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Thursday, January 30, 2003 ( 6:30 PM ) (Permalink)

Appeal to Celebrity

In a recent Howard Kurtz column, comic actress Janeane Garofalo complained that the media simultaneously exploits her views on politics and doesn't take her seriously. However, the media take celebrities such as Garofalo all too seriously, as there's no reason to think that Garofalo is a better spokesperson than a random individual pulled out of a protest march. As Kurtz writes:

"Entertainers must brave a certain degree of ridicule when they waltz into the public policy arena, whether it's Sean Penn going to Baghdad or Leonardo DiCaprio pitching Earth Day. They are, after all, using their fame to be heard in a way that would be impossible if they couldn't make people laugh or cry. Why, they are asked by the same programs that invited them on, should anyone care what you think?"

In fact, it's only because Garofalo is a celebrity that Howard Kurtz will interview her so that she can complain about not being taken seriously. It would not improve matters if the media treated celebrities as if they actually knew what they were talking about.

Conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan, in a recent column on celebrity and politics, criticizes political dilettantes such as Garofalo, but praises Arnold Schwarzennegger, among others, who actually enter politics. He would presumably tell Garofalo that she will be taken seriously as soon as she gets serious. However, Sullivan doesn't acknowledge that the only reason a celebrity such as Schwarzennegger is taken at all seriously as a potential candidate is that he is already a celebrity. This is similar to the seeking out of celebrities as spokespersons which Sullivan decries:

"If you're trying to sell newspapers, a quote from some fading rock star is likely to generate more interest than a quote from, say, the last insurance salesman you happened to meet on the tube last night. But that doesn't mean that the rock star's views have any more relevance, salience or sanity than the insurance salesman's. In America, the celebrity culture is even more entrenched, and the political abuses of fame even more widespread. In a country where an actual aristocracy is never admitted, the permissible one is defined entirely by fame. With this fame comes power. And with power comes the terrible temptation to use it."

It's not a logical fallacy for reporters to interview comedians about their political views, or to treat aging movie stars seeking public office as serious candidates. However, it is a logical boobytrap, that is, an invitation to the uncritical reader to treat celebrities as if their opinions are better-informed, or more cogently-reasoned, than the average citizen's. And that is a form of the fallacy of appealing to misleading authority.


Tuesday, January 28, 2003 ( 2:12 AM ) (Permalink)

Averages, Again

Bryan Keefer of Spinsanity has a report on the potentially misleading use of mean averages in the Administration's attempts to sell its tax cuts. Given the progressive nature of the income tax, in which people who make more money pay higher tax rates, and the fact that the dividend tax is paid by people who own stock, it's almost inevitable that cuts in these taxes will be skewed towards the wealthy. Most poor people don't even pay these taxes, and the mean tax cut will be further skewed by the large cuts received by those who pay the most, namely, those who make the most. As Keefer suggests, the median would be more representative of the size of cut that most taxpayers will receive.


Monday, January 27, 2003 ( 2:10 AM ) (Permalink)


A Fallacy Files reader writes in with the following question:

Q: "I keep reading this argument that Ralph Nader is somehow responsible for George W. Bush's election, because if he [Nader] hadn't split the left all would have voted Gore and lived happily ever after. This argument seems specious to me, but I can't put my finger on just how. Any ideas?"

A: Logicians call a proposition such as "If Nader had not run for President, then Gore would have won" a "counterfactual conditional". A counterfactual conditional—or just "counterfactual", for short—is a conditional proposition with a counterfactual—or contrary-to-fact, i.e., falseantecedent—or hypothesis.

While some sources list a fallacy of "contrary-to-fact hypothesis", I don't consider the making of counterfactuals, or the use of them in arguments to be fallacious. Those who do seem to have one of two reasons: either they think that no counterfactual is true, or that nothing follows from a false proposition. However, many counterfactuals are obviously true, e.g.: "If my father had died in infancy, then I would never have been conceived". Also, false propositions have logical consequences just as much as true ones do.

However, a problem with some counterfactuals, such as the Nader one, is that there is no way to determine their truth-values. We cannot know whether a sufficient number of Nader voters would have voted for Gore, since there were other alternatives available to them. Some wouldn't have voted at all, some would have voted for some other third party candidate, and some would have even voted for Bush. How could we tell whether enough would have voted for Gore? We can't go back in time and rerun the election without Nader to see what happens.

For this reason, any argument that uses such a counterfactual for a premiss is weak, since we cannot be reasonably confident of the truth of that counterfactual premiss. In sum, to argue that Nader or Nader-voters are responsible for Gore's loss is not a fallacious argument, but it is a very weak one.

Source: Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, William L. Reese, 1980, p. 168. This dictionary contains a very short entry for "The Fallacy of the Contrary-to-Fact Hypothesis", listed under "Fallacies".

Thursday, January 23, 2003 ( 10:30 PM ) (Permalink)


A "contextomy" is the removal of a statement from its context in a way that misrepresents the intention of its author (Boller & George attribute this term to Milton Mayer). For example, here's a quote from President John Adams:

"This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it."

This quote is sometimes cited by people who argue against religion and want to appeal to Adams' authority, or who use the quote as evidence that the Founding Fathers were opposed to religion. However, here is the quote in its larger context:

"Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, 'this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!!' But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [Adams' boyhood minister and schoolmaster]. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company—I mean hell."
(Letter to Thomas Jefferson, April 19th, 1817)

Source: Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions, p. 3.

Monday, January 20, 2003 ( 11:47 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

Saturday, January 18, 2003 ( 11:34 PM ) (Permalink)

Is Propaganda Critical Thinking?

Apparently it is in the Oakland, California public school system:

"Oakland's school board drew criticism for authorizing a teach-in on Iraq that was dominated by opponents of a possible war. But organizers, who called the event a timely exercise in critical thinking, said they simply couldn't find pro-war speakers who were willing to appear. 'Our teachers and our students here in Oakland are too smart to be victims of propaganda,' said Dan Siegel, a member of the school board. 'Our goal is to do education and to have people make up their own minds.'" [Emphasis added.]

This kind of one-sidedness was identified in the late 1930s by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis as one of the seven techniques of propaganda, under the name "card stacking".

"This year, officials say they'll need a $100 million bailout from the state to avoid bankruptcy, and students' test scores remain low. 'A better use of time obviously would be teaching those things kids need,' said the Heritage Foundation's Krista Kafer."

Propaganda is critical thinking. Ignorance is strength.

Source: "Schools Hold Teach-in Against Possible War", CNN, 1/15/2003

Resource: George Orwell, 1984

Friday, January 17, 2003 ( 10:22 PM ) (Permalink)

Blurb Watch

Today's New York Times has an ad for the movie "Analyze That" with the following blurb:

"Absolute perfection. Here surely is the perfect holiday season movie."

Here's the context from which the first sentence in this blurb was torn:

"Absolute perfection of a sort—the perfect way to kill 95 minutes. You don't have to pay attention to it or care about it one whit or remember it afterward and you'll still find it a diverting and funny way to rest your weary feet. It's television by other means—and not good television either."

"Absolute perfection of a sort" is not the same as "absolute perfection period". The reviewer is being ironic, as indicated by the two-and-a-half star rating out of a possible four, which is between "fair" and "good" on the newspaper's ratings scale—scarcely "perfect".

Monday, January 13, 2003 ( 1:06 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

The fallacy fallacy, that's what.

Sunday, January 05, 2003 ( 11:59 PM ) (Permalink)


Reader Brian A. Shaheed asks the following question:

"I have read a lot of material that refers to a term called 'ad hoc'. I remember this to be a 'fallacy', but I have had a great deal of trouble finding the definition of it, and an example of it as well. I searched an extremely informative link on your site called 'The Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies', and I cannot seem to find the heading 'ad hoc'. Could you direct me to where I might find a definition and example of 'ad hoc' fallacy?"

"Ad hoc" is Latin for "to this", and characterizes things which are designed for a specific purpose. For example, an "ad hoc committee" is a usually temporary one created to address a particular problem.

What you are referring to as an "ad hoc fallacy" is probably what are called "ad hoc hypotheses", unless what you have in mind is either of the causal fallacies post hoc or cum hoc. While "ad hoc hypotheses" are not usually called "fallacies", "ad hoc" is definitely a term of criticism, that is, it is a bad thing for a hypothesis to be ad hoc.

What is an ad hoc hypothesis? It is one intended to protect a theory from a particular criticism. For example, consider the theory of ectoplasm. This is the theory, once popular with spiritualists, that mediums exude a strange substance—ectoplasm—which disembodied spirits can use to form temporary bodies. This was meant to explain how spirits could move objects or be photographed.

One problem with this theory is that ectoplasm never appears anywhere but in dark seance rooms, where no one can get a good look at it or subject it to scientific study. This is explained as due to ectoplasm being photosensitive, that is, it is sensitive to light and is destroyed by exposure to bright light.

Now, this is all very interesting, you may say, but where's the ad hoc hypothesis? It's the hypothesis that ectoplasm is photosensitive, since it serves no other purpose than to explain why mediums work in dark rooms. An alternative explanation is that they do so because it is easier to get away with things in darkness.

Why are ad hoc hypotheses bad? Because you can save any theory, no matter how bad, from refutation with ad hoc hypotheses. Every time a problem comes up, just cook up an ad hoc hypothesis to explain it away. For this reason, ad hoc hypotheses are one of the warning signs that a theory—such as the theory of ectoplasm—is pseudoscientific.

Thanks for the question, Brian!

Resources: "Ad hoc hypothesis" and "Ectoplasm", entries from Robert Todd Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary.

( 7:56 PM )

Check it Out

Tim van Gelder has just added a weblog called "Critical Reflections" to his already useful Critical Thinking on the Web site. His first entry is a hilarious example of a familiar fallacy.

Thursday, January 02, 2003 ( 11:44 PM ) (Permalink)

A New Fallacy for a New Year

The bad reasons fallacy.

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