidence cannot make a valid argument become invalid, it can cause a sound argument to become unsound, which is what Odile does to the above argument. Soundness is a more important property than validity, because it is only through soundness that we know that we're proceeding from truth in the premisses to truth in the conclusion. If any of the relevant premisses of a valid argument are false, then the conclusion may or may not be true. So, false premisses give no good reason for believing the conclusion of a valid deductive argument.

  2. Induction: Unless you are doing mathematics or logic, much of your reasoning will be inductive. There is a little-known, but important principle of inductive reasoning called "the total evidence requirement3": all relevant evidence must be considered. Inductive reasoning can be weakened by the introduction of new information. Compare the following inductive argument to the deductive one above:

    Every swan that I have seen before today was white.
    Therefore, all swans are white.

    If I then see Odile today, I am no longer justified in concluding that all swans are white4, since the evidence of Odile weakens the argument.

So, whether you're reasoning deductively or inductively, you need to look for all the evidence that has a bearing on your conclusion. If you don't look for the evidence that shows that conclusion false, you won't find it even if it's there.

Moreover, even if you're acting as an advocate, it's still important to examine all the evidence. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Avoiding Nasty Surprises: One reason that you need to be aware of all the evidence is so that you won't be surprised when your opponent presents it5. If your opponent reveals an important piece of evidence that undermines your case, you will be caught without a defense if you aren't even aware of its existence6. A good advocate will be prepared to rebut any such counter-evidence.
  2. Planning Your Strategy: Another reason to be aware of all of the evidence as soon as possible is because you need it in order to plan your argumentative strategy. As an advocate, you don't want to take up an indefensible position, since you may lose the battle. As in war, it is sometimes better to make a strategic retreat to a more defensible position than to make a suicidal stand.

    For instance, suppose that you are a defense attorney defending a client against a murder charge. If, in the course of assembling your case, you discover evidence that strongly indicates that your client is guilty, you may want to pursue a plea bargain for your client, rather than to go to trial. Either that, or you may suggest that your client plead guilty and then argue for leniency at sentencing.

There are two steps to applying this rule:

  1. Seek all of the evidence: Before you can consider it, you must gather as much of the evidence as you can. In particular, look for evidence that counts against your case. As I argued in the previous rule, one way to aim at objectivity is to compensate for your own biases. If you are an advocate for a particular position then you are biased in favor of it. The temptation, especially if you're an advocate, is to only look for evidence that will reinforce your case. Instead, make a point of thinking about what sort of evidence would undermine your case, then look for it.

    If you don't find evidence against your case, excellent! Then you can be more confident that you have a strong case. If you do find evidence that undermines your case, then you can either prepare a defense against it or consider changing your position to counter it, as explained above. Remember Feynmann's principle: don't fool yourself7!

  2. Weigh all of the evidence: Once you have gathered all of the relevant evidence that you can find, you need to take it into consideration when drawing your conclusions. I'll have more to say about how to do this in a future entry.

There are two problems with applying this rule:

  1. You never have all of the evidence: If this is true, it may seem that I am once again asking you to do the impossible. However, as in the objectivity rule, I'm not asking the impossible, just that you consider all of the relevant evidence that you find after making a sincere effort to find it all.

    The fact that you never do have all of the evidence is a good reason to be cautious in your conclusions. For instance, you may conclude, based on extensive experience, that all swans are white, but a single black swan will overturn that conclusion. If, swan-like, you stick your neck out and claim that all swans are white, your opponent may chop your head off. For that reason, you may want to hedge your claim.

  2. What counts as evidence?: Not everything counts as evidence. Only facts that are relevant to the claim at issue are evidence. What is relevant? Any fact which changes the probability that the claim is true is a relevant piece of evidence. To return to the defense attorney example: the issue is whether your client is guilty. Thus, any fact that makes it either less likely or more likely that your client is guilty is relevant evidence. I'll have more to say on relevance in a future entry.

So, if you consider all of the evidence that I've given above, I hope you will come to the conclusion that you should, indeed, consider all the evidence.

Next Month: Rule 9


Notes:

  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.
    7. Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
  2. This is the definition of "valid".
  3. See: Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic (10th edition), section 1.4.
  4. Though I might be justified in concluding that almost all are, or most are.
  5. Throughout this part of the entry I am going to use the analogy of argumentation to war, fighting, and other types of conflict. I criticized this analogy in a previous lesson―see rule 3, under note 1, above―but as I pointed out in a footnote, it's almost impossible not to use it. Keep in mind that it's only an analogy, and can be misleading, though in this case I hope it will help the reader understand the points I'm making.
  6. For instance, feminist writer Naomi Wolf was blind-sided by evidence that undermined the case she made in her most recent book, and as a result was publicly humiliated and had the book's publication delayed. See: Wolf's Howler, 5/31/2019.
  7. The full statement of the principle is: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself―and you are the easiest person to fool." See the entry for rule 6, under note 1, above.

September 16th, 2019 (Corrected: 9/17/2019) (Permalink)

Déjà Vu All Over Again1

The third Democratic presidential forum was three hours long, so there was a lot said, and I haven't even read the whole transcript yet. However, one exchange caused me to experience déjà vu. In the middle of a discussion of education policy, Bernie Sanders interjected: "We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and yet we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on earth.2" I seemed to remember logic checking this same claim made by him in a previous debate.

It turns out that Sanders made a similar claim in one of the Democratic debates against Hillary Clinton in 2016: "…[In the United States] today…you have the highest rate of child poverty of almost any major country on Earth.3" The only substantive difference between these two claims is that Sanders dropped the qualifier "major" from the more recent one, thus strengthening what he was claiming. Did Sanders just forget to include it? The original claim was not very plausible, but the claim without "major" is very implausible, especially if "we are the wealthiest country in the history of the world".

As I mentioned in the previous entry, Sanders has been making versions of this claim since at least 2015. In the original version of the claim, he did not hedge the "any" with "almost", that is, he claimed that America had the highest rate of child poverty of any major country. At the time, Politifact judged his claim to be "mostly false", and subsequently he added the "almost".

A problem with all of the versions of this claim are that the sources that are supposed to support it measure "relative poverty" rather than "absolute poverty". For instance, NBC News' fact check of the claim4 points to a fact sheet on child poverty from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development5. "The poverty threshold is set here at 50% of the median disposable income in each country", according to the fact sheet, that is, the percentage of children in "poverty" is the percentage of those living in households whose income is less that 50% of the median income in that nation6.

As a result, the "child relative income poverty rate" is not a measure of what most people think of as poverty, namely, absolute poverty, as I explained in the earlier entry. Moreover, since median incomes differ from country to country, comparing the child poverty rates of different countries is comparing apples to oranges. For example, suppose country A has a median income of $10,000 and country Z has a median income of only $1,000. Then, the poverty threshold in country A is $5,000 whereas it is $500 in country Z. Someone making $4,000 would be poor in A, but not poor in Z―in fact, eight times the relative poverty threshold and four times the median income is probably relatively rich in Z8.

NBC refers to Sanders' claim as "hyperbole"7, which is overly charitable: "whopper" would be more accurate. After all, Sanders was fact-checked on this three years ago, and he seems to have added the "almost" hedge to the claim due to the initial criticism, so he should know better.

Feel the burn, Bernie, your pants are on fire.


Notes:

  1. This is a "Yogi-ism", that is, something supposedly said by baseball player Yogi Berra. However, a lot of Yogi-isms were falsely attributed to Berra, as memorialized in another one: "I never said most of the things I said". See: Scott Stump, "'It's deja vu all over again': 27 of Yogi Berra's most memorable 'Yogi-isms'", Today, 9/23/2015.
  2. The Fix team, "Transcript: The third Democratic debate", The Washington Post, 9/12/2019.
  3. See: Humpty-Dumptying, 2/16/2016.
  4. Jane C. Timm & Adam Edelman, "Democratic Debate fact-check: 10 candidates take the stage in Houston", NBC News, 9/13/2019.
  5. "CO2.2: Child poverty", OECD, 7/13/2018.
  6. Time also did a fact check of this claim, but cited a different source. However, that source also used a definition of "child poverty" relative to the median income of the nation, in this case below 60%. See: Rachel E. Greenspan, Abigail Abrams, Tara Law & Madeleine Carlisle, "Fact-Checking the Candidates From the Third Democratic Presidential Debate", Time, 9/13/2019.
  7. The Time article linked in the previous note calls the claim "exaggerated", which is an understatement.
  8. Correction (9/17/2019): I originally wrote here: "…eight times the median income is probably relatively rich in Z," which is incorrect.

September 12th, 2019 (Corrected & Updated: 9/13/2019)(Permalink)

New Book: The Ministry of Truth

Title: The Ministry of Truth

Subtitle: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

Author: Dorian Lynskey

Quote: "…[T]he fact that the novel speaks to us so loudly and clearly in 2019 is a terrible indictment of politicians and citizens alike. While it's still a warning, it has also become a reminder of all the painful lessons that the world appears to have unlearned since Orwell's lifetime, especially those concerning the fragility of truth in the face of power. I hesitate to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four is more relevant than ever, but it's a damn sight more relevant than it should be.1"

Apropos of Orwell's novel 1984, which I quoted in the previous entry, there's a new book out that calls itself a "biography" of it. There can be, and indeed are, biographies of Orwell―several, in fact―so we probably don't need another one of those. Strictly speaking, since books are not alive, they can't have biographies. However, books can be said to have a metaphorical "life", and 1984 has had an unusually long one. As suggested by the Quote from the new book, above, that may be unfortunate. If only Orwell's book seemed totally outdated today.

Who is Dorian Lynskey? I'd never heard of him prior to this book, which is no criticism―he's probably never heard of me! Apparently, he's a freelance journalist2 who's written one previous book on protest songs3. So, it's not obvious why he's the man to write this book except, perhaps, that he's the one who thought of it.

As with all other "New Book" entries on this weblog, I have yet to read this book in its entirety, though I have been able to read some parts of it thanks to Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature. As a result, I can't review it or recommend it yet, but I enjoyed the parts that I was able to read, and look forward to reading the rest. However, I'm already an Orwell fan, and if you're not as interested in 1984 as I am, you may not be as interested in this book. Of course, you probably shouldn't read a book about another book that you haven't already read, so if you haven't read 1984 then do so first4. Why else should you read it? Because, according to Lynskey:

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a durable compendium of everything [Orwell] ever learned about human nature as it relates to politics―every cognitive bias, unexamined prejudice, moral compromise, trick of language and mechanism of power that enables injustice to gain the upper hand―and remains an unbeatable guide to what to watch out for.5

Speaking of close encounters with political doublespeak, tonight is this month's Democratic presidential forum6. This time, there will thankfully be only one night of "debating", but ten candidates qualified. So, once again, each candidate will have only about ten minutes to speak, chopped up into one-minute soundbites. There will be four moderators, which is at least moving in the right direction, but why they can't get it down to one escapes me. As a result of all these factors, there will probably be very little debating going on, with dodged questions and canned answers instead.

As usual, I will not be watching it, but waiting to read a transcript. So, I may have something to say about it tomorrow at the earliest. Given the recent theme on this weblog of doublespeak, I'll make a special point of looking for examples of it.


Correction & Update (9/13/2019): I assumed when I wrote the last two paragraphs above about last night's forum that it would be the same length as the previous ones―namely, two hours―but it was three hours long! As a result, the candidates should have had approximately fifteen minutes to speak apiece, instead of only ten. Presumably, this change was in response to the criticism that the candidates were getting so little time that the forums lack substance and are uninformative. It's an improvement in one way, but at the cost of making it even less likely that many viewers watched the entire event.

A better solution would be to reduce the number of candidates on the stage, even if this means splitting the debate up into two: one for the contenders and one for the also-rans. A number of the candidates on the stage last night languish in the polls in the low single digits, within the margin of error of zero, which might well be statistical noise. The Democrats might just as well pull some random person off the street and put them up there at the end of the row. Why not require that each candidate poll significantly above zero7 in at least one poll in order to qualify?

At any rate, the extra length to the debate means that reading the transcript is a longer, harder slog, and I'd almost rather spend my time reading A Return to Love.


Notes:

  1. P. xix. All citations of only page numbers are to the new book.
  2. P. 272.
  3. P. 359.
  4. I'm currently in the middle of Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love, which is a book about Helen Schucman's book A Course in Miracles, which I haven't read. So, do as I say, not as I do. However, the only reason I'm reading Williamson's tedious book is because she's running for president and I'm curious about her beliefs. Unfortunately, she failed to qualify for tonight's debate.
  5. P. 268.
  6. Madeleine Carlisle, "Democratic Debate Live: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and More Face Off in Houston", Time, 9/12/2019.
  7. ≥3%, or even >3%. Also, it might be a good idea to require this in more than one poll in order to eliminate outliers―whatever it takes to get the line-up down to a more manageable number.

September 8th, 2019 (Permalink)

Close Encounters with Doublespeak of the Third Kind

…[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning…. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.1

A few years ago2, I criticized a scheme by some parts of the Obama administration to adopt a new lexicon designed to help integrate criminal offenders back into society. The main purpose of the new terms was to conceal the fact that those people had been in prison for committing crimes, that is, the new words and phrases were euphemisms. Presumably, the new language was intended to fool potential employers who might hesitate to hire a "criminal", but be less resistant to employing a "person who committed a crime".

Of course, like most such doublespeak, nobody would be long fooled by such changes. The notion that someone would be more likely to hire "an individual who was incarcerated" rather than a "convict" or "offender" seems to assume that employers, instead of the people who invent such transparent euphemisms, are idiots.

In addition, some of the words that were to be replaced, such as "offender" and "juvenile delinquent", were old euphemisms that had worn out over time and lost their power. The same thing will happen to the new ones, and probably sooner rather than later because they are so easy to see through.

Given the change of administrations, I'm not sure whether the Department of Justice is still recommending the use of this doublespeak, but even if it's dropped it, San Francisco has taken it up, according to the Chronicle:

The words “felon,” “offender,” “convict,” “addict” and “juvenile delinquent” would be part of the past in official San Francisco parlance under new “person first” language guidelines adopted by the Board of Supervisors. …[W]hat was once called a convicted felon or an offender released from jail will be a “formerly incarcerated person,” or a “justice-involved” person or simply a “returning resident.” Parolees and people on criminal probation will be referred to as a “person on parole,” or “person under supervision.” A juvenile “delinquent” will become a “young person with justice system involvement,” or a “young person impacted by the juvenile justice system.” And drug addicts or substance abusers will become “a person with a history of substance use.”3

One of the terms that I discussed three years ago was the adjectival-phrase "justice-involved", which makes a reappearance in the San Francisco guidelines. For instance, "justice-involved youth" was to replace "juvenile delinquent": notice the gain of an additional word and two more letters.

Here is the complete list of examples of "person-first language"4―a name that is itself doublespeak―put out by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors:

Oldspeak Newspeak
Addict, substance abuser Person with a history of substance use
Convict, inmate Currently incarcerated person
Drug offender Person convicted of a drug offense
Felon Person with a felony conviction
Offender Formerly incarcerated person, returning resident
Parolee, probationer Person on parole, person under supervision
Violent offender, serious offender A person convicted of a violent/serious offense
Returning citizen, illegal alien Person, individual
Juvenile offender, juvenile delinquent Young person with justice system involvement, young person impacted by the justice system

These are given as "models of the appropriate use of person-first language", rather than horrid examples. My favorite is "young person impacted by the justice system" instead of "juvenile delinquent": not only is it five words and more than twice as many letters longer, but it makes it sound as though it's the justice system that is acting on the passive youth, rather than the kid getting caught committing a crime. If only the justice system would stop impacting young people!

A close second is "person with a history of substance use" in place of "substance abuser": again, it's five words longer with over twice as many letters. Also, "substance abuser" is already a euphemism5, since "substance" is a highly general word: for instance, water is a substance. Thus, "substance abuser" is the type of euphemism in which a general word is substituted for a more specific one, losing information in the process.

Of course, the substances abused by substance abusers are drugs, usually illegal ones. In contrast, who isn't a person with a history of substance use? If you've ever drunk alcohol or smoked tobacco or marijuana, you have a history of "substance" use, but that doesn't make you a "substance abuser" let alone an "addict".

A feature of these examples is how all but one substitutes a longer word or phrase for a shorter one. William Lutz identified four kinds of doublespeak6, the first kind being euphemism. In addition, he writes:

A third kind of doublespeak is gobbledygook or bureaucratese. …[S]uch doublespeak is simply a matter of piling on words, of overwhelming the audience with words…and the longer the sentences the better.7

"Person-first language" is, thus, doublespeak of both the first and third kinds. The fact that people's eyes will glaze over when they read it is not a bug, it's a feature. It's not language meant to communicate, instead it's designed to withhold information while giving the illusion of communication.

As I mentioned, there is one exception to these phrases being doublespeak of the third kind, and that is a telling one: instead of "illegal alien", we're to say simply "person" or "individual". In this way, all information has been removed from the phrase, except for the obvious fact of personhood. The previous preferred locution "undocumented immigrant8" contained some residual information about the person's immigration status, and it may already have ceased to function as a euphemism as people realized what it means.

So, in the course of a few decades we've moved from "illegal alien" to "individual". This is remarkable "progress" in doublespeak in the sense that all relevant information has now been removed from the term.

As George Orwell wrote about Newspeak, the doublespeak language in his novel 1984: "It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought…should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.9" If you follow these guidelines, the heretical thought that there's a difference between a citizen and a foreigner who has entered the country in violation of the law will be unsayable if not unthinkable.

Orwell also wrote: "It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050.9" We seem right on track to make that deadline.


Notes:

  1. George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language".
  2. Department of Doublespeak, 5/11/2016.
  3. Phil Matier, "SF Board of Supervisors sanitizes language of criminal justice system", San Francisco Chronicle, 8/11/2019.
  4. "Adopting and Utilizing Person-First Language When Referring to People With a Criminal Record", San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Resolution No. 336-19, 7/17/2019.
  5. William Lutz mentioned that "substance abuse" was a euphemism for drug addiction in his book from 1989: Doublespeak: From "Revenue Enhancement" to "Terminal Living"; How Government, Business, Advertisers, and Others Use Language to Deceive You, p. 64. He included "substance abuser" as a euphemism for "drug addict" in his later book: Doublespeak Defined: Cut Through the Bull**** and Get the Point (1999), p. 67.
  6. Lutz, Doublespeak, pp. 2-7.
  7. Lutz, Doublespeak, p. 5.
  8. Ten years ago, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists was advocating this euphemism; see: Documented Doublespeak, 9/16/2009.
  9. George Orwell, 1984: Text, Sources, Criticism (1963), edited by Irving Howe, p. 132.

September 6th, 2019 (Permalink)

Marianne Williamson Channels Pat Robertson

Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson posted and then deleted the following nitwitticism:

The Bahamas, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas…1 may all be in our prayers now. Millions of us seeing Dorian turn away from land is not a wacky idea; it is a creative use of the power of the mind. Two minutes of prayer, visualization, meditation for those in the way of the storm[sic]2

I can certainly understand why people feel comforted by their own or other people's prayers or good wishes, especially if such things are part of their religion. However, Williamson seems to go beyond that psychological observation, suggesting that "millions of us seeing Dorian turn away from land" will actually cause the hurricane to do so. What else does she mean by "a creative use of the power of the mind"?

A more traditional religious interpretation is that a prayer is a supplication of a god, and it is the god that changes the course of the storm. If the storm doesn't change course that's because the god, for its own inscrutable reasons, decided not to answer the prayer, or at least not to do so in the way prayed for. Under this interpretation, the efficacy of prayer is untestable, since whatever happens is the god's doing―whether that's a bug or a feature depends on your point of view.

That Williamson actually believes―or at least pretends to believe―that the human mind can affect the physical world directly, without the intervention of the human body, is supported by her past teachings. If reality is an illusion and only love is real, then it's not so surprising that she thinks that hurricanes can be diverted by "the power of the mind", or that vaccines are unnecessary and even harmful3.

What I don't understand is why Williamson deleted the message. Doing so only served to draw more attention to it, since it appeared that she was trying to hide it. But it was too late: someone had already taken a screenshot of it.

In addition, her spokeswoman subsequently claimed that what Williamson had written was a "metaphor"4. But what was metaphorical about it? Does that mean we're not supposed to take Williamson's talk of "love" and "miracles" literally? However, Williamson went on to defend the idea of praying about hurricanes, writing: "Prayer is a power of the mind, and it is neither bizarre nor unintelligent.2" Is that metaphorical?

I noted in a previous post5 that Williamson wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to play to her fans who know her from her books and Oprah appearances, while reassuring others that she doesn't really believe what she says in those venues. So, she'll write something, almost immediately delete it, send her spokeswoman out to deny it, then defend what she originally wrote! This is not a singular occurrence, but a pattern in her behavior.

Williamson now faces a problem similar to what preacher Pat Robertson had when he ran for president as a Republican in 1988:

…Robertson, who has long asserted that his prayers spared Virginia Beach, Va., and his Christian Broadcasting Network from destruction by Hurricane Gloria in September, 1985, said he knew he would be “laughed at by people all across the country” and “I knew I could just as easily keep my mouth shut and let the thing hit and not get involved.” But he said that he “couldn’t allow that loss of life” and, therefore, led about a million people watching his television program in prayers that sent the hurricane “harmlessly out to sea.” … “So it was, of course, a miracle. …1 There’s no other explanation,” he said. “The newspaper the next day said we were very lucky. Well, I don’t think it was lucky. I think it was divine intervention.” Residents of the Long Island, N.Y., area “should have prayed too,” Robertson said, because Hurricane Gloria, after veering out to sea, swept back inland and caused 6 deaths as well as almost $300 million worth of damage in what New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo called “the most devastating natural disaster” in the state’s history. Robertson said he had “no control over what happened next” after his prayers caused God to spare Virginia Beach. …[W]hen a hurricane is headed your way, “you just pray for your family and loved ones at that moment and leave the consequences, the rest of it, in his hands.”6

So, I guess if you live on Long Island or the Bahamas, you're on your own. One thing Williamson has over Robertson is that at least she suggested praying for the poor people in the Bahamas, even though those prayers don't seem to have done a whole lot of good7. However, something Robertson has over Williamson is that he didn't back down. Of course, he also didn't get his party's nomination.


Notes:

  1. Ellipsis in the original.
  2. Josiah Bates, "Democratic Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson Deletes Tweets About 'the Power of Mind' Keeping Hurricane Dorian Away", Time, 9/4/2019.
  3. See: C'mon, Marianne, 7/30/2019.
  4. Felicia Sonmez, "Marianne Williamson suggests using ‘the power of the mind’ to change Hurricane Dorian’s course", The Washington Post, 9/4/2019.
  5. See: Wake up, Marianne!, 8/16/2019.
  6. Jack Nelson, "Robertson Finds Success Means Increased Scrutiny: His Prayer Diverted Hurricane, He Insists", Los Angeles Times, 2/14/1988.
  7. Holly Yan & Patrick Oppmann, "Death toll in Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian rises to 20 after storm leaves 'generational devastation'", CNN, 9/4/2019.

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