November 30th, 2019 (Permalink)
The State of the Debates, Scientific Graphs, Fact-Checking Books & Autism Profiteering
- Edward Morrissey, "Same schtick, different debate", The Week, 11/21/2019.
Wednesday's Democratic presidential debate followed a familiar recipe: Put 10 candidates on a stage, fold in four questioners, and mix for two hours. This combination reliably produces lots of platitudes, which make for light eating but provide next to no substance at all. … The fault for this does not lie entirely with the candidates, or the questioners, or even with the television cameras or the live audiences. The Democratic National Committee continues to insist on a full-stage format for these debates that ends up transforming them into game shows, and the fifth debate was no exception. … That's not to say the participants in these debates don't bear some responsibility for the lack of substance and educational value. … When asked more specific questions about policies or previously announced plans, candidates asked viewers to read their web site while offering up canned sound bites from their stump speeches. … Thanks to a lack of any specifics, the most that can be said on the issues is that everyone on stage generally agrees with everyone else, whether it comes to abortion rights (good), voting rights (good), climate change (bad), white supremacy (also bad), guns (very bad), and especially Trump (very, very bad).
I don't have anything to add about this month's "debate" because it was just more of the same old thing. I'm getting bored with these pseudo-debates, and I'm not alone. Viewership for this one was the lowest of any so far:
- Mark Joyella, "6.6 Million Watch MSNBCís Coverage Of Fifth Democratic Debate", Forbes, 11/21/2019.
Compared to previous debates this year, the Wednesday night debate was down, both compared to the most recent debate last month―and to the first debates of the Democratic primary campaign. The ratings dropped from the last Democratic debate, in October, which aired on CNN and drew a total audience of 8.3 million viewers―which itself was down from earlier debates in the 2020 campaign, with the first of two nights of the first debate drawing 15 million viewers across three networks: NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. The third debate, which aired on ABC and Univision, drew 14 million.
At this rate, the eighth one will have zero viewers. The Democratic Party needs to change this show or cancel it due to low ratings.
- Betsy Mason, "Why scientists need to be better at data visualization", Knowable Magazine, 11/12/2019.
…[S]cience is littered with poor data visualizations that confound readers and can even mislead the scientists who make them. Deficient data visuals can reduce the quality and impede the progress of scientific research. And with more and more scientific images making their way into the news and onto social media―illustrating everything from climate change to disease outbreaks―the potential is high for bad visuals to impair public understanding of science.
- Kelsey Piper, "A new book says married women are miserable. Don't believe it.", Vox, 6/4/2019.
People trust books. When they read books by experts, they often assume that they're as serious, and as carefully verified, as scientific papers―or at least that there's some vetting in place. But often, that faith is misplaced. There are no good mechanisms to make sure books are accurate, and that's a problem. … There are a few major lessons here. The first is that books are not subject to peer review, and in the typical case not even subject to fact-checking by the publishers―often they put responsibility for fact-checking on the authors, who may vary in how thoroughly they conduct such fact-checks and in whether they have the expertise to notice errors in interpreting studies, like [Naomi] Wolf's….
- Anna Merlan, "Jenny McCarthy's Autism Charity Has Helped Its Board Members Make Money Off Dangerous, Discredited Ideas", Jezebel, 3/20/2019.
Camel's milk. B12 lollipops. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers. "Ion-cleansing" foot baths. Chelation therapy. Gluten-free diets. Casein-free diets. Massive doses of nutritional supplements. All of these products and services have two things in common. First, mainstream (and widely trusted) medical bodies don't recognize them as a reputable or effective treatment for autism. Second, they're all recommended by―and in some cases sold outright through―Generation Rescue, a charity for autistic kids and their families whose board president and most famous face is actress Jenny McCarthy.
November 29th, 2019 (Permalink)
Junk Food Research
Last month, a major peer-reviewed study questioned advice that most people should eat less red and processed meats, concluding that the evidence backing long-standing recommendations is weak. The study…sparked an international media frenzy and yet another round of consumer whiplash. It highlighted why diet studies are the frequent butt of jokes: One day coffee is healthy, the next it's not; red wine is good for your heart, or maybe not; cheese is either a healthy source of protein and calcium, or a dangerous overdose of fat and salt.1
It appears that just about everyone now realizes that research on food is in a bad way, as evidenced by this article. We seem to have made little progress in understanding food, diet, and nutrition in at least the last half-century, since much of what we were told in that time has now been taken back. If anything, the situation is now worse because of the spread of misinformation. Unfortunately, the article proposes a treatment that would make the disease worse.
I have many criticisms to make of this article, starting with its title: "How Washington keeps America sick and fat". Washington isn't to blame for illness or obesity, and the article itself does not make a good case that it is. Of course, an editor may be responsible for this tabloid-style headline. However, I still recommend reading it, and my subsequent criticisms may not make much sense unless you do.
It starts out by claiming that illness related to diet is a growing problem:
Diet-related illnesses like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are on the rise while heart disease remains the leading cause of death. Treating these intertwined epidemics is a top driver of ballooning U.S. health care costs.1
High blood pressure and heart disease are related to both age and obesity, so they're diet-related to the extent that people get enough food to live to old age or become obese. Moreover, obesity is also related to type 2 diabetes, and both are related to diet, but more to the amount that people eat than to specific foods. Throughout most of history it was difficult to get enough to eat to live to old age, let alone to get fat, and it still is in some parts of the world. So, these problems are symptoms of affluence in that food is inexpensive and abundant in America, and people live long enough to suffer the medical problems of old age2.
The article goes on to say that poor diet is the "root cause" of many of these illnesses, but gives no evidence to support this claim. I suppose that people who eat so much they become obese can be said to be suffering from "poor diets", but what can more nutrition research do about it? One of the few things we do know about nutrition is that if you take in more calories than your body uses, your body will store the excess as fat.
The article spends a good deal of space arguing that nutrition research is underfunded by the federal government, but it does so without putting it into context. How much should be spent on food research? You can't determine how much to spend on such research by simply looking at how much is spent in absolute terms, or by comparing it to how much is spent on something else, which is all that the article does. How much would it be useful to spend on it? Until we have answers to such questions, we can't know whether we're spending too little, too much, or just enough.
Despite arguing for spending more on food research, the article admits that much of what is currently spent is for research of doubtful value. Here's its explanation of how this comes about:
A major reason why the nutrition science field is in turmoil is because the science itself is so complicated. Researchers can't feasibly lock up people for decades and meticulously track their diets. Even if they could, people eat so many different foods in different combinations that isolating the impact of one variable is incredibly difficult. … The gold standard for most medical research is randomized controlled trials. Researchers assign people to two or more groups: One that will get the intervention, in this case a particular type of food or diet, and another that will not, known as a control group. This approach works well for determining whether a drug is effective, but is not as straightforward in nutrition studies. Humans don't tend to stick to specific diets over the course of weeks, months or even years, making it difficult to parse out how eating oatmeal for breakfast―or any other food―affects our health.1
Doing good research is no doubt costly, time-consuming, and difficult, but that is no excuse for doing bad research. No research at all would be better than bad research for the reason that being ignorant is better than being misinformed. We've been misinformed on a series of food issues for the last half-century or so, and many people changed how they ate based on this misinformation. For instance, I grew up eating margarine instead of butter, not because margarine was cheaper, but because it was supposedly better for you. We're now told that the kind of margarine I ate as a child is actually worse for you than butter3.
If much of the government money now spent on nutrition research produces misinformation such as that about butter vs. margarine―or salt, for another example4―how is that going to be fixed by spending even more? To increase funding for such research would appear to reward current practices, and just get us more of the same. At the very least, if the government is going to increase spending, it should insist on funding experimental, rather than observational, studies.
- Catherine Boudreau & Helena Bottemiller Evich, "How Washington keeps America sick and fat", Politico, 11/4/2019.
- For the claims made in this paragraph, see:
- "Family History and Other Characteristics That Increase Risk for High Blood Pressure", CDC, 7/30/2019.
- "Family History and Other Characteristics That Increase Risk for Heart Disease", CDC, 7/30/2019.
- "Behaviors That Increase Risk for High Blood Pressure", CDC, 7/7/2014.
- "Conditions that Increase Risk for Heart Disease", CDC, 2/6/2019.
- "Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes", National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 11/2016.
- See, for instance: "Butter vs. Margarine", Healthbeat, accessed: 11/21/2019.
- Melinda Wenner Moyer, "It's Time to End the War on Salt", Scientific American, 7/8/2011.
November 28th, 2019 (Permalink)
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November 27th, 2019 (Permalink)
A Knights of the Round Table Thanksgiving
Gwen Knight was in charge of assigning places at the Thanksgiving dinner table for members of her extended family. In order to avoid incidents such as happened last Thanksgiving, when one drunken Knight challenged another to a sword fight, she decided to ask each of the invited family members in advance for one other relative they would like to be seated next to, and whether they preferred that family member should be seated on their left or right.
The dinner was to take place at a big round table in her dining room that could comfortably sit seven people. The requested seating arrangements were as follows (Gwen included her own preference in the list):
Arthur wished for Percy to be seated on his right.
Boris wanted Percy to sit on his left.
Kay desired to sit at Arthur's right hand.
Dan requested that Gwen sit next to him on the right.
Eric wanted Boris to sit on his left.
Percy hoped that Eric would sit to his right.
Gwen wished that Kay would sit at her right hand.
Oh, dear! It would not be possible to sit all of the Knights according to their requests since some contradicted others, but Gwen wanted to sit as many as possible as they wished. How many of the seven requests can be accommodated, and what is the resulting seating arrangement?
Solution to a Knights of the Round Table Thanksgiving: Five of the seven requests are the maximum possible to honor. To see this, note that Arthur requested that Percy be seated on his right, but Kay also wants to sit there, and Gwen wants Kay to sit to her right. If Kay gets what she wants, then both Arthur and Gwen will be disappointed. Therefore, it's better to disappoint Kay. Similarly, Boris wants to sit to the right of Percy, but Percy wants Eric to sit there, while Eric himself prefers to sit to the right of Boris. Again, it's better to disappoint Percy rather than both Boris and Eric. So, both Kay and Percy will have to be disappointed, but the other five diners can be seated as they requested. The resulting seating arrangement is as follows, starting with Arthur and moving right: Arthur, Percy, Boris, Eric, Dan, Gwen, and Kay.
Disclaimer: This puzzle is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and events are the products of the author's warped imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is highly unlikely and purely coincidental.
November 12th, 2019 (Permalink)
Rule of Argumentation 101: Attack or defend claims!
This rule is an extension of rule 3, namely, to focus on claims and arguments. That rule did not go into much detail on how to do this, but this one and the next go into more detail. This rule deals with the first part of rule 3, that is, focusing on claims.
The previous rule admonished you to come to an agreement with your partner in argumentation on the nature of your disagreement. Once you have identified the point of disagreement, then you should make your arguments relevant to that proposition. Under this rule, I'm going to use the word "claim" to refer to any statement or proposition, such as the point of disagreement, either advanced or denied by you or your partner.
By "attack or defend claims", I mean that you should focus your arguments on the claims that are made by you or your partner. To "attack" a claim is to present other claims that tend to show the claim false or at least less probable, whereas to "defend" one is to make claims that support its truth or make it more probable. In other words, you will be making arguments2 either for or against claims. If the claim in question is the point of disagreement between you and your partner in argumentation then, since you two disagree, either you think that the point is true or at least probable whereas your partner thinks that it is false or improbable. If you think the point is false, then your job is to attack it, whereas if you think it true you should defend it.
In attacking claims, you're most likely to miss the target by aiming your arguments at something close to it, but nevertheless distinct. Claims are distinct from their motivations, histories, and the effects on people of holding them. However, such matters are so closely associated with the claims that it is easy to mistake them for the claims themselves. In order to keep your arguments on target―that is, relevant―distinguish claims from the following:
- Motivation: A claim is a sentence that is either true or false, whereas a motivation is not a sentence but a psychological state. Everyone who makes or denies a claim has some psychological reason for doing so, but that motivation is not the same as the claim itself. Moreover, another person who makes the same claim will have a distinct psychological motive for doing so, based on that person's unique personality. There is always a temptation to direct your arguments against what you take to be your partner's motivations for advancing or attacking a claim, but to do so misses the target.
Furthermore, it's very easy to misunderstand your partner's motivation, since you can't read minds. If you do misread your partner and attack the wrong motivation, your partner will be upset, just as you would be if your partner did that to you. This has a tendency to turn a rational discussion into a personal quarrel. Remember to play the ball, not the player!
- History: Every claim has a history, such as who was the first to advance it, who attacked it, what groups supported or opposed it, and so on. All of this history can be interesting and useful, but it is distinct from the claim itself. Some claims with disreputable histories have turned out to be true, just as some with noble lineages are false. For instance, the notion that the Sun revolves around the Earth was believed by most people and even supported by astronomers until Copernicus. So, the history of a claim is distinct from its truth or falsity.
- Effects: By the "effects" of a claim I refer to the effects on people of belief or disbelief in it. Some false beliefs may have beneficial effects on those who believe them; for instance, belief in the Tooth Fairy may make children feel better about losing teeth than they otherwise would. Similarly, some true beliefs may have bad effects on us, such as the knowledge of the death of a loved one. Thus, the fact that a claim may make us happy or sad, or lead us to behave better or worse, is distinct from its truth or falsity.
To sum up, claims should stand or fall on the basis of the strength of the arguments for or against them, and not based on irrelevancies such as the motivation for making them, their history, or their effects on people. How to judge the strength of such arguments will be the subject of the next rule.
Next Month: Rule 11
- Previous entries in this series:
- Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
- Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 9: Agree about what you disagree about!, 10/20/2019.
- There's an ambiguity here that may be confusing: one sense of "argument" is the whole discussion or debate between you and your partner, and another is the logical sense of an "argument" as a series of propositions meant to support a conclusion. I'm using the logical sense here. Also, I usually use the longer word "argumentation" for the first sense.
November 8th, 2019 (Permalink)
The smaller the print, the more important the message.
I don't follow British politics since I have enough trouble keeping up with politics in America. Luckily, I don't have to, since our correspondent in the United Kingdom, Lawrence Mayes, is on the job. He emails:
In the UK, we're having a general election. There are two main parties (Conservative and Labour) and around eight others. The largest (in England, that is) of the others is the Liberal Democratic Party.
The Liberal Democrats have published a graphic showing how close they are to beating the Conservatives in the North East Somerset constituency1. Pretty close, hey? But how close? At the last election the Liberal Democrats performed pretty poorly coming third behind the Labour candidate. What's changed? Not a lot, in fact, because if you read the very small print at the bottom2, you will see that the question asked was:"Imagine that the result in your constituency was expected to be very close between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidate, and none of the other parties were competitive. In this scenario, which party would you vote for?"
So the respondents were asked to imagine something that was almost certainly untrue and produce an answer based on that dubious fiction. No wonder the result was as it was. Of course, the same question asked in almost any constituency would likely produce a similar result where the Conservative candidate was most popular. This happens because the winning candidate often is elected with less than 50% of the votes (there are usually at least four parties represented in each constituency). A Labour voter is highly unlikely to switch their support to the Conservative candidate just because the Labour candidate was unlikely to win; unless they decided to abstain, they would more likely tactically switch their vote to whichever candidate would best challenge the Conservative for the seat, in this imaginary case they are told that is the Liberal Democrat―hence the result.
- BathNES Lib Dems, "If we work together, and back @nickcoatesnes we will beat Jacob Rees-Mogg in North East Somerset #VoteNickCoates #StopMogg", Twitter, 10/30/2019. See the bar graph, above.
- "Survation polled 405 respondents aged 18+ living in NE Somerset with the question: 'Imagine that the result in your constituency was expected to be very close between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidate, and none of the other parties were competitive. In this scenario, which party would you vote for?' Fieldwork: 16th-18th Oct. Others 6%, Don't know 8%, Refused 2%"
November 4th, 2019 (Permalink)
Guess who the following passage describes:
…[T]he man who claimed to be the nation's leader had not been elected by a majority vote and the majority of citizens claimed he had no right to the powers he coveted. He was a simpleton, some said, a cartoon character of a man who saw things in black-and-white terms and didn't have the intellect to understand the subtleties of running a nation in a complex and internationalist world. His coarse use of language…and his simplistic and often-inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric offended the aristocrats, foreign leaders, and the well-educated elite in the government and media. … To deal with those who dissented from his policies, at the advice of his politically savvy advisors, he and his handmaidens in the press began a campaign to equate him and his policies with patriotism and the nation itself. National unity was essential…and so his advocates in the media began a nationwide campaign charging that critics of his policies were attacking the nation itself. Those questioning him…it was suggested…were aiding the enemies of the state by failing in the patriotic necessity of supporting the nation….1
This passage is part of a longer article which is really about two people: the first is Adolf Hitler and the second is an American president. It's supposed to be a factual description of Hitler which also calls to mind the man who was president at the time of writing. The purpose of such a comparison is, of course, to suggest that the president is a danger to democracy and a potential dictator.
If reading the above passage made you think of President Donald Trump, I'm not surprised, since that's exactly what I intended. I selected such phrases as "not…elected by a majority vote", "a cartoon character of a man", "[h]is coarse use of language", and the reference to "enemies of the state" all because they would suggest Trump.
But look down at the Notes, below, and notice the date of the article excerpted above. 2003! That's over thirteen years before Trump became President. Was the author of the article psychic? No. Who was President of the United States in 2003? George W. Bush. The article that I quoted was meant to suggest that Bush was the second coming of Hitler.
You may complain that I cherry-picked the details from the original article that could apply to Trump, ignoring the more Bush-specific ones, such as a reference to "his political roots in a southernmost state". This is true, but that's the whole point of the exercise, since it's exactly what the author of the original article did: choose historical similarities between Hitler and Bush and ignore the many dissimilarities.2
Of course, if Bush had really been a wannabe dictator, he'd still be president instead of Trump, or at least he'd have made some effort not to leave office or to install a crony in his place. Instead, we got eight years of Barack Obama. Some dictator. However, maybe this time all those warning us that the next Hitler is coming will turn out to be right.
For example, earlier this year former Democratic presidential candidate Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, referred to:
…[T]he rhetoric of a president [Trump] who not only describes immigrants as rapists and criminals but as animals and an infestation. Now, I might expect someone to describe another human being as an infestation in the Third Reich. I would not expect it in the United States of America….3
The first sentence in this quote contains two contextomies, both of which have been previously debunked, so I won't go into the details: "immigrants as rapists", which I've discussed previously4, and the claim that Trump called immigrants "animals", which has been debunked by Snopes5. O'Rourke went on in the same speech to accuse Trump of "saying that neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists are very fine people"3, which is yet another contextomy6. If Trump is as much like a Nazi as O'Rourke seems to think, why does O'Rourke have to keep quoting out of context?
The article continues:
O'Rourke's comparison on Thursday night came in response to a question about how he would take on Trump if he's the 2020 Democratic nominee. He said he would seek to "pull this country together around the work that's ahead." He vowed to jettison the "pettiness and meanness and personal attacks," arguing that Democrats may lose if they try to match Trump's approach because Trump is too "gifted" at that style of campaigning.3
I hope the remaining candidates will do as he said, not as he did, and jettison the petty, mean personal attacks. Now, I don't call attention to this to pick on O'Rourke, who's already dropped out of the race, but to point to a perennial claim that we hear every time there's a Republican president7. In addition to those who accused Bush of being a Nazi, we've also seen that Nixon got the same treatment8. If it isn't O'Rourke saying it, I'm sure there are and will be others, and I don't want to have to point it out every time.
The only excuse I can see for playing the Hitler card9 is as a warning of an immediate threat to democracy from a candidate or president intending or attempting to establish a dictatorship. It would be comforting to think that such a thing could not happen in the United States of America, but history suggests otherwise. So, we need to be on our guard against such a possibility, and an appropriate warning might help us to avoid such a calamity.
However, a smoke alarm that went off every day whether there's a fire or not would be as useless as one that never went off even when there was one. If people keep predicting that every Republican president is the next Hitler, maybe eventually they'll be right, but because of all the false alarms no one will be paying attention.
- Thom Hartmann, "When Democracy Failed: The Warnings of History", Common Dreams, 3/16/2003.
- I critiqued this article at the time it first appeared, see: Playing the Hitler Card, 3/22/2003. Some of Hartmann's historical claims sound suspect to me, but this is a logic check, not a history check. Moreover, some are so slanted that it's difficult to be sure what he means. The most egregious example is the repeated use of the phrase "Middle Eastern ancestry" which is supposed to mean "Jewish" when applied to Hitler and "Arab" when applied to Bush!
- Sahil Kapur, "In Iowa, O'Rourke Says Some Trump Rhetoric Echoes Nazi Germany", Bloomberg, 4/4/2019.
- For details, see: Meet the Press, 9/25/2018.
- Dan MacGuill, "Did Trump Echo Hitler by Calling Undocumented Immigrants 'Animals'?", Snopes, 5/21/2018.
- See: Donald Trump, Familiar Contextomies.
- When there's a Democratic president or presidential candidate, he or she is always accused of being a socialist rather than a Nazi. This is as absurd a charge as playing the Hitler card, since the Democrats would never nominate a socialist for president―now, would they?
- See: Passage of Propaganda, 7/28/2017.
- See: The Hitler Card.
November 2nd, 2019 (Permalink)
Title: Know-It-All Society
Subtitle: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture
Author: Michael Patrick Lynch
Quote: "This book is about…how we ought to believe. Or to put it more precisely, it concerns how we should go about the business of acquiring and maintaining our political convictions.1"
The title of the new book this month is just Know-It-All Society: no "the" for some reason―did the printers run out of definite articles? Anyway, the subtitle is perhaps more revealing about the book's topic.
The author, Michael Patrick Lynch, is a professor of humanities who has written a number of previous books on truth, the internet, and rationality in politics. I'm afraid that I haven't read any of them, but they may represent a good foundation for the present one.
By "know-it-all", Lynch seems to be referring to the kind of person who acts as though he or she knows everything, that is, it's the pejorative sense of "know-it-all". So, a "know-it-all society" would, I guess, be one in which a lot of people behave like know-it-alls. Moreover, Lynch seems to think that our current society is a know-it-all one, or is at least moving in that direction; he writes:
Judging by the tenor of our political discourse, our answer to the question of how we should believe seems to be: as dogmatically as possible. Recent data suggests that people from different sides of the political spectrum, at least in the United States, still agree more than they disagree on many issues. But this same data also shows that, increasingly, we regard the other party with suspicion―as dishonest, uninformed, and downright immoral. The idea that we should listen to their views seems unthinkable. … The Right sees liberals as arrogant know-it-alls, while the Left retorts that this is precisely the description of the person the conservatives elected president of the United States. But maybe both sides have a point. Maybe all of us, in a certain sense, are know-it-alls, and thatís part of the problem.2
Well, I don't think I'm a know-it-all. However, there's no doubt a problem of over-confidence, which is a cognitive bias of ignorance about ignorance, or meta-ignorance. In other words, the big problem isn't so much ignorance, as we're all ignorant about many things, but the failure to appreciate one's own ignorance. That is, people are often ignorant of their own ignorance: they don't know what they don't know. Or, as a familiar saying puts it: "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble, it's the things we know that just ain't so."3
I agree with the following:
It is tempting to think that these problems can be handled with technical, policy-driven solutions: reimagining our digital platforms, or passing new legislation, or teaching people more facts about civics. And without a doubt, those things are terribly important. But at the end of the day, dealing with our attitudes toward truth and conviction wonít be solved just by teaching people more facts when we donít agree on what counts as a "fact." The problem of how to deal with the spread of dogmatism and the politics of arrogance is not a technical problem; it is a human problem. If we want to solve it, we have to change how and what we value; we must change our attitudes.4
So, one thing that is needed is more of the intellectual virtue of humility, that is, the recognition that we don't know it all, that we can learn from people who disagree with us, and that changing our minds doesn't harm us.
- P. 1, emphasis in the original. Subsequent citations of just page numbers are to the new book.
- P. 2.
- This saying is frequently attributed to Mark Twain, but seems to trace back to Josh Billings. See: Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), p. 74. See also: "It Ainít What You Donít Know That Gets You Into Trouble. Itís What You Know for Sure That Just Ainít So", Quote Investigator, 11/23/2018.
- P. 4.
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October 31st, 2019 (Permalink)
Another Halloween Puzzle in Transylvania
Count Dracula, Lawrence "The Wolfman" Talbot, and Professor Van Helsing had returned to Transylvania in order to retrieve Dr. Frankenstein's monster. Now, the three monsters, and one normal human being, were again fleeing a mob of angry villagers, who were even angrier than last time. This year, in addition to flaming torches, the villagers wielded pitchforks. They were still upset that Dracula, Talbot, and Van Helsing had escaped last year1.
Having learned from their last expedition, our intrepid trio had provided for their escape by securing a boat large enough to carry all of them, which they left lying on the Transylvanian bank of the Danube river. Unfortunately, the villagers had also learned from their previous encounter, and had scoured the riverbank looking for getaway craft. When they found the beached boat, they set it afire with their burning brands.
Luckily for the three fleeing monsters―and one fleeing human―there was a bridge across the river close by. Less luckily, the bridge was old and rickety and would hold only two men or monsters at a time. This night was moonless so that there was no danger of Talbot turning into a werewolf, but that meant it was pitch dark. Van Helsing was carrying a burning torch that one of the villagers had dropped when frightened by the Frankenstein monster, but that was their only light.
The bridge was so decrepit that the handrails had fallen off in places, and there were holes in the walkway big enough for a man or monster to fall through. In order to prevent such a misfortune, those crossing the bridge would have to carry the torch in order to be able to see to avoid the hazards.
Count Dracula, the vampire, even though he was hundreds of years old, could cross the bridge in only a minute2. Lawrence Talbot, who was close to a hundred years old, had stopped ageing when the werewolf had bit him, so he had the body of a man in his twenties and could cross the bridge in two minutes. Van Helsing was the youngster of the group at only eighty, but as a normal human octagenarian he would take all of five minutes to cross the bridge. Finally, there was Frankenstein's monster, whose age was uncertain3, but he was a lumbering giant who would take a full seven minutes to cross. If two persons/monsters are crossing the bridge at the same time, they have to cross together at the rate of the slower one so that both can see where they're stepping. Also, none of the four is able to carry any of the other three across.
As if that weren't bad enough, the torch would burn only for another fourteen minutes, and the four would have to get across the bridge before it burnt out. How can the gruesome group get across the bridge before the torch burns out?4
Solution to Another Halloween Puzzle in Transylvania: The chart below shows one way for all four to get across the bridge in fourteen minutes. "D" stands for "Dracula", "T" for "Talbot", "V" for "Van Helsing", and "F" for the monster of Frankenstein.
- See: A Halloween Puzzle in Transylvania, 10/31/2018.
- You may wonder why Dracula didn't just turn into a bat and fly across the river, but that's silly: vampires can't change into bats. That's a myth created by Hollywood movies.
- It depends on whether you calculate his age from when Dr. Frankenstein assembled him, or when his various parts were born.
- By the way, Dracula had patched up his differences with Van Helsing and Talbot in the meantime, so there's no need to worry about leaving any of them alone together.
October 30th, 2019 (Permalink)
"Broken Science" & Update on Naomi Wolf's Outrages
- Timothy F. Kirn
Take all nutrition studies with the amount of salt you would use to season an egg:
…[W]hen so much of what we are told about diet, health, and weight loss is inconsistent and contradictory, can we believe any of it? Quite frankly, probably not. Nutrition research tends to be unreliable because nearly all of it is based on observational studies, which are imprecise, have no controls, and donít follow an experimental method. …Dr. Anthony Pearson, a cardiologist at St. Lukeís Hospital in suburban St. Louis, had this advice: "Rather than drastically cutting egg consumption, …I propose that there be a drastic cut in the production of weak observational nutrition studies and a moratorium on inflammatory media coverage of meaningless nutritional studies."
Observational studies, even large ones, cannot show causation, yet the medical news media treat them as if they do. This is not entirely the fault of the media, however, since reporters often just rewrite the press releases put out by the institutions that conduct the research. Observational studies can be useful for directing experimental research, which is costly, but in the field of nutrition experimental research is seldom done. As a result, it's a good idea to ignore most news on nutrition. If a news story claims that a new study says that eggs/coffee/alcohol/etc. are good/bad for you, just wait awhile and the next study will contradict it.
The last we saw of Naomi Wolf*, her new book had been recalled by its American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), and the publication date delayed. Now, HMH announces that it has cancelled the book's U.S. publication:
On Monday, a spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said in an email that Ms. Wolf and the publisher "mutually and amicably agreed to part company." Ms. Wolf confirmed the parting but said in an email that "Outrages" would come out in the United States "in due course" and that she was preparing it for paperback publication in Britain.
When HMH delayed publication and withdrew the first printing of the book from bookstores, it mentioned that "new questions" had "arisen that require more time to explore"*. The publisher apparently hasn't explained why it's parting company with Wolf, so we don't know whether it was due to the "new questions", or HMH just wanted to be done with her.
Correction (10/31/2019): Sorry, I had the wrong URL on this, but it's now corrected.
* Wolf's Howler, 5/31/2019.
October 28th, 2019 (Permalink)
They Made Me a Thought Criminal
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought….
Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.1
Last month, I criticized the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for producing a set of guidelines that constituted a mini-dictionary of doublespeak2. One entry in those guidelines directs you to refer simply to a "person" or "individual" instead of using the phrase "illegal alien". Now, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) has taken the next step of making the use of those two words in that order itself illegal in certain circumstances3. However, the phrase itself is not illegal unless it is used with the wrong motivation. In other words, this is a law that makes a thought into a crime.
In its guidelines on the new law the NYCCHR explains: "…the use of certain language, including 'illegal alien' and 'illegals,' with the intent to demean, humiliate, or offend a person or persons constitutes discrimination under the NYCHRL [New York City Human Rights Law].4" So, it's not the words per se that are illegal, but the words used with a certain subjective intent.
This raises the interesting question: how does the NYCCHR go about determining intent? When I use the phrase I certainly don't intend to demean, humiliate, or offend anyone. However, that's just my say-so. What if the NYCCHR doesn't believe me? If I were charged with illegally using the forbidden phrase, how would I prove that my thoughts are pure? As far as I can tell, it's not explained in the "guidance" put out by the NYCCHR how it is going to divine people's intent. Moreover, there's no guidance as to how one would defend oneself against such a charge.
A second level of subjectivity is added by including causing offense among the things one is forbidden to intend. Offense is a subjective reaction in the offended person, and people are offended by all sorts of things and in unpredictable ways. Not only that, taking offense is often a pretense for shutting others up. For this reason, while I don't go out of my way to offend people, I also don't go out of my way not to offend them. I myself am offended by attempts such as this to declare thoughts and words criminal, but apparently the NYCCHR doesn't care about that. It only cares about some human rights and some humans' rights.
The Commission relegates the following revealing remark to a footnote―perhaps they were embarrassed:
The Commission avoids the use of the term "alien" wherever possible to describe an individual or a community despite the fact that the word "alienage" appears in the NYCHRL [New York City Human Rights Law] and in many relevant state and federal laws. … The Commission recognizes that federal, state, and local laws often contain the word "alien" to describe a "noncitizen" person. Where covered entities are required to complete certain forms that contain a reference to "alien" pursuant to federal, state, or local law, such use does not amount to unlawful discrimination in violation of the NYCHRL.3
So, the very law that the NYCCHR is supposed to be upholding uses the forbidden word itself! The footnote also mentions that many other laws use the word "alien" to mean "noncitizen", which just may be because that's what it means!
Despite the title of this entry, I don't think there's any chance that I'm going to be arrested in the near future. I assume that my using the forbidden phrase here would not violate the new law, especially since I don't live in New York City. Moreover, the law seems to apply only to employers, the workplace, and providers of public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants. In addition, the law seems to clearly violate the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, so presumably it wouldn't survive legal challenge. But who wants to go through all that?
Is this "Commission on Human Rights" unaware of the fact that both freedom of thought and speech are fundamental human rights? Nowhere in its "guidance" document does it even mention either of these as human rights. There is also no mention of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights or of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution.
The name of this agency is now itself doublespeak, in the same way that "the Ministry of Truth" in George Orwell's novel 1984 was the agency in charge of lies, "the Ministry of Peace" was that for waging war, and "the Ministry of Love" tortured people. In the real world we have such names as "the Democratic People's Republic of Korea", for a nation that is neither democratic nor a republic. Similarly, the Commission on Human Rights has made itself into the branch of New York City's government in charge of violating human rights.
- "Universal Declaration of Human Rights", United Nations, accessed: 10/6/2019
- Close Encounters with Doublespeak of the Third Kind, 9/8/2019
- "NYC Commission on Human Rights Announces New Legal Enforcement Guidance and Actions Against Discrimination Based on Immigration Status and National Origin", New York City Commission on Human Rights, accessed: 10/6/2019
- "NYC Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Immigration Status and National Origin", New York City Commission on Human Rights, 9/2019, p. 4; see also p. 18 for similar wording.
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 ďKeep your eye on the ball!Ē 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:
- 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.
- 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:
- Substantive: If you and your partner disagree primarily about the facts rather than the language used to describe them, then you have a substantive disagreement. This type of disagreement is often harder to resolve than a verbal one, but you need to identify the nature of the disagreement in order to resolve it.
- Verbal: A verbal disagreement is one in which you and your partner primarily disagree about the language used to describe the facts rather than the facts themselves. Such disagreements may be real, since language is important, but less is usually at stake than in substantive disagreements.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- Previous entries in this series:
- Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
- Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
- The Fix team, "The October Democratic debate transcript", The Washington Post, 10/16/2019. All subsequent quotes are taken from this source.
- Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
- Of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
October 15th, 2019 (Permalink)
How Charts Lie
Title: How Charts Lie
Subtitle: Getting Smarter about Visual Information
Author: Alberto Cairo
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.
- Alberto Cairo, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information (2019), "Prologue".
- The Washington Post has a recent interview with Cairo discussing this book: Christopher Ingraham, "Youíve been reading charts wrong. Hereís how a pro does it.", The Washington Post, 10/14/2019.
- Cairo uses the ugly portmanteau words "graphicacy" and "graphicate", but I'll stick with the longer phrases; see the "Introduction".
- This is not strictly true: I did laugh when Cairo referred to him as "Mr. Rock".
October 5th, 2019 (Permalink)
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.
- Shraddha Chakradhar, "Morning Rounds", STAT, 9/19/2019.
- 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.
- Same citation as the first note. What does "issues" add to this, other than an extra word?
- Lawrence Mayes, private email, 9/19/2019.
- 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.
- "What is the population of Canada?", Wolfram Alpha, accessed: 10/3/2019.
- "Hospital Stays for Harm Caused by Substance Use Among Youth Age 10 to 24", Canadian Institute for Health Information, 9/2019.
- P. 5; see the previous note for the source.
- 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.
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