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February 22nd, 2010 (Permalink)

The Undiscovered Country

I've complained previously about the tendency of the media to offer a skeptic a minute or two on a program, or a sentence or two in an article, when covering pseudoscience. Michael Shermer recently played this role on an episode of Larry King's show dealing with "near-death experiences", as he recounts in the latest "Skeptic" column in Scientific American. I don't know why shows such as King's bother with such "token skeptics" since, rather than providing balance, it usually just highlights how one-sided the shows are.

For some strange reason, near-death experiences are often treated as evidence for an afterlife, or for what an afterlife will be like. However, there's really no reason to see them that way, as opposed to taking them as evidence of what hallucinations people experience when the brain is deprived of oxygen in the process of dying. Some of the accounts claim that the dying person learns information that they could not have acquired in any normal way, but that's still no more evidence of an afterlife than of some kind of "psychic" perception triggered by nearly dying.

This topic is muddled by both the ambiguity and the vagueness of the concept of "death". In the past, most people considered death to be the stoppage of the heart, breathing, consciousness, and all movement. However, if you define "death" in these terms, then many people have "died" and come back to life again. If, in contrast, you define "death" as the cessation of brain activity―often called "brain death"―then a person who appears dead may not be dead at all. Shermer discusses an example:

The same definitional problem arose when guest host Jeff Probst (of Survivor fame, fittingly) introduced the football referee: "A man died on a football field seven years ago and came back to life." Gupta added that he "was dead for two minutes and 40 seconds." When I was asked for an explanation, I said: "He wasn’t dead! … He was in a near-death state." In fact, moments after collapsing, the ref had his heart restarted by an automated external defibrillator. There was nothing miraculous to explain.

Presumably, when Gupta said that the ref "was dead for two minutes and 40 seconds", he was using the word "dead" in the sense of heart-stoppage. However, the ref was almost certainly not brain dead in less than three minutes. As Shermer says, there's nothing miraculous about reviving someone whose heart has stopped for a few minutes, whether you call the person "dead" or not.

Moreover, no matter how you define "death", it's a biological process that, like other such processes, does not occur in an instant:

Dr. Gupta started us off by recalling that when he was in medical school the residents were taught to mark the time of death to the minute, when death can often take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to occur, depending on the conditions.

In other words, "death" is a vague concept and the boundary between life and death is fuzzy. For this reason alone, there will be people who have experiences where we cannot tell whether they were "really" alive or dead.

So, what does all this say about an afterlife? Precisely nothing, as far as I can see.

Source: Michael Shermer, "Surviving Death on Larry King Live", Scientific American, 3/2010

February 19th, 2010 (Permalink)

A "Tremendous!" Contextomy

Here's something I've never seen before. An ad for the new movie Blood Done Sign My Name has the single word "tremendous", followed by an exclamation point, and enclosed in quotation marks. So, it appears to be a critic's blurb, but it's not attributed to any critic or publication. Assuming that it's taken from an actual review of the movie, there's no way to check whether it's being quoted misleadingly. However, how do we even know that it comes from a review of the film? For all we know, the ad could be quoting the dictionary. Or, perhaps the ad writer muttered the word under his breath as he wrote the ad, then quoted himself. This has to be some kind of record-setting contextomy.

Update (2/26/2010): Another ad for the same movie has the blurb:


The original ad discussed above followed the single-word blurb "TREMENDOUS!" with a blurb attributed to Movieweb, which led me to think that the "TREMENDOUS!" blurb might also have come from the same source. However, a search of Movieweb did not reveal any use of the word "tremendous" in reference to the movie, so I assumed that this was not meant to be the source of the blurb.

The only occurrence of the word "tremendous" in a review of the movie on Movieweb that I can find is the following sentence by reviewer Harvey Karten: "In 1964, President Johnson, who had more influence with the Congress than the current chief executive, got a major civil rights act passed far reaching and had tremendous long-term impacts on the whole country. [Sic]" So, it appears that this is an ordinary if rather extreme contextomy, after all.

The word "riveting" also occurs in the same review in the following context: "You wouldn't know this by watching Jeb Stuart's riveting film, one based on a real case in Oxford, North Carolina." There's no problem with that part of the blurb, since Karten is referring to the film, and not the impact of LBJ's civil rights legislation.

The word "powerful" does not occur in Karten's review, but does occur twice in the one other review of the movie I could find on the Movieweb site. However, neither occurrence refers to the movie directly, but to its "story" and "material". The fact that the ad takes words from two different reviews and combines them into a single blurb presumably explains why the blurb is attributed only to Movieweb, and not to an individual reviewer. This is another practice I've never seen before, and it certainly opens up possibilities for some creative contextomies!


February 12th, 2010 (Permalink)

"Where's Your Argument?"

Manchester Metropolitan University in Cheshire, England has a conference on informal logic, critical thinking, and argumentation called "Where's Your Argument?" on April 12th and 13th. It has a terrific lineup of speakers, including:

The conference is free, but requires registration by April 1st―I hope that's not some kind of joke, as I'm not sure whether April Fool's Day is celebrated in England. In any case, you'll probably feel like a fool if you don't register by that date and then try to attend the conference. If you want more information, you can email the conference, or visit its website.

February 11th, 2010 (Permalink)


Rare snow bears down on Deep South

Polar bears in dixie? I blame global warming!

Source: Dan Gilgoff, "Rare snow bears down on Deep South", CNN, 2/12/2010

February 10th, 2010 (Permalink)

What's New?

The fallacy of Overgenerality! This is a highly general fallacy―though hopefully not overly general―and I add it mainly as a place to hang subfallacies. However, it also provides an opportunity to explain the difference between three concepts that are often confused: overgenerality, vagueness, and abstraction. Overgenerality is not yet represented in the full Taxonomy, but its branch can be seen at the top of the entry. In the future, such branches will replace listings of Type, Subfallacies, and Sibling Fallacies in the fallacy entries.

February 3rd, 2010 (Permalink)


Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts

Thankfully, there are no alligators in this part of the country. The above headline was taken from The New York Times Magazine's most recent "On Language" column. According to the column, such amphibolous headlines have been dubbed "crash blossoms". The name is taken from another example: "Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms". I don't much care for the name "crash blossoms", and I doubt it will catch on, but you never know. Of course, as any reader of The Fallacy Files knows, I do like crash blossoms and use them here under the rubric "Headlines". If you like them too, then read the whole thing.

Source: Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Crash Blossoms", The New York Times Magazine, 1/27/2010

February 1st, 2010 (Permalink)

Untie the Nots, Part 3

You sign up for an internet service but after less than a month decide that you don't want to continue it. However, the agreement you signed contains the following puzzling statement:

You will not be charged your first monthly fee unless you don't cancel within the first 30 days.

Can you cancel the service without paying the first monthly fee? To find the answer, determine which of the following statements has the same meaning as the puzzling statement:

  1. If you cancel within the first thirty days, you will be charged your first monthly fee.
  2. You will be charged your first monthly fee unless you cancel within the first 30 days.
  3. You will be charged your first monthly fee only if you cancel within the first thirty days.
  4. If you cancel within the first thirty days, you will not be charged your first monthly fee.
  5. If you don't cancel within the first thirty days, you will be charged your first monthly fee.


Previous Puzzles:

Solution to "Untie the Nots, Part 3": According to the agreement, you can avoid paying the first monthly fee by cancelling within the first month. So, statement 4 is the right answer.

The puzzling statement, which comes from an actual internet service company's cancellation policy, is confusing largely because there are two negations in it. You probably know that double negations cancel out, but this does not mean that we can simply remove the two "not"s from the puzzling statement to get an equivalent statement. Doing so produces statement 2, which is probably true, but does not say the same thing as the original statement.

"Unless" means the same thing as "if not", so the following statement will mean the same as our target:

You will not be charged your first monthly fee if you don't not cancel within the first 30 days.

Now, the negations in the antecedent of this statement do cancel out, producing the following:

You will not be charged your first monthly fee if you cancel within the first 30 days.

Rearranging the order of antecedent and consequent produces:

If you cancel within the first 30 days, you will not be charged your first monthly fee.

This is statement 4, which therefore means the same thing as the original statement. To show that the other four statements are not equivalent is more difficult; see the Technical Appendix below.


Technical Appendix: For those with some knowledge of propositional logic, here are translations of the statements. Each of the statements contains two simple statement components:

  1. "You will be charged your first monthly fee". Let's represent this as "p".
  2. "You cancel within the first 30 days." Let's represent this as "q".

In the puzzling statement, each of the simple statements is negated and joined by the connective "unless". As mentioned above, "p unless q" means the same as "p if not q", which means that we can fully translate "p unless q" as "~q → p". Of course, this is equivalent to "q v p", which means that "unless" says the same thing as "or", surprisingly. So, the puzzling statement can be translated as:

~p v ~q.

The five possible answers can be translated as follows:

  1. q → p
  2. p v q
  3. p → q
  4. q → ~p
  5. ~q → p

Only 4 is logically equivalent to the puzzling statement, which can be seen by comparing the truth-tables for each statement. I leave this as an exercise for the unconvinced reader.

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