July 26th, 2015 (Permalink)

New Book: Spurious Correlations

Have I mentioned recently that correlation is not the same thing as causation? Well, it isn't! Not only that, but Tyler Vigen has written a whole book to prove it. That book is titled Spurious Correlations, naturally enough. According to Scientific American's brief review, Vigen is a law school student, but he used to be an intelligence analyst for the military, which must have given him a lot of experience with spurious correlations. Just kidding!

Some famous spurious correlations are part of the folklore of statistics, such as the fact that penmanship―"penpersonship"?―is positively correlated with shoe size. While that one is genuine, some others may well be statistical urban legends, that is, spurious spurious correlations. Another famous example is the positive correlation between the number of storks and the human birthrate in Europe, which is a genuine spurious correlation according to Vigen.

In the introduction to the book―which you can read via Amazon's "Look inside!" function―Vigen discusses an interesting correlation that had serious consequences:

In 1958, William Phillips, a professor at the London School of Economics, published a paper regarding the connection between unemployment and inflation. As other economists explored Phillips's data, the correlation spread like wildfire: high inflation rates were linked to low unemployment and vice versa. The policy implications were explicit. National economies needed only to choose between inflation and unemployment, or somehow find a balance between the two. The Phillips curve, as the connection came to be called, informed macroeconomic policy decisions for years in both Europe and the United States. … It turns out William Phillips's theory on economics doesn't hold up….

This is the theory that was discredited by "stagflation"―an ugly word for an ugly phenomenon that we thankfully don't hear much about anymore. Stagflation is the occurrence of both high unemployment and high inflation at the same time, which happened in the 1970s in the U.S. A lot of pundits pointed out at the time that it was supposed to be impossible, but the negative correlation between inflation and employment was spurious.

As with our previous new book Spinglish, this appears not to be a serious scholarly work, but one that aims to be humorous and entertaining, though with underlying serious points. One of those is the already mentioned one about the difference between correlation and causation; another is that the emergence of "big data" has made it easier than ever to find completely coincidental correlations.

Source: Clara Moskowitz, "Book Review: Spurious Correlations", Scientific American, 7/14/2015

Resource: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

July 20th, 2015 (Permalink)

What's new?

I've added a new contextomy to the "Familiar Contextomies" page, this one quoting birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger out of context. Sanger seems to be a magnet for contextomies and even outright bogus quotes, as well as having statements made by others falsely attributed to her. Of course, the bogus and falsely attributed quotes are not contextomies, so I won't be including any of those. However, there may be at least one additional Sanger contextomy worth documenting.

I didn't just fall off the back of the turnip truck onto the information superhighway, so I don't think I'm naive about the misinformation you can find on the internet. Nonetheless, I'm actually rather shocked at what comes up when you search for information about Sanger. The amount of vitriol directed at a woman who's been dead for almost fifty years is astounding. While much of this mudslinging comes from the religious right, as you might suspect, a surprising amount―at least, it surprised me―comes from the far left.

Of course, Sanger said and did some things for which she is rightly criticized; I'm not talking about that. I'm referring to the contextomies, fake quotes, false attributions, and the unwarranted accusations they are used to justify. So, take this as a friendly warning: in the case of Sanger quotes, don't trust; verify.

Source: Margaret Sanger, Familiar Contextomies

July 18th, 2015 (Permalink)

Courtesy Disconnect at the IRS

What does the Internal Revenue Service call hanging up on you when you phone for help? A "courtesy disconnect". According to The Associated Press:

When too many people call at once, the IRS system hangs up on callers at the beginning of their calls, rather than have them wait on hold for an hour or more. The agency refers to these hang-ups as "courtesy disconnects"….
Source: Stephen Ohlemacher, "Hello? 8 million phone calls unanswered as IRS cut taxpayer service", The Associated Press, 4/22/2015

I guess the "courtesy" comes in from the fact that, instead of making you wait on hold for an hour, they just hang up on you. But if they know that you might have to wait that long, why not inform you of the fact, allowing you to hang up if you don't want to wait? Better yet, if they really want to be courteous, why not answer the call in less than an hour?

I wonder if the IRS has one of those messages that comes on when you're on hold informing you that "your call is important to us." If the call's so important why not answer it instead of telling us how important it is? Those messages just remind the caller that the call isn't important enough to hire enough people to answer it without putting the caller on hold.

This reminded me of Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf's complaint in Spinglish: "Are you aware that whenever companies say 'for your convenience,' they actually mean 'for our convenience'?" In this form, it's just a lie rather than "spinglish", but "courtesy disconnect" is a clever piece of doublespeak concealing that lie within a term for the practice.

To add injury to insulting our intelligence, the IRS Commissioner blames the "service"'s failures on budget cuts, thus attempting to have its poor performance rewarded with more money. If the IRS succeeds in getting its budget increased, I suppose that we can expect even longer waits on hold and fewer calls answered.


July 12th, 2015 (Permalink)

"These go to eleven."

A former philosophy student writes:

Looking though your site, I wasn't able to find any fallacy that I thought fit a relatively common scenario. Often, online reviews are driven by the assignment of a point value to the views expressed. This in itself is problematic in that people's relative perceptions of the scoring system are not always similar enough to justify drawing any kind of conclusion from the scores given, but that's not my point. Sometimes, reviewers will give something the lowest possible rating, and make a note in their review that whatever it is that they were reviewing is not worthy even of getting one star or point, because that is giving it credit that it does not deserve, and it really should merit zero stars or points.

Clearly, if something constitutes the lowest value in a system, selecting that arbitrary value is no different from selecting the lowest value if it were zero, or negative one, or even three. It seems that the designation itself, an arbitrary symbol, is being treated as if it were an objective or material measurement. Do you think that a fallacy is involved here, and if so, which one?

I'm familiar with the phenomenon you describe, having seen it frequently myself. Whether it commits a logical fallacy or not, it's at least illogical, and shows a lack of understanding of rating scales. I guess that some people assume that to give a single star is minimal praise, and that a work with no redeeming value should receive none at all. This may indicate that the rating system is unintuitive, and that instead of ranging from, say, one star to five it would be clearer if it ranged from zero stars to four.

Your question reminded me of a famous scene in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, where movie director Marty DeBergi is interviewing Nigel Tufnel, guitarist for the rock band Spinal Tap, who points to his amplifier:

Nigel: This is…very, very special because if you can see the numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board. Eleven, eleven, eleven.

Marty: And most of these amps go up to ten.

Nigel: Exactly.

Marty: Does that mean itís louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel: Well, itís one louder, isnít it? Itís not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. Youíre on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up. Youíre on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty: I donít know.

Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty: Why donít you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel: (Long pause.) These go to eleven.

July 3rd, 2015 (Permalink)

Puzzle it Out

Before you read any further, check out the interactive puzzle at the first Source listed below. There are spoilers in the explanation following the Sources, below, that may give away the solution to the puzzle. So, do the puzzle before reading further. Now, read the additional explanation at the second Source. After that, if you haven't forgotten what you were doing and why, please return here for even more commentary on the puzzle. I'll wait.


  1. David Leonhardt, "A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving", The New York Times, 7/2/2015
  2. Steven Novella, "A Quick Logic Lesson", Neurologica, 7/3/2015

You're back! Regular readers of The Fallacy Files may not have been too puzzled by that puzzle because we've seen a version previously―see the Resource, below, for a reminder or in case you missed it. This is a good one to try on your smartalecky, know-it-all friends, though maybe not if you want to keep them.

As explained in the first Source, the puzzle illustrates confirmation bias. As Steven Novella explains in the second Source, people tend to formulate a hypothesis and then seek out evidence to confirm it. However, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper famously pointed out, it's even more important to test a hypothesis by trying to disconfirm. It's almost always possible to find some evidence to support a hypothesis, no matter how wrong that hypothesis may be. It's only when a hypothesis withstands determined attempts to disprove it that we are warranted in provisionally accepting it.

Confirmation bias is one reason why smart people often believe "weird" things, such as conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. The smarter they are, the easier it will be for them to come up with evidence that seems to support their pet theory, whereas they ignore or dismiss the mass of evidence that disproves it.

Resource: Rolling Stone's Worst-Case Scenario, 4/19/2015

June 23rd, 2015 (Permalink)

Poll Watch: Much Ado about Nothing Much

We're over a year away from the next presidential election, and even the earliest state primaries are more than a half-year away, but apparently it's not too soon to start polling. The primaries and conventions are so distant that it's unlikely that a poll will tell us much even about who will be nominated, let alone about who will win in November of next year. Nonetheless, here is the headline of a news article about a recent poll:

Walker leads nationally in new poll

What does that mean? Does it mean that Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is ahead of Hillary Clinton in the poll? Not at all. Here are the first two paragraphs of the article following the headline:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leads a tight field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, according to a new survey from Public Policy Polling. Walker is alone in first place in the poll with 17 percent, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 15 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) at 13 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 11 percent.
Source: Jonathan Easley, "Walker leads nationally in new poll", The Hill, 6/16/2015

Now, if you know that almost all national public opinion polls have a margin of error (MoE) of at least plus-or-minus three percentage points, you'll immediately spot a problem here: The difference between Walker and his nearest competitor, Jeb Bush, is only two percentage points, which is within the MoE. Similarly, the difference between Bush and the next candidate, Senator Marco Rubio, is also two percentage points. Finally, Rubio differs from the following candidate, Ben Carson, by a single percentage point, and Carson is only one point ahead of Mike Huckabee. Thus, none of the differences between any of the top five candidates and their nearest competitors is statistically significant.

However, the situation is worse than that, though this particular article does not supply the relevant information. For that information, you have to go to the report on the poll put out by Public Policy Polling―see the Source, below. At the end of The Hill article, we're told that 1,129 people were polled for a MoE of 2.9 percentage points, which is about what we would expect. However, as we learn from the polling report itself, the comparisons of the Republican candidates came from a subsample of 429 Republican voters, and so the MoE for these results is actually ±4.4 points. Thus, Walker, Bush, and Rubio are all within the MoE of one another.

What can we learn from this poll and the reporting of it?

Source: "Walker, Bush, Rubio lead GOP Field Nationally, Clinton Still Dominant", Public Policy Polling, 6/16/2015

Resource: How to Read a Poll

June 5th, 2015 (Permalink)

The Case of the Puzzling Statement

A suspect was arrested on a charge of murder. When interrogated by the police, the suspect volunteered to write a statement if he was left alone with a sheet of paper and a pen. The police proceeded to do so, but a lawyer hired by the suspect's wife showed up soon thereafter, demanding to see the suspect in private. Afterward, the suspect refused to write or say anything further on the advice of his attorney. All that was written on the piece of paper was the following:

If the victim was asleep when I arrived but the front door was locked, or the back door was open, then either I killed him or both a light was on in his room near midnight and the murder weapon was a gun, unless neither was he drunk when he died nor was the murder weapon a knife.

Unsurprisingly, the police are baffled by this statement and have very little evidence against the suspect. All that they know for sure is that the victim was not shot but killed with a knife, and that the back door had been left open. If they can't decipher the cryptic statement, the suspect will surely walk. Can you help the police make sense of the suspect's statement?

Assuming that the suspect's statement is true, and that the evidence gathered by the police is correct―that is, that the victim was killed with a knife, not a gun, and the back door was open―can you determine whether or not the suspect killed the victim? If you think you know the answer, click on "Solution", below, to find out if you cracked the case.


June 2nd, 2015 (Permalink)

New Book: Spinglish

"Spinglish" is a combination of the words "spin" and "English"―in analogy to the more familiar term "Spanglish"―describing English words and phrases used to "spin". Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf have produced a book of that title, subtitled The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language. Beard and Cerf are best known for writing humor books, so I'm not sure how serious a work this is. Also, having not yet read it, I don't know whether it adds anything much to William Lutz' doublespeak dictionary, or Steven Poole's Unspeak. Some of the words and definitions I've seen attributed to the book were discussed previously by Lutz or Poole. However, I do think it will be a useful reference even if it just gathers together all of the examples from previous writers in dictionary form together with citations.


Update (6/27/2015): There's an excerpt from Spinglish in The Daily Beast consisting of the introduction and all of the entries in the book that fall under the letter "G"―see Source 1, below.

Some of the words are new to me, such as "gallerist", which is an inflated term for "art dealer"; others are familiar, for instance, "gaming" used as a general euphemism for the more specific "gambling"―William Lutz includes it in his 1999 book Doublespeak Defined, see Source 2, below. I wrote about "government relations professional" back when it was in the news as a proposed euphemism for "lobbyist"―see the Resource, below.

Some of the definitions are themselves tendentious, for example, "[t]he hunting or mass slaughter of wild animals" as a definition of "game management". It's true that "game management" is often used as a euphemism for the more specific "hunting", but throwing in "mass slaughter" adds nothing to the definition but emotional bias against hunting as a means of controlling the population of animals. Moreover, if you're going to include "gun grabber" as "[a] term for someone who supports gun control legislation favored by those who donít", why not include "gun nut" as "a term for someone who opposes gun control legislation favored by those who support it"? There seems to be a degree of spin in what counts as "spinglish".

However, some of these words are not like the others; some of these words just don't belong. For instance, "greenwashing" is not a euphemism, but if anything the opposite, since it's used by environmentalists to condemn businesses that promote their practices as "green" when they're really not. This is a problem with introducing a new word, such as "spinglish" or "unspeak", no matter how clever and amusing it may be: unless such a word is precisely defined, it's hard to know what counts as an instance. The closest that Beard and Cerf come to defining "spinglish" seems to be the following passage from the introduction:

But what precisely is Spinglish? Well, in spite of its polyglot-sounding name, it isnít some foreign language. Itís just our native tongue, transformed into a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication through the use of careful word choice and the artful rephrasing and reframing of familiar terms. To put it another way (which, of course, is what Spinglish is designed to do), it all comes down to making me sound better, or you sound worse, or both.

Unfortunately, that isn't a very precise answer. "Careful word choice" and "artful rephrasing" are characteristics of good writing. The only real help in this "definition" is that it characterizes spinglish as "a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication". In other words, what seems to separate spinglish from good English is that the latter aims at communication whereas the former's goal is obfuscation. However, it's perfectly possible to mislead people without using the euphemisms, doublespeak, loaded language, and weasel words that seem to constitute most of the entries in this book.

"Greenwashing" doesn't seem to meet this vague definition, since it serves as a label for a certain type of spin. If "greenwashing" is spinglish, then would "spinglish" itself count as spinglish?

I hope I don't sound too much like a pedantic killjoy. Beard and Cerf might well reply that their book is intended as amusing and entertaining light reading rather than a scholarly monograph, and my goal is not to spoil anyone's enjoyment of it, but to point that out.


  1. Henry Beard & Christopher Cerf, "How to Translate ĎSpinglishí", The Daily Beast, 6/23/2015
  2. William Lutz, Doublespeak Defined: Cut Throught the Bull**** and Get the Point (1999), p. 153

Resource: Doublespeak Dictionary, 9/24/2013

Previous Entry

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