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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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August 31st, 2019 (Permalink)

A Wild West Puzzle1

About a year before the famous confrontation at the O. K. Corral, the Earp brothers―Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil―captured the outlaw Clanton gang. To get the three Clanton brothers―Ike, Billy, and Phinias―back to Tombstone they would have to cross the San Pedro river. Unfortunately, the only boat they had was a small, leaky rowboat that could barely hold two men without sinking. Obviously, to get everyone across would require multiple trips.

The Earps had disarmed the Clantons, but the outlaw brothers were still dangerous. As long as the Earps outnumbered or equaled the number of Clantons on the riverbank, there was no danger. But should the Clantons ever outnumber their captors, there would be trouble2.

The Clantons were lowdown, dirty, mean, stinkin' varmints, but they were loyal to each other. A lone Clanton, or even two, could be trusted not to try to escape while his brother or brothers were still captive. This was especially true after Wyatt explained to them what would happen to any Clanton left behind.

Still, there was no doubt that if all three Clantons were ever left alone on one side of the river they would escape. So, the question facing the Earps was how to get across the river without the three prisoners ever outnumbering them. But it seemed impossible: at some point in the process of ferrying the prisoners across the river, either there would be more Clantons than Earps left on the near side, or more on the far side.

The Earp brothers stood around scratching their heads while the Clantons sat on the ground and snickered. After several minutes, Wyatt Earp smiled. "I got it!" he said.

How did Wyatt figure that the Earps could get all three Clantons safely across the river and back to Tombstone?


Notes:

  1. For those familiar with traditional puzzles, this is a version of the "cannibals and christians" or "cannibals and missionaries" puzzle. I mention this so that you won't waste time solving it. Only the story in which the puzzle is set is original, and a work of fiction, though the characters were actual people, now long dead. The incident described in the puzzle never occurred, at least as far as I know, but it could have. All three Earps, along with their friend "Doc" Holliday, took part in the gunfight at the O.K. corral. Ike and Billy Clanton were there, too, though Phin missed the excitement. Billy was killed in the shootout, and both Morgan and Virgil Earp were wounded.
  2. It's okay if one of the Earps drops off a Clanton onto the riverbank where one or more of his brothers waits, while the Earp brother waits in the rowboat. Similarly, it's safe for an Earp to pick up one of the Clantons from the riverbank where one or more of the other Clantons wait, so long as the Earp brother stays in the boat. The only thing ruled out is that n Earp brothers be standing on the bank alongside of ≥ n + 1 Clantons.

August 16th, 2019 (Updated: 8/29/19) (Permalink)

Wake up, Marianne!

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

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

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

And Williamson's take on it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update (8/29/2019): The line-up for the next Democratic presidential forum, which will take place next month, has been announced and Williamson failed to qualify17. She would have had to poll at 2% or better in four polls selected by the Democratic party to qualify, but only managed to do so in one.

I had a good laugh over the following paragraph from the AP's report:

…[T]he [debate selection] process has drawn complaints from those unlikely to make the cut. They argue that the rules are arbitrary and have forced candidates to pour money into expensive online fundraising operations that can sometimes charge as much as $90 for every dollar raised.17

That should be good practice in deficit spending in case they're elected. Hey, Democrats, I'll gladly charge you $80 for every dollar raised! In case it isn't obvious, I'm joking. What they're really paying for here is not the donations, but the donors. According to the Democratic rules, candidates need a sufficient number of donors in a sufficient number of states to qualify for debates, so they're paying 90 times what they're taking in to reach those numbers18. The point of the requirement is obviously that the candidate should have sufficient support across the country, rather than just in one state or region, to run a successful national campaign. However, all it's showing is whether the campaigns have enough money to purchase that support at the 90-to-1 ratio. So, it's a ludicrous process, but not as ridiculous as this paragraph makes it sound.

I expect that Williamson's campaign is effectively over, but she's not one for letting reality get her down. On Nitwitter she writes: "While I didn't make the 4 polls at 2% which would have gotten me into the 3rd DNC debate, I have until Oct. to make it into the 4th one.19"

As she mentions, there's another "debate" scheduled for October―ooh, scary, kids!―and it's apparently not ruled out that a candidate shut out of the September forum can be in the October one. However, it's hard to see how anyone shut out next month can get the attention needed to both raise the donations and poll position sufficiently to qualify for October. If she is able to do so, it will be a miracle, but if anyone can pull off a miracle it ought to be Marianne Williamson.


Notes:

  1. Stephen Stills, "Marianne", Stephen Stills 2, 1971.
  2. C'mon, Marianne, 7/30/2019.
  3. Lindsay Beyerstein, "Marianne Williamson’s philosophy is a New York phenomenon", City & State New York, 7/24/2019.
  4. I dread doing so, too, since I fear they will be undiluted drivel.
  5. The Secret, The Fallacy Files Bookshelf.
  6. "Democrats tackle liberalism and electability. TRANSCRIPT: 7/31/19, The Beat w/ Ari Melber.", MSNBC, 7/31/2019.
  7. Paul A. Offit, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (2010), p. 19.
  8. Offit, p. 21.
  9. Natalie Zarrelli, "Whooping Cough Killed 6,000 Kids a Year Before These Ex-Teachers Created a Vaccine", History, 4/16/2019.
  10. Offit, pp. 28-32.
  11. Offit, p. 22.
  12. As I said, this isn't a fact check; for the full story behind these numbers, see: David Gorski, "Is today’s generation of children 'the sickest generation'?", Science Based Medicine, 8/5/2019.
  13. J. Van Cleave, S. L. Gortmaker & J. M. Perrin, "Dynamics of obesity and chronic health conditions among children and youth.", JAMA, 2010 Feb 17;303(7):623-30. This is the abstract; I haven't read the full paper.
  14. Christina D. Bethell, et al., "A National and State Profile of Leading Health Problems and Health Care Quality for US Children: Key Insurance Disparities and Across-State Variations", Academic Pediatrics, Volume 11, Issue 3, Supplement, May-June 2011.
  15. Williamson appears to have taken her arguments and cherry-picked statistics from propaganda put out by a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is notorious for peddling conspiracy theories about vaccines, among other things; see Gorski, above, linked in note 12, for details. On Kennedy, see: Sarah Kaplan, "The truth about vaccines, autism and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy theory", The Washington Post, 1/10/2017.
  16. For more on this logical fallacy, see under "Post Hoc" in the alphabetical listing of fallacies available from the menu in the left navigational pane.
  17. Brian Slodysko, "10 Democrats set for next debate as several others miss cut", Associated Press, 8/29/2019.
  18. For details, see: Alexandra Hutzler, "Democratic 2020 Primary Debates Schedule, Requirements and Qualified Candidates", Newsweek, 6/8/2019.
  19. Marianne Williamson, "While I didn't make the 4 polls at 2%…", Twitter, 8/29/2019.

August 9th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 71: Aim at objectivity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. Objectivity is undesirable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Month: Rule 8


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

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