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January 11th, 2022 (Permalink)

The Pandemic of Pseudoknowledge1

You've probably heard about the false claims about COVID-19 made by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor during oral argument before the United States Supreme Court a few days ago. If not, here are relevant passages from the transcript:

…[W]e are now having deaths at an unprecedented amount. … Counsel, those numbers show that Omicron is as deadly and causes as much serious disease in the unvaccinated as Delta did. Look at the hospitalization rates that are going on. We have more affected people in the country today than we had a year ago in January. We have hospitals that are almost at full capacity with people severely ill on ventilators. We have over 100,000 children, which we've never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.2

Almost none of this is true, but I'm not going into details since it's already been fact checked by others3. Moreover, it's not just incorrect, but some of it is "wildly incorrect", to quote The Washington Post's Fact Checker, who gives her four Pinocchios, the maximum number.

Where did this misinformation come from? The claim that "we have over 100,000 children…in serious condition and many on ventilators" may come from the fact that there are over 100K cases of COVID-19 among children, but few of these are serious and it's doubtful that any, let alone "many", are on ventilators.

Clearly, Sotomayor is not simply ignorant; if she were, she would either have been silent or simply said that she didn't know. Instead, she uttered egregious falsehoods. She also certainly wasn't lying; what motive would she have for doing so, especially given the fact that the falsehoods were quickly debunked by fact checkers? What's left? She genuinely believed factual claims that were not just false, but outrageous.

Sotomayor is not the only offender on the court; here's Associate Justice Stephen Breyer during the same hearing:

I mean, you know, 750 million new cases yesterday or close to that is a lot. I don't mean to be facetious.2

That is a lot: a lot more than it is. Presumably, Breyer meant to say "thousand" instead of "million"―he got the number correct earlier and later. A thousand, a million, a billion―what's the difference? It's a lot! And I do mean to be facetious. Breyer's innumerate claim is not as bad as Sotomayor's because it appears to have been a slip. Still, to confuse thousands and millions and not be corrected by anyone present seems to show a lack of number sense, that is, a feel for the relative sizes of different numbers.

Nonetheless, this degree of innumeracy and pseudoknowledge at the highest levels of American government is alarming. I don't know why, but neither counsel nor the other justices challenged these falsehoods. Was this because they didn't realize that the claims were false, or were they afraid to challenge and perhaps publicly embarrass Sotomayor or Breyer?

For almost two years now we've had a pandemic of misinformation about the coronavirus and its subsequent variants, despite―or rather because of―the constant coverage from the major news media. As a result, pseudoknowledge about COVID-19 reaches to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Nine people will make a decision about how the government handles this disease that will affect the lives of a third of a billion Americans. Given that the court is being asked to adjudicate a case involving COVID-19, you might expect them to do their homework and be well-informed about it. Instead, they're well-misinformed.

I've been pointing out for the last year and a half that public health officials and the major news media have been doing a terrible job of informing the American people about the coronavirus and its variants4. What little survey evidence I've seen indicates that the effect has been largely to grossly misinform the general public. The current incident, as minor as it is in other ways, shows that the misinformation goes to the highest levels of the U.S. government and to our "best and brightest".

I don't know the solution to this problem, but the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that you've got one. Houston, we have a problem!


Notes:

  1. What is pseudoknowledge? It is a false belief that masquerades as knowledge.
  2. "Nat. Fed'n of Indep. Bus. v. Dept. of Labor", Supreme Court of the United States, 1/7/2022
  3. I've put the following in alphabetical order by first author's last name, but if you're in a hurry, read the Annenberg first or only:
  4. See:

January 7th, 2022 (Permalink)

Credibility Checking, Part 1: Compare & Contrast

What is credibility checking? It's a process that lies halfway between simply questioning a factual claim and giving it a complete factual check-up. Since a thorough fact check takes time and effort, a credibility check is a way to test whether a claim is likely to be worth the investment. Unlike a fact check, a credibility check uses only two things: what you already know and ballpark estimation. As a result, checking credibility usually takes no more than a few minutes.

What is credibility?

The following words are synonyms: credible, plausible, and believable. I will use all three interchangeably, mainly for the sake of variety, but I call the technique I'm describing "credibility checking." All three words can be used to describe both claims and the people who make them. A credible witness is one whose testimony is plausible, and plausible testimony enhances the believability of a witness. In the following, I will be examining only the credibility of claims.

Literally, a claim is credible, plausible, or believable, if it is able to be believed. However, perhaps the best way to understand it is by contrast with its antonym, namely, "incredible". Often, the word "incredible" is used in the sense of "surprisingly good" or just "very good", but I mean it in its literal sense of "unbelievable" or "implausible". A claim is incredible if there is good reason in logic or common knowledge to think that it cannot be true.

For instance, the claim that the 7 × 13 = 27 is incredible1. If I multiplied and got that result, I would be sure that I had made a mistake. A feeling for what is credible and incredible in mathematics is called "number sense", which is an aspect of numeracy. Number sense is an important skill because mistakes in calculation are unavoidable, even if you use a calculator, since a misplaced decimal point or an incorrect leading digit will cause a miscalculation. A seemingly small error in data entry can cause an enormous mistake in the result of a calculation, and to catch such mistakes requires at least an order-of-magnitude (OoM) estimate of what the result should be.

A claim is plausible if it is not incredible, that is, if there's no prima facie reason to think that it cannot be true. That a claim is incredible does not automatically mean that it's false, since some seemingly incredible things have turned out to be true. However, an incredible claim requires very strong evidence to establish its truth. For instance, if my great aunt Bertha claimed to have a mermaid in her backyard swimming pool, I would have to see it in person to believe it. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", as Carl Sagan liked to say2, and incredible claims are extraordinary. Similarly, that a claim is credible is no reason by itself to think that it is true, since many credible claims are false. For example, it's plausible that I have a great aunt Bertha, but I don't.

Healthy Skepticism

A healthy skepticism is a prerequisite for plausibility checking. What is a healthy skepticism? It's a golden mean3 between gullibility and cynicism. When confronted with a factual claim, the gullible person will accept it without question, at least if it fits in with that person's prejudices. In contrast, a cynic will reject the claim out of hand without bothering to check it, especially if it conflicts with the cynic's prejudices. Confronting the same claim, the healthy skeptic will question it, but not reject it without further examination. The skeptic asks: "Is that right? What's the evidence for it?" Moreover, unlike the unhealthy cynic, the skeptic is willing to accept the claim if sufficient evidence is found for it.

Given that your skepticism is healthy, the first thing you will do is a credibility check. Since you're confronted with hundreds, or even thousands, of new factual claims every day, there's no way that you can fact check them all. At best, you may be able to check a few claims each day. So, how do you decide which to check? Credibility checking.

An Example

In 1983, Senator Orrin Hatch made the following claim: "…[L]ast year the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] approximated the number of children abducted by strangers to be 50,000.4" This claim is backed by impressive credentials: it comes from a United States Senator who attributes it to the FBI, a government agency that collects crime statistics among other things. So, you'd expect it to be right, and you may understandably be inclined to accept it without checking. However, Hatch was a politician who may have had political motives for making the claim, and there's always the possibility of a mistake, such as an accidentally added zero or a misunderstanding of what the number quantified5. For this reason, it's a good idea to give it a quick credibility check. But how do you do that?

Use What You Know

You probably know more about many things than you think you do, but unless you are an expert in historical crime statistics, it's unlikely that you'll know whether 50,000 children were kidnapped by strangers in the U.S. in 1982. However, you can use what you do know to estimate what you don't.

For instance, do you have some idea of how many people die in automobile accidents every year in the U.S.? Is it hundreds? Is it thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? You don't need to know the exact number; all you need is an estimate of its OoM, that is, whether it is in the tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. If you haven't already done so, mentally estimate the number of deaths from car accidents in a typical year.

I don't know what you estimated, but here's one way to think this through. We'll estimate both a minimum and a maximum OoM, then the number we want will be in between.

Judging from experience and media reports, the number of fatalities in my own state―which is a typical state―must be at least in the hundreds, and maybe as much as a thousand per year. So, nationwide the number will be at least in the thousands, and probably the tens of thousands, given that there are fifty states. For this reason, let's set the minimum at tens of thousands.

Could the number be as high as the millions? Surely not; there would be much more concern about road safety than there is now if it were. What about hundreds of thousands? This is not so clear, but consider the fact that COVID-19 killed roughly 400,000 people both last year and the year before6. Surely, if the number of traffic deaths was near this or greater, we would be hearing more about it than we do. So, let's set the maximum at tens of thousands.

This means that both our minimum and maximum are in the tens of thousands, that is, at least 10K and at most 100K. How close is this estimate to your own? More importantly, how close is it to the actual statistics on deaths from automobile accidents?

Nowadays, the number of automobile fatalities tends to range between 30-35K a year; for instance, it was over 32K in 2013, according to the C.D.C.7. In the late twentieth century, it tended to be somewhat higher, usually running between 40 and 50 thousand8. So, this was a good ballpark estimate: while it's not precise, it's at the right OoM, and that's all we need.

Compare & Contrast

One way to check the credibility of what you don't know is to compare it to what you do know. You don't know how many American children were abducted by strangers in 1982, but you now know approximately how many people of all ages died in traffic accidents in that year.

The number of traffic fatalities that year was in the tens of thousands, which means that the claimed number of child abductions is of the same OoM. How does this affect its credibility? Have you ever noticed that every major car accident in your area is reported by the local news media? Wouldn't the news media report every missing child and give it even more attention than a car accident, even a fatal one? How many such stories have you noticed in your local press?

Do you know anyone who was killed in an automobile accident? Have you had any friends or family members who died in this way? Was anyone you went to school with, or worked with, a traffic fatality? Compare this with kidnapping by strangers. Was any friend of yours, family member, fellow student, or co-worker kidnapped by a stranger as a child?

Do you remember AMBER alerts9? This is an alert that is broadcast to the community when a child goes missing. They're still a thing. Now, not every child who is missing has been kidnapped by a stranger, but every child abducted by a stranger will be missed at some point by parents or other adults, so there ought to be an alert. How many AMBER alerts did you notice in the past year?

Conclusion

This credibility check suggests that the claim that 50,000 children were abducted by strangers in 1982 is implausibly high, but it does not prove that it's wrong. However, that's not the purpose of a credibility check; rather, the failure of the claim to pass this check is a reason to go ahead with a full fact check.

Next Month in Part 2: Divide & Conquer


Notes:

  1. See: "Abbott & Costello 7 × 13 = 27", YouTube, 9/6/2015.
  2. Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1980) p. 73. Sagan adapted this saying from one of Marcello Truzzi's; see: Quote…Unquote.
  3. The "golden mean" is the name given by the Roman poet Horace to Aristotle's doctrine that virtue is a mean between two extremes, both of which are vices; for instance, bravery is a mean between rashness and cowardice. See: Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (Revised second edition, 1984).
  4. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, "Statement on Child Kidnapping & Victimization", in "Child Kidnaping. Oversight Hearing Inquiry into the Priorities and Practices of the FBI in Child Kidnaping Cases before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-Eighth Congress, First Session", 2/2/1983, p. 14.
  5. Another possible source of confusion comes from the fact that the scope of "last year" is ambiguous: is it last year that the 50,000 children were abducted, or last year that the F.B.I. made the claim? If the latter, then what was the time frame of the statistic? Was it also last year, or some longer period of time? In the text above, I assume that 50,000 children were supposed to have been abducted in 1982, that is, "last year".
  6. Julie Bosman, Amy Harmon, Albert Sun, Chloe Reynolds & Sarah Cahalan, "Covid deaths in the United States surpass 800,000.", The New York Times, 12/15/2021.
  7. "Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths", Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7/6/2016.
  8. "Motor Vehicle Safety Data", Bureau of Transportation Statistics, accessed: 1/7/2022.
  9. "About AMBER Alert", United States Department of Justice, 10/20/2019.

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December 31st, 2021 (Permalink)

When Prophecy Fails, 2021 Edition

If you thought this year was bad, it could have been much worse: Nostradamus might have been right1! Near the end of every year, some websites and tabloid newspapers put out lists of supposed predictions of Nostradamus for the coming year2. In fact, right now there are a few of these online for next year in case you're interested. However, in this entry we're going to look back at how the predictions for this year turned out. The publications that print such predictions don't do post mortems at the end of the year, so we'll have to do it for them.

Nostradamus has, of course, been dead for half a millenium. So, the predictions are allegedly based on his book of poetic prophecies, The Centuries, first published in 15553. The major problem with attempting to apply those prophecies to this or any other year is that Nostradamus seldom gave them dates, or any other way of assigning them to a specific year. Moreover, some of those who produce lists for the year seem to make some of them up and falsely attribute them to the famed "seer". For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to ignore any predictions that have no basis in his writings.

So, here are some select events that happened this year according to "Nostradamus":

The Zombie Apocalypse

Prediction: "A Russian scientist will create a biological weapon-virus that can turn people into zombies. The end of humanity may be closer than we think [sic]"4

Fact Check: Thankfully, I haven't noticed any dead people stumbling around the streets trying to eat living people's brains this year. While the page contains no reference to a Nostradamus quatrain, there is one that may be the inspiration for this prediction, which is quoted by a different article:

Try not to feel too frustrated about our current predicament though. Things could always be worse. After all, Nostradamus has also predicted an imminent zombie apocalypse:
The year of the great seventh number accomplished,
it will appear at the time of the games of slaughter,
not far from the age of the great millennium,
when the dead will come out of their graves.

Something for us to look forward to in 2027?5

This is a translation of quatrain X-74. Who knows what the "year of the great seventh number" or "the great millennium" refer to? When is "the time of the games of slaughter"? Unlike the prediction quoted above, the author of this article seems to think that the zombies won't rise from their graves until six years from now, which is a relief―at least that gives us time to stock up on ammunition and canned goods. But what reason is there for thinking that the prediction will come true in six years rather than this year? Is it because 2027 ends in seven? Then why not 2017, or 2007, or 2037, or any other year ending in seven?

Where did the Russian scientist come from? That's a nice detail, and just the sort of thing to give the prediction a bit of verisimilitude, but there's no mention of Russia or a scientist in the quatrain. In addition, there's nothing suggesting why the graves open and the dead come out, let alone that it's due to "a biological weapon-virus".

Verdict: Seven Pinocchios

California Fell into the Pacific

Prediction: "According to the interpretation of the quatrain, written by Nostradamus, an extremely powerful earthquake will destroy California in 2021. Nostradamus predicts that a massive earthquake will hit the New World ('western lands'), and California is the most obvious place where it could happen. According to astrologers, the verse 'Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn is extinguished' indicates the next date when the planets Mars and Saturn will be in this position in the sky–November 25, 2021."4

Fact Check: Luckily, I don't live in California, but that has nothing to do with zombies or killer earthquakes. California gets earthquakes every year, but there was none this year that was so "massive" as to destroy the state―leave that to the politicians.

What is it with predictions that California will fall into the ocean? I've been hearing these since I was a child, and I'm always disappointed. It was Edgar Cayce who infamously predicted the destruction of southern California by 19986, not Nostradamus. You don't hear much about Cayce these days, probably because of his foolishness in making many specific predictions for the last century none of which came true. At least, he had the good sense to die in 19456, before his prophetic powers were shown to be less than perspicacious.

Nostradamus had more sense than to put dates to his prophecies; as a result, they are open-ended and have all of future time to come true. Revealingly, the quatrain quoted is the same one that supposedly predicted the coming of the coronavirus epidemic last year, which just goes to show how open to interpretation these poems are. As I pointed out in discussing that alleged prediction7, the word interpreted as applying to California just means "western lands"―as helpfully noted in the Prediction, above―and this could refer to anywhere west of France, where Nostradamus wrote it. In applying the quatrain to COVID-19 last year, it was taken to refer to America as a whole rather than just one state.

There's no indication of when all of this is supposed to happen other than the usual astrological mumbo jumbo. The earlier article claimed that Mercury had entered the constellation of Sagittarius in December 2019, but some other astrologer placed it in 2044. Moreover, no one seems to know what the old French "Saturne fenera" means: it's translated here as "Saturn is extinguished", but that's no clearer than the original.

Verdict: Pants on Fire!

An Asteroid Collided with the Earth

Prediction: "'In the sky, a person will see fire and a long trail of sparks.' This can be interpreted as impending natural disasters, but according to other interpretations of this quatrain, we are talking about a large asteroid that will collide with Earth. Once in the Earth’s atmosphere, the asteroid will heat up and appear to be on fire in the sky. Indeed, NASA has announced that there is a very real danger that asteroid 2009 KF1 will collide with Earth on May 6, 2021."4

Fact Check: If an asteroid did hit Earth on May 6th, it must've been a small one. The line quoted is from quatrain II-46:

OriginalTranslation
Après grand trouble humain, plus grand s'apprête
Le grand moteur les siècles renouvèle:
Pluie, sang, lait, famine, fer et peste,
Au ciel vu feu, courant longue étincelle.
After great trouble for humanity, a greater one is prepared
The Great Mover renews the ages:
Rain, blood, milk, famine, steel and plague,
In the heavens fire seen, a long spark running.8

This seems to be describing a comet rather than an asteroid. In fact, it's the "key verse that provides the first definitive clue on the arrival time of Nostradamus' comet", according to R. W. Welch, though he expected that arrival in 20049. There's also no indication in the poem that the comet hits Earth. Comets have long been considered harbingers of disaster by superstitious people, and the third line sounds like a list of typical plagues―except for milk; what the heck is milk doing there? So, Nostradamus seemed to be predicting the arrival of a comet which would presage various disasters, natural or otherwise, but when all this was supposed to happen is anybody's guess.

Happily, there is no asteroid 2009 KF110. There is an asteroid JF1 that passed close to the Earth in 2009―that is, close for an asteroid, which is still very far away―but didn't hit. The alleged asteroid 2009 KF1 was apparently the result of some genuine fake news that the author of this silly article picked up and spread.

Verdict: A Pinocchio with his pants on fire.

What about next year?

If you thought those were pessimistic prognostications, just wait till you hear next year's! The only prophets more pessimistic than "Nostradamus"―and more wrong―are public health officials.

So, what can we look forward to next year? Three days of darkness, vampires instead of zombies, alien invaders, attacking robots, World War 3, and a black hole swallowing everything11―not necessarily in that order. I would promise to come back next year with a fact check of these predictions, but what's the point? A single prediction sums up the lot: we're doomed!


Notes:

  1. Previous weblog entries on Nostradamus:
    1. Check it Out, 9/22/2003
    2. Book Review: Comet of Nostradamus, 8/6/2004
    3. Through the Looking Glass, Darkly, 2/7/2009
    4. 2020 Hindsight, 3/10/2021
    5. 2020 Hindsight, Part 2, 4/2/2021
    6. 2020 Hindsight, Part 3, 5/2/2021
  2. One such publication is the once-respectable news magazine Newsweek. Its article is a bit more skeptical than others, but it's not skeptical enough; see: Kelly Wynne, "Nostradamus' Predictions for 2021 Aren't Pretty: Asteroids, Earthquakes, Plague and More", Newsweek, 12/28/2020.
  3. Nostradamus, "The Compleat Works of Nostradamus", 1555.
  4. "8 predictions of Nostradamus for 2021", Ordo News, 11/22/2020. This is the earliest archived copy of this page from the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
  5. Rae Alexandra, "Perhaps Nostradamus Predicted Coronavirus After All…", KQED, 4/6/2020. This is the same article that I discussed in 1-VI, above. I've added line breaks to the quatrain.
  6. James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1993), under "Cayce".
  7. See 1-VI, above.
  8. Edgar Leoni, Nostradamus and His Prophecies (1982).
  9. R. W. Welch, Comet of Nostradamus: August 2004―Impact! (2001), p. 6; see 1-II, above, for a review.
  10. "Social Media Misinformation Regarding Asteroid Encounters", National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 1/4/2021.
  11. "Nostradamus Predictions 2022", Wise Horoscope, accessed: 12/30/2021.

Recommended Reading
December 28th, 2021 (Permalink)

Unmasking the CDC & Manufacturing Fear


Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing, de-italicized words, or rearranged the order of the excerpts.


Puzzle
December 25th, 2021 (Permalink)

Christmas at the New Logicians' Club

Due to other holiday commitments, I arrived late for the New Logicians' Club's Christmas celebration. The club was playing its usual game in which every member was randomly assigned to be either a truth-teller or a liar for the evening, and required to answer every question accordingly.

I looked around the room for an empty seat at one of the tables, but every chair was filled. Luckily, at that moment, an elderly man rose slowly from his seat at a nearby table. When he turned toward me, I recognized him as Professor Knight, who taught philosophy at a nearby college, and was the very embodiment of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. Knight was also a Kantian* who refused to lie even as part of a game, so he was always assigned to be a truth-teller. He headed towards the door where I was standing.

"Good evening, Professor," I said as he came within earshot, "are you leaving so soon?"

"Er, um, yes!" he answered, "I just remembered that it's Christmas! I must get home!"

Since I like to know whether the logicians I share a table with are liars or truth-tellers, I asked Knight about the three who remained seated at the table he had left.

"Oh, yes," he replied, "I seem to remember that one said that at least one of them was something, and another said that exactly one of them was that something, but the third claimed that at most one of them was that same thing."

"But, Professor, what was that something?"

"Hmm, I can't seem to remember, but I do seem to recall that it was either truth-teller or liar. Anyway, it doesn't matter, as I'm sure that you can figure it out. I must be going!" With this, he rushed out the door.

Can you figure it out? In case what the Professor said wasn't entirely clear, the three unnamed logicians seated at the table―let's call them "X", "Y", and "Z"―said the following:

X: "At least one of us is a ____."

Y: "Exactly one of us is a ____."

Z: "At most one of us is a ____."

Where the blank is filled with either "truth-teller" or "liar" in each statement, with the same word filling the blank in all three statements.

The question is: what are X, Y, and Z? What is the veracity status of each of the three logicians?


* The philosopher Immanuel Kant rather notoriously held that lying was immoral in all circumstances; see: "The morality of lying", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 12/24/2021. I'm not sure whether Kant included games in the prohibition of lying, but Knight certainly does.


December 15th, 2021 (Permalink)

A Troublesome Trio: Peremptory, Preemptory, and Preemptive

I recently came across the following sentence in a book: "The lawyers then use their preemptory challenges in such a way as to get jurors with the demographics and other characteristics that are found to be most favorable to their side.1" My mental spellchecker alarm was set off by the word "preemptory": shouldn't that be "peremptory"?

"Peremptory" is an adjective that means "final", "decisive", or "unappealable"2. It comes to English from the Latin word "peremptorius", which meant to "take completely" or "destroy", and "[b]y extension it was used for 'taking away all possibility of debate', and hence 'decisive.'3"

Like all Gaul, "peremptory" is divided into three parts: the prefix "per-", the stem "empt", and the adjectival suffix "-ory". The Latin stem is the root of the word "emptor", meaning "buyer", from the familiar phrase "caveat emptor": "let the buyer beware"4. The prefix often means "through", as in "perambulate", to "ambulate"―that is, to walk―through. However, it can also mean "through and through", "thoroughly", or "completely" as in "perfect"―"to make complete"―from the Latin verb "facere", "to make".5

In current English, "peremptory" is a rare word that usually occurs in legal phrases such as "peremptory challenge". In law, a challenge is used by one side in a trial to prevent a prospective juror from being seated on the jury, and there are two types: for cause and peremptory. Challenges for cause must be approved by the judge, but not peremptory ones, which is why they are final.6

The Latin prefix "pre-", in contrast to "per-", usually means "before", as in "prefix" itself, which is something that is "fixed" or "fastened" to the beginning of a word. Similarly, to "predict" is to say something before it happens, where the stem "dict" comes from Latin "dicere": "to say". Also, to "preempt" is to "take before", as in a preemptive strike, which is one taken before a predicted attack.7

On the basis of its construction, "preemptory" ought to mean the same thing as "preemptive", since the only difference between the two words is in the adjectival suffixes. So, a "preemptory challenge" would be one that happens before, but both types of challenge occur before the jury is seated and the trial proper begins. What sets the peremptory challenge off from the challenge for cause is that the challenge itself is unchallengeable8.

Is "preemptory" simply a misspelling of "peremptory", perhaps based on confusion with "preemptive"? If so, it ought to be caught and corrected by spellchecking programs. However, my old copy of Microsoft's Word program accepts either spelling. In contrast, a few online spellchecking programs that I tried all marked "preemptory" as incorrect9.

A search in Google Books finds many examples of "preemptory", primarily in legal texts―there's even a book from 1989 with the word in its title. Does this mean that "preemptory" is an accepted alternative spelling in legal writing? None of the legal dictionaries that I've consulted include "preemptory", but all have entries for "peremptory"10.

For these reasons, I conclude that "preemptory" is indeed a misspelling of "peremptory", albeit a common one. If you're a lawyer or legal writer, you might check your spellchecker to see whether it will launch a preemptive strike, and give "preemptory" a peremptory challenge.


Notes:

  1. Herbert F. Weisberg, Jon A. Krosnick & Dale R. Newman, An Introduction to Survey Research, Polling, and Data Analysis (3rd edition, 1996), p. 9.
  2. "Peremptory", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 12/15/2021.
  3. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (1991).
  4. Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985).
  5. For the previous two paragraphs, I consulted Ayto, above, and also: Joseph T. Shipley, Dictionary of Word Origins (1945), pp. 268 & 285.
  6. For the legal definitions and procedures in this paragraph, see: "Peremptory Challenge", Legal Dictionary, 9/21/2015; and "Challenge for Cause", Legal Dictionary, 8/21/2015.
  7. I used both Ayto and Shipley for this paragraph.
  8. This is not quite true; there are rare circumstances in which such challenges can be themselves challenged, see the sources under note 6, above.
  9. I used the following: "Online Spellcheck", "Reverso Speller", and "Online Spell Check"; accessed: 12/15/2021.
  10. I checked the following: "Legal Dictionary", "Law Dictionary", Merriam-Webster, and "The Law Dictionary"; accessed: 12/15/2021.

December 5th, 2021 (Permalink)

Fact Checking the Future and the Future of Fact Checking

Last month's entry in this series discussed the important but poorly understood distinction between facts and opinions1. It's generally agreed by experts that fact checkers should avoid checking opinions but, unfortunately, the temptation to do so seems irresistible. As I argued in that entry, predictions are a type of statement of opinion, and I predicted that I would examine an example of such opinion checking. This entry is the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Predictions are expressions of opinion because, unlike the past, the future is not fixed, and there are no facts about it. There are, of course, some claims about the future that are highly likely, even so likely that they are almost certain and one could be forgiven for calling them "facts". For instance, is it a "fact" that the sun will rise tomorrow? Based on past experience, as well as scientific knowledge about the rotation of the Earth and the life spans of stars, it's so probable that the sun will rise that only a philosopher would doubt it. However, such exceptional predictions are unlikely to be the targets of our fact checkers, so let's examine in depth a prediction that they actually checked.

Last year, President Donald Trump claimed that a vaccine for COVID-19 might be available before the end of the year. Despite the fact that this was an expression of opinion, and that Trump as president was obviously in a position to take steps to speed the development of a vaccine, both The Washington Post's Fact Checker and NBC News chose to "fact check" it. Here's the cautiously worded start of The Post's "fact check":

President Trump has adopted a new refrain: A vaccine for the novel coronavirus will be completed in record time. On several occasions, the president has bragged about the speed with which experts and pharmaceutical companies are working on a vaccine. Trump is not wrong in saying that scientists are rapidly developing a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus. However, he seems to be overstating when a vaccine will be available to the public.2

The Fact Checker carefully hedges its claim that Trump was wrong: he "seems" to be "overstating" it. What, specifically, did Trump claim? A couple of days before The Post's article in early March of last year, Trump held a roundtable with representatives of pharmaceutical companies and members of the coronavirus task force. At the end of the meeting, Trump answered questions from unnamed members of the news media, and his answers seem to have inspired the "fact check":

Q: Mr. President, do you accept that this will take longer probably than you would like?

Trump: I don’t know what the time will be. I don’t think they know what the time will be. I’ve heard very quick numbers—a matter of months—and I’ve heard pretty much a year would be an outside number. So I think that’s not a bad range. But if you’re talking about three to four months, in a couple of cases, and a year in other cases—wouldn’t you say, Doctor, would that be about right?

Q: Is it realistic to think, really, that a vaccine could be ready in three or four months?

Trump: Well, you have the greatest companies in the world sitting around the table. I mean, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer and all of the companies—Gilead—you have all of these great companies and that’s what they’re saying.

Anthony Fauci: Would you make sure you get the President the information that a vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable. So he’s asking the question, “When is it going to be deployable?” And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.3

This is a confusing exchange. The first question is itself unclear: what does "this" refer to? Vaccine development? Treatment development? Both were discussed during the previous roundtable discussion. The follow-up question is clearly about vaccines, and Trump may have been confused about the difference between when a potential vaccine would be at the testing stage as opposed to being ready for vaccinating people in the population, as Fauci's intervention suggests.

NBC News' "fact check" was over two months after The Post's, and NBC had additional statements to check:

President Donald Trump has suggested multiple times that a coronavirus vaccine could come within months, an accelerated timeline that prominent health experts and veteran vaccine developers say is unlikely absent a miracle. "We're looking to get it by the end of the year if we can, maybe before," Trump said Friday during in [sic] a Rose Garden event centered on his administration's efforts to fast-track a vaccine. “Vaccine work is looking VERY promising, before end of year,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. … “I think we’re going to have a vaccine by the end of the year,” he told reporters later in the day.4

Only the last of these is a prediction, but it is also qualified by the word "think" indicating that it is an opinion. How could you check such a prediction, aside from waiting until the end of the year to see whether it comes true? Predictions are opinions, and they cannot be checked against the facts, since the facts that will make them true or false don't yet exist. The only approach available is to check the opinion against other opinions, and this is what both The Post and NBC News chose to do: asking experts for their opinions as to when a vaccine would be available. For example, here is NBC's "fact check":

[E]xperts say that the development, testing and production of a vaccine for the public is still at least 12 to 18 months off, and that anything less would be a medical miracle. …

“I think it’s possible you could see a vaccine in people’s arms next year—by the middle or end of next year. But this is unprecedented, so it’s hard to predict,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. …

Dr. Walter Orenstein, a professor at Emory University and the associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, said a vaccine in less than a year would be “miracle.” While technically possible, he added, it is unlikely. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong,” Orenstein said.

Dr. Stanley Plotkin…said developing a vaccine in a year to a year and half was “feasible,”…. “In the best of circumstances, we should have a vaccine—or let's say vaccines—between 12 and 18 months," he said. …

…Dr. Anthony Fauci, told the "Today" show that January 2021 is the earliest a vaccine could be ready, but cautioned that that timeline is "aspirational" and depends on companies producing a vaccine before researchers are sure it will work. …

Rick Bright…testified at a House hearing Thursday that an accelerated timeline might paint too rosy a picture. “A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12- to 18-month timeframe, if everything goes perfectly. We’ve never seen everything go perfectly,” Bright said. “I still think 12-18 months is an aggressive schedule, and I think it’s going to take longer than that to do so.”4

Like NBC News, The Post's Fact Checker pits expert opinion against Trump's prediction:

Experts have emphasized that actual deployment of the vaccine is more than a year away, not a few months, as Trump has suggested. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House news conference on Feb. 26: “So although this is the fastest we have ever gone from a sequence of a virus to a trial, it still would not be applicable to the epidemic unless we really wait about a year to a year and a half.” …

Peter Jay Hotez, the dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine, said…“I doubt very much that we’ll have a vaccine in time for this epidemic, maybe if this virus returns on an annual basis. … But unfortunately, I think for now, we have to look at the realistic prospect that we’re going to have to battle this virus without the benefit of a vaccine.”2

The Fact Checker, to its credit, didn't give a Pinocchio rating to Trump's prediction, but here is what it calls "The Bottom Line":

Trump appears to be expediting the vaccine development process, misrepresenting how fast a vaccine will be available to the public in fighting the novel coronavirus [sic]. Fauci has repeatedly corrected the president’s comments on the vaccine to put forward a more accurate timeline. As the United States and the rest of the world prepare for the novel coronavirus to continue spreading, it’s important to share factual information about the virus and methods to combat it.2

Here's the real Bottom Line: The first vaccination against COVID-19 was given in mid-December of last year5, and by the end of the year news outlets reported that "only" 2.8 million Americans had been vaccinated6.

I don't mean to criticize the experts who were consulted by the fact checkers7: I assume that they were sincerely expressing their opinions―expert opinions, no doubt, but only opinions and not facts. However, experts are no more prophets than anyone else. Their predictions were presumably based on experience with past vaccine development, but this was a situation in which such experience could be misleading. The fact that it had taken at least a year-and-a-half to test and deploy past vaccines obviously did not mean that the process could not be speeded up.

If fact checking is to have a future, and not be laughed into extinction, fact checkers need to have the intellectual humility to recognize the difference between their own opinions and the facts. If journalists want to argue against the opinions of presidents or others, they should do so on the editorial pages where such argumentation belongs. Fact checks are not, or at least should not be, battles of opinion between experts. Is there a better way to debase the coinage of fact than to confuse it with opinion?

Neither news outlet issued a correction to their mistaken "fact checks", but The Post did update its report with an Emily Litella-style "never mind":

Update: A coronavirus vaccine was administered to the first U.S. citizen on Dec. 14. The vaccine development was faster than scientists expected, in part due to the high caseloads in the U.S.2

What do high caseloads have to do with faster vaccine development? The Fact Checker might as well have blamed its error on sun spots. I suppose that The Post just could not bring itself to admit that Trump might have been right about something, or that he could deserve some credit for a "medical miracle".

Paul Offit made a wise observation in NBC's article that's a good final judgment on the whole affair:

“It’s all very humbling. If you learn anything from all of this, it’s be humble. Because nature is humbling.”4

So is the future.


Notes:

  1. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.", 11/23/2021.
  2. Elyse Samuels, "Fact-checking Trump’s accelerated timeline for a coronavirus vaccine", The Washington Post, 3/4/2020. Some paragraphing suppressed.
  3. "Remarks by President Trump and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Meeting with Pharmaceutical Companies", The White House, 3/2/2020. I've edited out some repetition.
  4. Jane C. Timm, "Fact check: Coronavirus vaccine could come this year, Trump says. Experts say he needs a 'miracle' to be right.", NBC News, 5/15/2020. Some paragraphing suppressed.
  5. Peter Loftus, Melanie Grayce West & Jared S. Hopkins, "First Covid-19 Vaccine Given to U.S. Public", The Wall Street Journal, 12/14/2020.
  6. Rebecca Spalding & Carl O’Donnell, "U.S. vaccinations in 2020 fall far short of target of 20 million people", Reuters, 12/31/2020.
  7. In particular, I respect Paul Offit, who wrote a book on the anti-vaccination movement that I've reviewed favorably; see: Book Review: Deadly Choices, 7/21/2013.

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