March 27th, 2015 (Permalink)

Conspiracy Theorists and Other Bad Thinkers

…[N]one of us can deny that intellectual vices of one sort or another are at play in at least some of our thinking. Being alive to this possibility is the mark of a healthy mind.

That's philosopher Quassim Cassam from a very interesting article at Aeon magazine applying the theory of intellectual virtues and vices to conspiracy theorists (CTists)―see Source 2, below. If you're not familiar with intellectual virtues and vices, here's an introductory sketch―for a longer, more challenging introduction, see the Resource, below:

The theory of intellectual virtues and vices is an outgrowth of an approach to ethics that goes back as far as Plato and whose most influential exponent was Aristotle. Ethical virtues are such things as courage, honesty, self-control, and so on, while the vices are cowardice, dishonesty, self-indulgence, and the like. The intellectual virtues and vices are special types of the ethical ones related to intellectual matters having to do with the formation and maintenance of beliefs, evaluation of evidence, willingness to change beliefs, etc. Such virtues include intellectual humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; corresponding vices are intellectual arrogance, willful ignorance, and closed-mindedness.

Here's why Cassam thinks that it's worthwhile applying the theory of intellectual virtues to conspiracy theorists:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not…that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

You can see in this short quote that Cassam's approach is to reject the idea that CTists are ignorant in favor of the notion that there is something wrong with the way they think. I agree with him that the problem with CTists is usually not a lack of information per se―typically, they have loads of information supporting their pet conspiracy theory (CT), though much of it will be false―but it may be that such false information isn't the kind of relevant information in question. Rather, what the CTists need is the information that would refute their favored CT. In my experience, CTists are frequently ignorant of exactly this kind of information, despite the masses of pseudo-evidence they can spew forth in support of their CT.

Moreover, the evidence refuting most CTs is readily available―"The truth is out there!" to quote an infamous conspiracy-mongering TV show―but CTists don't believe it. The CTist pays close attention to the evidence that supports his favorite CT, but ignores or downplays that which refutes it. He exercises little or no skepticism about evidence favorable to his theory, which is why he ends up believing so many falsehoods. In contrast, his skepticism immediately goes into overdrive when forced to confront counter-evidence, which he simply dismisses.

So, I generally agree with Cassam that CTists are bad thinkers. Nonetheless, such bad intellectual traits can lead to CTists lacking relevant information because they fail to seek it out (a lack of curiosity), fear the consequences to their pet beliefs (intellectual cowardice), and actively resist being educated (willful ignorance). For this reason, simply making correct information available will probably have little effect on CTists, since they are likely to dismiss or downplay it if they come across it. As Cassam puts it:

…[T]here remains the problem of what to do about such people as [the CTist]. If he is genuinely closed-minded then his mind will presumably be closed to the idea that he is closed-minded. Closed-mindedness is one of the toughest intellectual vices to tackle because it is in its nature to be concealed from those who have it. … What if [he] is too far gone and canít change his ways even if he wanted to? Like other bad habits, intellectual bad habits can be too deeply entrenched to change. This means living with their consequences. Trying to reason with people who are obstinately closed-minded, dogmatic or prejudiced is unlikely to be effective.

The philosopher Stephen Law has used the apt phrase "intellectual black hole" to refer to such things as CTs. Once someone has been sucked into the intellectual black hole of a CT, he may be forever unreachable. This is a discouraging fact, but it should also encourage us to do what we can to prevent people from falling into such holes. One thing we can do is to put up intellectual signposts along the way: "Caution: intellectual black hole ahead!", "Dead end", "No exit".

You might wonder what the value is of condemning CTists, pseudoscientists, and others as "bad thinkers", especially if the conclusion follows that there is little if anything we can do to make their thinking better. A negative point is that it may be a waste of time and effort to directly argue with CTists since they are often not receptive to evidence against their pet CTs. A positive point is that if we want to reduce the prevalence of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, we need to educate people in the intellectual virtues. As Cassam writes: "If we care about the truth then we should care about equipping people with the intellectual means to arrive at the truth and avoid falsehood."


  1. "Make your own Road Construction Sign", Atom Smasher
  2. Quassim Cassam, "Bad Thinkers", Aeon, 3/13/2015

Resource: Rosalind Hursthouse, "Virtue Ethics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

March 22nd, 2015 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a new contextomy to the "Familiar Contextomies" page―see the Source, below. This is another misleading quote used by 9/11 conspiracy theorists to suggest that something other than an airliner crashed into the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.

Source: Familiar Contextomies: Danielle O'Brien

March 16th, 2015 (Permalink)

Wikipedia Watch

In previous watches, I've mentioned hoaxes that have been played on Wikipedia―see the list below. Unfortunately, hoaxing Wikipedia is not a new pastime, and some have even done it for college credit! The longest-lived hoax that I was aware of lasted for five years before it was discovered, but now a decade-long hoax has been uncovered―see the Source, below, for the details. This is just the latest record-holder, and it's likely that even longer-lived ones will eventually come to light. This is why I argued, in the most recent watch listed below, that we can't really know how fast hoaxes or other types of misinformation are exposed.

It's hard to imagine something like this happening to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, or to any other traditional encyclopedia for that matter. The fact that anyone can add something to Wikipedia would seem to make hoaxing unavoidable. This is one reason why it's not a trustworthy source of information; at the very least, you need to verify what it says with at least one independent source.

Source: Mason, "Jared Owens, God of Wikipedia", Wikipediocracy , 3/15/2015

Previous Wikipedia Watches: 5/16/2012, 1/9/2013, 12/21/2014

Reader Response (3/23/2015): Pat Heil writes:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) and other "reliable" sources are at the mercy of the tendentious, the poor scholar, and the latter day scholar who accepts as authorities people whose material is out of date. I feel quite sure that editions of EB published between 1912 and 1953 treated Piltdown Man seriously as a forebear of humanity. So all authorities deserve to be questioned, not just Wikipedia.

I expect you're right about the Piltdown hoax, but that's not the sort of hoax that's been played repeatedly on Wikipedia. It is possible that a traditional encyclopedia such as the Britannica might run a hoax article, but it's far less likely to happen than to Wikipedia. I agree that it's a good idea to double-check every source, and to trust none completely, but some are more trustworthy than others. No source―not even Britannica―is 100% reliable, but some are more reliable than others, and many are more reliable than Wikipedia.

March 14th, 2015 (Permalink)

Logical Literacy: "You can't prove a negative."

I have some good news and some bad news. I'll save the good news till later. Here's the bad news: despite what you may have heard, you can too prove a negative!

One of the earliest proofs of a negative is what is sometimes referred to as "Euclid's Second Theorem", which is that there are an infinite number of prime numbers. Why is this a negative? Take a close look at that word "infinite". Do you see the "in" on the front? "In-finite", that is, not finite. Are you still not convinced? Specifically, what Euclid proved is that there is no greatest prime number; that there must be an infinite number of primes follows from this fact, because if there were a finite number of primes then there would be a greatest one.

How did Euclid prove that there is no greatest prime number? Without going into the details, he first assumed that there is a greatest prime, and then showed how to find an even bigger prime. This, of course, is a form of reductio ad absurdum (RAA), in which you prove something false by assuming that it's true and showing that a contradiction follows from that assumption, which is a common form of proof in logic and mathematics.

Euclid's Second Theorem is just one of many negative theorems in logic and math. Other famous negative theorems are Fermat's Last Theorem and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems―note the word "incompleteness": in-completeness, that is, not complete.

Moreover, as philosopher Steven Hales points out―see the Source, below―"you can't prove a negative" is itself a negative statement, so if it's true then you can't prove it! So, how would you know that "you can't prove a negative" is true?

Let's move on to the good news: while it's not true as a general matter that you can't prove a negative, there is something to the idea. However, getting at what that something amounts to is not easy, but that's what I'll try to do in the remainder of this entry.

First of all, I was speaking of "proof" in the strict, logical sense of the word, above. Unfortunately, in this strong sense of the word, the only things you can "prove" are propositions of logic and mathematics. However, there is a weaker, common use of the word "prove" to mean something like "establish beyond a reasonable doubt". This is the sort of "proof" standard used in criminal cases in American courts. In this weaker sense, it's possible to "prove" things that are not part of logic or math, such as that the defendent is guilty. For the rest of this entry, I'll use the word "establish" for this weaker sense of "prove".

So, instead of "you can't prove a negative" I'll be discussing "you can't establish a negative", instead. However, it's still not true that you can't establish a negative. Consider the claim that all swans are white. It's easy to establish the negation of this claim, at least if you live in Australia: just produce a non-white swan, which has in fact been done since there are black swans in Australia.

In order to find any truth in the claim that you can't establish a negative we have to focus upon a specific type of negative statement, namely, a negative existential statement. An existential statement―or, more specifically, an affirmative existential statement―is just a claim that some particular thing or type of thing exists. For instance, "there is a Loch Ness monster" is an affirmative existential statement; "there are bigfeet [bigfoots?]" is another. A negative existential statement is just the negation of an affirmative one, so "there is no Loch Ness monster" and "there are no bigfeet" are both negative existentials.

Affirmative existential statements are comparatively easy to establish; at least, that is, if they are true. Consider the claim: "a black swan exists". To establish this statement, all that is necessary is to produce a black swan, which is easy if you live in Australia. In contrast, the negation of "a black swan exists"―namely, "it is not the case that a black swan exists" or "there are no black swans"―would be much harder to establish even if it were true. To establish that there were no black swans, you would have to examine every swan and see that none is black. While not completely impossible, this is for all practical purposes undoable. Thus, it can be much more difficult to establish a negative existential claim than an affirmative one.

Thus, it is reasonable to place the burden of proof on those who make affirmative existential claims rather than on those who deny them. This is one reason why some skeptics have made the "you can't prove a negative" claim: the burden of proof is not on the skeptic to disprove the existence of the Loch Ness monster, bigfeet, flying saucers, etc., but on those who claim they exist.

To sum up, you can prove a negative, but it's much harder to establish a negative existential statement than an affirmative one. As a result, the burden of proof is on those who make affirmative existential claims rather than on those who deny them.



March 3rd, 2015 (Permalink)

Sobriety Check, Part 2

In part one, we saw that the statistical claim that underage drinkers spent $22.5 billion on alcoholic beverages in the United States in 2001 was implausible―see the Resource, below. In order for this to be true, underage drinkers would have had to spend an average of over $600 apiece. However, though this is an implausibly high amount, it isn't impossible.

To perform this statistical check, all that we needed was the information included in a short New York Times article that reported the claim―see Source 2, below―as well as the statistical benchmark that approximately four million babies are born each year in the U.S. Unfortunately, the information contained in the Times report, together with statistical benchmarks, does not appear to be sufficient to show that the original paper that reported this statistic must be in error. In this sequel, we will turn to the paper itself―see Source 1, below―and use a different technique to check it.

As a general matter, not every dubious statistic that you come across in the news media can be detected by the use of statistical benchmarks. Sometimes the needed benchmarks won't be available, or a questionable number may survive a benchmark test. Luckily, there's an alternative test that sometimes works when the benchmark test fails.

Turning now to the paper itself, here's how the researchers arrived at the estimate of the amount spent by underage drinkers on alcoholic beverages:

  1. They used census data from 2000 to estimate the number of people between the ages of 12 and 20. Nowhere do they actually provide this figure, as far as I can tell, but based on the information they do give I estimate it as a conservative 40 million. See the Technical Appendix, below, if you want to know exactly how I arrived at this estimate.
  2. Using survey data, they estimated the proportion of those in this age group who are drinkers, and thus underage drinkers. Again, the precise number is not given, but based on the data I estimate it as approximately 19 million. Again, see the Technical Appendix, below, for the details of this estimate.
  3. Again using survey data, they estimated the mean number of drinks by underage drinkers in a month: 35.2.
  4. From the two previous numbers, they calculated the total number of drinks taken by underage drinkers in 2001, which they give as just over 20 billion.
  5. From this last number, together with data about the average price of alcoholic beverages, they estimated the amount of money spent on underage drinking.

Now, as I suggested above, it's unlikely that you can use benchmarks to check these statistics, but there's another way you can do it. You can check these numbers using only the information above. Moreover, you won't need any sophisticated math, though the use of a calculator would make the calculations less tedious. When you've done so, click on "Sobriety Check", below, to see the results of one such check.

Sobriety Check


  1. Susan E. Foster, Roger D. Vaughan, William H. Foster, Joseph A. Califano Jr, "Estimate of the Commercial Value of Underage Drinking and Adult Abusive and Dependent Drinking to the Alcohol Industry", Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 5/2006
  2. Eric Nagourney, "Addiction: Sales Estimates Paint Portraits of Alcohol Abusers", The New York Times, 5/2/2006

Resource: Sobriety Check, 2/24/2015

February 24th, 2015 (Permalink)

Sobriety Check

According to a brief news report―see Source 3, for the full article:

…[R]esearchers reported that in 2001 underage drinkers spent an estimated $22.5 billion, more than 17 percent of the total amount spent on alcohol [in the United States].

Were the researchers in question drunk or sober when they reported this? Is it plausible that underage drinkers would have spent so much on alcoholic beverages? Is it believable that those under the legal drinking age, which is 21 in the U.S., are responsible for 17% of sales of alcohol?

Don't assume that just because this news report was published in a reputable source―The New York Times!―that these statistics must be correct. We've seen in previous entries that false and misleading statistical claims sometimes make their way into the news―see the Resources, below, for a couple of recent examples. Reporters are not necessarily numerate, nor do they always think that it's their job to check the numbers they report for accuracy. In many cases, they pass along statistics generated by activist groups or advocacy researchers without getting a second opinion. Also, they often fail to inform their readers about the biases of their sources.

We've also seen, in the same Resources, how it's possible to use statistical benchmarks to check such claims for plausibility. A statistical benchmark is a statistic that is useful in many contexts for evaluating other statistical claims. One that may come in handy in evaluating the above claim is the fact that approximately four million babies are born in the United States each year.

Using just this information, can you check the sobriety of the claim that "in 2001 underage drinkers spent an estimated $22.5 billion" on alcoholic beverages? Is this a plausible amount given what you know about underage drinking and the cost of alcohol? When you think you have succeeded, click on the following link to see the results of one such check:

Sobriety Check



  1. A Mutant Statistic, 1/25/2015
  2. Sanity Check it Out, 11/23/2014

February 20th, 2015 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Citizenfour

Judging by a full-page ad in The New York Times a week ago, the new documentary Citizenfour has received considerable critical acclaim. However, as is often the case with movie ads, its critical acclaim is not quite all it's claimed to be.

The Times ad has a remarkable variant of a trick we've seen before in ads for movies: across the middle of the ad is a series of seven groupings of four stars from various publications, indicating that each publication gave the movie a four-star review.

What we're not shown is that five of these reviews are based on a five-star grading system. Of the seven reviews listed, the only one that I could verify was four-stars out of four possible was that from Godfrey Cheshire at the late Roger Ebert's site.

The Huffington Post is also listed in the ad, but it doesn't appear to have an official movie reviewer. Instead, there are multiple critics who post reviews on the site. I checked every review of the movie that I could find, but most didn't use a star rating system, and the only one that did use such a system gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars. Now, it may well be that there's another review on Huff 'n' Puff that I've missed that gives it four stars but, even if so, what justifies the blurber cherry-picking that one to use in the ad rather than the three-and-a-half star one?


February 10th, 2015 (Permalink)

Name that Fallacy!

It's time again to play America's favorite fallacy game. Can you name the fallacy committed in the following sentence?

Americans ate 43.3 pounds of chicken per person in 1976 compared to 15.5 pounds in 1910.―The Boston Globe, 7/19/1978, p. 65

When you think you know the answer, click on "Fallacy" below to see if you're right:


Source: Lucy Horwitz & Lou Ferleger, Statistics for Social Change (1980), p. 250

Why do we believe celebrity pseudoscience?
February 9th, 2015 (Permalink)

New Book: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

A recent headline at CBS News asks the burning question: "Why do we believe celebrity pseudoscience?" Well, I don't. But it's obvious that enough do to make it profitable for celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jenny McCarthy to promote it.

Despite its headline, the article doesn't really explain why people are willing to give credence to uncredentialed celebrities. Instead, it seems to be primarily a puff piece for a new book by Tim Caulfield entitled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. When they clash, I'm rooting for science.

I don't know why so much attention is given to Paltrow, since she's certainly not the only celebrity offender, nor the worst. Also, it's very unlikely that she's wrong about everything. Of course, I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know if it's any good, but it's an encouraging sign of some push back against those celebrities who are passing themselves off as experts on health or politics.


Fallacy: Appeal to Celebrity

February 4, 2015 (Permalink)

We Need a Vaccination Against Contextomies

Did Barack Obama, when he was running for president in 2008, say that he was suspicious that there might be a connection between vaccines and the rising rate of autism? If you've heard this claim, you may have seen the following quote:

"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."―Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, 4/21/2008

This quote has been used both by political opponents of Obama who want to attack him for being "anti-science", as well as by some of those who are critical of vaccination and want to enlist him on their side. No doubt the quote sounds pretty damning if you assume that by "this person" Obama was referring to himself. However, if you watch the video of the campaign event at which Obama made the quoted remark, you should get a different impression―see the embedded video; the relevant remarks start at about the fortieth minute. This event seems to have been an outdoors question and answer session in which Obama is surrounded by a small group of voters. When he speaks the words "this person included", he points towards someone off camera.

This is a good example of a type of ambiguity that comes from the use of demonstrative words, such as "this", "that", "these", "those", etc. What such a demonstrative refers to is determined partly by context, including such clues as body language―Obama's pointing, in this case. Thus, when removed from context, such words are ambiguous, and you have to be careful not to misinterpret them.

Some of those who have recognized that Obama wasn't referring to himself in the quote have still criticized him for his subsequent statement: "The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it." That may sound as though he is giving aid and comfort to those who think that vaccination may be involved in autism. However, once again, looking at the larger context of Obama's remarks gives a different picture―I've highlighted the parts included in the original contextomy so that you can easily see what was excluded:

Weíve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Nobody knows exactly why. There are some people who are suspicious that itís connected to vaccines and triggers, but―this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it's very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like polio. And so we can't afford to junk our vaccine system. We've got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we're seeing we're never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that's going to be necessary.

Notice that the second sentence, "nobody knows exactly why", refers back to the "skyrocketing autism rate". This sentence―which was omitted from the original quote without even the courtesy of ellipses―when restored and considered together with the subsequent statements about special education funding, make it clear that "the science right now is inconclusive" refers to the rising autism rate rather than the supposed link with vaccines.

It would still be fair to take Obama to task for not having more definitively disavowed the link between vaccination and autism. I hereby do so.


  1. Michael Dobbs, "Dr. Obama and Dr. McCain", The Washington Post, 1/22/2015
  2. Louis Jacobson, "What Barack Obama said about autism and vaccines in 2008", PolitiFact, 2/3/2015
  3. Alex Knapp, "Obama Cites Link Between Vaccines and Autism", Outside the Beltway, 4/22/2015
  4. Robert Mackey, "Video Shows Obamaís 2008 Comments on Vaccines Were Misreported", The New York Times, 2/3/2015

Via: Paul Fidalgo, "One Ring to Fool Them All", The Morning Heresy, 2/4/2015

Update (3/15/2015): I've previously mentioned the book Science Left Behind―see the Resources, below―and expressed skepticism about it: concentrating on the scientific sins of one political wing only contributes to the politicization of science.

I don't need any convincing that there are anti-scientific elements on the political left; after all, it was the left that came up with the notions of "proletarian" science and "bourgeois" science. If we don't watch out, we're going to end up with Democrat science―evolution, global warming, and organic food―and Republican science―vaccination, nuclear power, and genetically modified food. I suppose one might defend the book as an answer to Chris Mooney's earlier book The Republican War on Science, but two wrongs don't make a right.

I recently acquired a copy of Science Left Behind and have just started reading it. In chapter 2, on the Obama administration's science record, what should I find but an appearance of the above contextomy―see the Source, below. It occurs in the context of a section entitled "Barack Obama vs. Vaccines", which gives the impression that Obama is referring to himself by "this person", and that he was claiming that the scientific evidence of a causal connection between vaccines and autism was inconclusive. As shown above, the former is clearly a false impression and the latter is at least doubtful.

That the authors would use this quote is discouraging as it suggests that their research and fact-checking for the book was shallow. Either that, or their desire to find damning quotes from progressives made it "too good to check".



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