May 22nd, 2016 (Permalink)

Hillary Clinton's Scandalous Venn Diagram

Hillary Clinton chirped or tittered or something and produced the "Venn diagram" you should see to the right. This is "the worst Venn diagram of all time" as a headline at Vox shouts, and "a data catastrophe" as well as "an atrocity in data visualization" as the following article claims. Come on, Vox, how about the worst of all possible Venn diagrams?

If you try to read this as a Venn diagram, a big problem is to figure out what the labels attach to. For instance, the middle, football-shaped overlap section seems to be labelled "Support universal background checks". However, if that's the case then the two crescent-shaped sections are labelled "90% of Americans" and "83% of gun owners", which would seem to indicate that only 10% of Americans and 17% of gun owners support universal background checks. Given what we know about Hillary Clinton's political position on such checks, this seems unlikely to be a message she would repeat. An alternative interpretation is that the "90% of Americans" and "83% of gun owners" labels attach to the two circles as wholes, so that the overlap area represents American gun owners, but then where did the remaining 10% of Americans and 17% of gun owners go to? Also, is Clinton really concerned about non-American gun owners' positions on background checks?

The conclusion is that this picture is not really a Venn diagram. In fact, it's not really a diagram at all: it's just a picture of two overlapping colored circles with some writing over them. Of course, it's supposed to look like, or suggest, a Venn diagram. You could say it's a Venn diagram for people who don't understand Venn diagrams, which may include Hillary Clinton.

That's about all that needs to be said about the diagram itself. Also, I don't want to jump on the Hillary Clinton bashing bandwagon; instead, I'd rather criticize the critics. If you're going to attack Clinton for not knowing what a Venn diagram is, then you really ought to know what it is yourself. For instance, here's Vox's explanation of what's wrong with Clinton's diagram:

But this is simply not how Venn diagrams work. The circles are completely wrong. They should, for one, overlap entirely, since the gun owners referenced in this are all Americans. And the circle for Americans should be much, much bigger than the circle for gun owners, since gun owners make up just one segment of the US population.

Then Vox suddenly realizes in the middle of the article that this does not describe a Venn diagram, adding:

As you can see, these aren't even Venn diagrams anymore; they're Euler diagrams. That's because a Venn diagram was the wrong choice for this data point in the first place. Maybe what Clinton wanted was a pie chart, bar chart, or Euler diagram, or maybe she didn't even need a chart―an infographic with the numbers splashed in big letters could have worked.

After starting off on the wrong foot, Vox eventually got it right: the alternative diagram that Vox describes is not a Venn diagram at all, but an Euler diagram. Moreover, the primary problem with Clinton's "diagram" is that a Venn diagram is the wrong type of diagram to convey the information, and even an Euler one is not much better. In fact, the information conveyed is simple enough that a diagram is neither necessary nor helpful.

Vox was not the only media outlet to be given the vapors by Hillary's faux pas. According to the author of a PJ Media article, this was "one of the stupidest tweets I have ever seen". Apparently, the author is new to Twitter. I don't even use Twitter and I've seen stupider "tweets". In fact, even the name "tweet" is stupid and it makes me feel stupid to have to use it.

All of this mocking of Clinton's apparent graphical illiteracy could have been avoided if she had just cited the figures. Notice that her message about guns is totally lost in all the accusations about her "horrible", "terrible", "godawful" diagram.



May 13th, 2016 (Permalink)


If you thought this election year couldn't get more bizarre, there's this:

Donald Trump Denies He Impersonated Himself to a Reporter

Why would he need to deny that? Is it even possible to impersonate yourself? If you read the article attached to the headline, you discover that it wasn't himself that Trump was accused of impersonating. Rather, it has been claimed that twenty-five years ago Trump pretended to be a man by the name of John Miller who was acting as a spokesman for Trump. So, it's this John Miller that Trump was supposedly impersonating. Of course, that doesn't explain the headline―in The New York Times, even! Nor does it explain why this is considered a story. Surely the news media don't have to go back twenty-five years to find Trump acting like Trump.

Update (5/14/2016): Unsurprisingly, The Times has now revised its silly headline to:

Donald Trump Denies He Impersonated Spokesman to a Reporter

The original headline is still included in the URL of the story, in case you don't believe me.

May 11th, 2016 (Permalink)

Department of Doublespeak

"Euphemism inflation" is the linguistic phenomenon in which euphemisms wear out over time, losing their euphemistic force, and need replacement. The Department of Justice (DoJ) has recently announced some new euphemisms to add to the Doublespeak Dictionary. Here's Karol Mason, head of DoJ's Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in a guest post at The Washington Post―see the Sources, below, for the full article:

…[M]any of the formerly incarcerated men, women, and young people I talk with say that no punishment is harsher than being permanently branded a “felon” or “offender.” … The labels we affix to those who have served time can drain their sense of self-worth and perpetuate a cycle of crime….

"The labels we affix"? If you commit a rape, you are forever after a "rapist"; if you murder someone, you will be for the rest of your life a "murderer". Similarly, for terms such as "felon", "offender", and "convict". "We" do not affix these labels; rather, people affix these labels to themselves through the actions they take. If you don't want to be an offender for the rest of your life, don't offend.

Also, if it's true that "no punishment is harsher than being permanently branded a 'felon' or 'offender'", why don't we stop incarcerating people and just label them this way? I suspect that most offenders would prefer the label to incarceration unless it were a very short sentence. Furthermore, isn't the whole point of incarceration to punish people for committing crimes? If we take away the punishment of labeling someone as a "criminal", "convict", "offender", etc., should we increase incarceration time to make up for it?

Here is Mason's proposed solution to this supposed problem:

This new policy statement replaces unnecessarily disparaging labels with terms like “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated,” decoupling past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return. We will be using the new terminology in speeches, solicitations, website content, and social media posts, and I am hopeful that other agencies and organizations will consider doing the same.

Why is "offender" an "unnecessarily disparaging label" whereas “person who committed a crime” is not? Is "person who committed a crime" not disparaging, or is it just not "unnecessarily" so? If anything "offender" is a better euphemism since it is a general term that doesn't refer explicitly to "crime": an "offender" is anyone who offends, which means that Donald Trump is an "offender". Of course, the specific type of offense relevant to the DoJ is offense against the law, and "offender" in its legal sense is probably short for "criminal offender", but the unpleasant reference to crime has fallen away.

Anyway, it's just not true that these phrases "decoupl[e] past actions from the person being described". I gather that the idea is that by including the verb in the past tense―"individual who was incarcerated"―we emphasize that the individual is no longer in prison, and that the crime was committed in the past. But how is the person who committed the crime "decoupled" from the crime committed? We may say that a reformed person is "a new man", or "a different person", but this is not literally true.

By the way, "incarcerated" itself seems like the kind of euphemism that uses a long, unfamiliar word for a shorter one―in this case, "jailed" or "imprisoned". "Carcer" is the Latin word for "prison", so "incarcerate" literally means "imprison", but since "carcer" itself has not made it into English, the former has a less obvious meaning than the latter.

The OJP appears to be the department of the DoJ charged with getting the "individual who was incarcerated" back into society as a law-abiding citizen, thus reducing recidivism. No doubt this is a difficult task, and one can well imagine that the negative attitudes of employers towards offenders may make it hard for such a person to get a job, especially in a time of high unemployment. However, the OJP's approach to this problem seems to be to use doublespeak in an attempt to conceal the facts from potential employers. Unfortunately for the OJP, but fortunately for the cause of honesty in language, it's unlikely that many employers will be fooled by these clumsy attempts at obfuscation through prolixity.

The DOJ as a whole, in a recent press release and speech by the Attorney General, is promoting the use of another euphemism: "justice-involved youth"―for the speech and press release, see Sources 1 & 3, below. News articles discussing it have usually identified "justice-involved youth" as a euphemism for "juvenile delinquent"―for a typical example, see Source 5, below―but they fail to note that "juvenile delinquent" has all the earmarks of a euphemism itself. You seldom hear the words "juvenile" or "delinquent" nowadays, except when linked together in the phrase.

It appears that the adjectival "justice-involved" is the actual euphemism here, since it not only modifies "youth", but also "individual", and even "veteran" at the Department of Veterans Affairs―see Source 2, below―where we learn that:

A justice-involved Veteran is:
  • A Veteran in contact with local law enforcement who can be appropriately diverted from arrest into mental health or substance abuse treatment;
  • A Veteran in a local jail, either pre-trial or serving a sentence; or,
  • A Veteran involved in adjudication or monitoring by a court

So, the relevant type of involvement in justice of the justice-involved youth, veteran, or individual is being on the wrong side of the law, alongside offenders, felons, convicts, and juvenile delinquents. These are all worn-out euphemisms that need to be replaced by newer, fresher, shinier, and more euphemistic ones. Unfortunately for the DoJ, “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated" are doubleplusungood doublespeak.


  1. "Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Remarks at Second Chance Act―Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program National Conference", The United States Department of Justice, 12/16/2015
  2. "Department of Veterans Affairs Programs for Justice-Involved Veterans", Veterans Justice Outreach Conference, 6/20/2011
  3. "The Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development to Award $1.75 Million to Help Justice-Involved Youth Find Jobs and Housing", The United States Department of Justice, 4/26/2016
  4. Josh Kenworthy, "Obama Wants You To Refer To Juvenile Delinquents As ‘Justice-Involved Youth’ Now", The Daily Caller, 11/5/2015
  5. Karol Mason, "Guest Post: Justice Dept. agency to alter its terminology for released convicts, to ease reentry", The Washington Post, 5/4/2016

Previous entries in the doublespeak dictionary: 2/24/2005, 7/2/2006, 7/17/2006, 3/25/2008, 9/25/2008, 3/17/2009, 3/29/2009, 9/16/2009, 9/24/2013

April 28th, 2016 (Permalink)


‘Doctor Strange’ turns Tibetan man into European woman

That's one strange doctor.

April 26th, 2016 (Permalink)

Book Review: Suspicious Minds

Title: Suspicious Minds

Subtitle: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

Author: Rob Brotherton

Date: 2015

Quote: "A conspiracy theory, according to…literal-minded definitions, is essentially just a theory about a conspiracy. But when people call something a conspiracy theory, they're usually not talking about just any old conspiracy. Conspiracies, after all, are a dime a dozen. From outlaws plotting bank heists to corporate executives planning to mislead their customers, and from drug smuggling and bribery to coups, kidnappings, assassinations, and terrorist attacks, plenty of things [that] happen in the world are the result of conspiracy between interested parties or secret plots by powerful conspirators. There's nothing especially noteworthy about theorizing the existence of conspiracies like these. Our definition ought to reflect how people actually use the term, and in regular conversation not every theory about a conspiracy qualifies as a conspiracy theory. The term is more than the sum of its parts." (P. 62)

Review: I've had some criticisms of the subtitle of psychologist Rob Brotherton's new book, as well as of an article that Brotherton wrote for the Los Angeles Times―see the Resources, below. My guess is that the subtitle was imposed by its publisher as there is little in the book that supports it, but I stand by my criticism of both it and the newspaper article. Nonetheless, despite my previous criticisms, I have good news about this book: it's excellent!

If you know someone who believes "weird things"―and I suspect that most of us these days do know at least one conspiracy theorist (CTist)―and you wonder what makes them tick, then this book may help you understand. Why is it that an otherwise sane, intelligent person believes [insert your favorite conspiracy theory (CT) here]? Of course, I'm assuming that you don't also believe that CT, for if you did you wouldn't be puzzled.

Even if you're a conspiracist yourself, you can always find a CT so far out there that you wonder how anyone could take it seriously. So, if you do believe some CT, a useful thought experiment is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't: that person is thinking about you in the same way you think about your crazy CTist friend. So, you believe that JFK was assassinated by the CIA, but those 9/11 CTists are kooks. Or, maybe you're a 9/11 "kook" yourself, but those who claim that the moon landings were faked are lunatics.

My point here is not the bogus one that we're all CTists, but that even if you are a CTist about some particular CT, you are very likely to find yourself in the same position as the rest of us. How is it that those other CTists can believe that crazy stuff? In contrast, if you believe every CT out there, then this book isn't for you. In fact, you might want to get some therapy―just a suggestion.

Conspiracy thinking is a type of fallacious thinking, and fallacious thinking is normal human thinking. It's normal for people to think poorly much of time and in many situations, especially when nothing of immediate serious consequence is at stake, and because it's normal none of us is immune. However, that doesn't mean that some of us do not think better than others, or that we can't all learn to think better. Learning about conspiracy thinking―what it is, how to recognize it, and how to resist being seduced by it―is one way to improve your thinking.

This book is not a history of CTs―though we do learn a little in the first chapter―nor is it a book aimed at debunking specific CTs―though a bit of debunking is done in passing. In the first chapter, we discover that CTs have always been with us, though perhaps not to the degree that they are today. If one is tempted to believe that CTs are just harmless entertainment, or all CTists delightful eccentrics, the second chapter explains that there can be great harm in conspiricist thinking. In particular, Nazism was a CT based on a plagiarized forgery. Of course, most CTs are not as destructive as Nazism, but that's about like saying that most diseases are not as bad as AIDS.

I've argued previously―see the Resource under "Confirmation Bias", below―that CTs are not genuine theories since they lack one necessary characteristic of theories, namely, falsifiability. This is one reason why arguing with CTists can be such a frustrating experience, as Brotherton explains:

…[A]ttempting to refute a conspiracy theory is like nailing jelly to a wall. …[T]he theory is always a work in progress, able to dodge refutation by inventing new twists and turns. Each debunking can be construed as disinformation designed to throw truth seekers off the scent, while the conspiracy theorists' continued failure to blow the lid off the conspiracy merely testifies to the power of their enemy (and the gullibility of the masses). Conspiracy theories aren't just immune to refutation―they thrive on it. If it doesn't look like a conspiracy, it was definitely a conspiracy. Evidence against the conspiracy theory becomes evidence of conspiracy. Heads I win, tails you lose. (P. 77)

Since Brotherton is a psychologist, the aim of the book is to explain what is known about the psychology of conspiracist thinking. Regular readers of The Fallacy Files should already be familiar with many of the psychological phenomena that play a role in CTs:

I could nitpick Suspicious Minds on a few minor points, but I don't want to; instead, I want to encourage you to read it. I do think the author tends to err on the side of tolerance of CTs, despite discussing the wacky theories of David Icke, who appears to have adopted his beliefs from the old science fiction television miniseries V. If Icke's theories aren't "crazy", then I'm a shape-shifting reptile from another dimension. However, no book is perfect. So, I highly recommend Suspicious Minds to anyone puzzled by the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, and nowadays that should be just about everyone.


April 17th, 2016 (Permalink)

Million Two-Thousand Student March

A couple of days ago the "Million" Student March was held on over a hundred campuses nationwide. Apparently, this is not the first such march to take place, as a previous march was held on November 12th of last year. According to the organizers' website, the previous march took place on 115 campuses and "over 10,000 people" marched. Well, a million is certainly over 10,000. However, assuming that the organizers aren't intentionally understating the number of marchers, they appear to have missed their target by two orders of magnitude.

More likely, 10,000 is an overstatement, since the organizers of political marches are not given to modest understatement. Rather, they wish to suggest that their movement has many supporters and, thus, a lot of democratic political clout. It's this same motivation that leads them to call their demonstrations the "million X march" in the first place. However, ever since the first such march―see the Resource, below―the one thing you can say for sure about a "million X march" is that a million Xs did not march.

Exactly how many students did march? It's hard to find any other source of information other than the organizers' own dubious claim about last year's march, so let's try to estimate this year's based on news reports. According to The Daily Caller, fifteen people marched at the University of Missouri, twenty at UCLA, and about 25 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Generously assuming that the average turn-out on each of 115 campuses was 25, that means the total attendance this time around will be less than 3,000. Not only that, but the Daily Bruin report of the UCLA march makes it clear that the twenty marchers included "alumni and workers" in addition to students. Again, let's be generous and assume that at least two-thirds of the marchers are students; then the organizers might be justified in calling it the "2,000 Student March".


Resource: The Million "Million X March" March, 6/18/2014

April 8th, 2016 (Permalink)

Call for Philip Morris

In researching the contextomy of Margaret Sanger discussed in the previous post, I discovered that the quote came from a television interview that Sanger had done with the late Mike Wallace. Specifically, the interview came from a half-hour show called The Mike Wallace Interview. Wallace is, of course, best known for the later show 60 Minutes, which is still on the air.

This post has nothing to do with the Sanger quote, but with the advertising included during the interview, specifically ads for Philip Morris cigarettes. The show aired in 1957, which is long before cigarette advertising ceased on television in 1971. It's also from a time period when TV shows often had a single sponsor, and that sponsor for Wallace's show was Philip Morris. So, there's nothing surprising about the fact that there are cigarette ads during the interview.

What did surprise me, however, is that Wallace himself endorses Philip Morris cigarettes during the ads. Now, it was common at the time for the hosts or stars of TV shows to do the ads themselves, so perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised. However, Wallace is now remembered as a television journalist, and a reporter doing advertisements―let alone endorsing products―would surely be at least frowned upon. As a result, I found the beginning of the program a bit startling:

Mike Wallace: … My name is Mike Wallace, [holds up cigarette] the cigarette is Philip Morris.

Announcer: New Philip Morris, probably the best natural smoke you ever tasted, presents The Mike Wallace Interview. …

Wallace: My guest's opinions are not necessarily mine, the station's or my sponsor's, Philip Morris Incorporated, but whether you agree or disagree, we feel that none should deny the right of these views to be broadcast. One might say that the basis of this program is fact and fiction. And using that yardstick I'd like to apply it to something I usually talk about at this time and that is this: Philip Morris cigarettes. Here's why I smoke 'em and enjoy them. Fact One: Today's Philip Morris is no ordinary blend, it's a special blend, of domestic and imported tobaccos. Opinion? My taste may be different from yours, but on this I think we can agree. This cigarette tastes natural; I think you'll like it. …[S]o get with Philip Morris yourself and check these facts. When you do, I think you'll find it's probably the best natural smoke you ever tasted. And now to our story. …

Source: "Guest: Margaret Sanger", The Mike Wallace Interview, 9/21/1957

We see here two common fallacies of advertising at work:

  1. Mike Wallace was a celebrity, the star of the show, and a reporter. A naive viewer, such as a young person, might not realize that Wallace was paid to endorse Philip Morris. Moreover, the way in which the ads are integrated into the program, with Wallace turning to the camera to sell cigarettes, could give the impression that his endorsement was a consumer report rather than a commercial.


    New PHILIP MORRIS gives you a natural smoke
  2. Wallace praises Philip Morris as a "natural smoke" and asserts that it "tastes natural". This was part of an ad campaign from the same year that the program aired―see the periodical ad shown for one of many examples from the period. Apparently, what was supposed to be "natural" about Philip Morris was that it was an unfiltered cigarette at a time when filtered cigarettes were growing in popularity. So, Philip Morris had American Spirit cigarettes beat by decades.

    Fallacy: Appeal to Nature

    Resource: Cancer: It's 100% natural!, 5/10/2010

As surprising as the beginning of the program is, its ending is jaw-dropping:

Margaret Sanger: …Mr. Wallace, I've never smoked, but I'm going to begin and take up smoking and use Philip Morris as the cigarette for me to take.

Wallace: Well, I thank you very much Mrs. Sanger. … These few seconds at the end of the interview are among the most enjoyable of the week for me. For much as I enjoy smoking during the interview with Mrs. Sanger, I believe I enjoy this cigarette most right now. Of course, Philip Morris is easy to enjoy and the taste is natural…. Which is why I say get with Philip Morris, probably the best natural smoke you ever tasted.

Mike Wallace was surely being paid for his endorsement, either directly or through the sponsorship of his program, but was Sanger also paid? Given Sanger's controversial status, it's hard to believe that Philip Morris would even want her endorsement. However, if she wasn't being paid, why in the world did she say what she did? She laughs after saying it, so maybe it was her idea of a joke.

April 4th, 2016 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added another contextomy to the Familiar Contextomies page, this one another case of Margaret Sanger being quoted out of context―see the Source, below. As I mentioned when introducing the first one, Sanger is a rich source of contextomies, as well as fake quotes, misquotes, false attributions, and misinterpretations―see the Resource, below. Check it out.

Source: Margaret Sanger, Familiar Contextomies

Resource: What's new?, 7/20/2015

April 1st, 2016 (Permalink)


What is the capital of America?

Answer to the Riddle

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