August 28th, 2015 (Permalink)

Wikipedia Watch

Wikipedia is free. It’s understandable that people don’t like to look a gift horse in the mouth. But no one should fool themselves into thinking that the nag they got for free is an Arabian racehorse.―Andreas Kolbe

A bunch of recent articles about Wikipedia are worth a read if you're interested:

August 14th, 2015 (Permalink)

The Puddle Fallacy

"Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. Les jambes sont visiblement instituées pour être chaussées, et nous avons des chausses. Les pierres ont été formées pour être taillées et pour en faire des châteaux; aussi monseigneur a un très beau château…; et les cochons étant faits pour être mangés, nous mangeons du porc toute l'année…."―Voltaire, Candide, ou L'Optimisme, Chapitre I (Translation)

Steven Novella has written a sequel to his earlier article about Eric Metaxas that I linked to previously―see the Resource, below, if you're interested. The sequel is prompted by a video version of the Metaxas article that Novella and I criticized earlier, so I don't have anything new to add. However, Novella does have at least one thing new to add:

Metaxas is…making the classic “puddle” fallacy―that of a puddle of water marveling at the fact that the hole in which it exists was perfectly formed to hold it. Obviously it is the water that is conforming to the hole.
Source: Steven Novella, "Does Science Prove God?", Neurologica, 8/13/2015

I don't know how "classic" this supposed fallacy is, since I've never heard of it before, at least not under that name. In fact, I can only find one other use of the term "puddle fallacy" on the web, and that's in a comment on a blog where it's given the longer name "arrogant puddle fallacy". Apparently, the name comes from the following passage from a speech by science fiction author Douglas Adams:

…[E]arly man is thinking, 'This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely' and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him. This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is…an interesting hole I find myself in―fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'
Source: Douglas Adams, "Is there an Artificial God?", Biota, 9/1998

As you can see, Adams didn't name it or even specifically call it a "fallacy", though he did earlier refer to this type of thinking as "fallacious". I've also seen Adams' argument referred to as "the puddle analogy", since it draws an analogy between the self-centered puddle, and early man.

However, the type of argument criticized as a "puddle fallacy" is a familiar one, though not under that name. It was made fun of by Voltaire in Candide centuries ago, as you can see from the epigraph, above. I'm not satisfied with the name "puddle fallacy" because, unless you happen to be familiar with Adams' little analogy, the name does not suggest what the mistake is. We might just as well go back to Voltaire and call it "the spectacles fallacy" or "the socks fallacy". Even better would be "the Pangloss fallacy", since it's the character of Dr. Pangloss who speaks the quoted passage. Again, though, unless you know Candide this wouldn't ring any bells, and even then some might think that it refers to Pangloss' optimism.

A better name would be one that gets at the nature of the mistake committed. In Adams' analogy, the egotistical puddle reverses the direction of adaptation, as the puddle adapts itself to the shape of the hole, rather than vice versa. Similarly, eyeglasses are designed for people's noses and socks are made to fit legs, rather than the reverse.

Of course, these examples are exaggerations designed to mock the views of those such as Pangloss and Metaxas who see a world about them carefully tailored to meet their needs. As Novella puts it: "…[L]ife evolved to adapt to the conditions on Earth, and it is just as absurd as the puddle to think that Earth was made to perfectly support the life that is on it."

Resource: "The Fine-Tuning Argument Strikes Again!", 1/8/2015

Translation: "Note well that the nose was made to hold up spectacles; and so we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly shaped for socks, and we wear socks. Stones have been formed to be quarried and made into chateaus; and so His Grace has a very beautiful chateau…; and pigs were made to be eaten―we eat pork all year long…."

August 1st, 2015 (Permalink)

The Case of the Two Puzzling Statements

The police have questioned three suspects about a crime that was committed by a single perpetrator. The first suspect refused to answer any questions and demanded to see a lawyer. The second suspect made the following statement: "I confess. I did it. I committed the crime." The third suspect made the statement: "I didn't do it! One of the other two did it." The suspects' lawyers then showed up and, on the advice of those attorneys, each suspect refused to answer any questions or make any further statements.

The police are sure of only two facts: First, if the suspect who committed the crime made a statement, it was false. Second, at least one of the suspects gave a true statement.

Given the second suspect's confession, the police chief plans to recommend that the district attorney prosecute the second suspect. Are the police and the D.A. about to prosecute an innocent person?

Assuming that the police are right about the two facts, above, should the D.A. go ahead with the prosecution of the second suspect? Would the D.A. be prosecuting the wrong suspect? Can you determine which suspect committed the crime? If you think you can, click on "Solution" below to find out whodunnit.


July 26th, 2015 (Permalink)

New Book: Spurious Correlations

Have I mentioned recently that correlation is not the same thing as causation? Well, it isn't! Not only that, but Tyler Vigen has written a whole book to prove it. That book is titled Spurious Correlations, naturally enough. According to Scientific American's brief review, Vigen is a law school student, but he used to be an intelligence analyst for the military, which must have given him a lot of experience with spurious correlations. Just kidding!

Some famous spurious correlations are part of the folklore of statistics, such as the fact that penmanship―"penpersonship"?―is positively correlated with shoe size. While that one is genuine, some others may well be statistical urban legends, that is, spurious spurious correlations. Another famous example is the positive correlation between the number of storks and the human birthrate in Europe, which is a genuine spurious correlation according to Vigen.

In the introduction to the book―which you can read via Amazon's "Look inside!" function―Vigen discusses an interesting correlation that had serious consequences:

In 1958, William Phillips, a professor at the London School of Economics, published a paper regarding the connection between unemployment and inflation. As other economists explored Phillips's data, the correlation spread like wildfire: high inflation rates were linked to low unemployment and vice versa. The policy implications were explicit. National economies needed only to choose between inflation and unemployment, or somehow find a balance between the two. The Phillips curve, as the connection came to be called, informed macroeconomic policy decisions for years in both Europe and the United States. … It turns out William Phillips's theory on economics doesn't hold up….

This is the theory that was discredited by "stagflation"―an ugly word for an ugly phenomenon that we thankfully don't hear much about anymore. Stagflation is the occurrence of both high unemployment and high inflation at the same time, which happened in the 1970s in the U.S. A lot of pundits pointed out at the time that it was supposed to be impossible, but the negative correlation between inflation and unemployment was spurious.

As with our previous new book Spinglish, this appears not to be a serious scholarly work, but one that aims to be humorous and entertaining, though with underlying serious points. One of those is the already mentioned one about the difference between correlation and causation; another is that the emergence of "big data" has made it easier than ever to find completely coincidental correlations.

Source: Clara Moskowitz, "Book Review: Spurious Correlations", Scientific American, 7/14/2015

Resource: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Correction (8/2/2015): Originally, I wrote above about "the negative correlation between inflation and employment", but the negative correlation was supposedly between inflation and unemployment, that is, when inflation goes up unemployment goes down and when unemployment goes up inflation goes down. I have corrected the text above.

July 20th, 2015 (Permalink)

What's new?

I've added a new contextomy to the "Familiar Contextomies" page, this one quoting birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger out of context. Sanger seems to be a magnet for contextomies and even outright bogus quotes, as well as having statements made by others falsely attributed to her. Of course, the bogus and falsely attributed quotes are not contextomies, so I won't be including any of those. However, there may be at least one additional Sanger contextomy worth documenting.

I didn't just fall off the back of the turnip truck onto the information superhighway, so I don't think I'm naive about the misinformation you can find on the internet. Nonetheless, I'm actually rather shocked at what comes up when you search for information about Sanger. The amount of vitriol directed at a woman who's been dead for almost fifty years is astounding. While much of this mudslinging comes from the religious right, as you might suspect, a surprising amount―at least, it surprised me―comes from the far left.

Of course, Sanger said and did some things for which she is rightly criticized; I'm not talking about that. I'm referring to the contextomies, fake quotes, false attributions, and the unwarranted accusations they are used to justify. So, take this as a friendly warning: in the case of Sanger quotes, don't trust; verify.

Source: Margaret Sanger, Familiar Contextomies

July 18th, 2015 (Permalink)

Courtesy Disconnect at the IRS

What does the Internal Revenue Service call hanging up on you when you phone for help? A "courtesy disconnect". According to The Associated Press:

When too many people call at once, the IRS system hangs up on callers at the beginning of their calls, rather than have them wait on hold for an hour or more. The agency refers to these hang-ups as "courtesy disconnects"….
Source: Stephen Ohlemacher, "Hello? 8 million phone calls unanswered as IRS cut taxpayer service", The Associated Press, 4/22/2015

I guess the "courtesy" comes in from the fact that, instead of making you wait on hold for an hour, they just hang up on you. But if they know that you might have to wait that long, why not inform you of the fact, allowing you to hang up if you don't want to wait? Better yet, if they really want to be courteous, why not answer the call in less than an hour?

I wonder if the IRS has one of those messages that comes on when you're on hold informing you that "your call is important to us." If the call's so important why not answer it instead of telling us how important it is? Those messages just remind the caller that the call isn't important enough to hire enough people to answer it without putting the caller on hold.

This reminded me of Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf's complaint in Spinglish: "Are you aware that whenever companies say 'for your convenience,' they actually mean 'for our convenience'?" In this form, it's just a lie rather than "spinglish", but "courtesy disconnect" is a clever piece of doublespeak concealing that lie within a term for the practice.

To add injury to insulting our intelligence, the IRS Commissioner blames the "service"'s failures on budget cuts, thus attempting to have its poor performance rewarded with more money. If the IRS succeeds in getting its budget increased, I suppose that we can expect even longer waits on hold and fewer calls answered.


July 12th, 2015 (Permalink)

"These go to eleven."

A former philosophy student writes:

Looking though your site, I wasn't able to find any fallacy that I thought fit a relatively common scenario. Often, online reviews are driven by the assignment of a point value to the views expressed. This in itself is problematic in that people's relative perceptions of the scoring system are not always similar enough to justify drawing any kind of conclusion from the scores given, but that's not my point. Sometimes, reviewers will give something the lowest possible rating, and make a note in their review that whatever it is that they were reviewing is not worthy even of getting one star or point, because that is giving it credit that it does not deserve, and it really should merit zero stars or points.

Clearly, if something constitutes the lowest value in a system, selecting that arbitrary value is no different from selecting the lowest value if it were zero, or negative one, or even three. It seems that the designation itself, an arbitrary symbol, is being treated as if it were an objective or material measurement. Do you think that a fallacy is involved here, and if so, which one?

I'm familiar with the phenomenon you describe, having seen it frequently myself. Whether it commits a logical fallacy or not, it's at least illogical, and shows a lack of understanding of rating scales. I guess that some people assume that to give a single star is minimal praise, and that a work with no redeeming value should receive none at all. This may indicate that the rating system is unintuitive, and that instead of ranging from, say, one star to five it would be clearer if it ranged from zero stars to four.

Your question reminded me of a famous scene in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, where movie director Marty DeBergi is interviewing Nigel Tufnel, guitarist for the rock band Spinal Tap, who points to his amplifier:

Nigel: This is…very, very special because if you can see the numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board. Eleven, eleven, eleven.

Marty: And most of these amps go up to ten.

Nigel: Exactly.

Marty: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up. You’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty: I don’t know.

Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel: (Long pause.) These go to eleven.

July 3rd, 2015 (Permalink)

Puzzle it Out

Before you read any further, check out the interactive puzzle at the first Source listed below. There are spoilers in the explanation following the Sources, below, that may give away the solution to the puzzle. So, do the puzzle before reading further. Now, read the additional explanation at the second Source. After that, if you haven't forgotten what you were doing and why, please return here for even more commentary on the puzzle. I'll wait.


  1. David Leonhardt, "A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving", The New York Times, 7/2/2015
  2. Steven Novella, "A Quick Logic Lesson", Neurologica, 7/3/2015

You're back! Regular readers of The Fallacy Files may not have been too puzzled by that puzzle because we've seen a version previously―see the Resource, below, for a reminder or in case you missed it. This is a good one to try on your smartalecky, know-it-all friends, though maybe not if you want to keep them.

As explained in the first Source, the puzzle illustrates confirmation bias. As Steven Novella explains in the second Source, people tend to formulate a hypothesis and then seek out evidence to confirm it. However, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper famously pointed out, it's even more important to test a hypothesis by trying to disconfirm. It's almost always possible to find some evidence to support a hypothesis, no matter how wrong that hypothesis may be. It's only when a hypothesis withstands determined attempts to disprove it that we are warranted in provisionally accepting it.

Confirmation bias is one reason why smart people often believe "weird" things, such as conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. The smarter they are, the easier it will be for them to come up with evidence that seems to support their pet theory, whereas they ignore or dismiss the mass of evidence that disproves it.

Resource: Rolling Stone's Worst-Case Scenario, 4/19/2015

Previous Entry

The gambler's fallacy extends to the financial and investment markets. There is simply nothing like a fail proof investment or "get rich scheme" in the new trend of binary options. Although there are now serious binary option providers in Germany, such as BDSwiss which is EU regulated, prospective investors are cautioned to have realistic expectations to avoid the investor's fallacy.

The Gambler's fallacy spans international borders and technology, as Aussie players are now enjoying pokies on their mobiles according to this atn.com.au gaming page, which paints a surprising portrait of the Australian gaming market. The iPad in Australia in particular has become a mobile gambling station for one-armed bandit aficionados!

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