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October 30th, 2008 (Permalink)


…[A] newspaper headline quoted France's foreign minister saying Israel might devour its arch foe, Iran. Hebrew daily Haaretz splashed across its front page that Bernard Kouchner said Israel might "eat" the Islamic Republic before it got nuclear arms. The following day Haaretz apologised, saying Mr Kouchner, speaking in English, had actually said "hit". … When Mr Kouchner was asked about the possibility of Tehran developing a nuclear weapon, the Hebrew and English editions of Haaretz newspaper quoted him saying: "I honestly don't believe that it will give any immunity to Iran. First, because you [Israelis] will eat them before." … The comments were published…under the headline in Hebrew saying "You will eat Iran before it achieves an atomic bomb". … The paper did not explain how the mistake had occurred, but dropping the "h" is widely seen as a feature of English spoken with a French accent.

Source: "Israelis digest Kouchner 'H-bomb'", BBC News, 10/8/2008

Q: How would you classify a "fallacy" derived from hearing a word mispronounced due to English as a second language. Does this qualify as "accent" (seriously, not because of the literal French accent), or some type of equivocation? Or else? It seems to me basically to be an inter-lingual homophone. Certainly not common, but not unheard of, and not contrived in this case.―Joe McDoakes

A: I don't know of any established name for this type of confusion. To classify it as a type of accent would equivocate on the word "accent", for Aristotle's fallacy did not refer to regional differences in pronunciation. Rather, it referred to "accent" in the sense of emphasis placed upon syllables of a word. Moreover, the fallacy of accent was not a mistake that would occur in speech. Nowadays, ancient Greek is written with accent marks, but in Aristotle's time it was not. There were some Greek words that were spelled the same, but pronounced with different accentuation. So, different words that happened to be spelled the same could be confused in writing, resulting in a fallacy of accent.

Also, this would not be an example of equivocation, since the problem is not that the word that Kouchner said―"hit"―has different meanings, but that the way he pronounced it was mistaken for a different word―"eat". One might say that Kouchner's pronunciation was ambiguous between "eat" and "hit" spoken with a French accent. However, this kind of ambiguity is not fallacious by itself, but could be a linguistic boobytrap.

Incidentally, I made allusion about a month ago to the "Why a duck?" scene from the Marx brothers' movie The Cocoanuts. Much of the humor in that scene is the result of exactly this kind of confusion. Chico not only spoke, but apparently heard, with a broad and obviously phony Italian accent. Groucho says "viaduct" and Chico hears "why a duck?", Groucho says "auction" and Chico hears "ocean", and so on. Perhaps, for lack of a better name, we can call this type of confusion "the Why-a-Duck Fallacy".


October 27th, 2008 (Permalink)

Mau-Mauing the Fact Checkers

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.―Voltaire

Regular readers know that I frequently use Annenberg Political Fact Check as a source for examples of common political fallacies, such as straw man and quoting out of context, and often refer to it on factual issues that may be relevant to examples. Annenberg is the best such fact checker that I know of, and has been around for awhile, but the current campaign season has inspired the creation of a couple of others: the Washington Post's Michael Dobbs does a regular fact-checking column and The St. Petersburg Times has a similar feature. I'm not as familiar with these more recent fact-checkers, and don't read them regularly, so I'm not sure how reliable they are.

James Taranto calls this growth of fact-checking a "fad" in two recent Best of the Web Today entries. In the first entry, he criticizes three different instances of what he calls "fact-checking", but none of them are from any of the above three fact checkers. Moreover, only one of the examples even seems to claim to be doing fact checking, though it calls it "reality checking". In each of these examples, Taranto seems to be complaining more about the intrusion of opinion into straight reporting than about "fact checking".

My point here is not that Taranto is wrong about the specific examples that he criticizes, nor that he is wrong to criticize the intrusion of opinion into reporting. Rather, he seems in danger of throwing the baby of fact checking out with the bath water of opinion journalism:

…[T]he "fact check" is a highly subjective process. If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be "fact checked." The facts themselves are sufficient. "Fact checks" end up dealing in murkier areas of context and emphasis, making it very easy for the journalist to make up standards as he goes along, applying them more rigorously to the candidate he disfavors (which usually means the Republican).

This makes little sense: to "fact check" a claim is to find out what the facts are and compare them to the claim to determine its truth-value. This is something that people can do for themselves, but researching can be a lot of work, and it's helpful to have institutions such as Annenberg that are willing to do it for us.

The distinction between fact and opinion is vague and, as a result, "fact" checkers can sometimes slip into attempting to adjudicate matters of opinion. Such slips are worth criticizing, but they don't mean that fact checking is a worthless endeavor.

Moreover, I've no idea where Taranto gets the idea that fact checking is usually biased against Republicans, and he gives no evidence for this claim. Annenberg is scrupulously even-handed, which is not to say that they're perfect. The fact that Taranto can find one embarrassing example where two fact checkers gave opposite evaluations of the same McCain claim just shows that fact checkers are fallible. Here's what McCain said:

In Lebanon, I stood up to President Reagan, my hero, and said, if we send Marines in there, how can we possibly beneficially affect this situation? And said we shouldn't. Unfortunately, almost 300 brave young Marines were killed.

Technically, McCain's statement is false because he did not oppose the Marine presence in Lebanon before the troops were deployed―he wasn't even in office at that time. However, he did oppose their continued presence there. The main point that McCain was trying to make was that he is willing to oppose his party and ideological allies―even his "hero", Ronald Reagan―when they are wrong. Whether he opposed the deployment of the marines, or merely their continued presence, is irrelevant to this larger point, and to that extent what he said was true.

So, it's not surprising that different fact checkers might ascribe different truth-values to McCain's claim. The moral to draw from this example is not that people should stop fact-checking candidate's claims, but that assigning them truth-values risks over-simplification.


October 24th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Speaking of wikis, as I was in the previous entry, there's a new one called "Debatepedia", obviously modeled on Wikipedia. The idea is to allow users to create and add to debates on popular controversies. I think that this project has a better chance of being useful for the study of fallacies than Wikipedia; at the very least, it is likely to be a rich source of examples. For instance, here's a semantic slippery slope from the debate on abortion:

Human life and a right to life begin at conception; abortion is murder
Human life is continuum of growth that starts at conception, not at birth. The DNA that makes a person who they are is first mixed at conception upon the male sperm entering the female egg. This is when the genetic building blocks of a person are "conceived" and built upon. The person, therefore, begins at conception. Killing the fetus, thus, destroys a growing person and can be considered murder.

Add to this the fact that the the first two quotations supposedly supporting this argument are from supermodel Kathy Ireland! Obviously, the level of debate on Debatepedia is not always high. Of course, the advantage of a wiki is that anyone who wishes can easily join the debate. So, if you enjoy debating, or just need to find some good fallacy examples for your critical thinking class, check out Debatepedia.



Acknowledgment: Thanks to Brooks Lindsay.

October 22nd, 2008 (Permalink)

Wikipedia Watch

It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so.―Artemus Ward

While researching the previous entry on fallacy abuse, I was led to the Wikipedia entry for "the argument from fallacy"―also known as "the fallacy fallacy"―because Theo Clark had made reference to it.

This entry itself is a type of fallacy abuse, namely, the type that comes from a shaky grasp of logic. It's to avoid such novice errors that experts are needed to write encyclopedia articles in topics that require expertise. The lack of such expertise means that Wikipedia lacks authoritativeness, which is why you should not use it as the final source of information. It can be useful as a pointer to outside sources which are more reliable, but unfortunately this entry is lacking in such pointers or citations of external sources and, therefore, is of little or no use. Moreover, it may be worse than useless by spreading misinformation, and misleading people into thinking that they understand things that they do not.



October 17th, 2008 (Permalink)

Fallacy Abuse

Theo Clark, co-author of Humbug!, writes in to ask whether the mistake of identifying a logical fallacy where there is none is itself a fallacy. This is certainly a common type of mistake, so it fits the definition of "fallacy", but is it a logical mistake? Of course, it's a mistake about logic, or in logic, and in that sense is indeed a logical fallacy. But is it a "logical fallacy" in the sense of a type of common, misleading argument? Theo has his doubts and so do I.

A misidentification of an argument as fallacious is not itself an argument, so it cannot, a fortiori, be a fallacious argument. However, such a misidentification might count as what I call a logical boobytrap, that is, a non-argument that can lead someone to commit a fallacy. Many traditional logical "fallacies"―such as, amphiboly―are more accurately boobytraps than fallacies.

There seem to be three possible ways to commit this type of error:

  1. Mistaking a non-argument for a fallacious argument. This is a type of illogicality, that is, logical illiteracy: a failure to understand logical concepts well enough to use them correctly, specifically, the concept of argument.
  2. Mistaking a cogent argument for a fallacious one. This is certainly an error in reasoning, though it's a different type of error than in logical fallacies. A fallacious argument may cause someone to accept an unsupported conclusion; whereas, in this error, someone fails to accept a well-supported conclusion. The difference between these two types of logical error is similar to the difference between two types of moral error, namely, errors of commission and errors of omission.
  3. Mistaking an uncogent but non-fallacious argument for a fallacious one. Not all bad arguments are fallacious, so that attempting to shoehorn every bad argument into some fallacy pigeonhole is a mistake. This is perhaps also the result of logical illiteracy, due to a failure to understand the difference between a fallacious argument and a plain old bad one.

Theo suggests the name "Eager Beaver Fallacy" for this type of error: "eager beaver" alluding to the tendency to make hasty accusations of fallacy. As he puts it: "It tends to happen to people when they first have their consciousness raised to the idea of fallacies, and they become overly keen." I would add that it tends to happen to novices because they are still inexperienced with applying fallacies. Knowing the name of a fallacy, together with a simple description of it, is not enough to correctly recognize real-world examples.

Another source of this mistake is that many logical fallacies are more subtle and difficult than people realize. This problem is exacerbated by textbooks―and websites, too!―that give overly-simplified examples and exercises. There is a good reason for starting out with easy examples, but they won't equip you to handle the difficult, complex, and subtle arguments that are found outside of textbooks. This is one reason why I try to find real examples for the entries in The Fallacy Files, but even these tend to be simpler than most instances occurring in the wild. For one thing, a real-life fallacious argument is not conveniently quoted, edited, and labeled as an example; rather, it will be embedded in a text with other arguments, and surrounded by a lot of distracting, irrelevent rhetoric. Just picking the argument out of the clutter of words can be difficult.

As an alternative to "The Eager Beaver Fallacy", Theo suggests "The Red Flag Faux Pas": a "red flag" being a warning, and a "faux pas" a misstep rather than a "fallacy". The name that I have used for this kind of error is "fallacy abuse", though it's really a more general term that covers various misuses of fallacies. I'm not too happy with any of these names, but I don't have anything better to recommend. Whatever one calls it, this sort of fallacy abuse is an important problem.

Source: Theo Clark, "The Eager Beaver Fallacy?", Humbug! Online, 9/22/2008

Resource: Book Review: Humbug!, 3/1/2006

Update (10/18/2008): Vance Ricks emails:

In the Kahane/Cavender text Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, the phrase/description they use is "false charge of fallacy", but I don't remember whether they classify it as itself a type of fallacy. It occurs to me that sometimes, one does make an argument in support of the conclusion, "That other argument is fallacious"―that would be especially likely to happen with the more subtle fallacies, such as the family known as "begging the question". So, I think that I disagree with your statement, "a misidentification of an argument as fallacious is not, itself, an argument". While sometimes, a person is explaining why an argument is fallacious, there are also times when a person has to actually make the case that it's fallacious.

Good catch! I have the second edition of this book from when it was just Kahane, read it some years ago, and thought it was an above average textbook. Despite that, I did not remember "false charge of fallacy", but the account Kahane gives of it is quite short. Here it is in its entirety:

…[I]t is [Bertrand Russell's] critics who are guilty of a fallacy, which we might as well call the false charge of fallacy [by accusing Russell of inconsistency]. For it is fallacious to charge an opponent with being inconsistent merely because he has changed his position. [Footnote:] The cases of false charge of fallacy dealt with here are examples of false charges of inconsistency; but any unjustified charge of fallaciousness, whether of inconsistency, begging the question, straw man, or whatever, can be said to constitute a false charge of fallacy. (P. 66)

Despite what the footnote says, there is only one case of "false charge of fallacy" in the book that I can find, namely, the charge of inconsistency directed at Russell. It's clear from what little Kahane says that he indeed considers it a fallacy, though he doesn't explain why. Here's Kahane's definition of "fallacy" (p. 1): "…[L]et's say a fallacy is an argument that should not persuade a rational person to accept its conclusion." So, a charge, false or not, should not be a fallacy, according to Kahane's definition, since it's not an argument. Does that mean Kahane is inconsistent?

Vance is no doubt right that people sometimes try to support their false charges of fallacy with arguments, and sometimes these arguments will be fallacious. However, I doubt that such arguments have enough in common, besides the fact of being used to support a false charge of fallacy, to justify grouping them together as a fallacy. However, that does not mean that false charges of fallacy are not an important type of logical error.

Source: Howard Kahane, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life (Second Edition) (1979).

October 16th, 2008 (Permalink)

Presidential Debate Fallacies, Part 3

In their final debate, both McCain and Obama had some difficulty with the notion of "small" business:

McCain: I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income. Fifty percent of small business income taxes are paid by small businesses. That's 16 million jobs in America. And what you [Obama] want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business. …

Obama: The last point I'll make about small businesses. Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks, because they are the drivers of the economy. They produce the most jobs.

Isn't 100% of small business income taxes paid by small businesses? I assume that what McCain intended to say was that 50% of business taxes are paid by small businesses. However, "small" is a vague word, so that whether exactly half of business taxes were paid by "small" businesses would depend entirely upon how one decided to define a "small business". Unless McCain had some specific definition in mind―and if he did, he didn't inform us of it in the debate―then the statistic he's citing is virtually meaningless. At the very least, he's guilty of false precision with the "50%" figure, which just means "about half".

Similarly, either Obama is also guilty of false precision and his "98%" figure just means "almost all", or he's operating with some definition of "small business" that he hasn't informed us of, and which may be different from McCain's. Thus, even though the candidates seem to contradict each other on the question of whether Obama's plan will raise taxes on "small" businesses, it's possible that both are right because each has a different definition of "small business".

Source: "Complete Final Debate Transcript: John McCain and Barack Obama", The Los Angeles Times, 10/15/2008


Note: This is not an exhaustive logical analysis of the debate. If you think that there is some fallacy or logical point that I have overlooked, please let me know.

An American Carol
October 11th, 2008 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: An American Carol

The promoters for An American Carol had to work to earn their pay, since the critics almost universally panned this new movie: its Metacritic rating is 20 out of 100, or "Generally Negative Reviews", and its Tomatometer rating is a "Rotten" 13%. So, where does an ad writer go for a blurb when all of the critics' reviews are bad?

Apparently you go to non-critics and non-reviews, such as that quoted in the first blurb in the ad for An American Carol: "IT'S THE INGENIOUS AND INSPIRED COMEDY WE REMEMBER FROM 'AIRPLANE!'."-AIN'T IT COOL NEWS". Notice that the blurb is not attributed to the critic, and for good reason: he happens to be one "Dr. Hfuhruhurr"―I'm fairly sure that this is a pseudonym (for one thing, it's the name of a character in an old Steve Martin movie). The quote is accurate enough, though the ad writer corrected "Dr. Hfuhruhurr"'s misspelling of "ingenius".

As far as I know, there are no specific credentials for being a critic, and anyone can call themselves one, write reviews, and post them on the internet. Newspaper critics often used to be cub reporters who were stuck with the job because nobody else wanted it. However, we don't know who "Dr. Hfuhruhurr" is, and he may well be someone connected to the movie, whereas a critic should at least have no financial conflicts of interest. Whoever he is, the good "doctor" is forthrightly biased:

I want this movie to be a huge freaking success which is why this isnít going to be a traditional review and why Iím stating my bias right up front.

The second blurb contextomizes Kathleen Parker, who is a syndicated columnist rather than a critic. Here's the blurb in context, with the quoted parts emphasized:

"An American Carol" may not be the Best Movie You Ever Saw, but it's something. It's radical in its assault on the left wing. It's brave, given the risk of peer ridicule and the potential for career suicide. And it's funny―if you like that sort of thing. Generally, I don't. As someone who is slapstick-immune, I'm an unlikely cheerleader for this kind of film. But I admire its spirit.

So, a non-critic likes the movie for its politics more than for its humor. The final blurb is not from a review at all, but from an article by Stephen F. Hayes about the film's maker and its making:


This isn't taken out of context, but it could be said about a lot of movies: "Plan Nine from Outer Space is unlike anything that has ever come out of Hollywood!" Let's hope that An American Carol is at least as funny.


October 9th, 2008 (Permalink)

Presidential Debate Fallacies, Part 2

We've seen examples from previous political debates of politicians taking credit for anything good that happens while they are in office (see the Resources, below), even if there is little or no reason to think that they are responsible for it. The flip side of this is that they blame their opponents for anything bad that happens while the opponents are in office, even though there may be no reason to think that it's their fault. These are both version of the cum hoc causal fallacy of assuming, without further evidence, that because two things happen at the same time one must have caused the other. Case in point:

Obama: I think everybody knows now we are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And a lot of you I think are worried about your jobs, your pensions, your retirement accounts, your ability to send your child or your grandchild to college. And I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain, that essentially said that we should strip away regulations, consumer protections, let the market run wild, and prosperity would rain down on all of us.

As I noted previously (see the Resource, below), Obama's loaded language sets up a straw man that is easy to knock down. He used very similar phrasing in the first debate, so it's obvious that this is one of his memorized talking points. However, there is little reason to believe that the deregulation supposedly to blame for the current problems is the fault of either McCain or Bush.

The congressional bill that has been blamed by some for financial deregulation was actually passed during the Clinton administration with overwhelming bipartisan support, so it's certainly not Bush's fault, nor is it the result of the "trickle down" economic policies of the last eight years. McCain could of course be criticized for having voted for that bill, assuming that the bill is actually to blame for our current difficulties, but there is reason to doubt that. I'm not an economist, so I'll leave it to the economists to sort out the causes, but I do recommend that you read Joe Miller and Brooks Jackson's report on the causes of the crisis (see the Source listed, below).



Note: This is not an exhaustive logical analysis of the debate. If you think that there is some fallacy or logical point that I have overlooked, please let me know.

October 3rd, 2008 (Permalink)

Vice Presidential Debate Doublespeak

Doublespeak was spoken at the only debate between the Vice Presidential candidates in this election. Cases in point:

Source: "Transcript of Palin, Biden Debate" CNN, 10/3/2008

Note: This is not an exhaustive logical analysis of the debate; rather, it is just what I happened to notice. If you think that there is some fallacy or logical point that I have overlooked, please let me know.

October 2nd, 2008 (Permalink)

Check 'Em Out

A couple of interesting recent articles:

Via: Ilya Somin, "How Political Fans are Like Sports Fans―Why Voters are Highly Biased in their Evaluation of Political Information", The Volokh Conspiracy, 9/25/2008

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