Check it Out
The Wall Street Journal has a new column, "The Numbers Guy" by Carl Bialik, "the numbers guy", on innumeracy and statistical abuse in the media. The first item in the most recent column deals with a flagrant case of overly-precise numbers.
Reminder: Just a few days left to untie the "nots"!
Source: Carl Bialik, "A Survey Probes the Back Seats of Taxis, With Dubious Results", Wall Street Journal, 1/28/2005
Daniel Okrent, "Public Editor" for the New York Times, has an article on innumeracy among reporters. In one paragraph, he addresses two of my personal gripes:
"'Shrek 2' is not, as an article in The Times Magazine had it in November, 'the third-highest-grossing movie of all time'; if you consider inflation, it's not even in the Top 10 (and 'Titanic' is far from No. 1). This record-mania has spread everywhere. 'Record-high gas prices' summoned up last year weren't even close; at its summer peak, gas cost 80 cents a gallon less than it did in 1981. Says economics reporter David Leonhardt, 'Treating 2004 dollars the same as 1981 dollars isn't much different from treating dollars the same as rupees. The fact that 10 is a bigger number than 9 doesn't make 10 rupees worth more than $9; nor does it make $10 from 2004 worth more than $9 from 1981.'"
Innumeracy is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Lying beneath the surface is a mountain of illogicality.
Source: Daniel Okrent, "Numbed by the Numbers, When They Just Don't Add Up", New York Times, 1/23/2005
Untie the Nots
In the transcript of a criminal trial, the court reporter quoted the defendant, under cross-examination, as saying the following:
Defendant: "I said not not not not."
The court reporter obviously did not know how to correctly punctuate the defendant's statement, so he typed it into the record unpunctuated. However, the defendant's fate depends on exactly what she said. Is it possible to determine from the transcript what the defendant said?
If you think that you can untie the "not"s, send your solution to the Fallacist before the end of the month.
In a Funk
- Sadly, Spinsanity is no more.
Source: "Goodbye from Spinsanity", Spinsanity, 1/19/2005
- Robert Todd Carroll, of the Skeptic's Dictionary, has a long entry on his "Mass Media Funk" weblog concerning the new TV series "Medium", which is supposedly based on the work of "psychic detective" Allison Dubois. One thing that I would add to Carroll's analysis is that people often give high ratings to astrological and other "psychic" readings because such readings consist of vague and ambiguous statements, and it is easy to find meaning in them, especially for someone who is strongly motivated to do so. As I pointed out previously with respect to another "psychic detective", Carla Baron, they typically throw out a lot of vague and ambiguous statements, a few of which will seem to fit the facts while the others will be forgotten.
Source: "Mass Media Funk", Skeptic's Dictionary, 1/17/2005
Resource: Check 'Em Out, 8/23/2004
James K. Glassman of Tech Central Station has an article criticizing environmentalists for supposedly exploiting the tsunami tragedy by claiming that it was either caused by, or its effects aggravated by, global warming. He offers three pieces of evidence, specifically two quotes and an editorial cartoon. Unfortunately, the first quote is a contextomy of a comment made prior to the tsunami but only published afterward. So, unless the speaker was a prophet, it isn't about the tsunami. See the Resource for more details.
The other quote occurs in the following passage:
"…Voice of America broadcast an interview with Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, who claimed that the tsunami 'highlights the need to take action on global warming.' All of us are to blame, said Oreskes…'every single one of us who drives a car, heats our house, flies an airplane,―Anybody who basically lives in the modern world is involved in this activity.'"
What "activity" are we all to blame for? The way that Glassman presents this quote, out of context, gives the impression that Oreskes is talking about us all being to blame for the tsunami. However, the context of the quote makes it clear that she is talking about global warming. Moreover, Oreskes has issued the following clarification:
"In my interview, I was at pains to emphasize that the recent tsunami has nothing to do with global warming, and it would be a mistake to imply that it did."
So, what's left? Oh, there's still that cartoon!
- Joe De Capua, "Global Warming Expert Says Tsunami Shows Vulnerability To Rising Sea Levels", Voice of America, 1/3/2005
- James K. Glassman, "The Tsunami Exploiters", Tech Central Station, 1/14/2005
- Naomi Oreskes, "Naomi Oreskes Misquoted by VOA", Prometheus, 1/5/2005
Resource: Check 'Em Out, 1/6/2005
If you saw or heard about the recent "People's Choice Awards" show, you may have been surprised that Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" won as "favorite movie", while Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" won as "favorite drama". Are these two movies really so popular? The Mystery Pollster explains that they may not be, since the awards were based on an unscientific "junk" poll, that is, one based on a self-selected sample. One problem with such polls is that they may be skewed by organized attempts to influence the results, and it appears that Moore at least appealed to his fans to do so.
- Mark Blumenthal, "Junk Polls: People's Choice Awards", Mystery Pollster, 1/14/2004
- "Moore Campaigns for People's Choice Award", Associated Press, 12/10/2004
Resource: How to Read a Poll, Fallacy Watch
Q: "In my hometown of Oviedo, Spain, there is a philosophical school whose members maintain that the state should be able to kill people who have been duly convicted of and have confessed themselves to be authors of heinous murders―such as terrorists―not out of vengeance or retribution but out of mercy or generosity, since these same people would find life unbearable were they to realize the enormity of their crimes and feel the humongous guilt attached to them. The philosophers propose to call this procedure 'penal euthanasia', since according to them it allows for a 'sweet death' for people whose identity has been so permanently affected by their brutal crimes that it would be impossible for them to be rehabilitated or retain any quality of life. Is there a fallacy involved in their reasoning? To me it all sounds like the death penalty in disguise, but I may be wrong."―José Cabo
A: You're right, José. Putting aside the substantive issue of whether this is a good argument for capital punishment, the term "penal euthanasia" is an example of doublespeak. This is the use of euphemism to obscure the nature of what is discussed. Such doublespeak is not fallacious in itself, but is a linguistic boobytrap, that is, a use of language which may confuse people into fallacious reasoning. To call the execution of convicted criminals a form of "euthanasia" begs the question of whether this would really be a "good death" for them. In other words, calling the death penalty "euthanasia" does not make it so.
Check 'Em Out
- Jim Norton, of the Info-Pollution website, points out a couple of junk quotes―otherwise known as "contextomies"―in a recent column by Steven "The Junkman" Milloy.
Source: Jim Norton, "The Year of Quoting Dangerously", Info-Pollution, 12/2004
- Julian Baggini's latest Bad Moves column is, as usual, worth reading. I've noticed a similar, if not identical, error to that which he discusses, namely, the mistake of inferring that criticism of a certain argument for a conclusion is thereby a rejection of that conclusion. However, just because you reject a particular argument for a conclusion doesn't mean that you may not be persuaded by some other argument. When I criticize arguments in The Fallacy Files and on this weblog, I do not intend to take sides on the issues. My role as a logician is simply to point out that there's been a foul on that play; who wins the debate is not up to me.
Similarly, the fact that you may see some reasons for some conclusion doesn't mean that you must ultimately accept that conclusion, for there may be weightier reasons against it. In politics especially, positions are often so polarized that each side sees the other side's view as not just wrong but completely without merit. This leads people to conclude that those on the other side must be either idiots or evil liars, but the truth is seldom so black-or-white.
Source: Julian Baggini, "Partial Defence = Support", Bad Moves, 1/6/2005
Letter to the Editor
Letters to the editor of newspapers and magazines often contain fallacious arguments, but they seldom are gracious enough to tell you what fallacy they commit. Here's an exception:
"'Should this man come to the U.S.?' [December 6] certainly provided food for thought. When the State Department effectively denies an academic appointment to a scholar ranked by Europe and the United States as among the best in the world, we must ask not only why but also where will this take our nation. Our universities and research institutions enjoy world renown and have attracted the best and the brightest in all fields. In the 21st century, will brilliant contributions be welcomed only if they come from the 'right' country or people of the 'right' faith? What is next? Censorship, book burnings, or perhaps the thought police? A slippery slope indeed."
Source: "Letters: Muslim Scholar Controversy", U.S. News & World Report, 1/10/2004
The Contextomies Will Not End
In the following news report from Agence France Presse, Secretary of State Colin Powell sounds pessimistic about the situation in Iraq:
"Insurgency in Iraq 'will not end': Powell
"WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the insurgency in Iraq 'will not end,' as insurgents are determined to derail the country's democratic transition. Powell reiterated that Iraq's January 30 elections will take place as scheduled and that the US and Iraqi forces are working to have security in place for the polls. But, he told CBS television, 'the insurgency will not end.'
"'These insurgents are determined to have no representative government. They want to go back to a tyranny,' Powell said. 'And so the insurgency will continue and the insurgency will have to be defeated by coalition forces, but increasingly the insurgency will be defeated and brought under control, if not completely defeated, by Iraqi forces that we are building up as rapidly as we can,' he added."
The article gives the impression that Powell thinks the insurgency will never completely end. It quotes the phrase "will not end" three times: once in the headline, and twice in the first paragraph. However, the quote in context sounds less pessimistic:
"MR. [Harry] SMITH: …Can you promise, or at least believe, that things will improve [in Iraq] after the election at the end of January?
"SECRETARY POWELL: What I can say is that after the election at the end of January you will have a government that is representative of the Iraqi people. They will have voted for that government. The insurgency will not end. These insurgents are determined to have no representative government. They want to go back to a tyranny. And so the insurgency will continue and the insurgency will have to be defeated by coalition forces, but increasingly the insurgency will be defeated and brought under control, if not completely defeated, by Iraqi forces that we are building up as rapidly as we can under the distinguished leadership of General Petraeus."
So, in answer to Smith's question concerning the situation in Iraq "after the election" at the end of this month, and about a month after the interview, Powell answers that the insurgency "will not end". In other words, the occurrence of the election alone will not bring an end to the insurgency. That's not a "stop the presses!" revelation.
Unfortunately, exposing a contextomy such as this here on the Fallacy Files weblog will not end quoting out of context. And you can quote me on that!
- "Insurgency in Iraq 'Will Not End': Powell", Agence France Presse, 12/28/2004
- "Interview on CBS's Early Show With Harry Smith", U.S. Department of State, 12/28/2004
Via: Michael Totten, "Adventures in News-Doctoring", 12/29/2004
Solutions to "Untie the Nots" (2/1/2005): A reader dubbed Cypherwulfe sent in what is probably the simplest solution:
Defendant: "I said not! Not! Not! Not!"
This is certainly possible, and would indicate a strong denial of the charge. However, other solutions are possible, such as the following one provided by Steve Parker:
Defendant: "I said 'not', not 'not not'."
Though differing from the first solution, it also seems to indicate a denial of some previous statement. However, as Paul Farrington noted it's also possible that the defendent said:
Defendant: "I said 'not not', not 'not'."
"Thus utterly reversing the implications of the defendant's testimony" as Paul added. So, the defendant's unpunctuated testimony is ambiguous.
For extra credit, Paul included the following clever solution:
"At a pinch, she might have said '"knot not", not "knot"', perhaps instructing an errant boy scout or perchance a dominatrix."
This solution plays upon homophonic ambiguity, that is, the confusing of distinct words which sound alike. Since the court reporter was hearing the testimony, the mistaking of a word for another that sounds the same is possible. For a sequel, in which the mystery is solved, see Untie the Nots, Part 2.