July 19th, 2021 (Permalink)
Errors of Unusual Magnitude
As I mentioned earlier this year1, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) created a "task force" to study the performance of last year's general election polls2. Its report is now out3 but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.
We already know that last year's polls were bad4, but just how bad were they? One thing that the new report did is to quantify how poorly the polls performed. The Washington Post's Dan Balz reports: "Public opinion polls in the 2020 presidential election suffered from errors of 'unusual magnitude,' the highest in 40 years for surveys estimating the national popular vote and in at least 20 years for state-level polls, according to a study conducted by [AAPOR].5"
I've mentioned in the past that there are a large number of polls taken in a presidential election year, but I've never known how many. Now, the AAPOR report tells us that the group examined 529 presidential polls from last year. I bring up the large number of polls not just because I think it's an absurd waste of time, effort, and money―though I do―but because given the usual confidence level of such polls, we can expect that 5% of them will be wrong by greater than the usual margin of error6. So, we could expect around 26 of last year's polls to be off by more than three percentage points.
Also, it was clear that the polls over-estimated support for Democratic candidates, but by how much? Based on the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, I calculated last year that they showed Biden winning by a margin of 4.3 percentage points of the popular vote greater than he won. According to the AAPOR report, this margin was only 3.9 points, so my calculation was not too far off.
According to The Post's report, the AAPOR report seems to have ruled out most explanations of the large error except:
One possible explanation is that Republicans who responded to surveys voted differently than Republicans who choose not to respond to pollsters. The task force said this was a reasonable assumption, given declining trust in institutions generally and Trump's repeated characterizations of most polls by mainstream news organizations as fake or faulty. "That the polls overstated Biden's support more in Whiter, more rural, and less densely populated states is suggestive (but not conclusive) that the polling error resulted from too few Trump supporters responding to polls," the report states. "A larger polling error was found in states with more Trump supporters."
The report makes an excellent point which has been an ongoing theme of these "Poll Watch" entries:
The report emphasizes that though often quite accurate, polls are not as precise as sometimes assumed and therefore given to misinterpretation, especially in the most competitive races. "Most pre-election polls lack the precision necessary to predict the outcome of semi-close contests," the report states. "Despite the desire to use polls to determine results in a close race, the precision of polls is often far less than the precision that is assumed by poll consumers."
When I've had a chance to read the whole report I'll update this entry or write a new one if I discover anything else in it worth writing about.
- What biased last year's polls?, 4/27/2021.
- "AAPOR Convenes Task Force to Formally Examine Polling Performance During 2020 Presidential Election", American Association for Public Opinion Research, 2/13/2020.
- Josh Clinton, et al., "Task Force on 2020 Pre-Election Polling: An Evaluation of the 2020 General Election Polls", American Association for Public Opinion Research, 7/19/2021.
- Post Mortem, 11/11/2020.
- Dan Balz, "2020 presidential polls suffered worst performance in decades, report says", The Washington Post, 7/18/2021. Subsequent quotes from this article; paragraphing suppressed.
- For the confidence level and margin of error of polls, see my: How to Read a Poll.
July 15th, 2021 (Permalink)
There ain't no such thing as free knowledge.
Quote: "Free knowledge from an encyclopedia―that would be a glorious thing. It is a shame that it is impossible. Knowledge is something that exists in minds, not texts. Reading a text will give you some ground for belief; it will not, by itself, actually give you knowledge. Still, we can speak loosely and say that encyclopedias contain what purports to be knowledge, and that is enough for me to love encyclopedias."1
Title: Essays on Free Knowledge
Comment: As the title of this newish book indicates, this is a collection of essays. I've already read some of them but am interested in reading the remainder.
Subtitle: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge
Comment: I haven't written much about Wikipedia in recent years, but I've been a frequent critic of it on this weblog for over a decade. When it first began, I had some hope that it might turn out well, but was always skeptical of the approach taken to constructing it. Unfortunately, my skepticism appears to have been borne out by its subsequent development. I'll get into what's wrong with the approach later.
Author: Larry Sanger
Comment: Sanger is a philosopher and co-founder of Wikipedia, so he knows where the bodies are buried.
Summary: According to the book's table of contents, like all of Gaul, it is divided into three parts:
- The history and theory of Wikipedia
These are the questions that Sanger addresses in this part:
What makes an open, online collaboration succeed? … Should media, textbooks, and above all reference works aim to be neutral―or should they instead aim at what their editors claim is the objective truth? How should we organize people who are difficult to reconcile, who have different interests and agendas? How do we resolve disputes among anonymous people in open communities?2
Comment: I don't know the answers to any of these questions except the second: assuming that "neutrality" is not just another name for "objectivity", I think that reference works at least should aim for the truth. As far as I'm concerned, all truth is objective; the phrase "subjective truth" is just a fancy way of referring to an opinion or mere belief.
The first essay in this section and, thus, in the book, is one that I've already read: "The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir". This essay was written and published in 2005, when Wikipedia was still young, and its tone is more positive than Sanger's more recent writings. Perhaps this is because he was still too close to it to view it objectively, or time has not been kind to it. In a footnote to this essay added to the book, he writes: "By 2019, I had come to the view that Wikipedia is simply 'broken'"3. That doesn't say whether it took until two years ago for Sanger to realize that it was "broken", or that it wasn't broken until then.
I don't think that its early history is important to understanding what's "broken" about Wikipedia, nor does it show us how to fix it. It shows how we got here, but it doesn't show how to get out of here. For that reason, unless you're specifically interested in its history, I would suggest skipping over this essay, which is not to say that this detailed account isn't interesting.
The last essay in this section, "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism" is another that I've already read. It deals with the issue that I'm most interested, namely, expertise. Many of Wikipedia's supporters seem to believe that you don't need experts to produce an encyclopedia: that if you get enough ignoramuses together, they will produce knowledge. This sounds rather like the old probability theory chestnut that if you get enough monkeys typing away, eventually they'll produce the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. That's a sarcastic way of putting it, but the question is serious: how do you get knowledge out of ignorance?
- The politics of internet knowledge
In an age of instant answers from collectively-built databases, should we care about accumulating individual knowledge, or are mere information and collective knowledge good enough? What sort of special role, if any, do experts deserve in declaring "what we all know"? Is individual knowledge, built from books and individual study, somehow outmoded?4
Comment: To address the last question first: I don't see how "collective knowledge" can be constructed without individual knowledge from which to construct it. By an "expert", all I mean is a knowledgeable person, and not necessarily someone with a particular degree. If you know every Pokémon character and its abilities, then you're a Pokémon expert.
The answer to the last question answers the first. As for the second, I'm not sure what it's asking.
- Freer knowledge
In the final part I include three recent essays bemoaning the fact that free knowledge is in dire straits, now that, like social media, Wikipedia has abandoned neutrality and is used as a tool for social manipulation. … I conclude, in a brand new essay, that free information and knowledge on the Internet is under attack, and I ask how we can save it.5
Comment: Apparently, this section is at least partly promoting Sanger's new project: the Encyclosphere. I gather that the goal is to create an alternative internet encyclopedia that lacks the faults of Wikipedia. I wish the project well and would love to have a superior alternative to Wikipedia, which I would gladly use6, but I doubt it will work out. The problem is that Wikipedia has already grown so big that it's sucked all of the air out of the online encyclopedia reading room. Like such platforms as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, there's really only room for one such entity on the internet, and for better or worse we're probably stuck with it. I hope I'm wrong about that.
General Comment: As mentioned above, I was somewhat skeptical of Wikipedia as soon as I heard of it, but was willing to give it a chance. My skepticism soon turned into criticism as I began reading it, especially in areas in which I'm an expert.
How can you test a reference work or other source of information for reliability? Choose a topic about which you are already knowledgeable, preferably to the level of expertise, then see what the source has to say about it. So, I read Wikipedia entries on logic, including those on logical fallacies. Not only were some of these entries inaccurate, some didn't even make sense. In addition, many defenders of Wikipedia claim that errors are quickly corrected, whereas some of the mistakes that I noticed persisted for years or are still present7.
Sanger seems to have followed much the same path as I took, though more slowly. However, I get the impression from his more recent essays that he's now passed me in his skepticism, though that may be because I simply haven't paid much attention recently.
Finally, some comments about Sanger's writing: he's a philosopher who doesn't write like a philosopher writing for other philosophers. So, he spends little time referring to the views of famous philosophers or citing the philosophical literature in a way designed to impress other philosophers. This is not to say that his views on knowledge and expertise have been dumbed down, but that he writes about these topics so clearly that I think any intelligent person will be able to understand him.
Publication Date: 2020
Comment: This book is from last year, obviously, but I only found out about it this year.
The Blurbs: There are few blurbs for this book, and those it has are mainly descriptive of who Sanger is.
Disclosure & Disclaimer: I've never met Sanger in the flesh, but belonged to an email discussion list on systematic philosophy he ran back in the '90s. This is a newish book and I haven't read it yet, so can't review or recommend it, but its topic interests me and may also interest Fallacy Files readers.
- P. ix; all page number citations are to the new book.
- P. x.
- P. 6.
- Pp. x-xi.
- P. xi.
- I use the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and only fall back on Wikipedia for information on popular culture that Britannica doesn't cover, and for which accuracy is not so important.
- As an example of an entry that contains novice errors, see: Wikipedia Watch, 10/22/2008. Interestingly, the "Talk" page for the Wikipedia entry discussed contains a good explanation of some of what's wrong with it, but the entry is still uncorrected after over a dozen years.
July 4th, 2021 (Permalink)
A Second Meeting of the New Logicians' Club
On this Independence Day, when you're through marching in a parade, eating hot dogs, and watching fireworks, here's a puzzle you can while away some of your free time on.
After attending my first meeting of the New Logicians' Club as a guest1, I decided to join. On the night of my first meeting as a member, the club was again playing the truth-tellers and liars game, which was the game where every member of the club was randomly assigned the role of either a truth-teller or a liar and required to answer every direct question accordingly.
Unfortunately, I arrived late for the meeting and, as a result, all the other members had already received their assignments as either truth-tellers or liars for the evening, so I didn't know who was what. Thankfully, I was assigned the role of truth-teller, and everything I tell you about that evening is true2.
The dinner had already started when I arrived and was seated at a round table with four other members of the club. I asked the member seated directly across from me―whose name was Arnauld, according to a tag on his lapel―whether he was a truth-teller or liar for the evening. He mumbled something inaudible to me because his mouth was full of food. Turning to the member seated next to him, whose name was apparently Bolzano, I asked what Arnauld had said.
"Arnauld said that he's not a liar", Bolzano replied. The member sitting next to me, whose name was Church, whispered to me: "But Arnauld was lying."
The fourth member at my table, named De Morgan, added: "Arnauld and Church are either both truth-tellers or both liars."
Finally, Arnauld swallowed his food and was able to speak audibly: "That's not true!" he blurted, glaring across the table at De Morgan.
How confusing! Can you help me determine which logicians were truth-tellers and which liars?
Extra Credit: What were the first names of those four logicians?
- Arnauld: truth-teller
- Bolzano: truth-teller
- Church: liar
- De Morgan: liar
Explanation: We saw in the first puzzle at the club1 that any member asked directly whether he or she is a truth-teller or a liar will always answer truth-teller and not a liar. Therefore, Bolzano was telling the truth when he said that Arnauld denied being a liar.
We also learned from the previous puzzle that a member of the club can only accuse another member of being a liar if the two members are opposites, that is, one is a truth-teller and one is a liar. Since Church accused Arnauld of lying, this means that they are opposites. However, De Morgan claimed that they were either both truth-tellers or both liars, so De Morgan is a liar. Finally, since Arnauld denied what De Morgan had just said, he must be a truth-teller, which makes Church a liar.
Extra Credit Solution: The four logicians were named: Antoine Arnauld, Bernard Bolzano, Alonzo Church, and Augustus De Morgan. If you were able to answer this question correctly, you are definitely New Logicians' Club material.
Disclaimer & Disclosure: Not everything I say is a lie, but this puzzle is. There is no New Logicians' Club, as far as I know, and even if there is I'm not a member.
- For the first meeting of the club, see: A Meeting of the New Logicians' Club, 5/30/2021
- Of course, if I were a liar, I would say the same thing!
July 2nd, 2021 (Permalink)
Perpetrate or Perpetuate
Spell-checking programs are useful against some types of misspelling, but they won't catch everything. Nonetheless, a good one will catch most common misspellings, thus freeing you up to look for the rare ones. In particular, they won't catch a misspelling that just happens to spell a different word than that intended. For example, the word "led", which is the past tense of the verb "to lead", is often misspelled as "lead"1. Also, "parity" and "parody" are occasionally confused, and a spell checker probably won't notice2.
The words "perpetrate" and "perpetuate" are so similar in spelling, differing by only one letter, that they are difficult to distinguish at a glance. However, their meaning is very different: "to perpetrate" means to commit a crime, or some other bad action3. In contrast, "to perpetuate", means to make something perpetual, that is, to cause it to continue indefinitely4. Since both words are transitive verbs, it's unlikely that even a program that checks grammar will prevent you from confusing them. Given that both words are uncommon, you would expect that confusing them would be even less common, but it's common enough to have been warned against in at least two usage books5.
A little over a year ago, I noticed the following sentence in a professionally published book6: "One can even book a cabin on the annual Conspira-Sea Cruise, which allows passengers to not only heal from all of the conspiracies that have been perpetuated upon them but also watch for alien visitors in the night sky.7" The supposed conspiracies were allegedly perpetrated on the passengers, not perpetuated.
Recently, I came across the following confusing sentence in another book from a different professional publisher: "Guys like Omar helped bring fresh clean skins into the jihadi ranks and inspired those at home who were unable to get to places like Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, or Pakistan but were willing and able to perpetuate violence locally.8" With "perpetrate" substituted for "perpetuate", it's less confusing.
Please don't perpetuate the perpetration of this peccadillo.
Update, 7/19/2021: I was just doing some research on the Tamara Rand hoax of 1981 when I came across the following sentence in a statement by a television host who participated in it: "I have perpetuated a hoax on the public and feel very much ashamed.9" The hoax was perpetrated, not perpetuated, since it was quickly exposed. It's surprising to come across another example of this seemingly rare mistake in a little more than two weeks after writing the above entry. Also, in all three of these examples the mistake is in the same direction, namely, substituting the incorrect "perpetuate" for "perpetrate".
- See: Get the "Lead" Out, 2/5/2007.
- Parity or Parody, 3/18/2021.
- "Perpetrate", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2021.
- "Perpetuate", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2021.
- Bill Bryson, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right (2002)
- Harry Shaw, Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (Revised Edition, 1987)
- Conspiracy Theories: A Complete-Enough Picture, 6/17/2020.
- Joseph E. Uscinski, Conspiracy Theories: A Primer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), p. 5.
- Clint Watts, Messing With the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News (Harper, 2018), p. 4; emphasis added.
- Myram Borders, "Hollywood psychic Tamara Rand's prediction of the attempted assassination…", United Press International, 4/5/1981.
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June 30th, 2021 (Permalink)
The Tank Man &
Speaking Out Against Lockdowns
The theme of this month's recommended reading and viewing is censorship. Voluntary self-censorship is spreading through the American news media and so-called social media as fast as the coronavirus spread through the country last year. This month we received a free sample of Chinese-style censorship to see how we liked it:
- Zen Soo & Frank Bajak, "Bing blocked 'tank man' images on Tiananmen anniversary, blamed human error", USA Today, 6/5/2021
Microsoft Corp. blamed "accidental human error" for its Bing search engine briefly not showing image results for the search term "tank man" on the anniversary of the bloody military crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Users in different parts of the world, including the U.S., said Friday that no image results were returned when they searched for the term "tank man." "Tank man" refers to the iconic image of a standoff between an unidentified civilian and a line of military tanks leaving Beijing's Tiananmen Square after a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. The photo has become a symbol of defiance around the world.
After being alerted by reporters, Microsoft said in a statement that the issue was "due to an accidental human error and has been resolved." Hours later, images of "tank man" photographs were returned by the search engine. The company did not elaborate on what the human error was or how it had happened. Nor did it say how much of its Bing development team is China-based. The company's largest research and development center outside the United States is in China, and it posted a job in January for a China-based senior software engineer to lead a team that develops the technology powering Bing image search.
Chinese authorities require search engines, websites and social media platforms operating within the country to censor keywords and results deemed politically sensitive or critical of the Chinese government. References to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 are blocked in China, as are images relating to the event, such as "tank man." Microsoft's Bing is one of the few international search engines that operate in China, where it abides by local censorship laws….
It's hard to see how this could have been "accidental human error" given the timing. We are now headed in the direction of this kind of censorship in America, with "social media" platforms leading the way. I suppose that search engines censoring results is the logical next step. These companies have already shown that they're willing to censor themselves at a government's bidding―the government of China, no less! Like most of the major news media, I expect the next thing they do will be to voluntarily self-censor here.
If you don't know about the tank man, you should. You can learn about him from the following excellent documentary film. If the Chinese communists have their way, it will disappear down the memory hole, so watch it while you still can:
- "The Tank Man", Frontline, 4/11/2006. WARNING: Contains horrifying, as well as inspiring, film footage. It's hard to watch, but sometimes the truth is disturbing.
In addition to China's censorship spilling over into America, there has also been censorship by media companies over the last year-and-a-half of the scientific debate about COVID-19 and how to deal with it:
- Martin Kulldorff, "Why I spoke out against lockdowns", Spiked, 6/4/2021
I had no choice but to speak out against lockdowns. As a public-health scientist with decades of experience working on infectious-disease outbreaks, I couldn't stay silent. Not when basic principles of public health are thrown out of the window. … There was never a scientific consensus for lockdowns. …
Two key Covid facts were quickly obvious to me. First, with the early outbreaks in Italy and Iran, this was a severe pandemic that would eventually spread to the rest of the world, resulting in many deaths. … Second, based on the data from Wuhan, in China, there was a dramatic difference in mortality by age, with over a thousand-fold difference between the young and the old. … Unlike the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, children had much less to fear from Covid than from annual influenza or traffic accidents. They could get on with life unharmed―or so I thought. For society at large, the conclusion was obvious. We had to protect older, high-risk people while younger low-risk adults kept society moving.
But that didn't happen. Instead, schools closed while nursing homes went unprotected. Why? It made no sense. So, I picked up a pen. To my surprise, I could not interest any US media in my thoughts, despite my knowledge and experience with infectious-disease outbreaks. … Other like-minded scientists faced similar hurdles.
Instead of understanding the pandemic, we were encouraged to fear it. Instead of life, we got lockdowns and death. We got delayed cancer diagnoses, worse cardiovascular-disease outcomes, deteriorating mental health, and a lot more collateral public-health damage from lockdown. Children, the elderly and the working class were the hardest hit by what can only be described as the biggest public-health fiasco in history.
Throughout the 2020 spring wave, Sweden kept daycare and schools open for every one of its 1.8 million children aged between one and 15. And it did so without subjecting them to testing, masks, physical barriers or social distancing. This policy led to precisely zero Covid deaths in that age group, while teachers had a Covid risk similar to the average of other professions. The Swedish Public Health Agency reported these facts in mid-June, but in the US lockdown proponents still pushed for school closures.
Something was clearly amiss with the media. Among infectious-disease epidemiology colleagues that I know, most favour focused protection of high-risk groups instead of lockdowns, but the media made it sound like there was a scientific consensus for general lockdowns. … Opposition to lockdowns had been deemed unscientific. When scientists spoke out against lockdowns, they were ignored, considered a fringe voice, or accused of not having proper credentials. …
While most governments continued with their failed lockdown policies, things have moved in the right direction. More and more schools have reopened, and Florida rejected lockdowns in favour of focused protection…without the negative consequences that the lockdowners predicted.
With the lockdown failures increasingly clear, attacks and censorship have increased rather than decreased: Google-owned YouTube censored a video from a roundtable with Florida governor Ron DeSantis, where my colleagues and I stated that children do not need to wear masks; Facebook closed the [Great Barrington Declaration] account when we posted a pro-vaccine message arguing that older people should be prioritised for vaccination; Twitter censored a post when I said that children and those already infected do not need to be vaccinated; and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) removed me from a vaccine-safety working group when I argued that the Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine should not be withheld from older Americans. Twitter even locked my account for writing that:
'Naively fooled to think that masks would protect them, some older high-risk people did not socially distance properly, and some died from Covid because of it. Tragic. Public-health officials/scientists must always be honest with the public.'The pandemic has been a great tragedy. … While deaths are inevitable during a pandemic, the naive but mistaken belief that lockdowns would protect the old meant that governments did not implement many standard focused-protection measures. The dragged-out pandemic made it harder for older people to protect themselves. …
Ultimately, lockdowns protected young low-risk professionals working from home―journalists, lawyers, scientists, and bankers―on the backs of children, the working class and the poor. … Except for war, there are few government actions during my life that have imposed more suffering and injustice on such a large scale.
As an infectious-disease epidemiologist, I had no choice. I had to speak up. If not, why be a scientist? Many others who bravely spoke could comfortably have stayed silent. If they had, more schools would still be closed, and the collateral public-health damage would have been greater. I am aware of many fantastic people fighting against these ineffective and damaging lockdowns, writing articles, posting on social media, making videos, talking to friends, speaking up at school board meetings, and protesting in the streets. If you are one of them, it has truly been an honour to work with you on this effort together.
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles and the video, but I think they're worth reading and watching as a whole. In formatting the excerpts, I may have changed the paragraphing.
June 28th, 2021 (Permalink)
Q&A: The Fox Butterfield Effect
Q: There's one fallacy I keep coming back to which I do not know the name of, and for which perhaps there is no name. However, I think it's either overdue for a name, or we need to make a bigger deal about generating awareness of it if it has a name, because it keeps cropping up in modern politics and it drives me nuts!
Here's the basic structure of it, with an example embedded:
- Oil spills happen.
- Regulation reduces the occurrence of oil spills.
- Because there is no epidemic of oil spills, we therefore don't need the burden of regulation because it is addressing a problem that doesn't exist. This statement often comes in the form of: "Where are all these oil spills that you want to burden us with regulations for?"
I've heard similar arguments with regards to taxation―e.g., why continue taxing me when society is already functioning fine?―vaccination―e.g., polio isn't a big problem so we shouldn't be pre-emptively vaccinating people for it―and a host of other topics that typically involve people who don't know what they are talking about. Does this fallacy have a name? If not, there are certain people for whom this fallacy should be named.―Rahul P. Kamath
A: Strangely enough, this sort of mistake has already been named after a person: the oddly-named Fox Butterfield. It has been called both "the Butterfield Effect1" and "the Butterfield Fallacy2", the latter of which suggests that it might be a logical fallacy. However, not all fallacies are logical ones; for instance, the well-known Sunk Cost Fallacy3 is a mistake in economics rather than logic. So, we need to consider whether the so-called Butterfield Fallacy is a logical fallacy, some other kind of fallacy, or not a fallacy at all.
Who is Fox Butterfield4? Butterfield is a journalist who used to write for The New York Times, producing stories with headlines such as the following:
Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling5
The conjunction "but" indicates a contrast between the two clauses conjoined. A similar headline on a different Butterfield article makes this contrast more explicit:
Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates6
"Despite A, B" means that B is true and A is a reason to think that B is false. So, the headline suggests that less crime gives us a reason to expect that there would be a decrease in incarceration, or at least not an increase.
In addition to the linking words "but" and "despite", the order of the clauses also contributes to the contrast. Compare the first headline above to the following revision that simply reverses the order of the clauses and uses the non-contrastive conjunction "and":
Prisons Keep On Filling and Crime Keeps On Falling
Literally, this says the same thing as the actual headline, but the impression it gives is entirely different. The order of the clauses suggests that the filling prisons cause the falling crime. In the original headline, the order suggests that the falling crime precedes the filling prisons, so that the latter could not be the cause of the former.
Now, as I often point out, headlines are usually written by editors rather than writers, but Butterfield himself wrote:
The nation's prison population grew 2.6 percent last year, the largest increase since 1999, according to a study by the Justice Department. The jump came despite a small decline in serious crime in 2002.7
This is from an article published in 2003, so all that it tells us is that the number of prisoners grew and the amount of crime declined "last year". The word "despite" suggests that we should be surprised at this, but should we? Isn't at least part of the reason for putting people in prison to prevent them from committing crimes, especially serious ones?
Wall Street Journal reporter James Taranto, who may be responsible for the name, writes: "The Butterfield Fallacy consists in misidentifying as a paradox what is in fact a simple cause-and-effect relationship…2." Such a misindentification wouldn't commit a logical fallacy in the strict sense of a common type of misleading argument, since it wouldn't be an argument at all. Yet, there appears to be an underlying argument in Butterfield's reports to the effect that, because the crime rate is so low or reducing, the prison population should also be low or declining and, since it isn't, we should do something to lower it.
In mathematical terms, Butterfield suggests that the relationship between crime and prison should be a direct one―that is, the less crime, the less imprisonment of criminals there should be. In contrast, according to common sense, the relationship is an inverse one; that is, the more imprisonment of criminals, the less crime there will be. Butterfield seems to accept the common sense inverse relationship between crime and imprisonment, as he writes: "Of course, the huge increase in the number of inmates has helped lower the crime rate by incapacitating more criminals behind bars…."5 Still, something seems to bother him about the situation.
Now, whether common sense is right that imprisonment lowers crime is not a logical issue, but a criminological one. So, let's put aside the criminological issue, and look at an example of the same sort of reasoning used to argue against requiring childhood vaccination:
Diseases that vaccines target have essentially disappeared.
There is no reason to vaccinate against diseases that no longer occur in the United States. The CDC reported 57 cases of and nine deaths from diphtheria between 1980 and 2016 in the United States. Fewer than 64 cases and 11 deaths per year from tetanus have been reported since 1989. Polio has been declared eradicated in the United States since 1979. There have been only 32 deaths from mumps and 42 deaths from rubella since 1979.8
Notice that other than polio, none of these diseases have been eradicated from the U. S., according to the argument itself. If vaccination against such diseases stopped, the numbers of cases would rise9. Even polio is only eradicated from the U. S. and not the world as a whole, and if we were to stop vaccinating it would return. We saw last year just how easy it is in a world with jet airplane transportation for a disease to spread rapidly to and from distant countries.
The one exception to the above points is a disease such as smallpox, which has thankfully been eradicated from the wild. So long as the smallpox virus is safely confined to a few laboratories, we can stop vaccinating against it without fearing its return from the wild10. However, in light of the possible escape of the recent coronavirus that causes COVID-19 from a laboratory, perhaps we should consider resuming smallpox vaccination. In any case, none of the diseases that children are currently vaccinated against has been completely eradicated.
I dwell on these epidemiological facts only because recent events have made us more aware of their importance. As in the case of the crime and prisons argument, the anti-vaccination one involves a factual mistake about the causal relationship between vaccines and diseases.
Based on these examples, it appears that the "Butterfield Fallacy" is a causal fallacy, but it's a different sort of mistake than the usual ones―such as post hoc―that infer a causal connection based on insufficient evidence11. Instead, it appears to confuse a one-time cause that eliminates a problem with a continuing cause that simply suppresses it. Imprisonment doesn't eliminate crime, at best it suppresses it. Similarly, while vaccination can eradicate a disease from the wild, before it has done so it prevents the disease from becoming an epidemic.
It's fun to mock Fox Butterfield's obtuseness, but unfair to single him out for the dubious honor of having a fallacy named after him. He was probably not the first, nor will he be the last, person to commit his namesake fallacy.
More importantly, naming a fallacy after a particular person is not a good idea, since many people will not recognize that person and, therefore, not understand why the mistake is so named. As a result, if you want to explain why the fallacy is named as it is, you'll have to go through the whole explanation that I just did. I know of no other widely-accepted fallacy named after a person except for "the Hitler Card", but that one is so named because Hitler is usually invoked in committing it.
A better name would express the essential nature of the fallacy and, thereby, serve as a mnemonic for it. Well-named fallacies, such as "Straw Man" and "Red Herring", have names that are vivid, memorable, and evoke the nature of the mistake. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to think of a better name for the Butterfield Fallacy, so it seems that we're stuck with it for now. If anyone has a suggestion that seems to fit the bill, please let me know.
I'm not convinced that the Butterfield Fallacy is a logical fallacy, though it is at least a causal one. If common sense is right that imprisoning criminals reduces the level of crime, then arguing against imprisonment based on a low crime rate is a mistake. Similarly, if a disease has been eradicated in the U. S. because of vaccination, and would make a comeback without it, then it is a causal error to argue that we no longer need to vaccinate against it.
Post hoc is a logical fallacy as well as a causal one because it is part of the meaning of causation that event C preceding the event E is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for C causing E. In contrast, it seems that the Butterfield Effect is a mistake only when it is based on a false factual claim about causation. Specifically, the mistake is one of confusing a cause that eliminates a problem with one that only suppresses it if continuously applied. In any case, whether the Butterfield Effect is a true logical fallacy or only a causal one, it is a mistake that we should all strive to avoid.
Notes:, Fox Butterfield, accessed: 6/28/2021.
June 18th, 2021 (Permalink)
The Four Billion Dollar Snub
During a press conference at the beginning of the week, Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo moved two bottles of Coca-Cola from in front of him, then held up a bottle of clear liquid, saying: "Agua"―"water" in Portuguese1. Here's how this seemingly insignificant event was headlined by NBC News:
Snub from soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo wipes $4 billion off Coca-Cola's market value2
Much stock market reporting is based on the idea that there is a causal connection between the news of the day and the movement of the stock market. If there's good news, the market is expected to go up; and if it does go up, the rise is attributed to the good news. Whereas, if there's bad news, the market is expected to go down; and if it does drop, the fall is attributed to the bad news. Similarly, an event such as Ronaldo's movement of the Coca-Cola bottles is presumed to immediately affect the stock price of the Coca-Cola company. In this case, since Ronaldo seemed to "snub" Coke, the value of the company is expected to decline.
I don't follow soccer, so I'd never heard of Ronaldo prior to this incident, but I gather that he is a famous soccer player. So, it's not totally implausible that his "snub" of the drink might have affected the value of the company that makes it, as the headline claims. Nonetheless, how did the editor who wrote the headline, and the reporter who wrote the story beneath it, know that Ronaldo's snub wiped that much off Coke's market value? All that we really know is that he moved two Coca-Cola bottles from in front of him during a press conference, and around the same time the company's stock price fell, which is reflected in some other headlines reporting the same event, for instance:
Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed Coca-Cola. Then their market value sank $4 billion.1
Unlike the previous one, there's no explicit causal claim in this headline. Instead, there is only a temporal one: this happened, "then" that. However, there is an implicit causal claim: why else mention these two events in the same headline except that they are somehow connected? By doing so, the headline suggests that the snub reported in the first sentence caused the loss mentioned in the second.
Four billion dollars certainly sounds like a lot, but the Coca-Cola Company was worth $242 billion before the loss, which was only about 1.6% of its value. Using the dollar value makes the drop sound more dramatic, but the smaller-sounding percentage makes it more believable that the snub may actually have caused the loss.
How was the $4 billion loss figured? According to The Washington Post:
The [Coca-Cola] company's share price dropped from $56.10 to $55.22 quickly after Ronaldo's slight, marking a 1.6 percent fall. The market value of Coca-Cola went from $242 billion to $238 billion, according to Nasdaq index and the New York Stock Exchange.3
In fact, the news conference at which the snub took place was Monday, and the highest stock price that day was $55.71, not $56.10. Instead, the stock closed at $56.16 a share on the previous Friday, and was at $55.69 on Monday morning when the market opened before the conference even began4. $56.10 is just $56.16 with the cents dropped, and some financial journalists report the latter as "$56.1". Unless Ronaldo's snubs have the power to travel back in time―which I think would be a bigger story than Coke's stock price―the drop should not be figured from Friday's closing price.
Where did the The Post get the price to which the stock fell? $55.22 is the lowest price that the stock fell to on Monday, and $55.20 may again be due to dropping the cents. The greatest decline that conceivably could be due to the snub was from the high on Monday of $55.71 to the low of $55.22, a loss of 49¢. Moreover, by the end of the trading day, the price was back up to $55.55, leaving a snub effect of only 16¢ a share or less than a fifth of what The Post claimed.
Here are a couple of headlines from major news outlets that reported Ronaldo's well-nigh magical powers to affect stock prices:
Coca-Cola Market Value Drops by $4 Billion Following Ronaldo's Press Conference Slight5
USA Today decided to call the $4 billion and raise it to $5 billion by figuring the decline from the stock price on Thursday:
Coca-Cola shares drop $5 billion after Cristiano Ronaldo's gesture to drink water6
To its credit, NBC News later corrected its story, changing the headline to the following:
Beverage makers mocked after soccer stars Ronaldo and Pogba snub drinks7
An "Editor's Note" was added:
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ronaldo's gesture eliminated $4 billion from Coca-Cola's stock valuation. The company's stock price, however, had begun to dip even before the gesture, and there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the gesture and the stock price.
Exactly! The revised article itself continues:
Headlines and social media conversation noted that Coca-Cola's share price fell Monday and attributed it to the global soccer star's actions. But in fact, there was no real indication that the actions had affected the stock price. Coca-Cola's share price immediately fell at the stock market opening at 9:30 a.m. ET from $56.08 to $55.25 even before Ronaldo's press conference was scheduled to begin at 9:45, just 4 cents above the day's low. The stock inched up slightly during the conference following the gesture, increasing to $55.30.8
So far, this is the only news outlet that I've seen to correct or retract its reporting on this pseudo-event.
As someone who neither watches soccer nor drinks Coca-Cola, I really don't care about this story for its own sake. Rather, I chose it as an egregious example of the tabloid-style of stock market reporting which produces silly stories such as this. Whenever you see a news story claiming that an event in sports or politics has caused the market to rise or fall, grab hold of your wallet with both hands and hold on tight.
- You can watch a brief video of the incident here: Alexandra Larkin, "Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed Coca-Cola. Then their market value sank $4 billion.", CBS News, 6/16/2021.
- Adela Suliman, "Snub from soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo wipes $4 billion off Coca-Cola's market value", NBC News, 6/16/2021. This is the Internet Archive Wayback Machine's cache of the original page. As discussed later in the entry, this headline has since been changed and the article revised.
- Paulina Villegas, "Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed Coca-Cola. The company's market value fell $4 billion.", The Washington Post, 6/16/2021.
- See: "The Coca-Cola Company (KO)", Yahoo! Finance, accessed: 6/18/2021.
- Andrew Gastelum, "Coca-Cola Market Value Drops by $4 Billion Following Ronaldo's Press Conference Slight", Sports Illustrated, 6/17/2021.
- Asha C. Gilbert, "Coca-Cola shares drop $5 billion after Cristiano Ronaldo's gesture to drink water", USA Today, 6/17/2021.
- Ben Popken & Adela Suliman, "Beverage makers mocked after soccer stars Ronaldo and Pogba snub drinks", NBC News, 6/16/2021.
- Some of these numbers differ from those in the source used for this entry: see note 4, above. It's strangely difficult to find exact stock prices as each source reports slightly different ones.
June 16th, 2021 (Permalink)
A Hidden Message from Nostradamus
A great puzzle to students of Nostradamus is what happened to the missing quatrains from Century VII. In Nostradamus' Les Propheties, a "century" is not a hundred years, but a hundred quatrains―four-line poems. There are ten centuries in the book, which should make for a total of a thousand poems. However, for some unknown reason Century VII has only 42 quatrains: where are the missing 58?
Knowing of my interest, a rare book dealer contacted me with the information that he had acquired a copy of an early English edition of The Prophecies that hitherto had been presumed lost. The edition contained the following translation of the missing 43rd quatrain from the seventh century:
Nostradamus, dead ghost on weird Wednesday,
On edge columns a mnemonics fable.
Devil's Island, Viscount Phil of Galway,
Random remarks, lead sign on a table.
Unfortunately, the volume does not contain the French originals, so it's impossible to judge how accurate a translation this is, assuming that it's a translation at all. Though certainly cryptic enough for Nostradamus, there is reason to doubt that it's genuine.
Can you discover a hidden message in the quatrain? When you think you've found it, click on the "Solution" button and all will be revealed. If you're having trouble, try the "Hint" button.
Sometimes silence speaks loudest.
The solution is contained in those letters within the words of the poem that are unpronounced. Here is the quatrain with the silent letters in bold:
Nostradamus, dead ghost on weird Wednesday,
On edge columns a mnemonics fable.
Devil's Island, Viscount Phil of Galway,
Random remarks, lead sign on a table.
The silent letters spell out: "A hidden message".
Disclaimer & Disclosure: The story about Nostradamus is fictional. It is true, however, that the seventh book of Les Propheties has only 42 quatrains, for some unexplained reason. The above poem is not the 43rd, though.
June 10th, 2021 (Permalink)
Martian Watermelons and Trump's Tear Gas
The following is the headline of an article that appeared briefly on the website of The New York Times (NYT) a couple of days ago:
Fields of Watermelons Found on Mars, Police Say1
The text of the short article beneath the headline credited to "Joe Schmoe" read:
The FBI declined to comment onreports [sic] of watermelons raining down, but confirmed that kiwis have been intercepted. This story is terribly boring.
Actually, I found the story rather interesting. Unfortunately, it appears to have been fake news in the most literal sense, as the headline was later replaced by: "This article was published in error." No kidding! A statement beneath explained: "A mock article intended for a testing system was inadvertently published on this page earlier."
As fake news goes, this was probably harmless since it wasn't online for long, and was so improbable that few if any would believe it. Compare and contrast it with the following headline from a year ago, also from the NYT, which is still available online as of this writing:
Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church2
Yesterday, the Inspector General of the Department of Interior issued a report on his investigation into the incident:
The evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP [United States Park Police] cleared the park to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing in response to destruction of Federal property and injury to officers that occurred on May 30 and May 31 . Moreover, the evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day. As such, we determined that the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park.3
That last sentence is an understatement: not only does the evidence not support such a finding, it contradicts it. So, the headline and the underlying article were false, if not fake, news.
Why is that the NYT, and many other major news outlets4, claimed that tear gas was used to clear the park for Trump's church visit? How did they come by this misinformation? The article beneath the headline contains no evidence that the actions of the park police in clearing the park had anything to do with Trump's church visit, other than the coincidence that the one preceded the other. For instance, no representative of the park police was quoted saying that tear gas was used to clear the way for the president, nor was a White House spokesman quoted as admitting that the Trump administration had requested the park be cleared. It appears that the reporter simply assumed that the way was cleared for Trump, and either asked no questions or didn't get the answers she wanted. Perhaps this was one of those stories that was "too good to check".
It's likely that very few people saw the NYT's silly Martian watermelon story, and even fewer would have believed it. In contrast, how many people believed the tear gas for Trump story? How many still do? The NYT was quick to retract its inconsequential Martian mistake, but it has yet to retract or even correct the far more important one about Trump and tear gas. Will it do so? Will it do so in such a way as to get the truth to those who still believe a false story?
- You can see an archived copy of the webpage here: "Fields of Watermelons Found on Mars, Police Say", Archive Today, 6/8/2021.
- Katie Rogers, "Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church", The New York Times, 6/1/2020.
- Mark Lee Greenblatt, "Final Statement", Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, 6/9/2021. The full report is available here: "Review of U.S. Park Police Actions at Lafayette Park", Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, 6/2021.
- Glenn Greenwald cites several other major news outlets that made the same claim, see: "Yet Another Media Tale―Trump Tear-Gassed Protesters For a Church Photo Op―Collapses, Glenn Greenwald, 6/9/2021.
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