Notes & Quotes

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January 31st, 2021 (Permalink)

Coining a Misquote & Drunk Journalism


  1. Thanks to Lawrence Mayes for drawing this article to my attention.
  2. See: How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 3: Rules of Thumb, 1/2/2021.
  3. Ellipsis in the original.
  4. See: Misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr., 1/18/2021.
  5. Jack Shafer, "What Kind of Plagiarist Is Joe Biden?", Slate, 8/25/2008.
  6. Boston Herald editorial staff, "Mainstream media's silence on Biden story scandalous", Boston Herald, 10/16/2020.
  7. Maxwell Tani, "MSNBC Cuts Loose Two More Contributors With Biden Transition Ties", Daily Beast, 11/10/2020.
  8. Julie Piering, "Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404ó323 B.C.E.)", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed: 1/24/2021. IEP needs better editing; see: Get the "Lead" Out, 2/5/2007.

January 29th, 2021 (Permalink)

Five False Witnesses

Victor Timm was shot in broad daylight in front of five eyewitnesses. This might seem like an easy case for the police, but witnesses are notoriously unreliable. Following are the five descriptions of the assailant taken from the transcripts of the witness interrogations:

  1. "The shooter was tall―over six feet, I'd say―with rather long blond hair…. He was wearing white sport shoes."
  2. "The killer was bald; totally bald. … He was shorter than me, and I'm only five feet tall. … His shoes? Just regular street shoes; brown or black leather."
  3. "The gunman was about average height…over five feet tall but under six. He was wearing dark leather man's shoes. His hair was definitely blond…a little long for a man."
  4. "The first thing I noticed is that the man with the gun was wearing sandals. … He was definitely taller than me, and I'm six feet. He had dark hair…just a standard haircut; not too short, not too long."
  5. "He was short―less than five feet tall―so I was looking down on his hair, which was dark brown or black. I saw white sneakers when he ran away."

Five eyewitnesses who didn't agree on a single thing! Thankfully, Vic Timm survived the assault and was able to give a detailed description of his attacker that allowed the police to make an immediate arrest. Under police interrogation, the suspect confessed. As it turned out, each of the eyewitness descriptions was correct in exactly one detail.

How did Timm describe his attacker?

January 26th, 2021 (Permalink)

Name that Fallacy!

Earlier this month, a San Francisco television station reported:

The Embarcadero was virtually empty Saturday night amidst a light drizzle. It'll likely stay relatively quiet, since San Francisco has extended its stay-at-home and 10-day travel quarantine orders indefinitely. UCSF infectious disease expert and medical director of the HIV Clinic at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Director Dr. Monica Gandhi says the city's decision is not data-driven.

"We never reached those hospitalizations or ICU capacity concerns that the state had set as metrics for this degree of shutdown," she said. "And then to continue it indefinitely, as kind of our New Year's present to San Francisco, didn't make sense to me."

San Francisco is in better shape than most of the Bay Area and the state of California. Currently about 30% of ICU beds are still available. The latest 7-day average of new cases daily is 206 as of December 25, compared with 290 on December 16. The city says preliminary data shows that the orders seemed to have slowed infections.1

Can you name that fallacy? If you think you can, click on the following link to see if you're correct:


This fallacy is one reason why these lockdowns keep happening. All politicians have to do is order these or other restrictions, then wait until the number of cases declines. Eventually, cases will decline, even if the measures taken have nothing to do with it, so all the patient politician has to do is wait until that happens and take credit for it.

While it's plausible that lockdowns may contribute to the slowing of the spread of the virus, it's also plausible that they have other negative effects. For instance, nearly three times as many people died in San Francisco last year from drug overdoses as are attributed to COVID-192. Moreover, there was an increase of 258 overdose deaths from the previous year, which is greater than the 241 COVID-19 deaths. How many, if any, of these deaths were at least partially due to the social isolation and economic hardships of the lockdowns? We don't know, but it's just as plausible that some of them were as that some lives were saved by the lockdown. Also, there's just as much anecdotal evidence that lockdowns contribute to drug overdose deaths as there is that they slow the spread of COVID-193. Were more lives saved or lost due to the lockdown? We don't know, but if you're going to live by post hoc then you may also die by it.

San Francisco is going to start easing its lockdown this Thursday4.


  1. Betty Yu, "COVID: UCSF Infectious Disease Expert Says Indefinite Stay-at-Home Order Wrong Call, Not Data-Driven", KPIX 5, 1/3/2021.
  2. Joshua Sabatini, "San Francisco's 2020 overdose deaths soar 59 percent to 699", San Francisco Chronicle, 1/14/2021.
  3. Aubrey Whelan, "As pandemic started, U.S. fatal overdoses soared in the first quarter of 2020, new data show", Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/20/2020.
  4. "COVID Reopening: San Francisco To Allow Outdoor Dining, Personal Services Starting Thursday", CBS San Francisco, 1/25/2021.

January 18th, 2021 (Permalink)

Misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a quote magnet, one of those famously wise and well-regarded men that we love to quote and misquote. To celebrate his holiday, let's look at what he didn't say and what he did.


  1. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), pp. 20-21.
  2. Garson O'Toole, Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations (2017), pp. 33-36.
  3. For the full story, see: Garson O'Toole, "The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice", The Quote Investigator, 11/15/2012.
  4. Namely, Barack Obama. See: O'Toole, p. 33.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Drum Major Instinct", The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, 2/4/1968.
  6. Rachel Martin, "Quote Corrected On MLK Memorial", National Public Radio, 8/18/2013.
  7. David Mikkelson, "Martin Luther King: 'Do Not Rejoice in the Death of One'", Snopes, 5/4/2011.
  8. Keyes, pp. 18-20.
  9. Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction (2010).
  10. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Other America Speech Transcript―Martin Luther King Jr.", Rev, 4/14/1967.

January 15th, 2021 (Permalink)

Charts & Graphs: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

One of these things is not like the others
One of these things just doesn't belong
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?1
US Monthly Deaths
Click chart to enlarge.
Did you guess which thing was not like the others?
Did you guess which thing just doesn't belong?1

If you guessed this month is not like the others, then you're not exactly wrong! The problem with this bar chart2 is that, as you can see from the dates given at the top, the data for it ends at the twelfth of this month. However, the bar for January looks exactly like those for all the other months, despite the fact that the data for it is only partial. To a casual glance, the chart seems to show a large drop-off in deaths from December to January, but this is because of the lack of complete data for this month. Obviously, with the month only half over, we don't know whether there will be a decline in deaths, though I suspect there will be, but it won't be nearly as large as what the chart seems to show.

For a chart such as this not to risk misleading casual viewers, the bar for the month with incomplete data needs to be visually different in some way. One solution is to leave months off the chart until complete data is available; another would be to make a bar based on partial data thinner, or a different color, or include some other warning within the chart that the data for the month is incomplete.3


  1. I don't know who wrote this song, but it was the twelfth best song from the children's television program Sesame Street, according to Billboard magazine; see: Aly Semigran, "12 Best Songs in 'Sesame Street' History", Billboard, 9/29/2016.
  2. "Only 12 days into January, states have reported more COVID-19 deaths than in any month between June and October of 2020.", Nitwitter, 1/12/2021. Thankfully, this "tweet" of the chart is not misleading since the text that accompanies it emphasizes that January is based on partial data. However, there would be a problem if anyone should reproduce the chart without that accompanying text. In addition, a partially identical chart appeared in the weekly update for the 23rd of last month; see: Nicki Camberg, Artis Curiskis, Alice Goldfarb, Erin Kissane, Jessica Malaty Rivera, Kara Oehler, Sara Simon & Peter Walker, "In the Deadliest Month Yet, the Pandemic Is Regional Again: This Week in COVID-19 Data, Dec 23", Covid Tracking Project, 12/23/2020. This version of the chart has the same problem as the more recent one, except that it is the data for December that is incomplete.
  3. I saw the chart here: Kaiser Fung, "Handling partial data on graphics", Junk Charts, 1/14/2021.

January 2nd, 2021 (Permalink)

How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 31:
Rules of Thumb

A rule of thumb is one that has exceptions, but is simple and will work often enough to be useful. Here are some rules of thumb for quote-checking that I've developed out of my own experience checking quotes. These rules apply primarily to checking quotes of the "Familiar Quotations" type that I discussed in the previous entry2:


  1. For earlier entries in this series, see:
  2. See "How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 2" in the previous note.
  3. Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (2006), p. xiv, calls these people "flypaper figures", but who uses flypaper anymore? Do many young people even know what it is? For this reason, I prefer to call them "quote magnets", since most people know what magnets are, and the phrase also indicates that it is quotes that stick to them, not flies.
  4. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), pp. 20-22.
  5. See: Mark O'Connell, "'Hang in There!'―Arthur Schopenhauer", Slate, 5/19/2014.
  6. President Ronald Reagan famously said: "trust but verify", which is a translation of a Russian proverb. It never made much sense to me: if you trust someone, you don't need to verify; and if you do need to verify, you shouldn't trust. See: Barton Swaim, "'Trust, but verify': An untrustworthy political phrase", The Washington Post, 3/11/2016.

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