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January 26th, 2021 (Permalink)

Name that Fallacy!

Earlier this month, a San Francisco television station reported:

The Embarcadero was virtually empty Saturday night amidst a light drizzle. It'll likely stay relatively quiet, since San Francisco has extended its stay-at-home and 10-day travel quarantine orders indefinitely. UCSF infectious disease expert and medical director of the HIV Clinic at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Director Dr. Monica Gandhi says the city's decision is not data-driven.

"We never reached those hospitalizations or ICU capacity concerns that the state had set as metrics for this degree of shutdown," she said. "And then to continue it indefinitely, as kind of our New Year's present to San Francisco, didn't make sense to me."

San Francisco is in better shape than most of the Bay Area and the state of California. Currently about 30% of ICU beds are still available. The latest 7-day average of new cases daily is 206 as of December 25, compared with 290 on December 16. The city says preliminary data shows that the orders seemed to have slowed infections.1

Can you name that fallacy? If you think you can, click on the following link to see if you're correct:


This fallacy is one reason why these lockdowns keep happening. All politicians have to do is order these or other restrictions, then wait until the number of cases declines. Eventually, cases will decline, even if the measures taken have nothing to do with it, so all the patient politician has to do is wait until that happens and take credit for it.

While it's plausible that lockdowns may contribute to the slowing of the spread of the virus, it's also plausible that they have other negative effects. For instance, nearly three times as many people died in San Francisco last year from drug overdoses as are attributed to COVID-192. Moreover, there was an increase of 258 overdose deaths from the previous year, which is greater than the 241 COVID-19 deaths. How many, if any, of these deaths were at least partially due to the social isolation and economic hardships of the lockdowns? We don't know, but it's just as plausible that some of them were as that some lives were saved by the lockdown. Also, there's just as much anecdotal evidence that lockdowns contribute to drug overdose deaths as there is that they slow the spread of COVID-193. Were more lives saved or lost due to the lockdown? We don't know, but if you're going to live by post hoc then you may also die by it.

San Francisco is going to start easing its lockdown this Thursday4.


  1. Betty Yu, "COVID: UCSF Infectious Disease Expert Says Indefinite Stay-at-Home Order Wrong Call, Not Data-Driven", KPIX 5, 1/3/2021.
  2. Joshua Sabatini, "San Francisco's 2020 overdose deaths soar 59 percent to 699", San Francisco Chronicle, 1/14/2021.
  3. Aubrey Whelan, "As pandemic started, U.S. fatal overdoses soared in the first quarter of 2020, new data show", Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/20/2020.
  4. "COVID Reopening: San Francisco To Allow Outdoor Dining, Personal Services Starting Thursday", CBS San Francisco, 1/25/2021.

January 18th, 2021 (Permalink)

Misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a quote magnet, one of those famously wise and well-regarded men that we love to quote and misquote. To celebrate his holiday, let's look at what he didn't say and what he did.


  1. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), pp. 20-21.
  2. Garson O'Toole, Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations (2017), pp. 33-36.
  3. For the full story, see: Garson O'Toole, "The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice", The Quote Investigator, 11/15/2012.
  4. Namely, Barack Obama. See: O'Toole, p. 33.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Drum Major Instinct", The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, 2/4/1968.
  6. Rachel Martin, "Quote Corrected On MLK Memorial", National Public Radio, 8/18/2013.
  7. David Mikkelson, "Martin Luther King: 'Do Not Rejoice in the Death of One'", Snopes, 5/4/2011.
  8. Keyes, pp. 18-20.
  9. Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction (2010).
  10. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Other America Speech Transcript―Martin Luther King Jr.", Rev, 4/14/1967.

January 15th, 2021 (Permalink)

Charts & Graphs: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

One of these things is not like the others
One of these things just doesn't belong
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?1
US Monthly Deaths
Click chart to enlarge.
Did you guess which thing was not like the others?
Did you guess which thing just doesn't belong?1

If you guessed this month is not like the others, then you're not exactly wrong! The problem with this bar chart2 is that, as you can see from the dates given at the top, the data for it ends at the twelfth of this month. However, the bar for January looks exactly like those for all the other months, despite the fact that the data for it is only partial. To a casual glance, the chart seems to show a large drop-off in deaths from December to January, but this is because of the lack of complete data for this month. Obviously, with the month only half over, we don't know whether there will be a decline in deaths, though I suspect there will be, but it won't be nearly as large as what the chart seems to show.

For a chart such as this not to risk misleading casual viewers, the bar for the month with incomplete data needs to be visually different in some way. One solution is to leave months off the chart until complete data is available; another would be to make a bar based on partial data thinner, or a different color, or include some other warning within the chart that the data for the month is incomplete.3


  1. I don't know who wrote this song, but it was the twelfth best song from the children's television program Sesame Street, according to Billboard magazine; see: Aly Semigran, "12 Best Songs in 'Sesame Street' History", Billboard, 9/29/2016.
  2. "Only 12 days into January, states have reported more COVID-19 deaths than in any month between June and October of 2020.", Nitwitter, 1/12/2021. Thankfully, this "tweet" of the chart is not misleading since the text that accompanies it emphasizes that January is based on partial data. However, there would be a problem if anyone should reproduce the chart without that accompanying text. In addition, a partially identical chart appeared in the weekly update for the 23rd of last month; see: Nicki Camberg, Artis Curiskis, Alice Goldfarb, Erin Kissane, Jessica Malaty Rivera, Kara Oehler, Sara Simon & Peter Walker, "In the Deadliest Month Yet, the Pandemic Is Regional Again: This Week in COVID-19 Data, Dec 23", Covid Tracking Project, 12/23/2020. This version of the chart has the same problem as the more recent one, except that it is the data for December that is incomplete.
  3. I saw the chart here: Kaiser Fung, "Handling partial data on graphics", Junk Charts, 1/14/2021.

January 2nd, 2021 (Permalink)

How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 31:
Rules of Thumb

A rule of thumb is one that has exceptions, but is simple and will work often enough to be useful. Here are some rules of thumb for quote-checking that I've developed out of my own experience checking quotes. These rules apply primarily to checking quotes of the "Familiar Quotations" type that I discussed in the previous entry2:


  1. For earlier entries in this series, see:
  2. See "How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 2" in the previous note.
  3. Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (2006), p. xiv, calls these people "flypaper figures", but who uses flypaper anymore? Do many young people even know what it is? For this reason, I prefer to call them "quote magnets", since most people know what magnets are, and the phrase also indicates that it is quotes that stick to them, not flies.
  4. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), pp. 20-22.
  5. See: Mark O'Connell, "'Hang in There!'―Arthur Schopenhauer", Slate, 5/19/2014.
  6. President Ronald Reagan famously said: "trust but verify", which is a translation of a Russian proverb. It never made much sense to me: if you trust someone, you don't need to verify; and if you do need to verify, you shouldn't trust. See: Barton Swaim, "'Trust, but verify': An untrustworthy political phrase", The Washington Post, 3/11/2016.

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December 25th, 2020 (Permalink)

My Christmas Present to You

Five family members threw a party on Christmas day to exchange presents. They agreed to meet at a conveniently-located hotel. So that everyone would receive a present but no one would have to buy more than one, the five decided that each of them would bring just one present to the party and each would receive one in turn. The presents would be distributed by the order of arrival of the party-goers, with each participant giving a present to the next to arrive. The last person to arrive would give a present to the one who arrived first.

After the opening of the presents, the five sat around the room drinking wassail and trying to figure out whose present went to whom. They made the following five statements:

  1. Abigail: "I received the present Barnabas brought."
  2. Barnabas: "I received the present brought by Daniel."
  3. Charlotte: "I arrived right before Abigail."
  4. Daniel: "Barnabas brought the present I received."
  5. Erle: "Barnabas arrived right after I did."

Perhaps it was the wassail they were drinking, which was spiked with apple brandy, but two of the family members were wrong in what they said. However, the other three party-goers spoke the truth.

Who received presents from whom?

Recommended Reading
December 23rd, 2020 (Permalink)

The New York Times Fails at Fact-Checking, Again

If you have free time over the holidays to do some reading, I recommend the following two rather lengthy articles. They're not holiday-related stories, but are worth reading if you're interested, as I am, in what's happening to The New York Times. I've excerpted below the most relevant parts of the articles and those that I want to comment on, and rearranged them to emphasize a pattern to which I want to call your attention.

First up is a National Public Radio article:

The New York Times can regain and deserve our respect by doing the following in the future:


  1. "Caliphate (The New York Times)", Peabody Awards, 12/18/2020.
  2. See:
  3. See below.
  4. See:

December 4th, 2020 (Permalink)

How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 2:
News Sources Vs. Familiar Quotations

As I mentioned in the first entry of this series1, amateur and professional fact-checking differ in many ways. One such way involves quotes, which present different checking problems for professionals as opposed to amateurs. In Part 1, we looked at four ways in which quotes can go wrong. In this part, we'll examine two broad categories of quotes that amateur quote-checkers should treat differently than the professionals:

  1. Quotes of News Sources: Professional fact-checkers spend considerable time and effort checking quotes from news sources in books or magazine articles. Part of the reason for this is the danger of lawsuits from interviewees who think that they have been libelously misquoted2. You, as an amateur quote-checker, don't need to worry about being sued for libel.

    When reporters privately interview a source, the only way to check a quote is to listen to a recording of the interview, check a transcript, or contact the source directly. Unlike the professional, you won't have access to the reporter's recordings or a transcript if any, and you probably won't want to contact someone directly to verify quotes; moreover, in most cases you won't have the contact information necessary to do so.

    However, if a quote is from a report on a public event then there may be either audio, video, or a transcript that can be checked. You should be able to tell from the context of a story whether a quote comes from a news conference, a speech, or a radio or television interview, as opposed to a private interview. If the quote is taken from a public appearance, there is a good chance that it can be checked.

    Don't assume that a quote you read in a news story must be correct. Most newspapers don't have fact-checkers, and we saw in Part 1 a case of quoting out of context in news stories by a major American television network. In that case the quote came from a phone call to the police, and a transcript was available that could be checked.

    While there have been some infamous cases of reporters who made up interviewees and their quotes3, bogus quotes or misattributions are not the most likely type of misleading quote in news stories, and in such rare cases you probably won't be able to fact-check it. Instead, you're more likely to find either misquotes or contextomies in news articles.

  2. Familiar Quotations: These are the kind of quotes that are frequently used as epigraphs to articles or books, and can often be found in John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, hence what I call them. They are also among the easiest to check―at least, if there is a citation―and there are many reference sources in addition to Bartlett's for such quotes if they're genuine.

    Such quotes are also frequently used for propaganda purposes, usually taking one of two forms:

    1. Quotes from Famously Wise or Good People: If you have a cause you want to push, what better way to do so than to find a quote from some famously wise or good person that seems to support it. If you can't find an appropriate quote, then you can misquote, misattribute, or make one up; after all, it's for a good cause!
    2. Quotes from Infamously Bad People: This is the flip-side of the previous technique. If you want to condemn something rather than support it, what better way than to find some notorious baddie who supported it. Again, don't let the fact that the baddie didn't actually say it stop you!

    Since these are the types of quote that you will usually find in collections of quotes, whether in books or online, you can start by consulting reliable secondary sources, such as Bartlett's. Of course, it usually takes some years for a quote to make it into such reference works―the current edition of Bartlett's is the eighteenth, from 2012―so if it is a recent quote you probably won't find it.

    There's an unfortunate asymmetry in using such collections: If you find the quote you're searching for in a reliable collection of quotes, and it's attributed to the correct person, then you can be reasonably sure that it's genuine. In contrast, if you cannot find it, that is no guarantee that it is misattributed or bogus. In such a case, one thing you can try is to search for the quote alone, without including the author's name. If the quote is a misattribution, you may be able to find it in this way, but such collections seldom include bogus quotes.

    Bogus propagandistic quotes are sometimes checked by the professional, post-publication fact-checking groups. For instance, the alleged Hitler quote used as an example in Part 1 has been checked by Politifact and even The Straight Dope4.

    If a quote comes with a proper citation you should consult the primary source if you can find it. If it's from a book, magazine, or newspaper, you may be able to find it at your local library, but more and more primary sources can be found and searched online. In contrast, if it does not have such a citation―for instance, if it's just the name of the alleged author―consider it bogus until proven correct. A genuine quote should come with chapter and verse, and it's suspicious if it doesn't. Despite the relative ease of checking them, my experience suggests that famous quotations are rarely if ever checked in most publications.


  1. For earlier entries in this series, see:
  2. According to Sarah Harrison Smith, the lawsuit of Jeffrey Masson against Janet Malcolm over a magazine profile led to increased vigilance in fact-checking quotes at The New Yorker, which ran the article, and other publications. See: The Fact Checker's Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right (2004), pp. 64-69.
  3. For one comparatively recent example, see: Betsy Reed, "A Note to Readers", The Intercept, 2/2/2016.
  4. Straight Dope Staff, "Did Hitler ban gun ownership?", The Straight Dope, 6/16/2000.

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