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October 31st, 2016 (Permalink)

A Hallowe'en Party Puzzle

I will be attending a Hallowe'en costume party tonight because I know that four friends of mine will be there. My friends have told me that the most frightening costumes for the four of them to wear in this election year would be the two major presidential candidates and their vice-presidential running mates. They got this idea because they found masks and costumes for the four candidates at a local party store. However, they have not been able to decide on which candidate each one of the four should portray. None of them insists on portraying a particular candidate, but they did express their wishes and intentions. I questioned each friend in turn, and was able to gather the following clues:

  1. Either Bill will wear a Donald Trump mask or Dave will portray Tim Kaine.
  2. If Carla comes dressed as Mike Pence, then Dave won't wear a Hillary Clinton mask.
  3. Dave decided against wearing the Kaine costume.
  4. If Dave dresses as Pence, then Alice won't come as Kaine.
  5. Either Carla or Dave will wear the Clinton costume.

What selection of costumes for my four friends will satisfy each of the above clues to their desires? When you think you know the answer, click on the "Solution", below.


October 27th, 2016 (Permalink)

Not-So-Silly Celebrities

During the past ten years, I've occasionally mocked celebrities who have endorsed candidates, quackery, or conspiracy theories. In fact, just this election year I pointed to some of the sillier celebrity endorsements of the presidential candidates―see the Resource, below.

Now comes a silly, celebrity-obsessed magazine apparently attempting to nudge those less-silly celebrities who have so far remained silent into taking a public stand:

In a normal election, many people would likely discredit a celebrity's endorsement of a presidential candidate as a meaningless gesture. … In fact, given one of the candidates once had his own reality show, appeared in Home Alone 2, and has done most of his policy talks with Howard Stern―it's logical to say that celebrity opinions matter after all. A shockingly large number of Americans are prepared to make a reality TV star the ruler of the free world. Celebrities literally have the attention of millions of adoring fans at their fingertips, and it's hard to deny these people's influence. Yes, they've made a name for themselves doing, in most cases, everything other than politics, but so has Donald Trump!
Source: Matt Miller, "Why Are Influential Celebrities Remaining Silent This Election?", Esquire, 12/16/2016

No, it's not logical. A celebrity endorsement is, indeed, a meaningless gesture, or at least it should be. If anything, for the very reasons cited here, we need less celebrity involvement in this election than usual.

This from the magazine that has articles with such titles as: "Don't Freak Out, But Ties are Getting Wider Again" and "Oral Sex is Great Until Science Says it Isn't". It also appears to think it important that a band that calls itself "Pussy Riot" thinks that "Donald Trump is a misogynist pig". In other words, it's sort of a Cosmo for men.

So, Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Cam Newton, Danica Patrick, Bruno Mars, Carrie Underwood, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Pratt, and Tom Cruise, thank you for singing songs, acting in movies, posing in your underwear, throwing footballs, and driving really fast. Also, thank you for knowing when to keep your mouths shut.

Resource: Silly Celebrity Endorsements, 3/16/2016

Fallacy: Appeal to Celebrity

October 20th, 2016 (Permalink)

Logic Checking the Last Debate

Perhaps I will have more to say about the last presidential debate of this election year, but for now I want to focus on something different than I have for previous debates: the audience. Not the audience at home watching on their televisions, but the audience in the hall where the debate took place.

Why was there an audience? In a "town hall" format, of course, there has to be an audience since they are participants in the questioning. However, this and two other debates this year had a single moderator asking questions. What purpose does an audience serve in this format? Here's what the moderator, Chris Wallace, said to the audience at the beginning of the debate:

The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent. No cheers, boos, or other interruptions so we and you can focus on what the candidates have to say. No noise, except right now, as we welcome the Democratic nominee for president, Secretary Clinton, and the Republican nominee for president, Mr. Trump.
Source: "Transcript of the Third Debate", The New York Times, 10/20/2016

Then, there was applause as the candidates entered, and there was also applause allowed at the end of the debate. However, despite this warning, the audience applauded a couple of times during the debate and a few times there was audible laughter. If the audience is expected to sit there silently listening, and not participate in any way in the debate, even by applause or laughter, why have it? Again, if the audience is instructed not to applaud or otherwise make noise, but is not able to abide by these instructions, why have it?

The first televised presidential debates in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon had no audiences, but were simply shot in television studios with a panel of journalists asking questions. Did anyone complain about the lack of audiences? What value would adding a silent audience have brought to the debates?

Here's frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer's description of how he dealt with audiences:

One of the rules that the [Presidential Debate] commission adopted after 1992 was strict silence from the audience in the hall. So after being introduced to the audience of six hundred people chosen by the campaigns and debate sponsors, I laid down the law. I reminded everyone that they were not there to participate. This was not a talent show. Applause, cheers, hisses, and/or boos to demonstrate approval or disapproval were not only not permitted; they were mortal sins. I told them that if this rule were ever violated, I would stop the debate, turn around, and point to the culprit before a national television audience that would likely include everyone they have ever known in their lives.
Source: Jim Lehrer, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain (2011), p. 123

I don't know what Wallace said to the audience, but he either didn't threaten them the way that Lehrer did, or he didn't follow through on the threats. There was certainly no stopping of the debate after the applause or laughter, and no attempts to publicly humiliate the culprits.

Another problem with allowing an audience is that the candidates have brought or threatened to bring guests to sit in the audience to embarrass their opponents. First, Hillary Clinton brought Mark Cuban, a businessman who opposes Donald Trump, to the first debate. In retaliation, Trump threatened to bring a former mistress of Bill Clinton to the next debate. Such shenanigans would be impossible if there were no audience.

Perhaps eliminating the audiences in the single-moderator debates would help stop their turning into circuses.


October 19th, 2016 (Permalink)

New Book: A Field Guide to Lies

During this election season, it seems that we need a field guide to lies more than ever, and Daniel J. Levitin's new book, subtitled "Critical Thinking in the Information Age", purports to be just that. We first met Levitin a couple of years ago when his previous book, The Organized Mind, came out―see the "New Books" list, below.

There's been a spate of books in this genre in the last few years, presumably because we need them and we know it. In addition to Levitin's two books, there have been at least five such books in the past couple of years―see the chronological list, below. Those that I have read―Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to be Wrong and Standard Deviations―are excellent, and I recommend them highly.

This new field guide has chapters on lying with statistics, charts and graphs, logical fallacies, how to identify expertise, and Bayes' theorem. I'm very pleased to note that the first chapter after the introduction deals with how to check numerical claims for plausibility. I noted just a few months ago that the new book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age also discusses this subject. I've been beating the drum for the importance of such checks for the last several years, so it's good to see that books on this subject are starting to teach it.

I'm not sure that most people need to read more than one of these recent books, since there's much overlap among them, but I think most could benefit from reading at least one. In general, I'm glad to see this trend and pleased that the books that I have read have been so good. But don't let the glut of such books put you off; pick one and read it!

Previous "New Books":

October 7th, 2016 (Permalink)

Debate Watch: The Veepstakes

As I mentioned in my previous entry on preparing for the presidential debates―see Resource 1, below―one common criticism of past debates was that they lacked "clash", that is, there was little argumentation between the candidates. This was at least partly because the usual format for such debates consisted of a panel of journalists who would take turns asking questions of the candidates. As a consequence, such events took a form more akin to a simultaneous news conference with both candidates than a debate.

Presumably in reaction to this criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) left the old news conference format behind twenty years ago―see Source 2, below. All of the subsequent debates have had either a single moderator―as in the first presidential debate―or a "town hall" format, where questions are taken from the audience―as in the next scheduled presidential debate. The final presidential debate this year will return to the single moderator format of the first debate.

The first presidential debate this year did not lack clash, as I remarked in my first entry on it―see Resource 2, below. Indeed, at times it appeared that the moderator, Lester Holt, had difficulty keeping the candidates from interrupting each other and bickering. The vice presidential debate also had the single moderator format, with Elaine Quijano serving as moderator. Unfortunately, Quijano had even less control over the debaters than Holt, with the result occasionally turning into a free-for-all.

In 1990, frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer interviewed former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had debated as both a vice presidential and presidential candidate. After Mondale recommended the at-that-time traditional panel format, Lehrer asked:

Lehrer: What would you say to those who say that they ought to keep the press out of it altogether? Let the two candidates stand up there with a moderator and go at it.

Mondale: I have done it both ways. When you get into the others, you have to start fighting over time. You have to start hollering over the other person to get some time. You have to play tricks to try to get the camera to cover you and not the other person. … What they're trying to get at, of course, is that the present form, and the one I'm recommending, isn't perfect. There are no perfect formats. It happens to be better than any other because I think it gives you a chance to go into these issues of substance with good newsmen and women. It wouldn't happen otherwise. … If you have a format where the two of them just go at each other, it'll be a cat fight because they'll both be fighting desperately for time to be heard. They'll be cutting across each other's answers. There'll be no logical or in-depth exploration of anything. So, I think that the debate format that we've had…for all of its inadequacies, is demonstrably better than any other.
Source: Debating Our Destiny, 5/25/1990

The V. P. debate seems to have confirmed Mondale's concerns. According to ABC News, Democrat Tim Kaine interrupted Republican Mike Pence 70 times, and Pence returned the favor 40 times―see Source 1, below. After the debate, Kaine told a group of supporters: "I got dinged a little bit even by my wife for interrupting too much."

As a horrid example, here's one exchange from the debate―I've indicated when people were talking at approximately the same time by putting what they said in parallel columns:

Quijano: All right. I'd like to turn now to the tragedy in Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand…. You can have 30 seconds, Governor, quickly, please. Pence: Can I speak about the cybersecurity surge at all?
[A minute or so later.] Quijano: I'd like to ask you about Syria, Governor.
[A minute or so later.] Quijano: All right, we are moving on now. Two hundred fifty thousand people, one hundred thousand of them children―Governor… Pence: If your son or my son handled classified information the way Hillary Clinton did they'd be court martialed.
Kaine: That is absolutely false and you know that.
And you know that, Governor. Pence: Absolutely true.
Quijano: Governor… It's absolutely true.
Gentlemen, please. Kaine: Because the FBI did an investigation.
Gentlemen. And they concluded that there was no reasonable prosecutor who would take it further. Sorry.
Senator Kaine, Governor Pence, please. Syria.
I want to turn now to Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand people, 100,000 of them children, are under siege in Aleppo, Syria. Bunker buster bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons are being dropped on them by Russian and Syrian militaries. Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale, Governor Pence?
Source: Aaron Blake, "The Mike Pence vs. Tim Kaine vice-presidential debate transcript, annotated", The Washington Post, 10/5/2016

It takes four tries for Quijano to finally get the entire question out without being interrupted. We also get a childish "Is so!"/"Is not!" back-and-forth along with accusations of lying. Perhaps this makes for good television, but so does professional wrestling. However, it's not very good debating, though I'm not claiming the entire debate was as bad as this, because it wasn't.

What can be done to prevent this sort of thing in future debates? As I mentioned earlier, there are two more presidential debates remaining this year, and the last one will have this same format. It's probably too late to change the format, but perhaps the moderator, Chris Wallace, will learn a lesson from this debate and take a firm hand in controlling the debaters. Perhaps the CPD should consider bringing back the panel format for at least one of the three presidential debates in future elections.


  1. Jessica Hopper, "Tim Kaine on VP Debate: 'I Got Dinged' for Interrupting Too Much", ABC News, 10/5/2016
  2. Newton N. Minow & Craig L. Lamay, Inside the Presidential Debates (2008), Appendix F


  1. Debate Preparation, 9/25/2015
  2. Logic Checking the First Debate, Part I, 9/27/2015

October 4th, 2016 (Permalink)

Did Trump "win" virtually every poll?

That's what he claimed after the debate―see Source 3, below. Apparently, the only specific polls that he claimed to "win" were those conducted by CBS and TIME, though he did mention CNN as an exception―which is why he added the adverb "virtually". However, CBS did not actually conduct a post-debate poll, though it did have a focus group of supposedly undecided Pennsylvania voters who awarded the "win" to Clinton―see Source 2, below. But what about TIME?

In previous entries about polls, I've usually pointed out examples of the media reporting polls as if they are precise down to a single percentage point (Hint: They're not―see the Resource, below.). However, in this case, we have a politician committing a different mistake, namely, treating an unscientific poll as if it is a meaningful measure of public opinion. The Time poll actually includes this disclaimer―see Source 4, below:

Online reader polls like this one are not statistically representative of likely voters, and are not predictive of how the debate outcome will affect the election. They are a measure, however imprecise, of which candidates have the most energized online supporters, or most social media savvy fan base. After all, what they are counting is the number of Internet-devices controlled by people who want to vote.

That's very well explained, but it does raise the question: why does a supposedly serious news organization such as TIME conduct such "polls"? Moreover, when I checked the poll, there were over 1.7 million votes split exactly 50/50 between Clinton and Trump, though I assume that Trump was ahead when he made his claim. As far as I can tell, you can still vote in this poll if you want to, though what good would it do? A single vote, or even several, is not going to significantly shift the results.

One problem with these kind of online polls is that it's easy to stuff the ballot box. Individuals may be able to take the poll multiple times, and spread word to other supporters of the candidate to take it. Did 1.7 million individuals actually take the poll, or was there massive multiple voting? At best, such polls show whose followers are better organized. In this case, it seems that both candidates' supporters are about equally well-organized, though perhaps Trump's are quicker out of the gate.

By the way, the Vice Presidential debate is tonight, and I may have comments on it tomorrow or the next day.


  1. "Trump: 'We won virtually every poll': Transcript", Reuters, 9/27/2016
  2. "Undecided Pa. voters on who they think won the presidential debate", CBS News, 9/26/2016
  3. Brian Stelter, "The problem with Donald Trump's 'we won every poll' claim", CNN Money, 9/27/2016
  4. TIME Staff, "Vote Now: Who Won the First Clinton-Trump Debate?", TIME, 9/26/2016

Resource: How to Read a Poll: Scientific Versus Self-Selected

Solution to a Hallowe'en Party Puzzle: There are many ways to solve this puzzle; here's one. Skip to the last paragraph if you just want the answers.

First of all, we can infer that Bill must come as Trump, given Clues 1 & 3, using disjunctive syllogism (D. S.).

We can also conclude that Carla won't be portraying Pence in the following way: if she did go to the party as Pence then Dave would not be costumed as Clinton, by Clue 2 and Modus Ponens. However, that means Carla would have to be Clinton, by 5 and D. S. Since Carla can't come as both Pence and Clinton, it follows that she can't come as Pence.

So, we know that Bill will be Trump and Carla won't be Pence. So, who can Carla come as? Only two possibilities remain: Carla can come as either Clinton or Kaine.

Let's suppose that Carla comes to the party as Clinton. Then Dave must be coming as Pence, since he can't be Kaine (Clue 3), Trump (Bill), or Clinton (Carla). That leaves Kaine for Alice. However, if Alice comes as Kaine then Dave won't be Pence, from Clue 4 by Modus Tollens, which contradicts our previous conclusion. Therefore, since it leads to a contradiction, we can conclude that Carla can't come to the party dressed as Clinton.

Therefore, Carla must come as Kaine. Since Carla won't be coming as Clinton, that means that Dave will be, by Clue 5 and D. S. This leaves Pence for poor Alice, by elimination.

To sum up what each of my friends should wear to the costume party so that everyone's wants will be satisfied: Alice should come as Pence, Bill as Trump, Carla as Kaine, and Dave as Clinton.

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