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March 27th, 2008 (Permalink)

New Book: Charlatan

Michael Shermer has a review in the latest edition of eSkeptic of the new book Charlatan by Pope Brock―it would be nice if someone sent me a copy to review myself. The beginning of the review has a compelling discussion of the origins and effects of a couple of familiar fallacies. See if you can identify them (answers below):

Human cognition has a problem―anecdotal thinking comes naturally whereas scientific thinking does not. The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism illustrates this barrier. On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine’s ingredients. On the other are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms appeared. Anecdotal associations are so powerful that they cause people to ignore contrary evidence. In the vaccination case the imagined culprit for autism’s cause is the preservative thimerosal, yet it breaks down into ethylmercury that is expelled from the body too quickly to have a damaging effect (plus autism continues to be diagnosed in children born after thimerosal was removed from vaccines). The story holds power despite the contrary facts.

The reason for our cognitive disconnect is that the brain evolved to be cautious. We favor anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are "belief engines" that seek connections.

Even in the age of modern science, our faith in anecdotes can make us easy to exploit. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful testimonials.

Read the whole thing.

Source: Michael Shermer, "Faith Healing: A torrid tale of quackbusting in 1920s America sheds light on modern medical scares", eSkeptic


March 25th, 2008 (Permalink)

Doublespeak Dictionary

Newspeak Oldspeak
Commonwealth Priority Underperforming
Priority One Chronically Underperforming

From The Boston Herald:

To soothe the bruised egos of educators and children in lackluster schools, Massachusetts officials are now pushing for kinder, gentler euphemisms for failure. Instead of calling these schools "underperforming," the Board of Education is considering labeling them as "Commonwealth priority," to avoid poisoning teacher and student morale. Schools in the direst straits, now known as "chronically underperforming," would get the more urgent but still vague label of "priority one." The board has spent parts of more than three meetings in recent months debating the linguistic merits and tone set by the terms after a handful of superintendents from across the state complained that the label underperforming unfairly casts blame on educators, hinders the recruitment of talented teachers, and erodes students' self-esteem.

This is an example of the linguistic phenomenon of euphemism inflation, since "underperforming" and "chronically underperforming" are already euphemisms for "bad" or "failure". Since changing what we call something doesn't change the thing itself, euphemisms wear out over time. It's only in the beginning, when a euphemism is fresh, that it has the power to conceal the reality it stands for, and it needs to be replaced when it loses that power. This is why we have a series of terms such as: undertaker, mortician, funeral director, etc. Obviously, people are catching on to the fact that "underperforming" is a bad thing, so it's time for a new euphemism. Some years from now when students, teachers, and parents have caught on, the Board of Education will be debating what word they should use to replace "priority".

John Silber sums it up well:

"This is all word games," said John Silber, the famously brusque former Boston University president and former chairman of the Board of Education. "Changing the name doesn't change the reality. I think Shakespeare had a good line: 'A rose by another name would smell as sweet.' A skunk by any other name would stink."

Source: Tracy Jan, "Seeking a Kinder Word for Failure", The Boston Globe, 3/22/2008

Resource: New Entries for the Doublespeak Dictionary, 2/24/2005

March 23rd, 2008 (Permalink)

Poll Watch

Poll: Bush's popularity hits new low

WASHINGTON (CNN)―Five years after he green-lighted the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush faced strikingly low approval ratings….

Just 31 percent of Americans approve of how President Bush is handling his job, according to a poll released Wednesday, the anniversary of the start of the conflict in 2003. …

The 31 percent approval number is a new low for Bush in CNN polling….

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted by telephone with 1,019 adult Americans from Friday through Sunday. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Even at its best, poll reporting is a kind of manufactured news, since most polls are sponsored by the news outlets that report them. Of course, this is an advantage of polling for those news outlets, because a new poll helps fill the never-ending demand for "news". The "new record" type of poll report is one of the worst offenders.

The above CNN poll is a good example: in order to mark the pointless five-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, we are informed that President Bush's approval rating has hit a record low. However, the poll's margin of sampling error―as we're informed in the last paragraph―is the standard three percentage points. The report tells us that the "new" low is 31% approval, but it doesn't say what the previous record was. According to Polling Report, the previous rating was 32% at the beginning of February. So, Bush's approval rating has dropped one percentage point, which is well within the margin of sampling error. In other words, on the five-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, Bush's low approval rating is unchanged. Is that news? I guess it is at CNN.

Source: "President Bush―Overall Job Rating in National Polls", Polling Report

March 21st, 2008 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Horton Hears a Who!

Horton Hears a Who!

Both of the blurbs in an ad for the new movie Horton Hears a Who! have something in common: the praise in each blurb is not to be found in the body of the review quoted, but only in its headline. As I've noted before, headlines are usually written by editors, so there is no guarantee that either critic thought the movie "brilliant" or "hilarious". Both reviews are favorable, and presumably the editors who wrote the titles were trying to represent the content in the headline. However, the headlines make the three and three-and-a-half star―out of four―reviews sound like raves.


March 12th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Law Professor Eugene Volokh has a recent post about a mistaken use of a logical law in a Supreme Court opinion. The logical law is "DeMorgan's Law", though there are actually two similar laws usually called by this name. Specifically, the one in question is:

~(p v q) is equivalent to (~p & ~q)

The other DeMorgan's Law is:

~(p & q) is equivalent to (~p v ~q)

Here, the "v" represents disjunction, the ampersand conjunction, and the tilde―"~"―negation. Parentheses are used to indicate scope, so that the negations have wide scope on the left-hand side of the laws and narrow scope on the right-hand sides.

So, what the first law tells us is that the negation of a disjunction is equivalent to a conjunction with two negative conjuncts. Colloquially, "not either p or q" is equivalent to "not p and not q", which should be intuitively obvious. For example, "it's not the case that it's either raining or snowing" says the same thing as "it's not raining and it's not snowing".

What appears to have happened in the opinion is a mistaken application of the first DeMorgan's Law:

~(p v q) is equivalent to (~p v ~q) [INCORRECT!]

I've never come across misuse of DeMorgan's Laws as a formal fallacy, but if more examples of this type of mistake can be found then it would seem to be a reasonable candidate. It also goes some way to show the value of those logic puzzles on the LSAT.

Source: Eugene Volokh, "Breaking the Law―DeMorgan's Law", The Volokh Conspiracy, 3/11/2008

March 4th, 2008 (Permalink)

Logic Check

The Fact Checkers at Annenberg give an interesting example in one of their recent reports:

Less Than What?

Cimperman's ad…claims that Kucinich "brings home less money, 33 percent less for local projects." There is a major red flag here, and we call it a dangling comparative. That's when a statistical comparison is made to an unknown quantity. The ad raises the question, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer astutely noted, "less money" than what? The Cimperman campaign says it compared earmark totals for Kucinich for fiscal year 2007 with those of nearby congressional members. Earmarks are allocations of revenue in a bill that go to a specific project in a legislator's district, and they're often slipped into legislation without normal congressional review. We looked at the earmark totals of Kucinich's two closest congressional neighbors, Stephanie Tubb-Jones (who garnered $10.4 million) and Betty Sutton ($16.3 million), according to data compiled by the anti-earmark group Taxpayers for Common Sense for the more recent fiscal year 2008. In fact, Kucinich's earmark bounty, $8.1 million, is 22 percent less than Tubbs Jones' [sic], and it's half of the total accumulated by Sutton. But Cimperman's ad is misleading since it doesn't count any funding that Kucinich's district may have received from legislation that went through the standard congressional review―or money that wasn't considered an earmark. And by the way, isn't "earmark" a dirty word these days?

The dangling comparative in this ad hides the fact that what is being compared is earmark money, and many voters might well consider getting less earmark money to be a good thing rather than bad.

Source: Justin Bank, "'Dump Dennis?'", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 3/1/2008

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