By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash…it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.1
The following headline raises mixed metaphor alarm bells:
Ted Cruz Poll Raises Alarm Bells in Texas Election2
Wouldn't it be better to ring them? It looks as though the phrase "raises an alarm" has gotten mixed up with that of "sounding the alarm", or "ringing bells".
A way to avoid mixing metaphors is to picture them in your mind before committing them to paper. If you did that in this case, you'd picture someone raising up alarm bells, but what good would that do? It's probably because ringing bells in order to raise an alarm is what George Orwell called a "stale metaphor" that it didn't create a bizarre picture in the headline writer's mind that would have prevented it from being published―in other words, the editor was not really thinking.
Fortunately, someone who was thinking noticed the mixed metaphor and the headline has since been changed to:
Ted Cruz Poll Sets Off Alarm Bells in Texas Election3
This is better, but why mention bells at all if you're not going to talk about ringing them? "Bells" could be eliminated and the headline shortened to: "Ted Cruz Poll Sets Off Alarms in Texas Election".
- George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", The Orwell Foundation, 4/1946.
- Katherine Fung, "Ted Cruz Poll Raises Alarm Bells in Texas Election", Newsweek, 1/19/2024. This is the Internet Archive's copy of the page which has since been edited to change the headline.
- Katherine Fung, "Ted Cruz Poll Sets Off Alarm Bells in Texas Election", Newsweek, 1/19/2024. The current page with new headline.
Misquotes in the Media
I've previously mentioned that Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are quote magnets1, that is, people who often didn't say what is attributed to them. Churchill, of course, tends to be ascribed quotes about politics, Einstein usually gets ones about science, and MLK ones about race relations. Here's some recent examples ripped from today's headlines.
- Ron DeSantis decided to end his campaign for the Republican nomination for president on a sour note by misattributing2 a quote to Winston Churchill: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.3"
- Anne Lamott began a recent opinion piece:
Every so often, even in heartbreaking times, the soul hears something so true out of the corner of its ear that it perks up, looking around like a meerkat for the source. Mine did this when, decades ago, I read a quote of Albert Einstein’s: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”4
Unsurprisingly, Einstein never said that5.
- Lamott then compounds her crime by another quote in the essay's last paragraph: "I often remind myself of something the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that helps me focus: 'Don’t let them get you to hate them.'"4
This certainly sounds a lot more like something King would have said than the pseudo-Einstein quote sounds like something the real Einstein would have said, but I can't find any source for the "quote" other than Lamott herself. The earliest occurrence of it I've found is Lamott's 2018 book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, in which chapter five has that title. I don't have access to a copy of Lamott's book, so I can't check whether she provides a citation for the quote. However, Google's book search reveals not a single occurrence from the 20th century when King lived, whereas just about everything he wrote or said has been published, including his grocery lists.
My guess is that the quote started out as Lamott's own paraphrase of what she took to have been one of MLK's messages, but that over the last few years she forgot that these words were hers rather than his6.
- "Quotes Falsely Attributed to Winston Churchill", International Churchill Society, 1/17/2023.
- Ron DeSantis, "'Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.'-Winston Churchill", X, 1/21/2024.
- Anne Lamott, "Age makes the miracles easier to see", The Washington Post, 1/17/2024.
- The Expanded Quotable Einstein, collected and edited by Alice Calaprice (2000), p. 319.
- Ann Althouse, where I first saw these "quotes", comes to much the same conclusion about the supposed MLK quote: "Things maybe not said by Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr.", Althouse, 1/22/2024.
Q&A: The Taxicab Fallacy
Q: "I've encountered a supposed fallacy by the name of 'taxicab fallacy' and I'm unable to find it in any textbook or your site. It's a counter to the composition fallacy and I've only seen religious folks use it. Is there such a thing?"1
A: I had never heard of this alleged fallacy until you brought it to my attention with your question. The Fallacy Files has no entry for it, nor does any standard text or reference work on logical fallacies that I'm familiar with, which is most of them.
Here's one of the few explanations I've found of the supposed fallacy:
Taxicab Fallacy–Let me note that this fallacy is really only used in the context of Christian apologetics, so it’s difficult to nail down. It is roughly the fallacy of accepting a claim or principle up until you’ve reached your desired destination. It’s a claim of inconsistency. For example, some atheists hold that all contingent things have explanations up until they arrive at the universe. They see where the argument is going (to God) and hop out right before.2
This confirms your observation that the "fallacy" is mentioned only in religious contexts, which may be one reason why it's not found in the usual sources. Unfortunately, the few online sources that mention it are very unclear, and are written as if the reader already were familiar with it.
As mentioned in the quote, above, the alleged fallacy is supposed to occur in the context of a particular argument that goes something like this:
Premiss 2: The universe exists.
Conclusion: There is a reason for the universe's existence.
Let's call that reason "God" and, voilà, we've "proven" the existence of a god. This is a valid argument and premiss 2 is clearly true, so if premiss 1 is also true, then we have a sound argument for the existence of a god. But is premiss 1 true?
The "taxicab fallacy" is supposedly committed by those who see the conclusion coming and "hop out" of the argument before arriving at it. Since the argument is valid it's inconsistent to accept the premisses and then reject the conclusion, but is this what those who jump out of the taxi do? It's not inconsistent to notice where an argument is headed and reject one of the premisses that is leading there. In fact, one of the most common forms of argument in logic and mathematics is the reductio ad absurdum, in which one argues to an obviously false or otherwise unacceptable conclusion, then uses that fact as a basis for rejecting a premiss.
Even if we suppose that those who hop out of the taxi accept inconsistent claims, even for a second, that is not a logical fallacy. Inconsistent beliefs are certainly bad things to have because they cannot all be true, but logical fallacies are not psychological. A logical fallacy is a common type of uncogent argument. While believing inconsistently is bad, it's not a fallacious argument because it's not an argument at all. So, if the charge of "taxicab fallacy" is that those who commit it are inconsistent, that's a bad thing to be, but it's not a logical fallacy.
For there to be a logical fallacy of inconsistency, the inconsistency must occur within an argument. There are two places that inconsistency could occur:
- In the Premisses: The set of premisses is jointly inconsistent. In this case, the argument would technically be valid, since it's impossible for all the premisses to be true and the conclusion false, because it's impossible for all the premisses to be true. However, such an argument could not be sound and would, therefore, be uncogent.
This is a plausible candidate for a formal fallacy, but is it common?4 How often do people argue from inconsistent premisses? Not often, I think. Moreover, are those who are accused of committing the taxicab fallacy arguing from inconsistent premisses? Clearly not, since they're rejecting an argument rather than making one.
- Between the Premisses and the Conclusion: This would mean that the premisses of the argument actually imply the negation of its conclusion. Such an argument would not only be invalid, it would be "anti-valid"5. Anti-valid arguments are the worst kind of arguments; in fact, they're so bad that they're never mentioned in books on logic6, presumably because people never argue anti-validly. In any case, this is clearly not what is happening in the taxicab case.
So, the "taxicab fallacy" does not appear to be a logical fallacy of inconsistency. However, not everything called a "fallacy" is a logical fallacy; for instance, the "sunk cost" fallacy is a supposed mistake in economics rather than logic7. The taxicab fallacy may not be a logical fallacy but some other type of mistake, or it might itself be a mistake. If anyone actually does act in the manner posited by the fallacy, that might indicate a personal inconsistency in accepting the premisses of a valid argument while refusing to accept its conclusion, which might be called a psychological fallacy.
Is it possible that those who accuse others of inconsistency are themselves committing a logical fallacy? Jeremy Bentham, in his handbook of political fallacies, treats the "Imputation of Inconsistency" as a form of what he calls "vituperative personalities", that is, ad hominem8.
Is it an ad hominem to charge people with committing the "taxicab fallacy"? If the "fallacy" is simply a charge of holding inconsistent beliefs, then it's certainly a personal attack. Whether it's a fallacy depends on whether the personal attack is used as a reason to dismiss the arguments of the person attacked. I'm not ready to conclude that it is a fallacious ad hominem because, as I've already indicated, I'm not sure what the "taxicab fallacy" is supposed to be.
One last issue: You also mentioned the relationship of the proposed fallacy to the fallacy of composition9, a fallacy which sometimes comes up in relation to arguments similar to that discussed above. For instance, one might hold a modified version of premiss 1, namely, that there is a reason for the existence of everything in the universe, but not the universe as a whole. The fallacy is most obvious where "reason for existence" means cause, that is, premiss 1 says that there is a cause for every event in the universe. To reason from premiss 1 alone to the conclusion that the universe itself must have a cause would commit the fallacy of composition. As far as I can see, the "taxicab fallacy" does not counter this claim, unless what "counter" means is simply responding to the charge of fallacy with a counter-charge of fallacy.
In conclusion, unless and until someone explains the taxicab fallacy in a way that makes sense of it as a logical fallacy, it has no place in The Fallacy Files.
- A reader, e-mail, 1/14/2024.
- Cameron Bertuzzi, "The Ultimate List of Apologetics Terms for Beginners (with Explanations)", Capturing Christianity, 9/14/2018.
- This is one formulation of what is called "the Principle of Sufficient Reason"; see: "Principle of Sufficient Reason", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 1/19/2024.
- There's a formal fallacy of "Contradictory Premises" included in Madsen Pirie's How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic (2006), pp. 38-39, but that's the only source I've found for such a fallacy.
- This is my term for it.
- At least, I've never seen a reference to anti-validity, as far as I can remember.
- Jamie Ducharme, "The Sunk Cost Fallacy Is Ruining Your Decisions. Here’s How", Time, 7/26/2018.
- Bentham's Handbook of Political Fallacies, revised, edited and with a preface by Harold A. Larrabee (1971), pp. 87-88
- See: The Fallacy of Composition.
Crack the Combination VI*
The combination of a lock is three digits long and each digit is unique, that is, each occurs only once in the combination. The following are some incorrect combinations.
- 810: One digit is correct and in the right position.
- 198: Two digits are correct but both are in the wrong position.
- 679: One digit is correct but in the wrong position.
- 408: One digit is correct but in the wrong position.
Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?
Explanation: From clue 2, we know that either 1 & 9, 1 & 8, or 9 & 8 are in the combination. From clue 1, we can rule out 1 & 8. So, either 1 & 9 or 9 & 8 are included, which means that 9 is definitely in. From clues 2 and 3, 9 must be in the first position, which rules out 8, by clue 1, leaving 1 & 9. Thus, by clue 1 again, 1 must be in the middle position and 0 is eliminated. Finally, from clue 4 we can conclude that 4 is in the last position.
Illiberal Journalism & Tea with Terrorists
- James Bennet, "When the New York Times lost its way", 1843 Magazine, 12/14/2023
In my experience, reporters overwhelmingly support Democratic policies and candidates. They are generally also motivated by a desire for a more just world. Neither of those tendencies are new. But there has been a sea change over the past ten years in how journalists think about pursuing justice. The reporters’ creed used to have its foundation in liberalism, in the classic philosophical sense. The exercise of a reporter’s curiosity and empathy, given scope by the constitutional protections of free speech, would equip readers with the best information to form their own judgments. The best ideas and arguments would win out. The journalist’s role was to be a sworn witness; the readers’ role was to be judge and jury. In its idealised form, journalism was lonely, prickly, unpopular work, because it was only through unrelenting scepticism and questioning that society could advance. If everyone the reporter knew thought X, the reporter’s role was to ask: why X?
Illiberal journalists have a different philosophy, and they have their reasons for it. They are more concerned with group rights than individual rights, which they regard as a bulwark for the privileges of white men. They have seen the principle of free speech used to protect right-wing outfits…and are uneasy with it. They had their suspicions of their fellow citizens’ judgment confirmed by Trump’s election, and do not believe readers can be trusted with potentially dangerous ideas or facts. They are not out to achieve social justice as the knock-on effect of pursuing truth; they want to pursue it head-on. The term “objectivity” to them is code for ignoring the poor and weak and cosying up to power, as journalists often have done. And they do not just want to be part of the cool crowd. They need to be. To be more valued by their peers and their contacts–and hold sway over their bosses–they need a lot of followers in social media. That means they must be seen to applaud the right sentiments of the right people in social media. The journalist from central casting used to be a loner, contrarian or a misfit. Now journalism is becoming another job for joiners, or, to borrow Twitter’s own parlance, “followers”, a term that mocks the essence of a journalist’s role.
This is a bit of a paradox. The new newsroom ideology seems idealistic, yet it has grown from cynical roots in academia: from the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth; that there is only narrative, and that therefore whoever controls the narrative–whoever gets to tell the version of the story that the public hears–has the whip hand. What matters, in other words, is not truth and ideas in themselves, but the power to determine both in the public mind.
By contrast, the old newsroom ideology seems cynical on its surface. It used to bug me that my editors at the Times assumed every word out of the mouth of any person in power was a lie. And the pursuit of objectivity can seem reptilian, even nihilistic, in its abjuration of a fixed position in moral contests. But the basis of that old newsroom approach was idealistic: the notion that power ultimately lies in truth and ideas, and that the citizens of a pluralistic democracy, not leaders of any sort, must be trusted to judge both.
Our role in Times Opinion, I used to urge my colleagues, was not to tell people what to think, but to help them fulfil their desire to think for themselves. It seems to me that putting the pursuit of truth, rather than of justice, at the top of a publication’s hierarchy of values also better serves not just truth but justice, too: over the long term journalism that is not also sceptical of the advocates of any form of justice and the programmes they put forward, and that does not struggle honestly to understand and explain the sources of resistance, will not assure that those programmes will work, and it also has no legitimate claim to the trust of reasonable people who see the world very differently. Rather than advance understanding and durable change, it provokes backlash.
The following article is shorter and I do recommend reading the whole thing.
- Ilene Prusher, "Opinion: I reported on Hamas in Gaza for over a decade. Here are the questions I’m asking myself now", CNN, 12/7/2023
In nearly every trip I made [to Gaza]…I met with Hamas officials, like seemingly every good journalist did. Like many others, I was curious to hear their viewpoint…. The Hamas leaders and spokesmen who agreed to our interviews were rarely what you would expect of representatives of a terrorist organization. They were men who were fluent in English, logical-sounding about their grievances and highly educated to boot, usually in engineering or medicine. They portrayed themselves as part of a “political wing” of Hamas, one that was unaware of what was being planned by the more secretive military wing. Often, these spokesman [sic] insisted, they had no idea that an attack was imminent.
By and large, we reporters ate it up. Our editors wanted us to have access to this shadowy group and to explain its lure for average Palestinians…. By claiming that the organization’s left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, Hamas made it easy for themselves to evade tough questions—like, why target civilians rather than military targets?—and convenient for so many of us to feel like we were putting our fingers on the Palestinian pulse rather than sitting down for tea with terrorists.
So we sipped their bitter brews, and they talked a good game. “Look, we take no joy in seeing Israeli civilians get blown up,” one spokesman told me—back in the day when Hamas’ worst weapon was a suicide bomber in an urban area—before going on to insist that these attacks were the only rational answer to what they saw as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. When I asked why Hamas wouldn’t take a crack at negotiations instead, they responded that there was no point in talking to Israel—and Israel wasn’t exactly jumping to talk to Hamas either. The spokesman insisted I not use his name with that almost-empathetic quote about not taking joy in killing Israelis. In retrospect, I wonder if he said it because he knew it sounded good to the Western ear. …
And then there were the outright distortions. Ahead of October 7, Hamas duped Israel into thinking that the organization was uninterested in inflaming the situation and wanted Gazans’ lives to improve. With that in mind, Israel actually relaxed the Gaza border crossings in late September—a week before the attack—to let more Palestinian laborers into Israel. Sadly, the opening to thousands of additional workers from Gaza turned Israel into an information sieve from which Hamas reportedly gathered intelligence for its attack in October.
Hamas also played fast and loose with facts they gave us reporters. During the first major Israel-Hamas war in 2008 to 2009, …Hamas said that fewer than 50 of the 1,400 dead in Gaza had been combatants. But more than a year later, Hamas’ interior minister acknowledged in an interview…that between 600 and 700 of its militants were killed in that war. In that and in almost every war since, Hamas or other militant groups in Gaza launched rockets that fell unintentionally on their own citizens, but rarely if ever, owned up to the error, instead blaming Israel for the deaths.
Yet how often did that stop us from reporting what they told us? That dynamic was on display last month when many mainstream media outlets immediately repeated Hamas’ claim that an Israeli air strike had devastated a hospital and killed a big round figure of 500 Palestinians. More details later emerged, indicating that it was most likely Islamic Jihad, a Hamas rival organization, that had fired an errant missile that landed on the site, and that the casualty count was much lower.
Hospitals once again took center stage in the war when Israel surrounded the Al-Shifa Hospital after claiming that Hamas had operated out of it. Hamas has long denied using hospitals despite proof that they do, and did the same this time even though there is evidence that weapons were found on site and tunnels have been built to allow the organization to use Al-Shifa as a base.
Reporters can feel they have little choice but to rely on Hamas’ numbers and denials because there are few reporters left in Gaza and few options to verify anything independently. But many journalists could be more transparent about how they don’t have independent verification and provide context on how unreliable Hamas has proved to be in the past.
Just because the only thing you have are lies is no excuse for reporting them as if they were the truth.
One thing already clear after October 7 is that members of Hamas didn’t sound like they experienced “no joy” in the slaughter of more than 1,200 Israelis and the kidnap of more than 200. Hamas gunmen laughed as they committed the attacks, according to eyewitnesses, and they recorded themselves as they gleefully rampaged through Israeli homes.
Did Hamas change? Or was too much of the media too willing to see them as something other than what they always were?
It’s probably a bit of both. …[T]o the extent there was once a political wing that might have had different aspirations, October 7 left no doubt that the military wing is now the center of Hamas power and strategy.
It’s not as if most of us in the media portrayed Hamas as innocent or moderate. But for years, too many of us treated the group more like an opposition party with occasional violent outbursts than a terrorist organization. In fact, while interning at Reuters at the start of my career in the mid-’90s, I learned that we were never to call Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorists, only militants. Several outlets maintain that policy even amidst the October 7 massacre, which clearly meets the definition of terror as a deadly attack on civilians for ideological ends.
Journalists working in conflict zones too often pull punches in the interest of appearing neutral, or perhaps to ensure that they stay in the good graces of the gunmen in charge. Many of the questions that now reverberate in my head have no easy answers, but I can say that the ultimate goal for too many of us in the media was to ensure continued access to the big story, not to consider whether the people we were dealing with were good actors or reliable sources. Though it’s important for readers and viewers to hear Palestinian voices as well as those of Israelis, treating Hamas like a legitimate government was perhaps the worst of bothsidesism. …
That journalists sell their souls for "access" tells you just how little value they place on their souls.
In the meantime, if journalists continue to interview members of Hamas, we should report their words more critically and not take their comments at face value. We should provide context that notes how unverifiable their information is and how poor their track record for accuracy has been. And we should not shy away from asking ourselves whether our interviews afford them too much legitimacy and give them more of a platform than they deserve.
In other words, journalists should actually do journalism.
I can't really recommend that you read the following article in its entirety because it's so long: it's almost the length of a short book. However, it is an important document about an important institution, and a vital read for those who care about The New York Times (NYT). We all should care at least a little about that since the NYT remains a highly influential publication despite its recent decline in standards. Also, the article is so long it's almost impossible to excerpt, and needs to be read as a whole, so I'll just quote a choice passage below to whet your appetite.
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.