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March 31st, 2005 (Permalink)

NEW AND IMPROVED! Now With More Fallacies!

I've added an entry for modal fallacy (see the Index at left), which is a generic fallacy for all fallacies involving modal logic. This entry simply explains what modalities are and what a modal fallacy is, and provides links to sources on modal logic. I will soon add a more specific subfallacy with examples.

March 25th, 2005 (Permalink)

What Else is New?

March 24th, 2005 (Permalink)

Familiar Contextomies

Eugene Volokh has an entry concerning three familiar contextomies, and his readers suggest many other candidates in the comments. The Charles Wilson example makes a couple of reappearances.

Source: Eugene Volokh, "Careful with that Quote", The Volokh Conspiracy, 2/23/2005

Source: A Contextomy and a Contradiction, 2/10/2005

March 19th, 2005 (Permalink)

Deja Vu

I paid $2.19 today for a gallon of gasoline, which is the first time that I can remember paying over $2―my own personal meaningless record high. The news media are reporting record high prices for both crude oil and gasoline:

"Oil prices jumped to a record close above $56 a barrel on Wednesday as traders brushed off a largely symbolic effort by OPEC to cool the red-hot market."
"Gasoline hit a record nationwide average price of $2.061 a gallon, motorist club AAA reported Friday, creeping up 0.6 of a cent overnight to eclipse Thursday's high of $2.055."

Some of the stories were nice enough to mention that prices are still far from the real records, though usually not until the latter part of the article:

"Adjusted for inflation, oil would have to pass $81 to be a record."
"When adjusted for inflation, the highest price for gasoline was over $3.00 a gallon in the spring of 1981, according to the U.S. Department of Energy."


Resource: The ABCs of Myth, 2/4/2005

March 18th, 2005 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch

Blurb Context
"Filled with suspense and sheer razzle-dazzle."
"Good action movies live on style and excitement. But they also need credibility, and in 'Hostage,' almost a good genre piece, plausibility keeps getting slaughtered. This snazzy, full-throttle cop thriller, made with lots of energy but less sense, stars Bruce Willis as an ex-hostage negotiator trying to flee the dangers of big-city crime, who is instead pulled into a perilous standoff. French director Florent Siri brings much atmospheric grit, gloss, suspense and sheer razzle-dazzle American-style action movie technique to this effort. … [W]hat Siri most needs is a good script to harness his dazzling technique. Explosions, gunfights and suspense may keep you awake for a while, but not if the movie assaults logic and holds common sense hostage."


March 16th, 2005 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a reader's response and my reply to the entry for the appeal to misleading authority. I also added as an illustration an old Sanka coffee ad, with actor Robert Young trading on his pseudo-authority as television's Marcus Welby, M.D.

March 13th, 2005 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Jordan Ellenberg's latest "Do the Math" article in Slate is a review of a new book on Gödel's incompleteness theorems. While not as big a source of nonsense as quantum mechanics and Einstein's theories of relativity, Gödel's theorems are widely misunderstood. Part of the reason for this misunderstanding is the ambiguity of the word "incompleteness". Logic, like other sciences, often takes words from ordinary language and gives them technical meanings which may be related to their ordinary meaning, but are usually much narrower and apply only in specific contexts. Such is the case with "incompleteness", whose meaning in logic is much narrower than its ordinary meaning, and specific to a particular subject matter.

Some people attempt to apply the incompleteness theorems to areas―such as religion―far removed from their actual application, relying on the ambiguity of "incompleteness" to give the impression that such a stretch makes sense. This kind of nonsense usually comes from people who don't understand the theorems, and since most other people don't understand them either, it often passes unchallenged.

The vast majority of attempts to apply Gödel's theorems outside of mathematics are innumerate nonsense. There are other attempts to apply them to issues in the philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence which are not outright nonsense, but are certainly controversial. For these reasons, the nonspecialist should be very wary when confronted by an appeal to Gödel's theorems.

Yes, Gödel matters; he matters enough to treat him right.

Source: Jordan Ellenberg, "Does Gödel Matter?", Slate, 3/10/2005

Resource: Ernest Nagel & James R. Newman, Gödel's Proof (N.Y.U Press, 1958). The best brief exposition for the nonspecialist.

Update (3/28): I just noticed that Butterflies and Wheels has an interview with Rebecca Goldstein, author of the book on Kurt Gödel reviewed by Ellenberg. She makes some comments on common misconceptions about his theorems.

Source: Ophelia Benson, "An Interview with Rebecca Goldstein", Butterflies and Wheels, 3/9/2005

March 10th, 2005 (Permalink)

Letter to the Editor

"To the Editor:

"'The Senate on the Brink' (editorial, March 6) supports the 'historic role of the filibuster,' which is a curious position for a newspaper that 10 years ago said filibusters were 'the tool of the sore loser' and should be eliminated ('Time to Retire the Filibuster,' editorial, Jan. 1, 1995).

"Now you praise the filibuster as a 'time-honored Senate procedure.' In 1995, when Bill Clinton was president, you called it 'an archaic rule that frustrates democracy and serves no useful purpose.'

"You disparage the Republicans' view that 51 votes should be enough for judicial confirmation. Yet the 51-vote rule is a consistent Senate tradition. By calling for an end to filibusters, the Senate is simply contemplating restoring its traditions by traditional methods you disparage as 'nuclear,' even though they were once endorsed by such leading democrats as Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Charles E. Schumer and Robert C. Byrd."

John Cornyn
U.S. Senator from Texas
Washington, March 7, 2005

This letter to the editor is a good example of the common debating technique of showing one's opponent in a contradiction, especially showing that the other side once supported what they now oppose, or vice versa. This is an ad hominem fallacy because it attacks the consistency of the opponent and not the cogency of the opponent's argument. Cornyn's letter shows that the Times' editorial staff is biased in favor of the Democrats―so what else is new?―but it doesn't show that their argument against eliminating filibusters is wrong. Assuming that circumstances have not changed in some significant way in the last decade, then either the Times was right ten years ago and wrong now, or they were wrong ten years ago and right now. Cornyn's letter doesn't show which is the true alternative.

Source: John Cornyn, "Filibusters, Then and Now", New York Times, 3/10/2005, p. A24

March 7th, 2005 (Permalink)


Middle-aged male pop stars rule the world! Next: Michael Jackson to head UNICEF?

March 4th, 2005 (Permalink)


"I just read your entry on the fallacy of accent, and I had a few thoughts I wanted to share. I was thinking it might be interesting to consider misunderstandings across word breaks. The first thing that came to mind was the comedy sketch: 'What's new?' 'I dunno, what's snew?' Or the common mis-hearing of Hendrix' lyrics, 'Excuse me while I kiss this guy.' It takes the original question out of the context of written language and into an exclusively auditory level, but it's really similar. Technically, I suppose it can't be a fallacy of accent, but is there a category that this could fit into?"―Talula Macioce

Word division ambiguity doesn't seem to fit into any of the subcategories of the fallacy of ambiguity: it's not an ambiguity of accent, as you note; it's not equivocation, because it's not the result of a single ambiguous term; and it's not amphiboly, because it's not the result of ambiguous grammar. If it's a common type of error then it deserves a subfallacy of its own.

The Hendrix example is what's called a "mondegreen", that is, a misheard song lyric. Many of these seem to be the result, at least partially, of word division ambiguity. Mondegreens are surely quite common, but I don't know how often this kind of ambiguity leads to an error in reasoning. Some people have claimed―perhaps jokingly―that as a result of mis-hearing the lyric they thought Hendrix was homosexual! That's at least using a fallacy of ambiguity to make a joke. If nothing else, word division ambiguity is a logical boobytrap.

Here are some further examples of mondegreens resulting from ambiguous word-division:

Lyric Mondegreen
"All he left us was alone" "All he left us was a loan"
"Gladly the cross I'd bear" "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear"
"There's a bad moon on the rise" "There's a bathroom on the right"

Source: Jon Carroll, "Mondegreens", San Francisco Chronicle

March 3rd, 2005 (Permalink)

The Clinician's Error

Stats has a short article on some apparently over-heated media coverage of drug abuse. What really caught my attention, though, was the following passage:

"Today also presented a classic example of what scientists call 'the clinician’s error.' … The 'clinician’s error' occurs throughout medicine when clinical workers believe that those they treat for a condition are typical of people in the population with the condition. In fact, those who seek treatment are the worst cases―and their prognoses will look far less promising than if the disease was studied in the general population."

I hadn't heard the term "clinician’s error" before, though perhaps it's well-known in medicine. From the description, it's a specific type of biased sample affecting "clinical workers"―that is, doctors, nurses, and others who see patients in hospitals and clinics. This is, of course, one reason why medical research needs to use controlled studies, rather than relying solely upon clinical experience.

Source: Maia Szalavitz, "More Meth Mania", Statistical Assessment Service, 3/2/2005

March 1st, 2005 (Permalink)

Puzzle-of-the-Month Club

A woman was driving her son to soccer practice when their car stalled on some railroad tracks. The woman tried to restart the car, but only managed to flood the engine, and the onrushing train struck the car. An ambulance rushed the woman and her son to the hospital, but the mother died enroute. The son still lived, but his condition was very serious. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, the boy was rushed into the emergency room. The nurse on duty came running up to provide first aid. However, on seeing the boy, the nurse turned white and exclaimed: "I can't give this boy first aid―he's my son!"

How is this situation possible?


Solutions to the Puzzle-of-the-Month (3/8/2005): Rose Regan correctly noted that this puzzle is a variant of an earlier one:

"I had actually been posed with this puzzle back in the early 90s with the situation being a doctor who said 'I can't work on this boy; he's my son.'"

Specifically, the version upon which I based the variant comes from a Scientific American column by Douglas Hofstadter from 1982:

"A father and his son were driving to a ball game when their car stalled on the railroad tracks. In the distance a train whistle blew a warning. Frantically, the father tried to start the engine, but in his panic, he couldn't turn the key, and the car was hit by the onrushing train. An ambulance sped to the scene and picked them up. On the way to the hospital, the father died. The son was still alive but his condition was very serious, and he needed immediate surgery. The moment they arrived at the hospital, he was wheeled into an emergency operating room, and the surgeon came in, expecting a routine case. However, on seeing the boy, the surgeon blanched and muttered, 'I can't operate on this boy―he's my son.'"

As Rose went on to say, the intended solution of this version of the puzzle is that the surgeon is the boy's mother. The trickiness of the puzzle came from the fact that surgeons were usually men in those days―and probably still are, though perhaps less so. The puzzle works by leading one into committing a fallacy of accident, or sweeping generalization, by applying a rule of thumb―surgeons are typically men―to an abnormal situation.

Hofstadter didn't claim to have created the puzzle, though the dramatic wording is his. I don't know who created it, though I first heard it some time in the '70s. In his article, Hofstadter writes about how difficult people found the puzzle then, and how ashamed he was by how long it took him to solve it. I was curious as to whether it would still fool people, but suspected that the puzzle is too familiar nowadays. So, I came up with a variant by changing the surgeon to a nurse, and relying on the stereotype of nurses as women, instead of the one of surgeons as men. I hoped that the variant puzzle would be more effective than the overly-familiar original.

In addition to Rose, several people submitted the solution that the nurse was the boy's father: Dan Gleason, Rocky Marino, Joel Price, Jay Tidwell, and Lee Wymore.

An alternative solution is based on the ambiguity of "mother", which may mean an adoptive mother in addition to a biological mother. Thus, the nurse might be the boy's biological mother, whereas the dead driver was his adoptive mother, or vice versa. Jeff Boyster, Wayne Gratkowski, and Steve Trochimchuk submitted this solution.

Jason C. Pitcock sent in a variant of this solution that I'm surprised more people didn't mention, namely, that the boy has two "mothers" because the driver and the nurse are married to each other!

Vera Narishkin deserves a special mention for submitting all three of the above solutions!

Michael Koplow takes the "critical thinking" prize:

"The nurse was mistaken when she said the boy was her son. The nurse says, 'I can't give this boy first aid―he's my son!' I see two ways of reading this. The one that seems more likely to me is that she means 'This boy is my son, therefore I can't give him first aid.' Excuse me―parents are supposed to give their children first aid if it's needed. The other reading is that she's incompetent to give first aid; the statement that he's her son is irrelevant. Excuse me again―nurses are supposed to know how to give first aid. Either way, this nurse doesn't seem very reliable, and this is consistent with my original statement that she was mistaken about the boy being her son."

Michael puts his finger on a weakness in the puzzle that worried me, but which I didn't know how to fix. In the original version of the puzzle, when the surgeon refuses to operate on her son, this seems plausible. However, in the new version, the nurse has to refuse to do first aid on his/her son, which seems less plausible. Michael's argument almost convinces me that that nurse just doesn't know what he/she is talking about!

Source: Douglas R. Hofstadter, "Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness", Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (Basic Books, 1985), p. 136.

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