January 16th, 2019 (Permalink)
And Then There Were Six
Ten little Democrats standing in a line;
One toddled home and then there were nine.
Nine little candidates having a debate;
One's polling dropped and then there were eight.
Eight little debaters is better than eleven;
One fell asleep and then there were seven.
Seven li'l arguers up to their tricks;
One lost his way and then there were six.1
For the first candidate forum of the election year, held a couple of nights ago, the Democratic party finally whittled the slate down to six. I'd like to see even fewer candidates, and we eventually will, but an additional problem with these so-called debates is that the format usually doesn't encourage debating. I sometimes wonder whether a generation of young people are growing up thinking that this is how debates are conducted.
The most famous political debates in American history were the ones between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, when Lincoln was running for senator from Illinois against incumbent Douglas. The seven debates took place between just the two candidates, and there wasn't even a moderator as far as I know. The debates lasted three hours with the first speaker speaking for an hour, followed by the second speaking for ninety minutes, and the first speaker also speaking last for thirty minutes2. Of course, I doubt that most people today would sit still for a three-hour debate―in fact, I probably wouldn't have patience for one myself―but a shorter one with a similar format might work.
In addition to the lack of journalists asking questions and controlling who speaks, the Lincoln-Douglas (L-D) debates had a de facto topic: slavery. While I wouldn't expect candidates to debate a resolution, as is common in formal debate, it's not unusual for the current forums to focus on a broad topic area, such as the economy or foreign policy. So, L-D style debates on a subject, such as health care or the environment, with one moderator whose only tasks would be to introduce the candidates and topic, ask an opening question, and keep the speakers within their time limits, might produce some worthwhile argumentation.
One reason I advocate reducing, or even eliminating, the role of moderators is that too often they interject themselves, or take sides in the debates. The most egregious recent example was Candy Crowley3, who both interjected herself, as if she were a participant instead of a moderator, and took a candidate's side. A similar example occurred the other night, and it's received considerable attention4:
Moderator Abby Phillip of CNN: Let's now turn to an issue that's come up in the last 48 hours. Senator [Bernie] Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that―and Senator [Elizabeth] Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?
Senator Bernie Sanders: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't say it. … Anybody knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today. There's a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren. There was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I stayed back. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then―I did run afterwards. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? …
Phillip: So Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you're saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?
Sanders: That is correct.
Phillip: Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?
Senator Elizabeth Warren: I disagreed. Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. …5
At this point, the disagreement between Sanders and Warren is a "he said-she said" one, since there don't seem to be any recordings or other witnesses to the exchange. The fact that they disagree about what Sanders said doesn't necessarily mean that either is lying, since one or both may misremember6. However, my purpose here is not to adjudicate the question of "did he or didn't he?", but to examine the moderator's performance.
Abby Phillip's first question to Sanders is a loaded one7: "Why did you say that?" This, of course, assumes that Sanders did say it, something that he immediately denies. Phillip could have asked, instead: "Did you say that and, if so, why?"
In addition, Phillip's setting up of the context of the question begs the question of whether Sanders said it: "…CNN reported yesterday that―and Senator Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election." Phillip's use of the word "confirmed" presumes that Sanders did indeed say it, since you can't "confirm" something that isn't true.
After Sanders denied the accusation twice, Phillip then turned to Warren and asked: "Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?" I have included the editorial annotation in the transcript indicating audience laughter after this question, which is something I would ordinarily remove. In this case, I left it in because I think it's revealing. Why did the audience laugh at this question? I think it's because it so brazenly takes Warren's side.
Why did Phillip question the candidates in this way? She interrogated Sanders like a prosecutor questioning a suspect, and then questioned Warren as if she were the victim. Was it political bias in favor of Warren, sexual bias in taking the side of another woman against a man, or bias in favor of her network's "scoop". I don't know the answer to these questions, but I don't need to answer them. A way to stop this sort of thing is to get rid of the moderators, or at least minimize the role they play. Let the candidates debate and let the reporters report.
This will be the last of these forums before the Iowa caucuses, which take place on the third of next month8, marking the start of the primary season. We should see a more rapid diminishment of the number of candidates as the primaries filter out those with minimal support. Hopefully, we will also see a diminishment in the number of moderators.
- Based on the traditional nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians".
- See, NCC Staff, "Great debates? It started with Lincoln and Douglas", National Constitution Center, 9/26/2016.
- See: Second Presidential Debate Logic Check, Part 2, 10/20/2012.
- See, for instance: Joe Concha, "CNN moderator criticized for question to Sanders", The Hill, 1/15/2020.
- "Read the full transcript of Tuesday night's CNN/Des Moines Register debate", Des Moines Register, 1/15/2020.
- There's supposedly a recording of Sanders and Warren accusing each other of lying after the debate was over, see: Lisa Kashinsky, "Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders accuse each other of lying in post-debate confrontation", Boston Herald, 1/15/2020.
- See: Loaded Question.
- CNN Staff, "Fact check of the January Democratic debate", CNN, 1/14/2020.
January 10th, 2020 (Permalink)
So Long, Marianne
So long, Marianne
It's time that we began
To laugh and cry
And cry and laugh
About it all, again1
In an unsurprising move, Marianne Williamson has officially left the race for the presidency2. Her campaign never really got going as her poll numbers languished in the low single-digits. She appeared in the first couple of Democratic candidate forums, but only because the entrance requirements were so low. As the heights of the hurdles were raised, especially the polling one, Williamson disappeared from the platform. Without the publicity from such appearances, she didn't have much of a chance to increase her polling numbers or contributions3.
One reason I paid as much attention to Williamson as I did is that the current occupant of the White House was also a celebrity and political novice. So, even though she was a long shot, there was a precedent for her nomination and even election. Despite the failure of her campaign, I don't think Williamson will be the last candidate to try to make the jump from celebrity to president.
Another reason that Williamson stood out from the pack were her vague but potentially dangerous "spiritual" beliefs, which included a general suspicion of science and specific doubts about the value and safety of vaccination4. She appeared to believe that the physical world is an illusion that can be manipulated by our thoughts, so that hurricanes can be prayed back out to sea5.
Of course, it's possible that if Williamson had been nominated and elected she would have dropped the wishful thinking approach to solving problems. Candidate Trump also flirted with the anti-vaccination position, but thankfully he seems not to have followed through as president6. Perhaps Williamson would have done the same thing, but now we'll never know.
- Leonard Cohen, "So Long, Marianne", Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967.
- Maggie Astor, "Marianne Williamson Drops Out of 2020 Race", The New York Times, 1/10/2020.
- For analysis of why her campaign failed, see: Nathaniel Rakich, "Why Marianne Williamsonís Unconventional Presidential Bid Didnít Catch On", 538, 1/10/2020.
- See: Marianne Williamson Channels Pat Robertson, 9/6/2019.
- See: Ivan Couronne, "Trump tells Americans measles vaccination 'so important'", AFP, 4/26/2019.
January 4th, 2020 (Permalink)
Reply Hazy, Try Again1
The election is still ten months away, and the Democratic challenger to the incumbent has yet to be chosen, yet polls are already being done to measure support for the potential nominees against that incumbent in so-called swing states, such as Virginia and Florida. Cases in point:
President Donald Trump would beat every Democratic candidate in the swing states of Virginia and Florida except for former Vice President Joe Biden, according to a pair of polls from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. In a hypothetical matchup, Biden narrowly edges Trump in Florida by 2 percentage points, 47%-45%. Trump leads Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 51%-42%; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 49%-44%; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 49%-45%. Biden's lead over Trump is slightly wider in Virginia, where the former vice president leads the incumbent 49%-45%. The other Democrats trail the president in the state. The poll says Trump beats Warren 48%-44%, Sanders 51%-45% and Buttigieg 47%-45%.2
Presumably, these polls are asking about hypothetical match-ups between various contenders and the champ, as opposed to matching the Democrats against one another, because winning the general election is important to Democratic voters.
One thing to keep in mind about state polls is that they are often based on smaller samples than national ones. Sample size and margin of error (MoE) are negatively related, that is, the less you have of one the more you get of the other. So, the smaller the sample, the larger the MoE. As is typical of poll reporting, you have to go all the way to the end of the article to find out how the poll was conducted. Although this article does not reveal the sample sizes3, it does tell us the MoE for both polls in the last paragraph:
The Virginia poll was conducted via telephone from Dec. 12-16, and the Florida poll was conducted from Dec. 11-16. Both have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.2
The MoE for both of these polls is a percentage point larger than most national polls, and the only leads that exceed it are Trump's over Warren and Sanders in Florida and over Sanders in Virginia. However, the Virginia primary is about two months from today, and the Florida one a fortnight after that4. Moreover, both of these polls were conducted in the middle of last month, so the results are two weeks old. Much can happen in two and a half to three months to change the standings of the candidates with respect both to each other and to the incumbent. Even more can change in ten months than in a couple as potential voters become familiar with the candidates and one eventually emerges as the nominee.
So, due to the large MoE and the long time before the election, these two polls don't tell us much about who would beat whom in these states. Of course, they may be better than asking the magic eight ball, but not by much.
- This is one of the possible answers of "The Magic Eight Ball" divination toy.
- William Cummings, "Trump would beat every Democrat but Biden in Florida and Virginia, polls say", USA Today, 12/31/2019. Thanks to Jonathan Sanders for bringing these polls to my attention.
- For the sample sizes see the Mason-Dixon reports on the polls:
- Kathryn Watson, "When the major primaries and caucuses are happening―and how they work", CBS News, 1/2/2020.
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December 31st, 2019 (Permalink)
Richard Jewell and "The Voice of God"
- Nancy Coleman
Richard Jewell is in the news again because of a new movie about him. If you're unfamiliar with Jewell's story or wish to refresh your memory, check out the following article:
I haven't seen the movie, but if you have or plan to, you might want to read a journalistic account in addition to watching the fictionalized film. The following article discusses how much of the movie is fact and how much fiction:
The next article was one of the sources for the movie. It's lengthy and difficult to excerpt briefly, though I make an effort below, but it's worth reading in its entirety:
… The A.J.C. [The Atlanta Journal-Constitution] style of reporting in declarative sentences had a name…: the voice of God. It was omniscient…. Before [The A.J.C.] broke the story of Richard Jewell, there had been a debate in the newsroom over whether or not to name him. … Because of the voice-of-God style, the paper ended up making a flat-out statement: "Richard Jewell…*fits the profile of the lone bomber." When I asked John Walter about the lone-bomber sentence, he said, "I ultimately edited it…." One editor added, "The whole story is voice-of-God…." John Walter indicated that he had not seen a lone-bomber profile. I asked him, "Whose profile of a lone bomber does Richard Jewell fit? Where is the 'says who' in this sentence?" Walter said that he felt comfortable with the assertion. …
Several states away, Colonel Robert Ressler was watching CNN when the A.J.C. extra edition was shown. Ressler, who was retired from the behavioral-science unit of the F.B.I., had, along with John Douglas, developed the concept of criminal-personality profiling. He was the co-author of the Crime Classification Manual, which is used by the F.B.I. …[A]s he watched the TV report, he was mystified. "They were talking about an F.B.I. profile of a hero bomber, and I thought, What F.B.I. profile? It rather surprised me." According to Ressler…"There is no such classification as the hero bomber," he told me recently. "This was a myth." Later he said, "…How many hero bombers had we ever encountered? Only one that I know of…." Furthermore, he wondered, where did they get the information to put the profile together that fast? He asked himself, What came first here, the chicken or the egg? Was the so-called profile actually developed from the circumstances, or was it invented for Richard Jewell?
When Jewell returned home from F.B.I. headquarters…, NBC was showing special Olympic coverage. He sat on the sofa and watched Tom Brokaw say, "They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still holes in this case." Jewell knew that Brokaw was his mother's favorite newsman; he looked at her and noticed "the color and the blood flow out of her face when she heard that." [She] turned to him and asked, "What is he talking about?" Jewell later recalled, "Brokaw was talking about her son as a murderer…*. She started crying, and what am I going to say to her? …"
…[A] rumor swept through the newsroom of The A.J.C. that…newspaper executives were rethinking their news policies. According to one reporter, "The sloppiness of the Jewell reporting and the lack of sources was the last straw." A reporter…was assigned to write a piece examining how the media spotlight was turned on Richard Jewell. In large part, her article wound up being an examination of the role of The A.J.C. After [Jewell's lawyers] threatened to sue, the article was killed. "We didn't get through the editing of it," John Walter said. "The Jewells' attorney began saying, 'We're thinking lawsuit'…*and that made us more cautious." Meanwhile, [Jewell's lawyers] were busy holding meetings with lawyers from NBC…. At NBC, Tom Brokaw's carelessness reportedly cost the network more than $500,000 to settle Jewell's claims, although Jewell's lawyers would not confirm a figure, BROKAW GOOFED AND NBC PAID, the New York Daily News would later headline.
If you think that the news media are bad now, they were bad a score of years ago, too. They may not be worse now, but they certainly haven't improved noticeably. Here are some belated news media apologies:
- Joseph A. Wulfsohn, "NBC's Tom Brokaw offers mea culpa over network's Richard Jewell coverage 23 years ago", Fox News, 12/27/2019.
NBC veteran anchor Tom Brokaw offered a Christmas mea culpa over his network's coverage from more than 20 years ago of the late heroic security guard Richard Jewell. In recent weeks, the release of Clint Eastwood's film "Richard Jewell" has revived discussion of the events that surround the 1996 bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Ga., where Jewell―who spotted the suspicious bag and was credited with saving countless lives―was quickly named as a suspect of the attack by several media outlets at the time, one of them being NBC News. In fact, archival footage of Brokaw's reporting appears in the Eastwood drama. Twenty-three years later, Brokaw expressed regret over his handling of the Jewell story.
- Henry Schuster, "I helped make Richard Jewell famous―and ruined his life in the process", The Washington Post, 12/6/2019.
"Dear Richard," the letter began, "I owe you an apology." Writing an apology is not something journalists are used to doing. It took me years just to open a document and type those few words. But with the release of "Richard Jewell," Clint Eastwood's new movie about the aftermath of the 1996 bombing in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, those of us who reported the story are doing a fresh round of soul-searching. No one emerged from the coverage with glory, although Jewell certainly deserved to. I am one of the reasons he didn't.
Jewell might have been the first victim of the 24-hour cable news cycle. He went from hero to villain in less than three days. … If Jewell was the first, it would only get worse. Cable news accelerated the pace, but social media made the rush to judgment instantaneous…. The interview I had pushed for set off the chain of events that led to what Jewell later described as "88 days of hell." … Agents in the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va., were…paying attention. They wondered why Jewell looked uncomfortable and his eyes shifted around―he seemed suspicious. They may not have considered that this was Jewell's first TV interview and that it was being done remotely; he was hearing questions from an anchor in Washington through an earpiece. …
This was 1996, the dawn of the Internet age, so the process took some time. The Atlanta paper reported it, we ran it over and over as breaking news, and those thousands of reporters covering the Olympics had their lead. By the next day, Jewell was notorious worldwide. (Now, with social media, a reputation can be destroyed in nanoseconds.)
I'm still a journalist, and I still love to break news, but I get queasy anytime I see a "breaking news" banner on screen. It used to be reserved for events like 9/11. Now, it's often less than a morsel of news, chewed over by endless panels of underqualified and over-opinionated pundits who replace reporting with pontification. Time gets filled, reputations get ruined―and no one bothers to check if the story is true. Think how much worse it would have been for Jewell in 2019. …
The happiest I saw Jewell was April 13, 2005…. I didn't say sorry when I saw Jewell that April day. We simply exchanged greetings. I saw him again a year later, at a training exercise for local law officers. He was back on the job as a sheriff's deputy and friendly, although he went cold when he saw an FBI agent in attendance. A couple of days later, I sat at the computer and started my letter of apology, got frustrated and hit save. A year after that, Jewell died at 44, after months of failing health; my letter remained unfinished and unsent.
So how do I make sense of it all these years later, when I have an Emmy on my shelf for CNN's coverage from those first 24 hours? … In my own reporting, I've learned to be more skeptical of sources, especially when they claim to speak for government―especially at its highest levels. My stories these days don't go to air without relentless fact-checking…. And next time? I will own up to my responsibility. I will finish that letter. It's never too late to apologize.
Maybe twenty years from now the news media will apologize for their terrible coverage this year―at least, if someone makes a movie about it.
* Ellipsis in the original.
December 25th, 2019 (Permalink)
What's in Santa's bag?
'Twas the night before Christmas and Santa Claus had arrived at the very last city block of buildings that he had to deliver presents to. His bag of presents was almost empty, and if he ran out before he finished, he would have to fly all the way back to the North Pole to fetch more. Would he have enough presents for everyone on the block?
There were six buildings on the block. The first was an apartment building with many apartments. It took one less than half of the presents in Santa's bag to deliver a present to each person in the building.
The next building on the block was also an apartment building, but about half the size of the first. It also took one less than half of the remaining presents in the bag to leave one present for each resident of the building.
The same process continued for the next three buildings as each time it took one less than half of the remaining presents in the bag to treat each resident of the building to a present.
Finally, Santa came to the last building on the block, which was a small house occupied by a married couple and their two children, a boy and a girl. Santa looked into his bag and there were exactly four presents left. A Christmas miracle! Santa would not have to make another trip to the North Pole for additional presents.
How many presents were in Santa's bag when he arrived at the last block?
Solve it backward. If you try to solve it forward, you'll probably have to do so by trial and error: guessing how many presents were in the bag, then trying to work out the answer. This would be a tedious process, though you could solve it that way in the end.
Instead of starting with what you don't know, namely, how many presents were in Santa's bag when he arrived at the last block, start with what you do know. You know how many presents were left in his bag for the last house: four. Then, work out how many presents must have been in the bag when he visited the previous house. Once you've done this, all you have to do is repeat the same process until you're back at the first building.
Working backward is a good strategy to think about as many puzzles are much easier to work in the reverse direction.
Solution to what's in Santa's bag?: 66 presents. Here are the number of presents delivered to each building and how many were then left in Santa's bag:
- 32, leaving 34 in Santa's bag.
- 16, leaving 18 in the bag.
- 8, leaving 10.
- 4, leaving 6.
- 2, leaving 4.
- 4, and the bag was empty.
December 22nd, 2019 (Permalink)
Rule of Argumentation 111: Make your arguments relevant to claims!
The previous rule invited you to focus your argumentation on claims, and not be distracted by irrelevancies. In this rule, I will discuss in more detail how to make your arguments relevant to the claims you are arguing about.
As discussed in rule 9, argumentation won't begin unless you and your partner think that you disagree about something, and that something can be stated as a claim―that is, a sentence that is true or false. Your argumentation should consist of a series of individual arguments relevant to that claim or to other claims that have arisen during the discussion.
- The premisses provide support for the claim, thereby making it more likely that it is true. This is what I called, in the previous rule, "defending" a claim.
- The premisses provide support for the negation of a claim, thereby making it more likely that the claim is false. This is what I called, in the previous rule, "attacking" a claim.
In addition, there are two degrees of support that an argument can give to its conclusion:
- The premisses provide conclusive support for the conclusion, thereby showing that the conclusion is true assuming that the premisses themselves are true. Such an argument is called "deductively valid".
- The premisses provide less than conclusive support for the conclusion, but make it more likely that the conclusion is true given that the premisses are true. Such an argument is called "inductively strong".
These two types of argument are important because what counts as relevant to a claim depends on which type of support the argument is supposed to provide. Deductive relevance is studied in formal logic and inductive relevance in probability theory. Unfortunately, there is no short cut to fully understanding relevance than to study logic3 and probability theory4. As a result, this isn't the place to go into detail about either deductive or inductive relevance.
However, short of learning logic or probability theory, here is an informal technique for evaluating the relevance of premisses to a conclusion:
- Deductive: Put aside for the moment the question of whether the argument's premisses are true or false and assume that they are true. Will the conclusion also be true? Can you imagine circumstances in which the conclusion would be false? If assuming that the premisses are true means that the conclusion would have to be true―or, in other words, in no circumstances would it be false―then the argument is deductively valid. In contrast, if you can imagine a possible situation in which the premisses are true and the conclusion false, then the argument is invalid. However, if it is invalid it still might be a strong inductive argument, so don't stop here but go to the next step:
- Inductive: Again, assume that the argument's premisses are true. Does that assumption make it more likely that the conclusion is true? If so, how much more likely does it make it? Deductive validity is an all-or-nothing affair, that is, either an argument is valid or it isn't. In contrast, inductive strength is a matter of degree. A set of premisses might make a certain conclusion no more likely, almost certain, or anywhere in between. Try to get a sense of just how strong the argument is.
The logical strength of an argument just described is a measure of how relevant its premisses are to its conclusion. However, strength is not enough to make an argument good. It is also necessary that the premisses be true or at least probable.
Just as claims are sometimes confused with their histories, effects, or motivations, arguments are sometimes confused with their sources. By "source" I mean to include both the person or group advancing an argument, and others who may defend it. Too often people confuse an argument with its source, and instead of evaluating or criticizing the argument itself, they evaluate its source. There are many different ways in which this is done, and many of them are named fallacies5, but what these mistakes have in common is that the argument targets the source of the argument instead of the argument itself. Good arguments can come from bad sources, and bad arguments can come from good ones. So, when you follow the steps above, ignore its source and concentrate on the argument itself as a series of claims.
Next Month: Rule 12
- 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.
- Rule of Argumentation 10: Attack or defend claims!, 11/12/2019.
- Often spelled "premises".
- You can begin studying logic by accessing the Lessons in Logic from the navigational pane to your left.
- You can begin studying probability by accessing the entry for Probabilistic Fallacy from the drop-down menu to your left.
- If you wish to pursue this issue further, see the fallacy of Red Herring and its subfallacies, which are available from the drop-down menu to your left.
December 21st, 2019 (Permalink)
And Then There Were Seven [Updated: 12/26]
Ten little Democrats standing in a line;
One toddled home and then there were nine.
Nine little candidates having a debate;
One's polling dropped and then there were eight.
Eight little debaters is better than eleven;
One fell asleep and then there were seven.1
I don't have much to say about this month's Democratic presidential debate, which was held two nights ago, because it was mostly a rerun. However, here are a few passing observations:
- This time there were only seven candidates, which is going in the right direction. Seven is still too many, but at least the field is being reduced. I've been arguing since the first of these events that there are too many on stage for it to be a useful exercise2. The requirements for participation are becoming stricter as the series progresses, and only five candidates have already qualified for next month's effort3. So, with any luck there will be even fewer people on the stage next time, and maybe we'll see some real argumentation, rather than just a series of stump speech sound bites.
- One trouble with having so many debates with so many of the same candidates is that they tend to rehash what they already said in previous debates, sometimes multiple times. Case in point: old and tired Bernie Sanders recycled his old and tired claim4: "Today in America, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth…"5. The Washington Post and the Associated Press re-debunked it6. I predict that despite the debunkings Sanders will repeat this claim in the next debate.
- There was an extended back-and-forth between the candidates over the funding of their campaigns. What's received the most media attention was a dispute between Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg over a recent fundraiser that he held in a "wine cave", whatever that is, and his riposte that she wasn't living up to her fund-raising pledge. However, the part most interesting to me was Joe Biden and Sanders vying with each other over whose average contribution was lower:
Sanders: I am rather proud, maybe, I don't know, the only candidate up here that doesn't have any billionaire contributions. But you know what I do have? We have received more contributions from more individuals than any candidate in the history of the United States of America at this point in an election, averaging $18 apiece. …
Tim Alberta [moderator]: Thank you, Senator. Vice President Biden….
Biden: My average contribution is $43….5
Presumably, the sense of "average" that both men are using is the mean. However, notice that both are referring to the average, or mean, contribution, which is different from the mean amount contributed by individual contributors. In other words, a single individual can contribute more than once, up to the legal limit on individual contributions to a candidate7, so that his or her total contributions would be greater than the mean. In 2016, when Sanders was also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, the mean contribution that he was touting was $278. The Sanders campaign was at that time encouraging donors to give exactly $27, and the Federal Election Commission statistics indicated that he received an unusually large number of donations of exactly that sum. Oddly enough, his current campaign website still has a button for contributing $27, but it also has one for the equally unlikely sum of $2.709. How did his campaign come up with that number? I've no idea, but it's obviously encouraging small donations in order to keep the average contribution low. So, there's less than meets the eye to these averages since they can be gamed in various ways.
Update (12/26/2019): As I mentioned in passing above, small-town Hoosier mayor Pete Buttigieg has come in for some criticism for holding a fund-raiser for big donors in a "wine cave". Here's part of the debate where Elizabeth Warren criticized Buttigieg's fund-raising:
Warren: We can't have people who can put down $5,000 for a check drown out the voices of everyone else. … They don't in my campaign, and they won't in my White House. …
Buttigieg: Well, [I] can't help but feel that might have been directed at me. And here is the thing. We're in the fight of our lives right now. Donald Trump and his allies have…already put together more than $300 million. This is our chance. This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump. And we shouldn't try to do it with one hand tied behind our back. The way we're going to win is to bring everybody to our side in this fight. If that means that you're a grad student digging deep to…chip in $10 bucks, that's great. And if you can drop $1,000 without blinking, that's great, too. We need everybody's help in this fight. …
Warren: So the mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door, but this one was closed door. … Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.5
Presumably in response to this kind of criticism, Buttigieg's campaign introduced a contest for the smallest donation12. Of course, a penny is the least donation possible, so you'd expect everyone who wants to win the prize to give a red cent, but the winner will be the only person who donates the amount in question. For instance, if only one person donated exactly $5.26 to the campaign, and every lower amount either had multiple donors or none at all, then that person would win the contest. So, the effect of this contest will be to encourage people to make a lot of small donations in the hopes of winning the prize.
I discussed above the fact that the average donation to a candidate can be easily manipulated, and this is obviously another way of doing so. Buttigieg's campaign must hope that a lot of little donations will offset the large "wine cave" ones, so that he can claim a low average in the future. Warren's criticism must have hit a sore spot: if Buttigieg really believed what he said in the debate with her, he ought to be bragging about how big his average donation is, rather than trying to artificially lower the average.
Hopefully, voters will see through these silly games and ignore those candidates who brag about their low average donation size.
- Once again, the viewership declined, this time to six million viewers10. However, this is down only half a million from the previous debate, so maybe the viewership won't hit zero by the eighth one, as I previously extrapolated11. Anyway, those who are not watching are not missing much, at least if they've seen one already: if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Hopefully, this will change with a smaller field.
- Based on the traditional nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians".
- The Big Democratic "Debate", Part 1, 6/27/2019.
- Zach Montellaro & Steven Shepard, "DNC raises thresholds again for January debate; Booker will likely be excluded", Politico, 12/20/2019.
- Déjà Vu All Over Again, 9/16/2019.
- The Fix team, "Transcript: The December Democratic debate", The Washington Post, 12/20/2019.
- Glenn Kessler & Salvador Rizzo, "Fact-checking the sixth Democratic debate", The Washington Post, 12/20/2019.
- Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, "AP FACT CHECK: Examining claims from 2020 Democratic debate", The Gazette, 12/19/2019.
- Which is currently $2,800; see: "Contribution limits", Federal Election Commission, accessed: 12/21/2019.
- Philip Bump, "Bernie Sanders keeps saying his average donation is $27, but his own numbers contradict that", The Washington Post, 4/18/2016.
- Bernie Sanders campaign fundraising page, Bernie, accessed: 12/21/2019. The Biden campaign lacks such a curious donation structure; see: Biden campaign fundraising page, Joe Biden, accessed: 12/21/2019.
- Will Thorne, "Sixth Democratic Debate Draws 6 Million Viewers, Lowest Figure in Current Cycle", Variety, 12/20/2019.
- The State of the Debates, Scientific Graphs, Fact-Checking Books & Autism Profiteering, 11/30/2019.
- John Bowden, "Buttigieg campaign introduces contest for lowest donation", The Hill, 12/24/2019.
December 14th, 2019 (Permalink)
Title: Bad Advice
Subtitle: Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren't Your Best Source of Health Information
Author: Paul A. Offit
Quote: Science delivered us out of the Age of Darkness and into the Age of Enlightenment. Three hundred years ago, graveyards overflowed with small, white coffins. Children died from smallpox, meningitis, pneumonia, whooping cough, bloodstream infections, scarlet fever, diphtheria, hepatitis, measles, and food poisoning. Of every hundred children born, twenty would be dead before their fifth birthday. Mothers died from tuberculosis and childbed fever. Crop failures led to famines and starvation. Homes were infested with filth and vermin. The average life span was thirty-five years. Scientific advances have eliminated most of this suffering and death. Vaccines, antibiotics, sanitation programs, pest control, synthetic fertilizers, X-rays, air conditioning, recombinant DNA technology, refrigeration, and pasteurization―to name just a few―have allowed us to live longer, better, healthier lives. During the last hundred years alone, the life span of Americans has increased by thirty years.1
Comment: This book was published about a year ago, so it's not brand new, but it's new to me. I haven't read it yet, but I have read two of Offit's previous books: Deadly Choices2 and Do You Believe in Magic?3. I thought those were both good books, so I have similar expectations for this one.
The title does not refer to the contents of the book, I hope, but to its topic, which I guess is the bad advice coming to us from all those "celebrities, politicians, and activists". Where should we get advice if not from movie stars and talk show hosts? Here's a suggestion: try science. But what is science?
Stripped to its essence, science is simply a method to understand the natural world…. In a sense, everyone is a scientist. For example, if a car doesn't start, a mechanic considers several possibilities: the battery is dead; the starter is defective; the car is out of gas; the fuel system is clogged. Then, the mechanic tests each of these potential problems. This is exactly how scientists think….4
In other words, science is not magic; it's a logical method for finding out how things work. So, should we take advice from scientists? Not so fast:
It will probably come as a surprise to learn what science isn't―it isn't scientists or scientific textbooks or scientific papers or scientific advisory bodies. As once-cherished hypotheses are disproved, scientists throw away their textbooks without remorse.5 For some people, this is unnerving. We want certainty, especially when it comes to our health. And that's when we get into trouble….6
So, if we're not to take advice from Gwyneth Paltrow or Jenny McCarthy, where should we get it? Since I haven't read the whole book yet, but only those parts that Amazon lets me look at, I don't know what answer Offit provides. However, I'm encouraged that he makes the distinction between science and scientists, since I don't think the answer is to blindly follow scientists. One clue is suggested by the following remark:
By far the most important part of the scientific process is reproducibility. If a scientist's hypothesis is right, then other investigators will confirm that it's right. If it's wrong, they won't.4
Or, as I like to put it, replication is not optional. This is why you should not be impressed by the latest study in health, nutrition, or any other area of science until it's been replicated. Most studies turn out to be wrong, so if you're going to bet your life, health, or wealth on it, you should bet against an unreplicated study. Once a study has been replicated―ideally, multiple times by independent investigators―then you should provisionally rely upon it.
Coincidentally, tying in to my recent discussion of the problems with research into the relation between diet and health7, Offit gives the following as an example of how science can get things wrong:
In 1957, the American physiologist Ancel Keys published a paper claiming that people who consumed less fat had a lower incidence of heart disease, coining the term "heart-healthy diet." Keys was a well-respected scientist, a best-selling author, and a consultant to the World Health Organization and the United Nations. In 1961, he even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. When Ancel Keys gave advice, people listened. Because of Keys, margarine, which contained partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, became the "heart-healthy" alternative to butter, which contained animal fats. Although he didn't realize it at the time, Keys had driven Americans into the waiting arms of trans fats. Four decades later, the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that trans fats were causing about two hundred fifty thousand heart-related deaths every year.8
The lesson of all this is that science is hard. Unfortunately, there isn't any easier way to figure out how the world works, so get used to it.
I would think that most Fallacy Files readers already understand that you shouldn't take advice about health, or much of anything else, from celebrities, politicians, or activists. However, with the holidays rapidly approaching, maybe there's someone on your gift-giving list who could benefit from some good advice about bad advice. On the other hand, you can give a book as a gift but you can't make anyone read it, which raises the question of who the target audience is for this book. I suspect that those who read it probably won't really need it, and those who need it most probably would refuse to read it.
Oh well, teaching people about science is hard, too.
- P. 1.
- See: Book Review: Deadly Choices, 7/21/2013.
- See: New Book: Do You Believe in Magic?, 7/10/2013.
- P. 2.
- This is rather idealized. It's more in line with Offit's point, here, to emphasize that scientists are human―all too human―and can stubbornly cling to disproven theories, but science itself ruthlessly discards them.
- P. 3.
- See: Junk Food Research, 11/29/2019.
- P. 4.
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