Political polls are not the only kind of survey to make the news, even within days of an election. Currently making the headlines is a survey taken in Iraq to estimate the number of civilians who have died since the war began, which it places at a horrific 100,000. This number is so large that it should inspire caution and skepticism; for instance, it is six to seven times as high as the Iraq Body Count, which attempts to count civilian casualties directly from media reports, rather than estimating them using samples. While it is likely that the I.B.C. undercounts to some extent because not all casualties are reported, there are reasons to think that the I.B.C. also overcounts. The I.B.C. methodology is based on that of Marc Herold whose body count of the war in Afghanistan appears to have overcounted civilian casualties by at least double. So, it seems unlikely that the I.B.C. has undercounted by so much.
When reporting a political poll, journalists always include the margin of error, even if only in the fine print at the bottom, and even if they go on to contradict the MoE in the story or headline. However, in the reporting of the Iraq civilian casualty survey, the MoE is unmentioned, and one has to go to the report itself to discover it. It turns out that the report is based on a 95% confidence interval from 8,000 to 194,000, that is, an MoE of ±93,000. In other words, the results of the survey seem to be so imprecise as to be worthless at estimating civilian casualties.
According to the International Herald Tribune, editors at The Lancet decided to release this study before it was scheduled to be published in order to make it public before election day. It is disturbing that a reputable medical journal would publish such a questionable survey at all, let alone only a few days before a presidential election, leaving little time for critical evaluation.
- Fred Kaplan, "100,000 Dead—or 8,000: How many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war?", Slate, 10/29/2004
- Iain Murray, "Casualties of the Press", Tech Central Station, 3/4/2002
- Iain Murray, "Don't Count On It", Tech Central Station, 4/7/2003
- Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, Gilbert Burnham, "Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Cluster Sample Survey", The Lancet, 10/29/2004
- Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Study Puts Iraqi Deaths of Civilians at 100,000", International Herald Tribune, 10/29/2004
Resource: How to Read a Poll
Update (11/1/2004): Here are a couple of further reports on the Lancet study, which are of interest mainly because they cast light on its political motivation:
- Gerard Alexander, "Counting the Dead", The Daily Standard, 10/31/2004
- Michael Fumento, "Lancet Civilian Death Report Kills the Truth", Tech Central Station, 11/1/2004
Update (11/2/2004): The Statistical Assessment Service now has a judicious appraisal of the Lancet survey. Robert Lichter explains why the study result has such a large confidence interval, namely, the sample of deaths was small. In logic, this is known as the fallacy of Hasty Generalization.
Source: S. Robert Lichter, "Counting Iraqi War Casualties", Statistical Assessment Service, 11/2/2004
Update (11/17/2004): The editor of The Lancet has given an interview defending the politicization of the journal:
"Dr Richard Horton, the Lancet's editor, staunchly defends the report and called on more scientists to debate such issues. 'One should openly acknowledge science is political and not be afraid to get stuck into the debate,' Horton said in his first interview since the report appeared. 'To me that's one of the failures of science. It sees itself as being very apolitical, and that's just nonsense.'"
I'm not sure what Horton means by the claim that "science is political", but if he means that science is conservative or liberal, or favors one candidate over another, then he is the one talking nonsense. If he only means that the results of science can and should inform politics, then of course he is right. However, one of the best ways for a scientific journal to lose its ability to influence politics is to lose its credibility; and it loses credibility by ceasing to be politically impartial, instead becoming a propaganda outlet. Unfortunately, Horton took a step towards turning The Lancet into just another spin machine when he chose to release the Iraq mortality survey shortly before the election.
Source: Jamie Doward, "The Lancet and the Bodies in Question", Guardian Unlimited, 11/7/2004
I've revised the entry for Begging the Question, expanding the Form and adding an Etymology.
Fallacy: Begging the Question
Update (10/30/2004): I've added a new Resource to "How to Read a Poll", namely, a STATS series on polling by Ana Marie "Wonkette" Cox.
Source: How to Read a Poll
Update (10/31/2004): I've added a new quote to the quotations page, this one by Lewis Carroll.
Check it Out
Brendan Nyhan of Spinsanity has a report on some political quotes taken out of context from the same people who helped bring us the "reconstituted nuclear weapons" and "imminent threat" contextomies.
Source: Brendan Nyhan, "Distortion Report", Spinsanity, 10/28/2004
Three siblings went trick-or-treating to the Adams house. Each sibling received an even number of treats from the Adams family. None of the siblings had to share treats with the others. The total number of treats received by the three siblings taken together was four. How could this be?
The ad writers for movies are back to their old tricks. Here's a blurb for the new movie "Taxi":
CLAUDIA PUIG, USA TODAY
Here is the only time that the word "hilarious" occurs in Claudia Puig's review, and of course it's neither ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS nor followed by an exclamation point!
"But the movie really belongs to…Ann-Margret, who is hilarious as Fallon's lush of a mom…."
So, it's Ann-Margret who is hilarious, not necessarily the whole movie, which Puig gives only a lukewarm endorsement. This is an example of the old trick of quoting out of context an adjective which applies only to some aspect of the movie, such as an actor's performance, rather than to the movie as a whole. Beware of the one-word blurb!
- Ad for "Taxi", Indianapolis Star Weekend, 10/22/2004, p. G3
- Claudia Puig, "'Taxi' Worth the Fare for an Enjoyable Ride", USA Today, 10/5/2004
Fallacy: Quoting Out of Context
More is Less
Presidential candidate John Kerry has recently engaged in the political doublespeak of claiming that an increase is a decrease. Cases in point:
- In the final presidential debate, Kerry claimed that Pell Grants had been cut under Bush. "They've cut the Pell Grants…to help kids be able to go to college," he said, and later he added: "They're getting less money." However, spending on Pell Grants has increased by nearly 5 billion dollars since Bush took office, and the maximum grant has risen from $3,300 to $4,050. Apparently, what Kerry was referring to was Bush's campaign promise in 2000 to raise the maximum to $5,100, which Bush has reneged on. However, raising the grants less than promised is not cutting them; unless, of course, you're a politician.
- "Transcript: Third Presidential Debate", Washington Post, 10/13/2004
- "New and Recycled Distortions at Final Presidential Debate", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 10/14/2004
- Kerry is also now claiming that Bush plans to cut Social Security benefits in his second term, if elected. However, these supposed cuts actually refer to a plan that Bush has not endorsed to index Social Security payments to inflation, rather than to wages as it is currently. As a result, future benefits under the plan are projected to be lower than what they would be if no change is made. However, growing slower than currently projected is not a cut; unless, of course, you're a politician.
Source: Brendan Nyhan, "Kerry's Misleading Social Security Claims", Spinsanity, 10/19/2004
Check 'Em Out
- Here's another reminder that oil prices are not really, but only nominally, at record highs, this time from Tech Central Station. I guess that we need these constant reminders until reporters learn to stop misreporting oil prices.
Source: Vaclav Smil, "Tired of Record High Oil Prices? They're Anything But!", Tech Central Station, 10/20/2004
- The New York Times has an article which is a rare example of a news story on polls that doesn't sensationalize or misinform about polling. It examines recent differences in poll results, one possible factor in which may be the "likely voter" problem, which I mentioned in a post last month on a surprising Gallup poll, but not in "How to Read a Poll". However, all of the varying results are within the margins of error of the relevant polls, so that the variation may simply be the result of sampling error, rather than differing definitions of "likely voter".
Source: Jim Rutenberg, "Bush Leads. Make That Kerry. Why Can't the Pollsters Agree?", New York Times, 10/19/2004
Resource: Poll Watch, 9/17/2004
Via: Mark Blumenthal, "NYT: Why Can't Pollsters Agree?", Mystery Pollster, 10/19/2004 This is an excellent source of information on the pitfalls of polling, straight from a pollster's mouth.
I've added a new article on "How to Read a Poll" to the Fallacy Watch section of the site, which is where I'm going to put articles too long for the weblog, and hopefully of more enduring interest.
Resource: How to Read a Poll, Fallacy Watch
Debate Fallacies, Part 5
From the second Presidential debate, here's a pre-debate warm-up for your fallacy-spotting skills:
"Charles Gibson, Moderator: Senator Kerry, the next question is for you, and it comes from Elizabeth Long.
"Elizabeth Long: Senator Kerry, thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn't it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?
"Senator Kerry:…[L]ike Nancy Reagan, and so many other people—you know, I was at a forum with Michael J. Fox the other day in New Hampshire, who's suffering from Parkinson's, and he wants us to do stem cell, embryonic stem cell. And this fellow stood up, and he was quivering. His whole body was shaking from the nerve disease, the muscular disease that he had. And he said to me and to the whole hall, he said, 'You know, don't take away my hope, because my hope is what keeps me going.' Chris Reeve is a friend of mine. Chris Reeve exercises every single day to keep those muscles alive for the day when he believes he can walk again, and I want him to walk again. I think we can save lives.…"
If Nancy Reagan, Michael J. Fox and Chris Reeve are all for it, who could be against it? This is an appeal to celebrities with a dash of appeal to pity thrown in. If embryonic stem cell research is unethical, should we go ahead and do it just so Michael J. Fox will be happy? And, if it's not unethical, shouldn't we just go ahead and do it anyway?
Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts on fallacies in the debates between the two major Presidential candidates. This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the debates, but if there is an example that is not included which you think should be, please send it to me.
Timothy Roscoe Carter disagrees with my analysis of the above example:
"Kerry's answer you cite is not a fallacy—at least, not entirely and not for the reasons you suggest. The fallacy that Kerry committed was that he partially dodged the question. The question was, 'However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn't it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?' To answer it directly would require both explaining why stem cell research on embryos is scientifically useful and defending the ethics of the research. Kerry skipped the science and went straight to the ethics.
"Now, had he discussed the science, citing Nancy Reagan, Michael J. Fox, and Chris Reeve would certainly be a fallacious appeal to celebrity. But this is not what he did, nor what you criticized him for. You criticized him for citing these celebrities while making his ethical arguments, which he did. It's not like he was citing Sean Penn on the ethics of the Iraq war—these people have all suffered horribly as a direct result of conditions that have the potential to be cured by stem cell research.
"You write, 'If embryonic stem cell research is unethical, should we go ahead and do it just so Michael J. Fox will be happy? And, if it's not unethical, shouldn't we just go ahead and do it anyway?' You are missing the point. That would be a relevant question for Kantian deontologists—the actual suffering of individuals is irrelevant to a logical determination of ethical right and wrong. But most political discourse assumes a pragmatic consequentialist ethic. For a consequentialist, illustrating the suffering that can be relieved by your proposed course of action is the most relevant argument you can make as to the ethics of your proposal. Why use celebrities? Because the audience is already familiar with the details of their stories. An efficient time-saver. To more directly answer your question: Making Michael J. Fox—and others in his situation—happy is what makes the research ethical, at least from a consequentialist viewpoint."
I agree with you, Timothy, that he dodged the question, and that's why I think his argument is a red herring. Kerry didn't make the scientific argument that research might end up helping someone like Fox; instead, all he did was drop the names of celebrities who support embryonic stem cell research and turn up the violin music. It was an irrelevant emotional appeal because Kerry never connected it up. In claiming that his argument is fallacious, I don't mean that no one could make a cogent argument for embryonic stem cell research, but that this is not such an argument. I wish that Kerry had argued for embryonic stem cell research as well as you do!
On Inflated Statistics
"Correcting for inflation, although simple, is commonly overlooked. When the U.S. Postal Service announced in May 1998 that it would be granted an increase in the price of a first-class stamp in 1999, The San Francisco Chronicle presented a summary of the new rates and printed a graph of first-class postal rates since 1885. This graph showed a huge increase in prices, from 2¢ in 1885 to 33¢ in 1999. An uninformed observer might easily have concluded from this graph that the price of first-class mail had skyrocketed, particularly since the 1970s. The problem, of course, is that the graph was not corrected for inflation, and nowhere did the Chronicle article mention this omission. The Oakland Tribune story on the same topic correctly reproduced two graphs, one in current dollars and one in inflation-adjusted dollars…. The second graph showed that the 33¢ price of first class mail in 1999 actually represented a decline in constant dollars from 35¢ in 1885."
Source: Jonathan G. Koomey, Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving (Analytics Press, 2001), pp. 156-157.
Debate Fallacies, Part 4
President Bush, the First Debate: "Seventy-five percent of known Al Qaida leaders have been brought to justice."
President Bush, the Second Debate: "Of course, we're going to find Osama bin Laden. We've already 75 percent of his people."
This is an example of a misleadingly precise statistic, as was pointed out by Annenberg Fact Check after the first debate. According to Fact Check, the number is based on the fact that 75% of al Qaida leaders known at the time of 9/11 have since been captured or killed. So, the statement in the first debate is more accurate, but even it leaves out the temporal qualification. The second quote wrongly suggests that 75% of all al Qaeda members have been captured.
Even putting aside the inaccurate wording of the claim in both debates, the precise percentage figure gives a misleading impression. Al Qaida probably does not give out membership cards, or publish a list of its members, so this number is at best an imprecise estimate.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to José Cabo for submitting the example from the second debate.
Fallacy: Fake Precision
Source: "Transcript: Second Presidential Debate", Washington Post, 10/8/2004
- Calvin Woodward, "Iraq and Terrorist Record Stretched Two Ways in Debate", Associated Press, 10/1/2004
- "Distortions and Misstatements At First Presidential Debate", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 10/1/2004
Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts on fallacies in the debates between the two major Presidential candidates. This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the debates, but if there is an example that is not included which you think should be, please send it to me.
The Statistical Assessment Service is on a roll, with two new entries by Managing Editor Trevor Butterworth:
- He debunks an unscientific USA Today poll based on a self-selected sample.
- Trevor Butterworth, "Flawed Surveys Make Fake News", STATS, 10/7/2004
- Dave Moniz, "Troops in Survey Back Bush 4-to-1 Over Kerry", USA Today, 10/3/2004
Fallacy: Biased Sample
- He helpfully reminds us that oil prices are not at a real, inflation-adjusted high, but only at a nominal high. With inflation, it's quite possible for oil prices to actually decline in real terms, yet set nominal records. For instance, suppose that the inflation rate is 2%, while the nominal price rises only 1%. If the nominal price were at its highest level to date to begin with, then the rise would set a new record; yet the real price has declined, which is why the nominal record is misleading. If inflation were 3% but you received only a 2% pay raise, I doubt that you would be happy just because you're making more dollars than you were before.
Source: Trevor Butterworth, "FYI—Oil Still Not At All Time High…", STATS, 10/7/2004
Fallacy: Fake Precision
Lee's Lawyer Says He's Retarded
Source: Associated Press, "Lee's Lawyer Says He's Retarded", KPLC, 9/21/2004
Via: James Taranto, "Best of the Web Today", Opinion Journal, 9/22/2004
Debate Fallacies, Part 3
"Jim Lehrer: Mr. President, this is the last question. … It's a new subject—new question, and it has to do with President Putin and Russia. Did you misjudge him or are you—do you feel that what he is doing in the name of antiterrorism by changing some democratic processes is OK?"
In order not to simply beat up on the candidates in this series, here's a fallacy committed by the moderator of the debate. This is a loaded question of the black-or-white variety, that is, Lehrer asks a question which has only two alternatives:
- You (Bush) misjudged President Putin.
- You accept Putin's restrictions on democracy in the name of antiterrorism.
If Bush were to answer this either-or question directly, he would have to accept one of the two alternatives offered by Lehrer, both of which would be disadvantageous. There is another alternative that Lehrer failed to include, namely, that Bush neither misjudged Putin nor approves of his actions.
It is particularly objectionable for the moderator to ask loaded questions, since this forces the debater into dodging the question and giving the "politician's answer". Candidates don't need any encouragement to evade direct questions.
Note: This is the third in a series of posts on fallacies in the first debate between the two major Presidential candidates. This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the debate; rather it is simply a few logical points which occurred to me as I read the transcript. If there is an example from the debate that you think should be included, please send it to me.
Debate Fallacies, Part 2
"Senator Kerry: I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are. But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein. This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America."
"The" reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction? There were several reasons given by the Bush administration to justify a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, only one of which was weapons of mass destruction. Why would Kerry single out WMD as "the" one and only reason? Presumably, because it is the easiest one to knock down, and that makes this a straw man argument.
Fallacy: Straw Man
Note: This is the second in a series of posts on fallacies in the first debate between the two major Presidential candidates. If you know of an example from the debate that you think should be included, please send it to me.
Debate Fallacies, Part 1
"Jim Lehrer: Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?
"President Bush: No, I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead."
This isn't a fallacy, strictly speaking, but it is a good example of what Nigel Warburton calls the "politician's answer", that is, an evasion of the question. The moderator, Jim Lehrer, asked the President a hypothetical, yes-no question, with the hypothesis that Senator Kerry is elected. Instead of answering the question, Bush simply rejects the hypothesis, insisting that he himself will win. It might be legitimate to reject the hypothesis of a hypothetical question in some cases, but not in this case. It's possible that Kerry will be elected, and voters need to reason about what is likely to happen if he is.
Presumably, Bush did not want to answer the question because it was a no-win situation. On the one hand, if he answered in the affirmative, he likely would have been heavily criticized, as Vice President Cheney was for a remark that was interpreted as suggesting the same thing. On the other hand, answering negatively would have undercut his own case for re-election. However, Bush could have answered simply "I don't know", which is probably the accurate answer.
Note: This is the first in a series of posts on fallacies in the first debate between the two major Presidential candidates. If you know of an example from the debate that you think should be included, please send it to me.
- Register Wire Services, "Transcript of Presidential Debate", Des Moines Register, 9/30/2004
- Nigel Warburton, Thinking from A to Z (Second Edition) (Routledge, 2001).
Some readers of this weblog have asked for an RSS feed and now one is available.
Update (3/8/2012): You can access the feed from the navigation bars at the top or bottom of this page.
Check it Out
I've added Julian Baggini's latest Bad Moves column to the entry for Tu Quoque as a Resource.
Fallacy: Tu Quoque
The three siblings arrived separately at the Adams' house. The first sibling received two treats, which is an even number. The second sibling also received two treats. However, by the time the third sibling arrived at the house, the Adams family was out of treats, and the sibling received zero treats, which is an even number. We don't usually think of zero as an even number, but it is divisible by two without remainder, which is the definition of "even number". So, the total number of treats received by the siblings was four.
Congratulations to Chris Mork, who was the first person to send in a correct solution to the puzzle, and to Chris Moll, Michael Koplow, and Neil Bardhan, who all solved it correctly!