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January 31st, 2009 (Permalink)

What's New?

There's a new contextomy on the Familiar Contextomies page, this one taken from Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11.

Source: Condoleezza Rice, Familiar Contextomies

January 27th, 2009 (Permalink)


Q: There is what I think is a fallacy which very often turns up in discussions on second-hand smoke of which I don't know the name. The general form is something like: "You say you want to do something about problem A, but you never did anything about (bigger) problem B, so you are a hypocrite." In the case of second-hand smoke, that is problem A and problem B usually is exhaust fumes or particulate matter. I think this is a fallacy for two reasons:

  1. Putting the attention on problem A does not mean problem B is ignored (fuel efficiency standards for cars get stricter all the time).
  2. The fact that big problem B exists, does not mean smaller problem A shouldn't be taken care of (especially if is easy to solve) and an individual can hardly take on all problems in the world by himself.

Another example: "You complain about the Islamophobic remarks of this politician, but why did you not say anything when that Imam said all gays should be thrown from high buildings? You have no right to speak!" So is this a fallacy and if so what is its name?―Martijn ter Haar

A: There are actually two fallacies at work here:

  1. Whether a person is a hypocrite or has a double standard is irrelevant to the issue of what should be done about second-hand smoke. Since this is an irrelevant and distracting personal attack, that makes it an ad hominem.
  2. As you point out, the fact that a possibly more serious problem exists is no argument that a particular problem should be ignored, or should only be dealt with after the more serious problem is solved. If it were, then the problems of exhaust fumes and particulates would have to wait until you've dealt with global warming, or whatever other problem is most important.

    This is a form of the black-or-white fallacy: black and white are mutually exclusive, that is, nothing can be both black all over and white all over at the same time. So, if something is black, it's not also white, and vice versa. However, solutions to problems are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes, a kind of triage may be necessary, so that less important problems will have to wait for the more important ones to be dealt with in order to free up resources. But that's probably not the case for second-hand smoke, and the burden of proof is on those who present the black-or-white argument to show that it is.

    So, there is a third alternative other than black or white, namely, black and white. That is, we can manage to address the problems of second-hand smoke and exhaust fumes simultaneously.

This pattern of argument is a common one, and I've come across it myself many times involving other issues than second-hand smoke. Coincidentally, I was just watching a documentary on PBS about the hunt for the Higgs boson, and a woman argued against funding such research on the grounds that the money would be better spent fighting cancer. Why not both?

January 25th, 2009 (Permalink)

Wikipedia Watch

The anonymous encyclopedists at Wikipedia have some things to learn about categorical syllogisms. For instance, here's the do-it-yourself encyclopedia on the fallacy of undistributed middle:

The fallacy of the undistributed middle takes the following form:

All Zs are Bs
Y is a B
Therefore, Y is a Z

There are two things wrong with this form:

  1. This is not, strictly speaking, the form of a categorical syllogism, since neither the second premiss nor the conclusion are categorical propositions. The "Y" in "Y is a B" is meant to stand in for a name, or other term that refers to an individual, rather than a common noun. Let's call a statement of this form, whose subject term is a singular term, a "singular proposition", to distinguish if from the universal and particular categorical propositions.

    Now, it's possible to treat syllogisms that contain singular propositions as categorical syllogisms by pretending that a name is really a class term. For instance, suppose that we fill in the above argument form as follows:

    All men are mortal.
    Socrates is a mortal.
    Therefore, Socrates is a man.

    "Socrates" is a name, but we can suppose that it is a term for the class of all things identical to Socrates, which is a class with a single member. So, we will interpret the second premiss as logically equivalent to the following A-type categorical proposition: "All Socrateses are mortal." Similarly, for the conclusion: "All Socrateses are men." Thus, the entire argument will be:

    All men are mortal.
    All Socrateses are mortal.
    Therefore, all Socrateses are men.

    This is a categorical syllogism, and it indeed has an undistributed middle term, "mortal", so the original example can be said to commit the fallacy by extension. However, why choose an example that has to be shoehorned into the right form using a technical trick when it is easy to find examples that are categorical syllogisms as they stand? For example, here's one with the same form:

    All men are mortal.
    All women are mortal.
    Therefore, all women are men.

    This brings us to the second problem with this example:

  2. This is not "the" form of undistributed middle, because there is not one form of categorical syllogism with an undistributed middle term, but many―64, to be exact. For instance, here's another form:

    All P are M.
    Some S are M.
    Therefore, some S are P.

    The middle term, M is undistributed, so any categorical syllogism of this form commits the fallacy, but you wouldn't know that from reading the Wikipedia entry. The fallacies of categorical syllogisms all involve multiple argument forms, and some forms exemplify multiple fallacies; thus, they differ from those of propositional logic, which involve a single form.

    This same mistake is also committed in the Wikipedia entry for the fallacy of illicit process of the minor term, which says:

    This fallacy has the following argument form:

    All A are B.
    All A are C.
    Therefore, all C are B.

    Again, there are 64 forms of categorical syllogism with an illicit minor term, for instance:

    All P are M.
    All M are S.
    Therefore, all S are P.

    Here, the minor term, S, is distributed in the conclusion but not in the minor premiss.

    These entries are two more reasons why you need to be careful when using Wikipedia, and shouldn't rely on it (see the Resources below, for more reasons). At the very least, check it against other, more reliable, sources before believing it.



January 20th, 2009 (Permalink)

The Arguments that Failed

Alex Byrne has an excellent, lengthy article in the Boston Review on philosophical arguments for the existence of a god, and what's wrong with them. Byrne discusses three arguments:

  1. Anselm's "Ontological" Argument: I've previously dealt with this argument and what is wrong with it in the form of a puzzle about the scariest monster imaginable. (See the Resource below.)

    That there must be something wrong should be obvious even before examining it, since it is presented as a deduction, and a general fact about deduction is that you can never get more out of the conclusion than you put into the premisses. In other words, in deduction "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch": you pay in the premisses for what you get in the conclusion. Byrne alludes to this point in the following passage:

    Should we agree with Dawkins that something has gone badly wrong, on the grounds that Anselm’s argument reaches "such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world"? As a general reason for suspicion, this is not very persuasive. In 300 BC Euclid proved that infinitely many prime numbers exist. He needed no empirical data, and surely his conclusion―infinitely many―is pretty significant.

    I agree with Dawkins, though he could have used a different word than "significant". Arguments for the existence of a god are importantly different from Euclid's prime number theorem, since numbers are abstract objects. A god is not an abstract object, but is supposed to have created the physical world, or to have some other causal effects upon that world. As Dawkins says, deductive arguments should not have such empirical conclusions "without feeding in a single piece of data from the real"―that is, physical―world.

    Given a deductive argument with the conclusion "a god exists", the premisses must be at least as logically strong as that conclusion. For this reason, any valid argument for the existence of a god will beg the question, because the premisses will either be equivalent to the conclusion―in which case the argument is circular―or they will be logically stronger than the conclusion―and, thus, even more controversial. For instance, here's a valid argument for the existence of a god:

    More than one god exists.
    Therefore, at least one god exists.

    Clearly, anyone who doubted the conclusion would be even more skeptical about the premiss. So, valid deductive arguments for the existence of a god will beg the question. However, Anselm's argument is invalid because, as Byrne explains, it commits a scope fallacy.

    Resource: The Scariest Puzzle Imaginable, 10/27/2005

  2. The Design Argument: Paley's design argument has been revived in recent years by the "intelligent design" movement, but with different examples: instead of a watch on a heath, there's writing in the sand on a beach; rather than the eye, there's the bacterial flagellum. But it's still the same old argument, with the same old flaw: unlike Anselm's deductive argument, this is an inductive argument from analogy, and the analogy is weak, as Hume pointed out long ago.
  3. The "Fine-Tuning" Argument: As Byrne explains, versions of this argument go back at least to Paley, but current versions draw upon contemporary physics. Consider the following argument:

    If the universe had been only slightly different in a myriad of ways, Al Franken would never have been conceived. In fact, it was extremely unlikely that the series of events leading to Franken's conception would occur.
    Al Franken was conceived.
    Therefore, the universe must have been "fine-tuned" in order to produce Al Franken.

    Call this the "Al Franken Principle". How can we explain the Al Franken Principle other than to suppose that the universe was designed by an intelligence with an inordinate fondness for Al Franken?

    Consider another scenario: Suppose that Lucky Jim buys a ticket in a lottery with a million tickets, and his ticket is drawn. Clearly, the probability of his winning the lottery is extremely low―only one in a million, to be exact―and yet he did win. What can explain this highly unlikely fact? One thing that would explain it is if the lottery was rigged in his favor.

    Essentially, this is the same as the fine-tuning argument: it was extremely unlikely that the universe would be hospitable to us, and yet it clearly is. Therefore, the universe must have been rigged―"fine-tuned"―to produce us. What could possibly be responsible for thus rigging the universe? Clearly, only an enormously powerful and intelligent creator of that universe.

    However, something is wrong with the Lucky Jim argument. After all, if Jim had not won, someone else would have―Lucky Pete, say―and it would have been just as unlikely that Pete won. In other words, no matter who wins the lottery, we can make the same argument that it must have been rigged! Yet, it is certain that someone will win; therefore, it is certain that the lottery was rigged. But it wasn't! This is my thought experiment, and I'm telling you that it was not rigged.

    Improbable things happen all the time. It is highly probable that something improbable will happen: this may sound like a contradiction, but it is not. It is a contradiction to say that a particular improbable event―such as Jim's winning the lottery―is probable; but it is not contradictory to say that some improbable event―either Jim winning, or Pete winning, or…―is probable. Every time a person is conceived or wins the lottery, the improbable happens.

    So, the fact that it was extremely unlikely that Jim would win the lottery is no argument that the lottery was rigged, since it's always extremely unlikely that the winner wins, whoever it happens to be. Similarly for the fine-tuning argument: assuming that the fundamental physical constants of the universe were set randomly, any given setting is extraordinarily unlikely. However, given that there is a physical universe at all―and we know that there is―those constants must have some particular values. Therefore, something extraordinarily unlikely was bound to happen. It just so happens that those values made it possible for us to come into existence, but that's no argument that the lottery was rigged.

Source: Alex Byrne, "God: Philosophers Weigh In", Boston Review, January/February 2009.

Resource: Richard Norman, "Swinburne's Argument from Design", Think, 1/06/2003. (Added 5/4/2009)

January 17th, 2009 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Che

Blurb Context
Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY
Nothing if not the movie of the year―the best, the worst, the longest, the most controversial, pretty much whatever you want it to be….
Soderbergh’s $65 million rumination on Che Guevara’s activities, first during the miraculous Cuban Revolution and then his doomed Bolivian campaign a decade later, may be a great movie, but it is also something just as rare―a magnificently uncommercial folly. …


January 14th, 2009 (Permalink)

One Last "Bushism" Contextomy

At least, I hope that this is the last:

I'm telling you there's an enemy that would like to attack America, Americans, again. There just is. That's the reality of the world. And I wish him all the very best.

This quote is taken from President Bush's last press conference, and here is the context with the "Bushism" emphasized:

Q: Mr. President, thank you very much. Since your philosophy is so different from President-Elect Obama's, what concerns you the most about what he may attempt to do?

A: You know, Michael, I'm not going to speculate about what he's going to do. It's going to be―you know, he's going to get in the Oval Office, he's going to analyze each situation, and he's going to make the decisions that he thinks is necessary. And the other thing is, when I get out of here, I'm getting off the stage. I believe there ought to be, you know, one person in the klieg lights at a time, and I've had my time in the klieg lights. You know, I'm confident, you know, you'll catch me opining on occasion, but I wish him all the best. And people say, oh, you just―that's just a throwaway line. No, it's not a throwaway line. The stakes are high. There is an enemy that still is out there. You know, people can maybe try to write that off as, you know, he's trying to set something up. I'm telling you there's an enemy that would like to attack America, Americans, again. There just is. That's the reality of the world. And I wish him all the very best. And of course, he's going to have his hands full with the economy. … And―anyway, I really do wish him all the best.

In context, it's clear that the pronoun "him" refers to President-Elect Obama, and not to the unnamed "enemy" that Bush refers to. I doubt that anyone listening to Bush's remarks or reading the transcript would be confused about the pronoun reference, for the "enemy" might well be an "it" rather than a "him"―al-Qaeda as opposed to bin Laden. Moreover, Bush had previously said "I wish him all the best" in reference to Obama, and his comment about the "enemy" was to explain why this was not a "throwaway line". So, the ambiguity of the pronoun is introduced by truncating the quote, which makes it a contextomy.

Sources: Jacob Weisberg, "Bushism of the Day", Slate, 1/13/2009


January 13th, 2009 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Try the following thought experiments:

Imagine that I give you $100 and a choice between (A) a guaranteed gain of $50 and (B) a coin flip, in which heads gets you another $100 and tails gets you nothing. Do you want A or B? Now imagine that I give you $200 and a choice between (A) a guaranteed loss of $50 and (B) a coin flip, in which heads loses you $100 and tails loses you nothing. Do you want A or B?

Did you choose the same letter for both experiments, or different letters? Now read Michael Shermer's new article to find out what you should have picked and what it all means for the economy.

Source: Michael Shermer, "Irrational Economic Man", City Journal, 1/11/2009

January 12th, 2009 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a quote to the "Familiar Contextomies" page, this one another 9/11 conspiracy theory contextomy.

Source: Jamie McIntyre, Familiar Contextomies

January 9th, 2009 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Valkyrie

According to the Washington Post movie critic, Philip Kennicott, the new Tom Cruise movie, "Valkyrie", is "an entertainment juggernaut". What exactly is an "entertainment juggernaut"? Is it supposed to suggest unstoppable entertainment, perhaps?

Kennicott's actual review seems quite ambivalent, and it's hard to tell whether he recommends the movie or not, since there is no thumbs up or star rating. In context, the word "juggernaut" ties in with a repeated theme of the review that the movie is somehow mechanical and inhuman, which certainly sounds like a criticism. For instance, he calls it "a brutally efficient bit of storytelling", "rigorous and relentless, with very little human in it", and a "tremendously mechanistic film". With this background in mind, here is the sentence from which the blurb is taken:

"Valkyrie" is so austere, so strangely inhuman in its depiction of heroism, that you can't help but admire it as an entertainment juggernaut, and fret about it, too, for its celebration of a very limited ideal of human behavior.

At best, that's a rather backhanded compliment. So, why choose this review to quote when there are more enthusiastic reviews of the movie? I suspect that the ad writer saw the words "entertainment juggernaut" and just liked the sound of them.

Source: Philip Kennicott, "'Valkyrie': An Inhuman Military Plot", The Washington Post, 12/25/2008

January 6th, 2009 (Permalink)

…And a New Contextomy

I've added a quote to the "Familiar Contextomies" page that is taken out of context by 9/11 conspiracists to support one of their goofiest theories.

Source: Mike Walter, Familiar Contextomies

January 4th, 2009 (Permalink)

…And a New Book

Blunder is a book about judgment calls. It is the story of how smart people…get caught in cognition traps and wind up defeating themselves. Most complex problems have complex causes, and no single factor can explain it all. This book offers one possible explanation for why people blunder. I suggest that we all sometimes fall into "cognition traps"―rigid ways of approaching and solving problems. Cognition traps are inflexible mindsets formed from faulty reasoning.―From the Introduction

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions is a new book by an historian, Zachary Shore, focusing on what he calls "cognition traps" and how they lead people to blunder. It should be interesting to see how "cognition traps" relate to the "cognitive illusions" and biases identified by psychologists, as well as logical fallacies and what I call "boobytraps. This sounds as though it would make a good Book Club book, so I hope that the publisher will send me a review copy.

Source: Zachary Shore, "Excerpt from the Introduction", Blunder

January 3rd, 2009 (Permalink)

A New Year and a New Fallacy

The new fallacy: Illicit Contraposition. Happy new fallacy!

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