Julian Baggini has a new book out, The Duck that Won the Lottery and 99 Other Bad Arguments, which is based on his old "Bad Moves" columns. I haven't read the book yet, but the columns were excellent, so I would expect the book to be, as well. Of course, I'd like to receive a review copy. I am a bit puzzled by the title, though: Why a duck? Why-a no chicken?
Source: Julian Baggini, "A Few Updates", Talking Philosophy, 9/29/2008
Resource: "The Cocoanuts―Why a Duck?", Why a Duck?
Presidential Debate Fallacies, Part 1
In the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the candidates spent time attacking straw men instead of each other. Near the beginning of the debate, Obama said:
Now, we also have to recognize that [the financial crisis] is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down.
After Obama had beaten the stuffing out of that straw man, McCain attacked a straw plan:
…I want to make sure we're not handing the health care system over to the federal government which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama's health care plan. I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government.
According to The Washington Post's fact checker, Obama's plan will support the purchase of private health insurance through tax credits and subsidies, as well as mandating insurance for children, which isn't a federal take-over of the health care system. McCain seems to have forgotten that Obama, not Hillary Clinton, is his opponent.
- "Transcript of Presidential Debate" CNN, 9/26/2008
- Michael Dobbs, "Debate Live Fact Check" The Fact Checker, 9/26/2008
Note: This is not an exhaustive logical analysis of the debate. If you think that there is some fallacy or logical point that I have overlooked, please let me know.
Political Doublespeak Dictionary
- Cut (n.)
- An increase that is less than projected, less than requested, or less than expected.
Cases in point:
- "A new Obama-Biden ad includes misleading claims about McCain and education spending: It says McCain 'voted to cut education funding' and lists five votes. But one was a vote for increased education funding, although for fewer dollars than what Democrats may have wanted. And three others were votes against additional funding, not votes for funding cuts."
- "A new Obama ad characterizes the 'Bush-McCain privatization plan' as 'cutting Social Security Benefits in half.' … The ad refers to a Bush proposal from 2005 to hold down the growth of benefits for future retirees. Compared to the buying power of benefits paid to today's retirees, that would not have been a 'cut' for anybody. It would have been a 'cut' of half only in relation to benefits now promised to retirees who have yet to be born."
I'd ask them to cut this out, but….
- Justin Bank, "School Funding Misleads", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 9/11/2008
- Lori Robertson & Brooks Jackson, "Scaring Seniors", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 9/19/2008
Q: A spam email invited me to take "The Barack Obama Test". I dismissed the test as bunk, but my coworker argued the questions are valid and fair. Or "fair and balanced," as it were. I thought your take on the questions asked in the survey might be interesting, and if I can serve my coworker with a big "so there!" then that wouldn't be the worst thing, either.―Jessica Lindberg
A: The test is part of a promotional website advertising the book The Audacity of Deceit, by Brad O'Leary. Judging from the title alone, it's obviously anti-Obama. Supposedly, you can take the test to determine to what extent you agree with Obama's positions on issues. This could be a useful exercise so long as the test accurately reflects Obama's actual positions, but I'll leave the correctness of those positions to the fact checkers, while I logic check the questions.
Many of the questions on the test are logically unproblematic, but there are three types of question that set logical boobytraps for the unwary:
- Loaded Questions: Some of the questions make false presuppositions, for instance:
Do you agree or disagree with Barack Obama's $65 billion plan to institute taxpayer-funded universal health coverage, which would provide health insurance for those currently uninsured, including illegal immigrants.
The Obama campaign denies that his health plan covers illegal immigrants, which the question falsely presupposes. Apparently, the notion that the plan covers illegal aliens got started because Obama has claimed that his plan will cover 47 million uninsured Americans, but the source that produced the estimate of the uninsured included illegal immigrants among its count. My guess is that this was just an oversight on the part of the Obama campaign, which presumably didn't notice that the number included aliens. At any rate, unless Obama is using the word "American" in an odd way, his plan only covers U.S. citizens.
A lot of people who might otherwise agree with the health plan may well balk at the idea of illegal immigrants being covered. Thus, those last three words could make the difference between a popular plan and an unpopular one, as well as the difference between a loaded and an unloaded question.
- Slanted Questions: There are several questions on the test that give only one side of an issue, for example:
Some say Barack Obamaís plan to raise taxes and increase trade barriers are [sic] similar to those created by President Herbert Hoover in the 1930s, which contributed to worsening Americaís economy. Do you think Obamaís plans will worsen the economy as well, or do you think they will help the economy?
In the introductory sentence, we're given only one side of the issue before being asked the question. "Some say" that Obama's plan is bad, but don't "some say" that it is good? Surely there is some reason that could be given in favor of the plan, and probably some people who would dispute the analogy with Hoover, which strikes me as a very weak one. Here's a less slanted way that the question could be introduced:
Barack Obama plans to raise taxes and increase trade barriers. Do you think Obamaís plans will worsen the economy, or do you think they will help the economy?
- Black-or-White Questions: Some of the questions force you to choose from too few answers, for instance:
Should a doctor give medical care to a fetus that survives an abortion, or should medical care not be given?
Shouldn't this be decided on a case-by-case basis, rather than all or nothing? What if a fetus survives an abortion but will only live a short time? No matter what position one takes on the morality of abortion, what would be the point of treating a hopeless case? To allow for the additional possible answer, the question could have been worded:
When should doctors give medical care to a fetus that survives an abortion? Always? Never? Or, it depends?
The quiz is also slanted in its choice of questions: in addition to showing what is supposed to be Obama's positions, the answers given include public opinion on the issues taken from polls. Almost all of Obama's positions are opposed by the majority of poll respondents, which suggests that the particular questions used on the test were selected for this reason. In this way, many people who take the test may get the false impression that they disagree with Obama more than they actually do.
A test such as this would be more useful if all candidates were included, or at least the two major ones, which would make it more difficult to slant the questions in favor of one of them. Also, the questions could be chosen so as to cover the most important issues, or those most revealing of the differences between the candidates, rather than to show any one of the candidates in a bad light.
As it is, I suspect that most people will react to the test in the way that Jessica and her co-worker did: those who are inclined to support Obama will reject it as bunk, whereas those who oppose him will think that it's "fair and balanced".
- "The Barack Obama Test"
- Dick Morris & Eileen McGann, "Illegal Rx? Barack Objects", The New York Post, 7/22/2008
Ben Goldacre reports on a new study of publication bias, or "the file drawer effect":
For decades people have known that negative results tend not to get printed in academic journals, and it can happen for all kinds of reasons: they're not newsworthy, they're not much fun to write up, they don't look good on your CV, and they might not flatter your idea or product. … We may never know what was in that unpublished data, but those missing numbers will cost lives in quantities larger than any emotive health story covered in any newspaper. Doctors need negative data to make prescribing decisions. Academics need to know which ideas have failed, so they can work out what to study next, and which to abandon.
We also need some idea of how many studies are done in order to judge the statistical significance of those that are published. This problem is related to the issue of the confidence level of polls that I discussed in "How to Read a Poll" (see the Resource below): the 95% confidence level is used in most medical research as a measure of statistical significance. So, a study that gets a positive result at the 95% level will probably be published. However, if there are 19 studies of the same thing that got negative results and went unpublished, then the one positive study may well be due to chance. So, the larger the "file drawer effect", the higher our confidence level should be in order to minimize random errors.
Source: Ben Goldacre, "Missing in action: the trials that did not make the news", The Guardian, 9/20/2008
Update (9/21/2008): Coincidentally, I was just re-reading Joel Best's More Damned Lies and Statistics―the sequel, of course, to Damned Lies and Statistics―with an eye to reviewing it for the Bookshelf, when I came across the following mention of publication bias:
Sometimes researchers compare the results of several studies in what is called a meta-analysis. The logical assumption is that if several studies consistently show an effect, even if the effect is not powerful…, the multiple consistent results ought to give us more confidence that the relationship is real. The problem with this logic is that researchers often do not seek to publish―or have greater difficulty publishing―disappointing results. This publication bias means that it is hard to get studies with weak results published. Thus, meta-analyses tend to include only the most successful studies―those with results strong enough to get published.
So, another problem with publication bias is the way that it skews meta-analyses, or the scientific consensus, in a positive direction.
Source: Joel Best, More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues (2004), p. 82.
Acknowledgment: The illustration is an altered cover of a Weird Science comic book.
Routledge, the publishing house, is holding a contest for students. The prizes are copies of Nigel Warburton's books Thinking from A to Z and The Basics of Essay Writing, and an approximately $50 coupon for other Routledge titles. I haven't read the book on essay writing, but Thinking from A to Z is an excellent reference book covering informal fallacies and other logical topics. The deadline is 9/26/2008; see the Source below for details.
Source: Nigel Warburton, "Study Skills: Win Copies of Thinking from A to Z and The Basics of Essay Writing", Virtual Philosopher, 9/11/2008
"We're on a mission from God!"
Here's an exchange from the recent interview of Sarah Palin by Charlie Gibson:
GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?
PALIN: You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote.
GIBSON: Exact words.
PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said―first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words. But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side. That's what that comment was all about, Charlie. …
GIBSON: I take your point about Lincoln's words, but you went on and said, "There is a plan and it is God's plan."
PALIN: I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan for this world is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That, in my world view, is a grand―the grand plan.
GIBSON: But then are you sending your son on a task that is from God?
PALIN: I don't know if the task is from God, Charlie. …
Here is the relevant portion of Palin's remarks to the church; I've emphasized the parts quoted by Gibson:
Pray for our military. He's [Palin's son] going to be deployed in September to Iraq. Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country―that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. Thatís what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is Godís plan.
So, Gibson didn't actually quote Palin's "exact words", as he insists, but that's not the big problem with those quotes. There are two contextomies here, and each is the latter half of a sentence. The first half of each sentence makes it clear that Palin is asking the church members to pray that "our national leaders are sending [our military men and women] out on a task that is from God", and that "there is a plan and that that plan is Godís plan." This is different from asserting that the war is a "task from God" or part of "God's plan".
There are so many contextomies flying back and forth between the campaigns, do we really need reporters getting into the act?
- "Excerpts: Charlie Gibson Interviews Sarah Palin", ABC News, 9/11/2008
- Gene Johnson, "Palin: Iraq war 'a task that is from God'", Associated Press, 9/3/2008
- Jim Lindgren, "Did Palin Actually Say That Iraq is 'a Task…from God'?", The Volokh Conspiracy, 9/8/2008
- Jim Lindgren, "Charlie Gibsonís Big Mistake", The Volokh Conspiracy, 9/11/2008
Update (9/13/2008): Another exchange from this same interview is of logical interest:
GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush―well, what do you―what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view.
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.
PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.
GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us.
My first thought when I read this was: "'The Bush Doctrine'? What's that?" However, I'm not running for Vice President, so perhaps I couldn't be expected to know. I assume that Gibson was trying to test Palin's knowledge of foreign policy, which is not likely to be one of her strong points, and the fact that she doesn't know what the Bush Doctrine is would seem to be evidence of ignorance.
However, it appears that there is more than one doctrine that has been called "the Bush doctrine". As I explained in the Resource linked below, a noun phrase beginning with "the" is a definite description, and one characteristic of definite descriptions is uniqueness of reference: in order for "the Bush doctrine" to refer at all, there must be exactly one Bush doctrine. Since, in this case, there are multiple "Bush doctrines", the phrase fails to denote. So, Palin's confusion as to what Gibson was referring to―and mine, as well!―is the logically correct response.
- Michael Abramowitz, "Many Versions of 'Bush Doctrine'", The Washington Post, 9/13/2008
- Charles Krauthammer, "Charlie Gibson's Gaffe", The Washington Post, 9/13/2008
Resource: "A" v. "The", 7/19/2008
Too Good to Check it Out
I've often wondered how much of bad science reporting is the result of just plain ignorance and how much the result of willful ignorance. Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column, which discusses how statistical insignificance was ignored in the reporting of a recent study, provides one piece of evidence:
…[W]ere the journalists blameless, and guilty only of ignorance? For any individual, nobody can tell. But Dr Dimitris Ballas, the academic who did the research, had this to say: "I tried to explain issues of significance to the journalists who interviewed me. Most did not want to know."
Source: Ben Goldacre, "Cheer up: it's all down to random variation", Bad Science, 9/16/2008
A lawsuit against Goldacre and The Guardian, the British newspaper that he writes for, has just been dropped. It was brought by one of the snake oil salesmen that he had criticized in his Bad Science column. I wasn't aware of this suit because he was legally muzzled from writing about it for the last year. Even though the suit was dropped, The Guardian spent nearly $900,000 defending it, though the man who sued has been ordered to pay part of those expenses.
England is more hospitable to such suits than the United States is, and plaintiffs more likely to win there. This is one reason why Holocaust-denier David Irving sued American historian Deborah Lipstadt in England, when her book was published there (see the Resource below), though Irving also lost.
Using lawsuits and the threat of them in order to stifle criticism is an all-too-common form of the appeal to force. Instead of trying to shut people up by physically attacking them, or threatening to do so, all that is often necessary is to threaten a lawsuit. Even winning such a suit can be a Pyrrhic victory, since the expense of defence may be exorbitant.
Source: Ben Goldacre, "With their Money, Myopia and Abuses, these Pill Makers Match Big Pharma", The Guardian, 9/12/2008
Resource: Book Review: Lying about Hitler, 10/28/2002
Acknowledgment: The illustration is an altered cover of a Weird Science comic book.
Blurb Watch: TransSiberian
I don't know whether the star trick is getting more common, or I'm just now noticing it, but here's another example. According to the ad for the new movie TransSiberian, critic Boo Allen of the Denton Record-Chronicle gives it three-and-a-half stars. What the ad doesn't tell you is that this is out of five, not four, stars possible. In other words, this is a 70% positive rating rather than 88%: not bad, but not great either.
- "Ad for TransSiberian", Dallas Morning News, 9/5/2008
- Boo Allen, "Transsiberian", Denton Record-Chronicle, 8/28/2008, p. 5
Previous Blurb Watches:
Fallacy Files Book Club: Nudge,
Chapter 4: When Do We Need a Nudge?
In this chapter, Thaler and Sunstein (T&S) discuss when to "nudge", namely, situations in which people are likely to make poor decisions and might appreciate some help:
- Delayed Feedback: People often make bad decisions when the consequences―good or bad―of the decision are not immediate. For instance, the bad consequences of cigarette smoking or the good consequences of saving for retirement. (P. 73)
- Difficult Decisions (PP. 73-74)
- Rare Decisions: People are unsurprisingly poor at making one-time or rare decisions, because they lack the opportunity to correct and learn from mistakes. (PP. 74-75)
- Lack of Feedback: T&S give the example of a high-fat diet and heart attacks: you may not get any feedback until it's too late to do any good. This is similar to delayed feedback. (P. 75)
- Ignorance of Preferences: This category is a little difficult to understand. The primary examples that T&S give are ones involving choosing what to eat in a restaurant: perhaps you might benefit from a suggestion. They go on to discuss choosing either a "capital appreciation" mutual fund or a "dynamic dividend" fund for a retirement portfolio. However, this decision seems to fall more under previous categories, in that it's difficult, rare, and the feedback is delayed. So, I'm not sure what T&S have in mind here beyond the trivial case of choosing a meal; it seems doubtful that the government should get involved in that, at least not because people don't know what they like. (PP. 75-76)
In the last section of the chapter, T&S explain how markets can correct problems that are the result of individual ignorance or irrationality, but also how they sometimes fail to do so. T&S don't need much of an argument to convince me that markets sometimes produce irrational results, since it seems empirically obvious that they do. Of course, some libertarians―though, presumably, not the paternalistic ones―seem to think that markets can do no wrong, which is implausible. So, the burden of proof here is not on T&S, but on those who claim that markets always produce the rational result. The main example they give of such market failures is extended warranties on small appliances:
Do market forces drive these unduly expensive extended warranties from the market? Or does competition drive the price of the extended warranties down to…the expected value of the claims? The answers to these questions are no and no. (Before we explain, notice that extended warranties are plentiful in the real world and that many people buy them. Hint: Don't.) On our assumptions, the extended warranty is a product that simply should not exist. … Competition will not drive the price down…. You might think that firms could educate people not to buy the warranty, and indeed they might. But why should firms do that? If you are buying something that you shouldn't, how do I make money persuading you not to buy it? (P. 79)
I should think that the answer to the last question is ironically obvious: write a book and sell it! Isn't that what T&S are doing here? Of course, not everyone is going to read Nudge, so it's unlikely to drive the extended warranty out of existence on its own. Nonetheless, this isn't a very good example of a market failure requiring a government "nudge" to correct it, since it's obvious that a market exists for information such as this.
This illustrates one unanswered question I have about "nudging": why don't T&S recommend educating "Humans" to become more like the rational "Econs", rather than the government trying to exploit "Human" irrationality? Such educational efforts may well involve the government, if that's a selling point for T&S. At the beginning of the chapter, they again claim that "choice architecture and its effects cannot be avoided", but they almost immediately contradict themselves, or at least come close:
The key point here is that for all their virtues, markets often give companies a strong incentive to cater to (and profit from) human frailties, rather than to try to eradicate them or to minimize their effects. (P. 72)
Isn't this just as true for government? In fact, isn't this what T&S are recommending that government do, that is, cater to human frailties rather than try to avoid or minimize them?
This is one of the few places―perhaps the only one―where T&S seem to acknowledge the possibility of debiasing. At the end of the chapter, they write (P. 80): "Government can, of course, outlaw some kinds of activities, but as libertarian paternalists we prefer to nudge―and we are keenly aware that governments are populated by Humans." That may explain why they prefer nudging to outlawing, but why then do they prefer nudging to debiasing?
- Chapter 1: Biases and Blunders
- Chapter 2: Resisting Temptation
- Chapter 3: Following the Herd
Chapter 17: Objections
I've added a new section to the Fallacy Watch polling article, prompted by the recent "Poll Watch" weblog entries comparing polls. This is especially important during the current campaign season when there are so many polls that it's easy to find ones to compare. Unfortunately, the "How to Read a Poll" article lacked a section on the importance of a consensus of polls, but that lack is now remedied. I also revised the rest of the article slightly, and updated the sources and resources listed, so that all the links should now be up-to-date.
Source: How to Read a Poll: Polling the Polls, Fallacy Watch