Name That Fallacy!
"WASHINGTONPresident Bush enters his convention week holding a slight lead over Democrat John Kerry and regaining ground he lost after Kerry's convention on the key issues of handling terrorism and Iraq, a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows. In a head-to-head matchup, Bush led Kerry 50%-47% among likely voters, while Kerry led Bush 48%-47% among registered voters. With independent Ralph Nader included, Bush leads Kerry, 48%-46%, among likely voters. Nader gets 4%. The poll of 1,004 adults, conducted Monday through Wednesday, had a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. The margin was +/- 4 points for the subgroups of registered and likely voters."
Source: Jill Lawrence, "Poll: Bush has Slim Lead over Kerry", USA Today, 8/26/2004
Resource: Poll Watch, 7/2/2004
"If you're listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you're a bigger moron than they are. Why are we rock stars? Because we're morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night and very rarely do we sit around reading the Washington Journal."Alice Cooper
Source: Steve Roeder, "Alice Cooper: Fellow Rockers are Treasonous Morons", Mens News Daily, 8/26/2004
Via: Juan Non-Volokh, "Rock N Roll Treason", The Volokh Conspiracy, 8/26/2004
How to Dangle a Comparative
Here's John Kerry in a recent campaign speech:
"They came out with a study that documents what I and others have been saying over these past months. That over the last four years, the burden of taxes has shifted from the wealthy to the middle class. The middle class is paying more taxes."
More than what? You might think that Kerry meant that the middle class is paying more taxes than it used to, but that isn't true. You could be forgiven for thinking that Kerry meant that they're paying more than they would have paid if it weren't for Bush's "tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans"; but that's not true, either. So, what did Kerry mean?
The study that Kerry referred towhich was done by the Congressional Budget Officeclaims to show that the middle class is paying a higher percentage of the overall amount of taxes paid than it used to, despite the fact that the overall amount is less. In other words, the "tax burden" is lighter than it used to be, but the middle class is carrying "more" of that burden than it used to. It's as if you're moving, but one of your rich friends doesn't show up, so that more of the moving burden falls on your middle class friends; however, at the same time, some of your stuff gets repossessed by the rental company, so there's less to move.
So, what Kerry really means when he says that the middle class is paying more taxes is that they are paying less money, but a higher percentage of the total amount, than they used to. Is his solution to this inequity that they should pay more money, but a lower percentage, than they do now? If so, with a simple dangling comparative he can claim that he has lowered their taxes!
- Ben Fritz, "CBO Report Spun by Both Sides", Spinsanity, 8/24/2004
- Update, 6/3/2004
Check 'Em Out
- Julian Baggini has posted a new Bad Moves column, this one on the genetic fallacy. I hesitate to disagree with Baggini, but in this case I don't think that the argument that cows' milk is unhealthy for people because it is meant for calves is an instance of the genetic fallacy. As he says near the end of the column:
"The phrase 'genetic fallacy' was originally coined to describe the confusion between the origins of a belief and its justification. A belief may be justified even if it first emerged unjustified."
This is a good definition of the genetic fallacy, but to condemn cows' milk because it comes from cows is not to confuse the origin of a belief with its justification. Rather, the argument appears to be based on the principle that natural stuffs have purposes, and that to use them contrary to their purposes is unhealthy. The problem with this principle, as Baggini points out, is that the only healthy food left for people would be human milk.
The trouble with cows' milk is that some people are allergic to it, and shouldn't drink the stuff. So, it's true that it "can give rise to a variety of health issues such as nasal congestion, sinusitis, eczema and asthma", as the article says, but only in people who are sensitive to it, and others can drink it without experiencing such effects. The article errs in generalizing from an unrepresentative sample: people who are allergic to milk are an unrepresentative sample of people in general, and it is fallacious to reason that because such people should not drink milk no one should drink it.
Source: Julian Baggini, "Genetic Fallacies", Bad Moves, 8/22/2004
- Here's an update to an entry from April about a credulous episode of ABC's "Primetime" concerning the attempt of the "psychic detective" Carla Baron to find a missing young woman. A new organization called the Independent Investigations Group has investigated the claims of Baron and found no evidence that she actually helps the police find anyone. Specifically, in the case which was covered by the "Primetime" show, the young woman is still missing. Baron should stop wasting the time of the police and get on the trail of Nostradamus' comet, which is also missing!
Source: Independent Investigations Group, "IIG Special Investigation: Carla Baron, Psychic Detective (?)", 8/23/2004
Resource: Not Ready for "Primetime", 4/16/2004
Via: "Catching Up with Carla Baron", The Church of Critical Thinking, 8/23/2004
This morning I accidently dropped a piece of toast into my coffee. Although my cup was full, the toast did not get soggy; in fact, it didn't even get wet. Why not?
Pravda, the Whole Pravda, and Nothing But Pravda
Today is the day when the comet of Nostradamus is supposed to strike Earth! So far, I don't see anything in the news about it, but the day is still young. The only report that I see concerned with the prophecy is a few days old in Pravda of all places. It's good to see that Pravda is still as reliable as it used to be!
Source: "Nostradamus: Giant Comet to Collide with Planet Earth on August 19th", Pravda, 8/16/2004
Resource: Book Review: Comet of Nostradamus, 8/6/2004
I've added a question from a reader and my answer to the entry for loaded question.
Source: Loaded Question: Q&A
Mark Schmidt of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation has an interesting article on Orwellian language in government. Not all of his examples are good ones, as he occasionally seems to be grinding an ax for the NTUF; for instance, in the case of "campaign finance reform". However, many are good examples of the use of euphemism to conceal unpleasant realities:
- Investment = Government spending. What percent return are we getting on that "investment"?
- Undocumented worker = Illegal immigrant. Not everyone who is in the U.S. illegally is a worker.
- Voluntary compliance = What you do when you pay your federal income taxes, according to the IRS. You go to jail if you don't voluntarily comply.
Source: Mark Schmidt, "The Orwellian Language of Big Government", National Taxpayers Union Foundation
Resource: "The 'Evolution' of Doublespeak", 2/1/2004
Via: Deroy Murdock, "1984, c. 2004: Doublespeak is Alive and Well", National Review, 8/11/2004
So, What Else is New?
I've added a new entry for the logical fallacy/boobytrap of loaded words.
Fallacy: Loaded Words
Baggini is Back
Julian Baggini's latest column is about a recent argument that uses a statistical correlation between marriage and being law-abiding to argue for governmental policies encouraging people to get married. Like Baggini, I don't doubt that the correlation is correct; however, the existence of a statistical correlation between two variables is no reason to think that if you increase one you'll get more of the other. Unless there's something magical about saying "I do" that's going to turn a criminal into a law-abiding person, it should be obvious that marriage and obeying the law are both the effects of an attitude of responsibility and willingness to abide by social conventions. If we knew how to increase personal responsibility, perhaps that would increase marriage and decrease crime, but there's no reason to think that simply increasing marriage would decrease crime or other forms of irresponsible behavior.
Source: Julian Baggini, "Aggregation Aggravation", Bad Moves, 8/7/2004
Fallacy: Non Causa Pro Causa
Book Review: Comet of Nostradamus
Title: Comet of Nostradamus: August 2004Impact!
Author: R. W. Welch
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
Date of Publication: 2000
Quote: "The comet of Nostradamus will enter our atmosphere at a low angle near 48 degrees north. Its coma, or perhaps falling fragments, will scorch southern France and central Italy before the nucleus of the comet explodes just off the Aegean coast of Greece. Dust and debris from the comet's explosion will linger in the atmosphere for many months, filtering out sunlight and ruining many crops. But the impact of the comet does not end there. Its effects so weaken Greece than the country poses an easy target for Islamic radicals who, aided by Iran, seize control of Turkey. Aggression against Greece triggers a spreading war that ultimately engulfs most of the countries of the Mediterranean and beyond." (P. 3)
Review: This month's book is a change of pace from those that I have reviewed in the past; it falls into the category of books which are either based on logical fallacies, or are so full of fallacious arguments that they are good sources of examples. I have commented on the prophecies of Nostradamus and other prophets or psychics in past weblog entries, pointing out that their predictions are usually so vague, general, or ambiguous that many subsequent events can be interpreted as fulfilling them. A further problem with many prophecies, including those of Nostradamus, is their open-endedness. Scarcely any of Nostradamus' predictions contain specific dates, or any information on a temporal cutoff after which the prophecy would have failed. Such open-ended predictions are a no-lose proposition for the prophet, since they can never be falsified; moreover, they have all of future time for some event to seem to match them. For these reasons, Nostradamus' prophecies are almost bound to eventually be "fulfilled".
An additional problem is that each of the famous prophecies is in the form of a quatrain, that is, a type of four-line poem. The obscurity of these poems is enhanced by their figurative language. Even those who take Nostradamus' predictive abilities seriously often admit their obscurity. For instance, Welch comments:
"An obvious question confronts the reader of Nostradamus: Why is his style so enigmatic? We would hardly be surprised if whatever emanations he perceived were unclear, but it is plain that the Seer goes out of his way to obfuscate his meaning." (p. xiv)
Unclear "emanations" aside, I would suggest that the reason Nostradamus obfuscated his meaning is because he knew that people would then read into them whatever they wanted, which is a lesson that some of his interpreters have not yet learned. As an example, here is one of his "greatest hits" according to Welch:
"Bêtes farouches de faim fleuves tranner:
Plus part du champ encontre Hister sera,
En cage de fer le grand fera trainer,
Quand rien enfant de Germain observera."
Roughly translated, this means:
"Beasts savage with hunger will cross rivers:
The greater part of the field will be opposite Hister,
In an iron cage the great one will be dragged,
When the child brother observes nothing."
Now, before you read on, what in history does this remind you of? Here is Welch's interpretation:
"This is one of the Seer's most amazing predictions because it identifies his twentieth-century subject by name. 'Hister' must be Hitler, with one letter changed, a common anagrammer's ploy in the 1500s. The Nazi 'beasts,' hungry for conquest, crossed most of Europe's rivers in their sweep across the continent. The 'iron cage' refers to the fact that Hitler was jailed during the administration of Hindenberg . The majority of the field of European nations did oppose Hitler ." (P. 86)
Moreover, Welch gives this quatrain a ten on a ten-point scale meant to measure the accuracy of the prediction! This is amazing, alright: amazing nonsense. "Hister" was actually the name of the lower Danube river, as Welch goes on to admit. There is no justification for changing and rearranging its letters to spell "Hitler", and then claiming that Nostradamus has thereby identified Hitler by name. Once we begin using this "anagrammer's ploy", we can interpret the quatrain to mean anything.
For instance, why not interpret this quatrain as a prediction of the Little Big Horn? "Hister" is, then, an "anagram" of "Custer". While we have to change an additional letter, we don't have to switch any, as we do to get "Hitler". The hungry beasts now refer to the Sioux, who crossed rivers while attacking Custer and his men. The last line perhaps refers to Custer's younger brother who also perished in the battle. Although the third line is unaccounted for, this interpretation is every bit as good as the Hitler one, if not better.
Using this method, Welch proceeds to interpret many of the "unsolved" quatrains, and it is here that the book gets its title and current interest. Unlike Nostradamus himself, Welch interprets a number of the quatrains to predict a series of events with precise dates and locations. Specifically, according to Welch, Nostradamus predicted that a comet would strike Earth this very month!
Some of what Welch predicts has already been falsified: according to one quatrain, the comet was supposed to have made a first pass at Earth around July 22nd, coming close enough to scorch the ground and cook fish in the sea! Moreover, this interpretation was published in 2000 and much has happened since then, including the September 11th terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, Nostradamus predicted none of these, according to Welch. Will Nostradamus' comet prediction come true? We'll soon see!
Source: James Randi, The Mask of Nostradamus (Prometheus, 1993).
- Lynne Marshall, "Interview with R. W. Welch", Mystic Living Today, 3/2001
- R. W. Welch, "Year of the Comet", The Llewellyn Journal, 4/5/2004
- Check it Out, 9/22/2003
- Not Ready for "Primetime", 4/16/2004
I've added a new category and example to the Headlines page for the Scope Fallacy.
"I'm not a doctor, but I used to play one on TV."
"[A]dvertisers have frequently harnessed the respect accorded to doctors in our culture by hiring actors to play the roles of doctors speaking on behalf of the product. My favorite example is a TV commercial featuring actor Robert Young counseling people against the dangers of caffeine and recommending caffeine-free Sanka Brand coffee. The commercial was highly successful, selling so much coffee that it was played for years in several versions. But why should this commercial prove so effective? Why on earth would we take Robert Young's word for the health consequences of decaffeinated coffee? Becauseas the advertising agency that hired him knew perfectly wellhe is associated in the minds of the American public with Marcus Welby, M.D., the role he played in an earlier long-running television series. Objectively it doesn't make sense to be swayed by the comments of a man we know to be just an actor who used to play a doctor. But, as a practical matter, that man moved the Sanka."
Source: Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Revised Edition) (Quill, 1993), p. 220.
Appeal to Dead Presidents
Fallacy Files contributor Michael Koplow files the following report:
"On July 20, Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition broadcast an interview with former New York governor Mario Cuomo, author of the new book Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever. Although the segment was entertaining, Cuomo and Inskeep danced around an important fallacy:
'Inskeep: What are the dangers, as you see them, of invoking the name of Lincoln and saying, well, Lincoln would have been against Bush's tax cuts, or saying, as you do, Lincoln would have supported the 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade on abortion?
'Cuomo: It irritates a lot of people who don't feel that way, especially if they're people who are Republicans and like to believe that Lincoln's Republicanism was today's Republicanism, which it wasn't. It wasn't today's Democratic politics either.'
"This is an appeal to dead authority, which is a little more dangerous than an appeal to living authority. A living person might have expressed an opinion on Roe v. Wade; Lincoln did not. So not only is it an appeal to authority, but it's a possibly incorrect one. All of us are to some extent loose cannons: our opinions can't be predicted based on other opinions we hold; we're complex. This may be more true of the dead authorities who get cited a lotpeople like Lincoln, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Martin Luther Kingthan of most of us.
"But even if we're right when we appeal to authorityeven if Lincoln is in some way conscious of Cuomo's book and is saying, yes, he got it just righteven if that's the case, so what? The Roe decision was right or wrong on its own merits, not by virtue of what Lincoln thinks or may have thought of it. Lincoln isn't infallible, and neither are the living authorities who get appealed to.
"I haven't read the book, but it's likely that because of the brevity of the interview Cuomo and Inskeep were leaving a lot out. Cuomo very likely cited ideas of Lincoln's that he found to be consistent with Roe and against the tax cuts, rather than just decreeing that these would be Lincoln's opinions on twenty-first century issues. But it still comes down to an appeal to authority. Lincoln's opinions still need to stand on their own meritsthe fact that they were Lincoln's opinions doesn't make them either right or wrong."
Cuomo's book reminds me of a similar one about a different dead president: What Would Jefferson Say?, by Garrett Ward Sheldon. I'm tempted to answer the title: Who cares? Even if we could find out what Lincoln or Jefferson would think about, say, stem cell research or the Roe v. Wade decision, there's no reason to think that his opinion would be any better than Cuomo's or Sheldon's. Moreover, since there is no way of knowing what Lincoln or Jefferson would think about contemporary issues, the authors of these books end up attributing their own views to the authority figure. However, I suppose few people would buy a book entitled Why Mario Matters or What's Sheldon Say?.
Source: "Lessons from Lincoln for Today's World", Morning Edition, 7/20/2004
- Jason Emerson, "What Mario Cuomo Thinks Lincoln Would Do", History News Network, 8/1/2004
- Mary Jacoby, "What Would Abe Say?", Salon, 7/3/2004
- "Interview with Mario Cuomo", Booknotes, 7/25/2004
Fallacy: Appeal to Misleading Authority
Answer to the Breakfast Puzzle: The piece of toast did not fall into my cup, but into an open container of ground coffee.
Source: Martin Gardner, aha! Insight (W.H. Freeman, 1978), p. 96.