Freedom of the Press & the Two Minutes Hate
The first recommended reading this month is a preface by George Orwell to his novel Animal Farm that, for some reason, was not included when the book was published. Instead, the preface was lost for decades and only rediscovered in 19711. Animal Farm was finished in early 1944, during World War Two, and Orwell spent the next year and a half trying to get it published. The following preface explains why he had so much difficulty finding a publisher. It's worth reading today because, though the details are different, the general situation is so familiar to us. Change the examples and it could have been written yesterday.
- George Orwell, "The Freedom of the Press", The Orwell Foundation
This book was first thought of, so far as the central idea goes, in 1937, but was not written down until about the end of 1943. By the time when it came to be written it was obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published…, and in the event it was refused by four publishers. Only one of these had any ideological motive. … One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making the preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it. Here is an extract from his letter:
I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official2 in the Ministry of Information [MOI] with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think…3 I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. …This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it…. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals. …
It is important to distinguish between the kind of censorship that the English literary intelligentsia voluntarily impose upon themselves, and the censorship that can sometimes be enforced by pressure groups. Notoriously, certain topics cannot be discussed because of ‘vested interests’. … But this kind of thing is harmless, or at least it is understandable. Any large organisation will look after its own interests as best it can, and overt propaganda is not a thing to object to. One would no more expect the Daily Worker to publicise unfavourable facts about the USSR than one would expect the Catholic Herald to denounce the Pope. But then every thinking person knows the Daily Worker and the Catholic Herald for what they are. …
But now to come back to this book of mine. The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: ‘It oughtn’t to have been published.’ Naturally, those reviewers who understand the art of denigration will not attack it on political grounds but on literary ones. They will say that it is a dull, silly book and a disgraceful waste of paper. This may well be true, but it is obviously not the whole of the story. One does not say that a book ‘ought not to have been published’ merely because it is a bad book. After all, acres of rubbish are printed daily and no one bothers. …
The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular—however foolish, even—entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’4. … In…case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, …the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure. … If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of Socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it. The ordinary people in the street–partly, perhaps, because they are not sufficiently interested in ideas to be intolerant about them–still vaguely hold that ‘I suppose everyone’s got a right to their own opinion.’ It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice.
One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. …[T]here is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who 'objectively' endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. …
These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you. Make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists. … Tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England, but they are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort. The result of preaching totalitarian doctrines is to weaken the instinct by means of which free peoples know what is or is not dangerous. … But how much of the present slide towards Fascist ways of thought is traceable to the ‘anti-Fascism’ of the past ten years and the unscrupulousness it has entailed? …
I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech—the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years has been founded on the opposite notice. …
…[I]ntellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist. From that tradition many of our intellectuals are visibly turning away. They have accepted the principle that a book should be published or suppressed, praised or damned, not on its merits but according to political expediency. And others who do not actually hold this view assent to it from sheer cowardice. … I know that the English intelligentsia have plenty of reason for their timidity and dishonesty, indeed I know by heart the arguments by which they justify themselves. But at least let us have no more nonsense about defending liberty against Fascism. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it. In our country…it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact that I have written this preface.
Our second reading concerns the latest "Two Minutes Hate"5. Unfortunately, we haven't gotten it down to only two minutes, which would be an improvement. Instead, the hatred goes on for a week or two. However, it took only a ninety second video clip to generate that hatred.
- Dustin Siggins, "'Citi Bike Karen' viral video shows why we shouldn't rush to judgment", USA Today, 5/24/2023
For almost a week in the middle of May, "Citi Bike Karen" was the face of American racism. A white pregnant physician's assistant caught on video arguing with a group of Black men about who had the right to a rented bike, Sarah Comrie was crying and yelling for help.
Notice the racist double standard in this article in the capitalization of "Black" but not "white". I assume that this neo-Newspeak was forced upon the author by the newspaper.
The video went viral, racking up national media coverage and over 40 million views. Comrie was doxxed, put on leave by her employer and accused by civil rights attorney Ben Crump of "weaponiz(ing) her tears" in ways that "endangered" the men in the video.
There was just one problem with the story: It went viral not for its accuracy, but because it fit many people's preconceived notions about race in America. It turns out that Comrie was the victim―and the person with the right to the bike―and her attorney has the receipts to prove it. NBC News' New York affiliate was one of several news outlets that confirmed that the receipt matched the rental code on the bike, causing NBC News to update its original story and Crump to delete his tweet.
Confirmation bias, or the human brain's tendency to prefer evidence that reinforces existing beliefs, is not new. Nor is the difficulty in overcoming it. What is new is the constant stream of out-of-context or entirely false narratives that fly across the world in a moment―and across our often biased, narrow sources of news and commentary. Instead of thinking critically, we react, sometimes with harmful consequences….
All of us can take three steps to overcome confirmation bias and easy access to social media from endangering people and making ourselves look like fools. The first is to slow down and think critically when we read something that perfectly fits our worldview. Second, we must wait for all the facts to come out and look for original sources. Third―and hardest of all―let the evidence dictate our opinion, not the other way around.
It's not easy to overcome confirmation bias. I've deleted my share of thoughtless, factually incorrect Facebook posts. But it is our obligation to try. Trust often doesn't fly as far or fast as out-of-context viral stories, and any of us could be Comrie, who says she has received death threats…. We've all been the fool who contributed to the problem of not waiting for the facts or going to the trouble of finding them. In an era of viral misinformation, we can be part of the solution or part of the problem.
The video clip that set off this particular hate was obviously edited out of a longer video, and we don't see the beginning of the incident. What is it that we are not being shown? According to Comrie, she was already on the bicycle when the young men approached her and one prevented her from riding away on it6. If so, the earlier part of the video would have shown that she was the one who had rented the bike, since rental bikes are locked into a rack until the renter accesses them7. If the young man had rented the bike, then he would've already been on it instead of the woman. Either that, or the woman jumped on the bike after the young man had unlocked it from the rack but before he was able to mount it. Is that plausible?
Also, in addition to editing out the beginning of the confrontation, someone―presumably the person who took the video―decided to upload it to the internet. We don't know the source of the video, who the videographer was, or why it was uploaded. As a result, we're in no position to assess the honesty or motives of the video's source, nor to inquire what was edited out of the video or request to see the rest of it.
This situation is practically a replay of the earlier ones involving Covington and Chipotle8. In each case, an edited video was uploaded to the internet, and people instantly reacted with outrage and hatred directed at a stranger without asking the obvious critical questions: Why was the video edited? What was edited out? Who uploaded the video to the internet? Why was it uploaded? Cui bono?
- Bernard Crick, "How the essay came to be written", The New York Times, 10/8/1972.
- According to Dorian Lynskey, "[Peter] Smollett was almost certainly the man who advised Jonathan Cape [the publisher] to drop Animal Farm when he was head of Soviet relations at the Ministry of Information." In the last year of his life, Orwell informed the British government's Information Research Department that Smollett was "some kind of Russian agent". In 1980, after his death, it was revealed that Smollett had indeed been a Soviet agent. See: The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984 (2019), p. 204. See also: Peter Foges, "My Spy", Lapham's Quarterly, 1/14/2016.
- Orwell's ellipsis.
- Is this still true?
- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), chapter 1.
- Erica Byfield & Checkey Beckford, "Bellevue Worker in Citi Bike Fight Video Has Receipts Showing She Rented It: Lawyer", NBC New York, 5/19/2023.
- See: "Get to know Citi Bike", Citibike, accessed: 5/30/2023.
- See: Medice, Cura Te Ipsum, 6/1/2019.
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.
Prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error.1
On the last day of last year, in an entry on predictions for that year attributed to Nostradamus, I wrote:
A fellow named Mario Reading published a book on Nostradamus in 2006 which supposedly predicted that Queen Elizabeth II would die "circa 2022"―I write "supposedly" because I do not have this book and so am in no position to check it. Not that I doubt that he did make such a prediction, because it was a pretty safe bet given her advanced age. Moreover, the use of the word "circa" added a degree of vagueness to the prediction: if he had meant to predict that she would die this year, and only this year, then he would have written "in 2022". As it is, if she had died last year, or next year, he still could have claimed to have gotten the prediction right, as those years are "circa" 2022. So, at the very least, the prediction covered the years 2021-2023. While that's not quite a sure thing, if the prediction had failed we would simply have heard nothing about it. Sadly, Reading died in 2017, so he can't enjoy his fifteen minutes or the money from the spike in sales of his book.2
I have now obtained a copy of a later edition of Reading's book that was published in 20153. After a brief biographical note on its subject, the book is arranged chronologically in chapters ranging from 2001 to, believe it or not, 7074, when the world is supposed to end. Clearly, every chapter prior to 2015 is written with the benefit of hindsight, so that only with 2016 do the predictions get interesting.
Here's what Reading has to say about Queen Elizabeth II in the chapter on 2022: "The future King Charles III and his Princess Consort, the former Camilla Parker Bowles, will find themselves faced with a constitutional crisis on the death of Charles's mother, Queen Elizabeth II.4" In a later passage, he adds: "…Queen Elizabeth II will die, circa 2022, at the age of around ninety-six….5" So that is where the "circa" comes from, though the chapter heading would lead one to expect the event last year. As I noted in the comment quoted above, the success of this prediction was aided by the inexactness of "circa", and either 95 or 97 years of age would surely have counted as "around" 96.
As I mention in my entry on prophecy6, the more predictions a would-be prophet makes the greater the likelihood of a lucky hit. What's never mentioned in tabloid reporting is that Queen Elizabeth's death is just one of many predictions in the book for the years 2016-2022. How many of these did Reading/Nostradamus get right? That you haven't heard of any of them should tell you the answer: none.
Here's a list of Reading's failed predictions for the last seven years:
|2016||A "massive" flood in the Aegean Sea is so "catastrophic" that "no one on dry land will be safe".||195|
|2017||The Pope causes a scandal by forcing out his presumed successor.||203|
|The Pope defrocks a number of "schismatics".||210|
|Al-Qaeda attacks a U.S. naval base which is then "restored to Arab control".||213|
|2020||A new Pope.||224|
|2021||A biological terrorist attack on the French town of Agde.||228|
|A new volcanic island rises from the sea.||232|
|2022||The Church of England is disestablished.||235|
|King Charles III abdicates and Prince William becomes King||240|
In addition to predicting many events that never happened in the years since the book was published, Reading/Nostradamus failed to predict the most important events that did happen. For example, where is the prediction of a worldwide pandemic in the years 2020-2022? One of the most important events, if not the most important, of those years is missing. Also, where is the invasion of Ukraine by Russia? Where is the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and of Joe Biden in 2020? Where is the return of inflation after a forty year absence?
Reading is likely to become the Jeane Dixon7 of the 21st century. Dixon, who was the best-known "psychic" of the last century, became famous because of one lucky hit―the assassination of President Kennedy―out of many hundreds of failed predictions.
- George Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 10.
- When Prophecy Fails: 2022 Edition, 12/31/2022.
- Mario Reading, Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies for the Future (2015). All page citations are to an electronic copy of this book.
- Reading, p. 234.
- Reading, p. 238.
- See Rule 5 in: How to be a Prophet for Fun and Profit, 6/26/2022.
- For more on Dixon, see: How to be a Prophet for Fun and Profit, 6/26/2022.
Q: I have a suggestion to add to your collection of fallacies. I'm not sure whether it's not completely contained in other fallacies but I didn't find a similar one. I call it the Pharisee Fallacy or Meta-Fallacy. It's kind of a reverse Fallacy Fallacy: Believing you are correct just because you haven't made any of the logical fallacies (or cognitive biases). This of course could be because we might well never have a complete list of all fallacies, or because our sources are just simply incorrect or because of some other factors.
The point of this fallacy is that knowing and following rules (in this case avoiding the logical fallacies) doesn't make you "good" (in this case correct). The rules are there to point out a flawed functioning of the human consciousness. But there is no need for rules if one's consciousness works well.
I believe the way to infallibility is not through keeping a tab on each and every fallacy but through being more conscious: not lying to ourselves; letting our inner, deepest, unconscious thoughts register so that we see the intention of our more surface level, conscious thoughts.
It might seem like I'm against collecting fallacies, but I hope it's clear that I don't believe being conscious in such a deep level is easy to do and therefore I think that having a list of fallacies is a good way to remind us of the level of consciousness we should strive for again and again.―Márton Kenessey
A: You're correct that, as a general rule, it does not follow from the fact that an argument does not commit one of the named fallacies that it is, thereby, a "good" argument. To be good, an argument needs to start with true premisses and use cogent reasoning to reach a conclusion. In other words, there are two main ways that an argument can go wrong: either the reasoning is uncogent or at least one premiss is false. If you start from a false premiss, even the best reasoning may lead you astray.
Logical fallacies are concerned primarily with the cogency of reasoning, and cogency isn't everything: good arguments are also sound. If an argument does not commit any fallacy then it may be cogent, but if it has even one false premiss then it is unsound. The truth or falsity of premisses is not generally a question for logic, but for other sciences. So, the fact that an argument does not commit a fallacy may suggest that it is cogent, but it would still be a bad argument if it has one or more false premisses.
For the above reasons, it would be a mistake to claim that an argument must be good because it doesn't commit any of the known fallacies. However, it doesn't seem to be a common claim and, therefore, not the sort of bad argument worthy of a named fallacy. At least, I don't recall ever seeing an example of this type of argument―if anyone knows of one, please let me know. In any case, you are correct that there is no such fallacy in the Fallacy Files Taxonomy, and I would hesitate to add it until I see some evidence that it is common.
As to your claims about consciousness, psychological research shows that it's normal for people to make certain types of error. These errors include traditional logical fallacies and the more recently identified cognitive biases. So, even perfect consciousness of the workings of one's own mind would not be enough to avoid bad reasoning.
How do you know whether your consciousness works well if you don't know what mistakes it might make? I agree that being aware of one's own thinking and honest with oneself is a necessary part of good if not infallible reasoning, but it's not sufficient. You also need to know what biases to look out for and what pitfalls to avoid, and the only way to do that is to learn how to recognize them.
Infallibility is, I think, an unattainable goal, but what is attainable is improvement, and knowing about logical fallacies is one way to attain it.
In a recent episode of her show, Megyn Kelly claimed:
There are millions of [pedophiles] in the United States. Millions. There are about a million in custody, and something like ten to forty percent of pedophiles get caught; the vast majority do not get caught.1
I'm sorry to be the bearer of good news, but there are less than two million people incarcerated in the U. S.2 If about a million pedophiles were in custody, that would mean that more than half of those inmates were incarcerated for sex crimes against children, which is highly unlikely.
So, how many pedophiles are incarcerated in the United States? It's not easy to find this statistic, especially since people in jail and prison are not categorized as "pedophiles" as far as I know, and pedophilia is not itself a crime. Moreover, sexual crimes against children are often lumped in with adult rape and other crimes under labels such as "sex crimes". That said, I did find a statistical break down in terms of type of offense which indicates that 12% of the federal prison population is imprisoned for "sex offenses"3. I think it's safe to assume that the percentage of inmates incarcerated for sex-related crimes in state prisons and local jails is similar. Of course, since that percentage includes sex crimes against adults, at best it sets an upper limit on the percentage of those imprisoned for pedophilia-related offenses.
Let's be generous to Kelly and assume that 12% of the people incarcerated in the U. S. are there for sex crimes against children: that means that the number of pedophiles in custody is around 200K, not a million. Let's also be generous by assuming that only 10%, instead of 40%, of pedophiles are incarcerated; that would mean that there are about two million total. I suppose that means there are millions of pedophiles in America, as Kelly claimed, but barely. However, to get up to two million we had to assume that all sex offenses involved children, and we know that's not true. We also assumed that only ten percent of pedophiles are in custody, which was the lowest percentage given by Kelly―where did she get that?
So, even if we bend over backwards to be fair to Kelly, it seems unlikely that there are "millions" of pedophiles "prowling schools and kids' clubs and kids' charities right now" as she goes on to say1. Of course, even a million pedophiles is worrisome, but let's not get hysterical and scare parents into withdrawing their children from schools or clubs for fear of prowling child molesters.
Where did Kelly get the statistic that a million pedophiles are in custody? I don't know the answer, but she probably got it from an activist group. I suspect that it's a "Goldilocks number", that is, one that is big enough to frighten people but not so big that it attracts skeptical scrutiny4.
We survived a previous moral panic about pedophiles, namely, the so-called "satanic panic" of the 1980s5. However, hundreds of innocent people were incarcerated for nonexistent crimes, and thousands had their reputations permanently destroyed by false accusations. There are signs of a return of this panic6, and journalists such as Kelly should not contribute to it. Fighting the sexual abuse of children is a worthy cause, but let's fight it with the truth and not noble lies.
- "Megyn Kelly Fires Back After Charlize Theron Drag Queen Comments Backlash, and Reality of 'Grooming'", YouTube, 5/16/2023.
- "U.S. Jail Population Increased While Prison Population Decreased in 2021", Bureau of Justice Statistics, 12/20/2022.
- "Offenses", Bureau of Prisons, 5/6/2023.
- See: The Goldilocks Number, 1/23/2022.
- Alan Yuhas, "It’s Time to Revisit the Satanic Panic", The New York Times, 3/31/2021.
- See: The Return of a Moral Panic, 1/31/2022.
How to Solve a Problem*: Think Backwards
To get the most out of this entry, give the following puzzle a shot. Don't give up too easily, but don't worry if you can't solve it as I'll show you one way to do it later.
Puzzle: What Stays in Las Vegas
One hot summer evening, Larry decided to try his luck on the strip in Las Vegas. He doubled his money playing blackjack at The Alexandria casino, but then lost $50 on roulette. Feeling like his luck had run out there, he went to the casino next door, Carnival Carnaval. This time, Larry doubled his money playing craps, but lost $50 on a slot machine. Finally, Larry went to a casino down the street, Circus Maximus, where he doubled his money playing baccarat, but lost $50 on keno. Checking his pockets, he discovered that he was tapped out! He hadn't so much as a penny left. How much money did Larry start the evening with?
You might be able to solve this puzzle by trial and error, but it would be a long and tedious procedure. Alternatively, it could be solved with algebra, so don't complain that you never have occasion to use your high school algebra. However, if you don't remember your algebra very well, it can also be solved without algebra by solving it backwards, that is, by starting at the end and working back to the beginning.
Notice that what we're asked to discover is how much money Larry had at the beginning of the evening―that's our unknown―but we know that he ended up with nothing. A good rule of thumb for problem solving is to start with what you know; in this case, that's what Larry ended up with: $0. Therefore, it's a good idea to start at the end and work backwards. Let's give it a try.
The same thing happened to Larry in each of the three casinos he visited: he doubled the money he came in with then lost $50. In mathematical terms, if we let x represent the number of dollars he entered a casino with, then what he left with was 2x - 50 dollars. So, if he left the casino with y dollars, then 2x - 50 = y. Thus, if we know y, which is what Larry left a casino with, then we can figure out what he must have had when he entered.
We're told that Larry's visit to the last casino, Circus Maximus, cleaned him out. So, if losing $50 cleaned him out, then doubling his money must have left him with $50, which means that he entered the casino with half that, $25. That is, if the amount that he entered the casino with is x, then what he left with is 2x - 50 = 0. So, x = 25.
That takes care of the last step in the puzzle. What we do now is continue this process with the preceding steps. We just figured out that he had $25 when he left the second casino, Carnival Carnaval. So, the amount that resulted from doubling his money in that casino was $75, which means that he entered with half of that: $37.50.
As we've just seen, Larry exited the first casino, The Alexandria, with $37.50 in his pockets after losing $50, which means that he doubled his money to get $87.50. Thus, the amount that he entered the first casino with was half of that: $43.75, which is the solution to the puzzle.
Wasn't that easy? Once you know how to approach the puzzle―namely, from the end―it's just a matter of working step-by-step until you reach the solution.
Now that we have another tool in our problem-solving chest, here's another puzzle to practice on:
Puzzle: Tickets to Ride
Smith, Jones, and Robbins wanted to ride the new rollercoaster together, but tickets to the amusement park cost $24. The three friends each checked their pockets for cash but some came up short. So, Smith gave Jones and Robbins as many dollars as each had, but some of the friends were still short. Then, Jones gave Smith and Robbins as much as they already had, but some still didn't have enough for tickets. Finally, Robbins gave Smith and Jones as much as they already had, and each friend now had exactly enough for a ticket. How much money did each one originally have?
If someone gives others as much money as they already have then their money is doubled.
Smith started out with $39, Jones had $21, and Robbins had only $12.
Explanation: We know that each friend ended up with exactly $24 after Robbins gave Smith and Jones as much as they already had, which means that Robbins doubled their money. So, Smith and Jones must have had $12 apiece, and Robbins had $48. In the previous step, Jones gave Smith and Robbins enough to double their money, so Smith had only six dollars, Robbins had $24, and Jones had $42. In the first step, Smith doubled Jones' and Robbins' money, so Robbins had $12 and Jones $21 to start, and Smith must have had $39, which is the solution to the puzzle. Why the three friends adopted this strange procedure to divide their money is still a mystery.
Rain, Rein, Reign
Here's another homophonic trio, that is, three words that are pronounced the same but have pronouncedly different meanings. An article from last year about the history of the Ku Klux Klan contained the following sentence: "As explained by an 1884 book written by a founding member of the Klan, this meeting bound the 'isolated dens together' with 'unity of purpose and concert of action' to supposedly reign in rogue Klansmen that had turned violent toward black people just a year after the group's founding.1"
To "reign" is to rule2, whereas a "rein" is a lead for controlling an animal such as a horse and, as a verb, "to rein" means to use a rein or reins3. Literally, the phrase "rein in" means using reins to slow a horse or other animal, or to bring it to a halt; figuratively, "rein in" can be used of any exercise of control, especially to halt or diminish unwanted behavior. While "rain" is pronounced the same, I've never noticed it mistaken for either of the other two, perhaps because it's such a familiar word. So, obviously, the authors of the article meant that the meeting was supposed to rein in the rogue Klansmen, not "reign" them in, which makes no sense.
Surprisingly, no spelling and grammar checking programs that I tried flagged the word "reign" as a mistake in the example sentence, though one checker did complain about the split infinitive "to supposedly reign". While I'm no fan of split infinitives4, there's at least an argument for this one, whereas there's no argument for a superfluous "g" in "rein". Another checker suggest that the first "by" should be replaced by "in", which would be a stylistic improvement but "by" is not a grammatical error. Despite the checkers' silence, there is one actual grammatical error in the sentence―see if you can find it5.
The main point of this series of entries on frequently misspelled words is that you shouldn't rely entirely on computer programs to edit your copy. Such programs are no substitute for a human editor, and they won't be until they have human-level artificial intelligence which, if it's even possible, is still decades away. This doesn't mean that such programs are useless, but that they should be used with real intelligence. Current spell-checking programs can only be relied on to catch misspellings that do not produce an English word, such as transpositions of letters due to overly-rapid typing. This frees up the human editor to concentrate on those misspellings that won't be caught, such as substituting "reign" for "rein".
So, don't allow your spell-checker to reign over you, and rein in any tendency you have to insert "g"s where they don't belong.
Update (5/4/2023): After posting this entry, I came across the following headline in a book I just happened to be reading:
U. N. Peacekeepers Land in Liberia to Reign in Violence6
- Anna Agresti & James D. Agresti, "Fact Checkers Cover for Democratic Party’s Sordid History With the Ku Klux Klan", Just Facts Daily, 7/29/2022
- "Reign", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 5/3/2023
- "Rein", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 5/3/2023
- See: Think Twice Before Splitting an Infinitive, 8/11/2021.
- "That" should be "who" since, no matter how bad they might be, rogue Klansmen are still people.
- Richard Lederer, The Revenge of Anguished English: More Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language (2005), p. 98.