The latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine has a favorable review of a new book called "Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking", by Thomas Kida. The review isn't yet available on the web―and may never be, since SI doesn't make all of its articles accessible from its website―though it can be downloaded in digital form from Amazon. According to the review, the book discusses six cognitive mistakes, including the anecdotal fallacy and confirmation bias. The review mentions that hindsight bias and the bandwagon fallacy also come in for some attention. I may review the book in full in the future, especially if the publisher will be so kind as to send me a review copy.
Source: Peter Lamal, "Why What We Know isn't Necessarily So", Skeptical Inquirer, September/October, 2006, p. 55.
Resource: Thomas Kida, Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking (2006)
Ad Festivus for the Rest of Us
Mark Ellis of the Mathematics Division of Central Piedmont Community College sends the following fallacy suggestion:
I have informally (no pun intended) thrown about a new name for a fallacy. I've quickly glanced at your list and others and have yet to find one that meets this one: My submission for your approval is "ad festivus" meaning "to the clown." Now, my Latin is deplorable, but I think I remember reading in one of Copleston's volumes a footnote mentioning that "festivus" meant or was a synonym for "clown" or "fool." My idea for ad festivus would then be: Appealing to the conclusions of another simply because they make you laugh or feel good. A subfallacy of the ad verecundiam, I'm sure.
While it's uncommon to list a fallacy involving humor, it's not unknown. T. Edward Damer lists a fallacy of "Resort to Humor or Ridicule", and Robert J. Gula briefly mentions the use of humor, sarcasm, ridicule, and wit. Both treat the fallacious use of humor as a diversionary tactic, rather than an appeal to authority, since laughter can easily cause the audience to lose track of the argument.
According to my Latin dictionary, "festivus" just means "festive" or "merry". The closest word that I can find for "clown" in Latin is "rusticus", from which the English word "rustic" is derived. Apparently, sophisticated Romans found country folk humorous, as do some urbanites today. So, an alternative name for the fallacy would be "argumentum ad rusticum", or something along those lines. Perhaps a Latin literate reader will send in a better suggestion. However, it isn't necessary to give every fallacy a Latin name, though "ad rusticum" is preferable to Damer's bland and pedantic "Resort to Humor or Ridicule".
I have some doubts, however, that the appeal to humor should be considered a logical fallacy. Jokes are usually not arguments at all, and therefore not fallacious arguments, a fortiori―to throw in a little more Latin. No doubt humor and ridicule can be used as rhetorical dirty tricks to distract the audience, as well as to put the ridiculed side at a disadvantage in a debate. I assume that your suggestion that it would be a subfallacy of appeal to misleading authority is based on the psychological fact that we are likely to be swayed by people who make us laugh. People may be more likely to trust a Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken because they find them funny. In any case, fallacy or not, we need to be on guard against letting humor or ridicule distract or sway us. A joke is no substitute for an argument.
Update (1/30/2007): Reader David Short writes:
I thought I might point out that "ad festivus" is not a possible phrase. The preposition "ad" requires the accusative case after it here. "Festivus" is in the nominative, so it needs to become "festivum", just as "homo" becomes "hominem", "natura" becomes "naturam", "populus" becomes "populum", etc. In any case, "ad festivum" is no good anyway, nor "ad rusticum". "Ad ridiculum" ("to a joke") would be better. "Ad leporem" (from "lepos", meaning charm, grace, wit, or humour) might be better still.
I believe that appeal to humour is one of the most important and widely used fallacious arguments out there. I don't think it makes sense to say that it is not a fallacy because it is not a real argument, because the same applies to all fallacies―I don't consider that someone fighting a straw man or appealing to fear is actually making a real argument either.
If we absolutely have to have a Latin name for it, then "ad ridiculum" would be best. Given its relation to the English word "ridiculous", it would be easier to remember than any of the others.
Some traditional "fallacies", such as the various appeals to emotions like fear, often do not appear to be arguments. However, most fallacies are types of argument, in that their instances have identifiable premisses and conclusions, connected by indicator words such as "therefore" and "since". So, there needs to be a distinction between logical mistakes in argument and other problems.
I don't know why you would doubt that straw man arguments are, in fact, arguments. A straw man is a refutation, that is, an argument seeking to show that something is false. The fallacy in a straw man argument is that it shows the wrong thing to be false, that is, it refutes something other than what it was supposed to refute, or was claimed to refute.
Appeals to emotion or humor may not be arguments themselves, but distractions which either confuse or overwhelm us with feelings. So, by doubting whether "ad ridiculum" should be classified as a fallacy, I don't mean to question whether it can be a rhetorical dirty trick. It's just that it would be nice to have some other word than "fallacy" for this type of problem.
- T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, Third Edition (1995), pp. 163-164.
- Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies (2002), p. 56.
Check 'Em Out
- (9/22/2006) The current issue of Skeptic magazine's eSkeptic newsletter debunks some more 9/11 conspiracy theory bunk, including another contextomy:
Many people in the 9/11 Truth Movement believe that the Pentagon was not actually struck by Flight 77, as the "official story" claims. Instead, they believe that the United States government somehow staged the damage, perhaps through the use of a bomb or strategically fired missile. This claim first attracted attention in French author Thierry Meyssan’s book, Pentagate, which claims that the damage done to the Pentagon was too limited to have resulted from the crash of a Boeing 757. The documentary "Loose Change" claims that the hole left in the Pentagon by the alleged airplane was "a single hole, no more than 16 feet in diameter," and that no remains whatsoever of Flight 77 were found at the crash site. To dramatically support this last point, conspiracy theorists cite CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre’s report from the crash site on 9/11, which says, "From my close-up inspection, there’s no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon." …
But if there is so much evidence that a plane crashed into the Pentagon, why did CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre report that he could find none? The answer is that McIntyre did not report this at all, and the 9/11 Truth Movement is once again selectively manipulating evidence to fit their conclusions. When McIntyre noted that no debris from a plane was observable near the Pentagon, he was responding to a specific question asked by CNN anchor Judy Woodruff during the segment. Flight 77 came in flying very low, and there had been speculation that the plane might have struck the ground shortly before reaching the Pentagon. McIntyre’s response, when quoted in full, makes clear that he is saying that there was no evidence that the plane hit the ground before hitting the Pentagon, but he certainly does not deny that the plane struck the Pentagon itself.
WOODRUFF: Jamie, Aaron was talking earlier―or one of our correspondence [sic] was talking earlier―I think―actually, it was Bob Franken―with an eyewitness who said it appeared that that Boeing 757, the American jet, American Airline jet, landed short of the Pentagon. Can you give us any better idea of how much of the plane actually impacted the building?
MCINTYRE: You know, it might have appeared that way, but from my close-up inspection, there’s no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon. The only site is the actual site of the building that’s crashed in, and as I said, the only pieces left that you can see are small enough that you can pick up in your hand. There are no large tail sections, wing sections, fuselage, nothing like that anywhere around, which would indicate that the entire plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon and then caused the side to collapse.
Note that McIntyre never questions that an airplane crash damaged the Pentagon, and indeed describes seeing many pieces of the aircraft around the crash site in an earlier section of the CNN transcript. Of course, this has not stopped conspiracy theorists from picking and choosing the evidence to push their own agendas.
McIntyre addressed this issue himself in a later report:
MCINTYRE: The Web sites often take statements out of context, such as this exchange from CNN in which I―myself―appear to be questioning whether a plane really hit the building…. In fact, I was answering a question based on a eyewitness account who thought the American Airlines plane landed short of the Pentagon. I was indicated [sic] there was no crash site near the pentagon only at the Pentagon[.]
MCINTYRE AUDIO: The only site is the actual site of the building that's crashed in, quote "the actual site of the building that's crashed in."
MCINTYRE: In fact there were thousands of tiny pieces of the plane, and I personally photographed a piece of the fuselage and what appeared to be part of the cockpit.
- Phil Molé, "9/11 Conspiracy Theories: The 9/11 Truth Movement in Perspective", eSkeptic, 9/11/2006
- "Quick Guide & Transcript: New Pentagon 9/11 video released, BBC interviews wrong 'Guy'", CNN, 5/16/2006
- (9/21/2006) Brendan Nyhan, formerly of the much missed Spinsanity website, explains how he was driven to quit the liberal American Prospect magazine's online weblog because he was required to criticize only conservatives. Unfortunately, many people need to have their political prejudices continually reinforced, and magazines such as the Prospect pander to that need.
Source: Brendan Nyhan, "Everybody Has One: Bloggers and the Death of Opinion Journalism", Time, 9/20/2006
- (9/13/2006) Speaking of contextomies, Christopher Hitchens' latest column debunks an old one from five years ago that was recently resurrected. Contextomies are like monsters in cheap horror movies which keep returning in sequels no matter how many times they're killed. Maybe Hitchens can drive a stake through this one's heart.
Source: Christopher Hitchens, "Fear Factor", Slate, 9/11/2006
- (9/12/2006) James Meigs, the editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics magazine, explains how 9/11 conspiracy theories are partly built on contextomies:
…[H]undreds of Web sites cite an eyewitness who said the craft that hit the Pentagon looked "like a cruise missile with wings." Here's what that witness, a Washington, D.C., broadcaster named Mike Walter, actually told CNN: "I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, 'This doesn't add up. It's really low.' And I saw it. I mean, it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon." We talked to Walter and, like so many of the experts and witnesses widely quoted by conspiracy theorists, he told us he is heartsick to see the way his words have been twisted: "I struggle with the fact that my comments will forever be taken out of context."
Source: James B. Meigs, "Conspiracy Cranks", New York Post, 9/12/2006
- (9/11/2006) Andrew Cline debunks some surprisingly naive press coverage of the "9/11 Scholars for Truth" conspiracy theorists:
None of the conspiracy theories can stand up to scrutiny; that they have stood up at all is mostly because the mainstream press has not given them any real scrutiny. The academics tend to be treated with the respect any other academic would get, and because they are professors the stories are made to read just like any other dispute between professors. But in reality, the scholars peddling the 9/11 theories are practicing almost entirely outside of their realm of expertise…and are an ultra-tiny minority dismissed as crackpots by the vast majority of the academic world, not to mention the world of engineering.
Source: Andrew Cline, "A Conspiracy Against Us All", National Review, 9/11/2006
Fallacy: Appeal to Misleading Authority
- (9/9/2006) Check out a promising new weblog called "Bad Analysis" by Raj Midha. The title doesn't refer to Midha's analysis, which is pretty good, but to what gets criticized:
The purpose of this blog is to uncover bad analysis. There is no political point of view, other than my belief that the best way to make decisions is through fact-based, thoughtful, and honest analysis. Unfortunately, this isn't always easy to do, and the results don't always agree with our initial opinions. My goal is to uncover those among us who don't like doing this hard work and want to take intellectual short-cuts.
Source: Raj Midha, "Bad Analysis"
- STATS' Maia Szalavitz criticizes a Slate story on the supposed teen oral sex craze sweeping the nation because the evidence cited by the story in support of the trend was based on a biased sample. Ah, for the good old days of raccoon coats and hula hoops!
Source: Maia Szalavitz, "Slate’s Saucy Oral Sex Story Needs Better Statistics", Statistical Assessment Service, 9/7/2006
According to CNN:
Opposition among Americans to the war in Iraq has reached a new high, with only about a third of respondents saying they favor it, according to a poll released Monday. Just 35 percent of 1,033 adults polled say they favor the war in Iraq; 61 percent say they oppose it―the highest opposition noted in any CNN poll since the conflict began more than three years ago.
Reporters love to write stories about records, but critical readers should view them skeptically. As I've discussed here in the past, reports of record-setting prices or profits are often misleading because they don't take inflation into account. Similarly, I've criticized many stories about polls on the grounds that they ignore the margin of error. Major news outlets usually require their reporters to mention the margin of error, but they don't seem to insist that the reporters actually understand it, or incorporate their understanding into the story. Both of these phenomena came together to produce the above story.
The current CNN poll shows that 61% oppose the war in Iraq, which is apparently a record for that poll. However, it is only one percentage point higher than the same poll two weeks earlier. When the margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points is taken into account, what the poll shows is that opposition to the war in Iraq has not changed significantly in the previous two weeks. This is hardly surprising since nothing much has happened in those two weeks to cause any sudden changes in public opinion of the war. The "record" is well within the range of sampling error.
Resource: Jack Rosenthal, "Precisely False vs. Approximately Right: A Reader’s Guide to Polls", The Public Editor, 8/27/2006
Fallacy: Fake Precision
- One is a small number.
- If a number is small, then the result of adding one to it is also small.
- Therefore, a googol―one followed by a hundred zeroes―is a small number.
What's wrong with this argument? The first premiss is surely true. Moreover, one is too small an increase to turn a number from small to not small, so the second premiss also appears to be true.
Furthermore, the reasoning in the argument appears to be valid. Given that the second premiss is true, it follows that if one is small, then two is also small. But we know from the first premiss that one is small, so two is small, as well. Similarly, if two is small, then three is also. However, we just saw that two is small, so three is small. We can keep going on this way through a googol number of steps―it will take a long time, but we can do it if we're patient―until we reach the conclusion that a googol is small. But that is absurd! A googol is obviously not a small number, but a very large one. So, the conclusion is clearly false. What went wrong?
An argument such as this that seems sound, yet has an obviously false conclusion, is called a "paradox". Paradoxes are important in logic and philosophy because they reveal one of two things:
- One of the premisses―a proposition which seems obviously true or part of common sense―is, in fact, false.
- Despite appearances the argument commits some fallacy and is invalid.
Thus, the study of paradoxes can help logicians identify logical fallacies, and the study of logical fallacies can help to resolve paradoxes. The argument above is a version of what's called "Wang's paradox" after the logician Hao Wang. What fallacy does it commit?
The word "small" is vague. Clearly, as the first premiss states, one is a small number. Just as clearly, contra the argument's conclusion, a googol is not a small number. However, in between one and a googol is a grey zone of borderline cases which are neither clearly small nor not. It is this fuzziness around the edges of smallness which makes it possible for the argument to start with uncontroversially true premisses and slip undetectably with each step a little further from the truth until it reaches a shockingly false conclusion.
If "small" had a precise meaning―say, any number less than 10―then the second premiss of the argument would be false, since 9 would be small but 9 + 1 would not be. The moral of the paradox is that we must be careful to reason only with precise concepts, or to keep a close watch on the vague ones lest they mislead us.
Resource: William Poundstone, Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge (1988), pp. 94-95.