- (5/1/2008) The "100 years war" contextomy has reappeared in a prominent place, namely, a political ad by the Democratic National Committee attacking John McCain. The ad is an interestingly difficult example for logicians to deal with, since it doesn't verbally advance an argument. Instead, it juxtaposes out-of-context soundbites of McCain with images of bombs going off and burning vehicles in Iraq. As the Annenberg Fact Check folks say:
[The] ad doesn't say in so many words that McCain is "going to be at war for a hundred years." But by juxtaposing McCain's words with dramatic, violent images of war, it clearly leaves that impression.
I think that the ad is a logical boobytrap, that is, even though it isn't itself an argument, and therefore cannot be fallacious, the juxtaposition of McCain's contextomized comments with the images of violence are likely to lead ignorant viewers to draw the false conclusion that McCain meant 100 years of violence.
As I pointed out in my previous entry on this contextomy (see the Resource below), it has been thoroughly debunked by far more prominent sources than The Fallacy Files. For that reason, it's hard to believe that the DNC doesn't know that the ad is misleading.
As we've seen with previous contextomies, it can be very difficult to lay one to rest. They keep popping up again like the monsters in B horror movies. "100 years" may be the new "reconstituted nuclear weapons".
Source: Viveca Novak & Brooks Jackson, "DNC vs. McCain", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 4/29/2008
Resource: The "100 Years" War, 4/2/2008
- The Numbers Guy's interview with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the new book The Drunkard's Walk―of which I still haven't received a review copy―is now posted. There are some very interesting comments on expertise, or the lack of it. This is an important and underappreciate issue for appeals to expert opinion. Most authors on the subject point out that one needs to check that the credentials of a supposed expert are in the right subject area, and that the expert is disinterested, but it is seldom mentioned that there is no expertise in certain areas, even though people may claim it.
A related issue that Mlodinow raises is, given that expertise is actually possible, how can you tell whether someone is actually an expert as opposed to just lucky. It's harder than you might think. He does emphasize, rightly, that there is expertise in some areas, and that it will win out in the long run, but sometimes the long run can be very long indeed.
There's also an interesting suggestion near the end that people may have evolved to underestimate the influence of chance because those who do so will be more persistent in their efforts. This might also explain why people tend to attribute expertise to non-experts―such as silly celebrity Jenny McCarthy―or to think that there is expertise in areas where there isn't―such as faith healing. Of course, this is only a plausible hypothesis.
All of this talk about expertise made me wonder what Mlodinow's credentials are. Bialik says only that Mlodinow lectures at the California Institute of Technology, but doesn't say on what, that he wrote for Star Trek―which isn't much of a recommendation―and that he co-authored a book with Stephen Hawking, which sounds impressive. However, I've actually read that book, which is a rewritten version of Hawking's A Short History of Time designed to be more readable than the original, and it may be that Mlodinow's main contributions were stylistic or editorial. Presumably, if Mlodinow had better credentials Bialik would have mentioned them, so I guess that those are as good as they get. The book, of course, could still be good, but I wonder just how much of that would be due to luck!
Source: Carl Bialik, "Numbers Guy Interview: Leonard Mlodinow", The Numbers Guy, 4/30/2008
Resource: Check it Out, 4/8/2008
LSAT Logic Puzzle 3
Here's another logic puzzle based on an actual LSAT "logic game":
The philosophy department at Midwestern State University has five professors: Dr. Arnold, Dr. Boole, Dr. Carroll, Dr. DeMorgan, and Dr. Euler. All of the professors would like to attend the upcoming conference of the Midwestern States Philosophical Association. However, there are some constraints:
- If Dr. Arnold attends a conference, then Dr. DeMorgan refuses to go.
- If Dr. Boole goes to the conference, then either Dr. Carroll or Dr. DeMorgan will also go but not both.
- Dr. Carroll will attend the conference only if Dr. Euler doesn't.
- Dr. Arnold will go to the conference if Dr. Euler does, too.
- Dr. Boole will definitely attend.
Will Dr. Euler go to the conference?
Previous LSAT Logic Puzzles:
- (4/26/2008) Some silly British celebrities appear in Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column. I'm going to have to get one of those Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interfaces. Check it out.
Source: Ben Goldacre, "'Manufacturing Doubt': Sir Cliff Richard weighs in on the Cochrane review.", Bad Science, 4/26/2008
Acknowledgment: The illustration is an altered cover from a Weird Science comic book.
- Here's Neuroscientist Sam Wang on Jenny McCarthy:
What are McCarthy's credentials? She is an actress and comedienne―with an autistic son. … Like all parents of autistic children, she wrestled with the question of what caused his disorder. She recalled that her son was vaccinated about the time his symptoms first appeared. Aha! That's it. Here is an example of her reasoning: "I believe that parents' anecdotal information is science-based information." Although her concept of evidence is flawed, I don't blame her. The error highlights how our brains are wired to think. …[S]he concluded that two events happening around the same time must be linked. [She] used the principle that coincidence implies a causal link. … The problem is compounded by "source amnesia," in which people are prone to remember a statement without recalling where they heard it or whether the source was reliable. Presidential candidate John McCain might have fallen prey to source amnesia when he repeated the vaccine-autism myth last month. Recollection is more likely when the "fact" fits previously held views; parents might already dislike vaccinations based on their kids' reaction to shots. But when it comes to a complex issue such as autism, such errors of reasoning hinder us from distinguishing real causes from coincidences.
"Silly" is probably not the right word for Jenny McCarthy. She was silly when she claimed to be an "indigo child" and that her son was a "crystal child", but now she's gone past silly into dangerously foolish.
Her son was apparently misdiagnosed as autistic sometime after he was vaccinated, so McCarthy jumped posthaste to the post hoc conclusion that the vaccine caused the autism. Later, after changing her son's diet and being told by the state that he wasn't autistic, McCarthy leapt to the conclusion that she had cured him (though, for some unclear reason she doesn't use the word "cure" but says, ungrammatically, that she "recovered" him, as if he were an old sofa).
Wang's mention of "source amnesia" points out one of the dangers of celebrity activism: because they are famous, celebrities are able to get publicity for various causes, charities, candidates, conspiracy theories, etc. Once an idea is publicized, people may forget where and from whom they heard it, and think that there must be something to it. So, the danger is that some parents will hear McCarthy ranting that vaccinations made her son autistic, forget the source, and refuse to vaccinate their child. Fallacious reasoning can be silly, but it can be deadly too.
- Jenny McCarthy, "Insights of an Indigo Mom: A Mother's Awakening", Children of the New Earth, 2006
- Jenny McCarthy & Jim Carrey, "Jenny McCarthy: My Son's Recovery from Autism", CNN, 4/6/2008
- Sam Wang, "Autism Myth Lives On", USA Today, 4/16/2008
Lying is knowingly telling a falsehood with intent to deceive. This is why so many accusations of lying in politics are hyperbole, at the very least, since they are often based on no more than the supposed liar saying something false. It's impossible to read minds, so it's difficult to establish either the knowledge or the intent aspects of a lie. For this reason, when politicians or pundits begin yelling "liar, liar!", a good rule of thumb is that the "liar" simply said something the accusers believe to be false. So, in the political doublespeak dictionary, the entry would read:
Liar (n.) = One who says something that the accuser believes to be false.
This is what makes the following exchange from the recent Clinton-Obama debate so remarkable:
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Clinton, we…did a poll today, and there are…questions about you raised in this poll. About six in 10 voters that we talked to say they don't believe you're honest and trustworthy. And we also asked a lot of Pennsylvania voters for questions they had. A lot of them raised this honesty issue and your comments about being under sniper fire in Bosnia. Here's Tom Rooney from Pittsburgh.
Q Senator, I was in your court until a couple of weeks ago. How do you reconcile the campaign of credibility that you have when you've made those comments about what happened getting off the plane in Bosnia, which totally misrepresented what really happened on that day? You really lost my vote. And what can you tell me to get that vote back?
SENATOR CLINTON: Well, Tom, I can tell you that I may be a lot of things, but I'm not dumb. And I wrote about going to Bosnia in my book in 2004. I laid it all out there. And you're right. On a couple of occasions in the last weeks I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book. And, you know, I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it. I've said it was a mistake. And it is, I hope, something that you can look over, because clearly I am proud that I went to Bosnia. It was a war zone. … So I know that it is something that some people have said, "Wait a minute. What happened here?" But I have talked about this and written about it. And then, unfortunately, on a few occasions I was not as accurate as I have been in the past. … You know, you can go back for the past 15 months. We both have said things that, you know, turned out not to be accurate. You know, that happens when you're talking as much as we have talked. But you know, I'm very sorry that I said it. And I have said that, you know, it just didn't jibe with what I had written about and knew to be the truth.
Clinton goes out of her way in this response to emphasize that she knew that what she repeatedly said happened in Bosnia was not "accurate", that is, that it was false. She admits knowledge, so what about intent? Clearly, it was no joke when she made the false Bosnia claim. It's hard to believe that she intended to be caught saying something false, that is, she must have expected that the people who heard it would be deceived. So, there was intent to deceive. In other words, she as much as admits that she lied except that she never actually utters the word "lie". Instead, she uses such long-winded doublespeak as "I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case", "on a few occasions I was not as accurate as I have been in the past", "[I] said things that…turned out not to be accurate", "it just didn't jibe with what I…knew to be the truth" in order to avoid saying that little three-letter word.
Source: "Transcript: Democratic Debate in Philadelphia", New York Times, 4/16/2008
New Book: Nudge
Law professor Cass Sunstein has a new book, Nudge, cowritten by Richard Thaler. Sunstein is also writing about the book at The Volokh Conspiracy. Here's how he describes some of the motivation for it:
Of course a major impetus for libertarian paternalism is a series of empirical findings showing, not that people are "irrational," but that they are (in Thaler's term) quasi-rational, departing from rationality in predictable and specified ways. There's a ton of research on this question, but many of the proposals in Nudge rely on the immense power of default rules.
Apparently, the idea is to use "default rules" to "nudge" people into making more rational decisions. It sounds interesting. Do I have to mention that I'd like a review copy? Nudge, nudge.
Source: Cass Sunstein, "Libertarian Paternalism and the 'Yeah, Whatever' Heuristic", The Volokh Conspiracy, 4/14/2008
Name that Fallacy!
"Because of us…chickens already have 'bleak lives.' Because of us, they already live in 'concentration camps.' Indeed, as we have seen in this paper, they are totally in the hands of Dr. Mengele. … It is fitting that Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS, was a chicken breeding experimenter…. As tens of millions of birds who are being tortured in laboratories throughout the world know well, that man may be dead, but his genes have a life of their own."
Source: Karen Davis, "VII. Conclusion: Night of the Living Dead for Birds", The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research, 2003
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Dominic Sisti.
Blurb Watch: The Year My Parents Went on Vacation
I call your attention to an ad for the new movie The Year My Parents Went on Vacation not because it quotes New York Times film critic A. O. Scott: "Seductive!" Of course, the exclamation point was added by the anonymous ad writer, and the word was taken from the following sentence:
"The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" is most seductive when it focuses on the details of daily life in the lower-middle-class São Paulo neighborhood Bom Retiro.
This is not quite the same as calling the film as a whole "seductive", as it's possible that it might be "most seductive" in those scenes but not very seductive overall. However, as blurbing goes it's a misdemeanor.
Rather, I call your attention to this ad because its first blurb is simply four stars attributed to critic Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York. For reviewers who use a star rating system, four stars is often the highest rating a movie can get, the equivalent of 100 on a hundred-point scale. However, there are some critics who use a five star system, in which case four stars is an 80, which is still a high rating.
I've been aware of this possible source of ambiguity previously, but hadn't seen a good example of it actually being exploited in a review until now. The ad, of course, doesn't say which system Rothkopf uses. In fact, Rothkopf's rating is on a six star scale, so that the rating is only a 67. What started out looking like a rave is really only a slightly above average rating. That's a contextomy worth noting!
- "Ad for 'The Year My Parents Went on Vacation'", Dallas Morning News, 4/11/2008
- Joshua Rothkopf, "Review of 'The Year My Parents Went on Vacation'", Time Out New York, 4/14-20/2008
- A. O. Scott, "A Brazilian Boy, Alone in the Tumult of 1970", New York Times, 2/15/2008
Check it Out
Carl "The Numbers Guy" Bialik is giving a probability quiz based on Leonard Mlodinow's new book The Drunkard's Walk―another book that I wish someone would send me a review copy of. Regular readers of the Fallacy Files should recognize a number of the questions and not be fooled by them. I hope to see many familiar names in the list of those who get all eight correct!
Source: Carl Bialik, "A Numbers Guy Quiz on Probability", The Numbers Guy, 4/7/2008
Update (4/17/2008): The Numbers Guy has now posted the results of the quiz and his answers to the questions. I will comment here on only the first and last questions, which involve familiar fallacies:
1. Wrong answer: 99%. Since the problem says that the there is a 1% rate of false positives, the temptation is to think that 99 out of 100 athletes who test positive will have used the drug. The mistake here is the base rate fallacy, namely, leaving out of consideration the base rate, that is, the fact that only 10% of the athletes use the drug.
8. Wrong answer: There are more six-letter words ending in "ing" than six-letter words with "n" as their fifth letter. This is an example of what psychologists call "the availability heuristic", which means judging quantities based on how easy it is to think up examples. Since it's easier to think of six-letter words ending in "ing" than it is to think of six-letter words with "n" as the fifth letter, it may seem that there are more of the former than the latter. However, all six-letter words ending in "ing" are also six-letter words with "n" as their fifth letter. Therefore, there can't be more of the former than the latter.
Source: Carl Bialik, "Probability Quiz: Results and Winners", The Numbers Guy, 4/17/2008
Reader Thomas Hockman, who is starting a local skeptics meeting, emails:
I want to be able to have a small list of formal logic fallacies and a larger informal list so that in dealing with psychic claims we can first write:
- Here in the first sentence is a formal logic fallacy.
- This is an informal fallacy.
- This is a questionable fact.
All of the actual logic books I have perused spend most of the text in meadering laments of the importance and history of logic. I am looking for the six most common formal fallacies and the twelve most common informal fallacies. The lists I have seen are too extensive or do not have an interpretive example. Suggestions?
I should warn you in advance that there is not, as far as I know, any research on the relative prevalence of logical fallacies. In fact, it's rather difficult to imagine how such research could be carried out. So, the lists below are entirely the result of my sense, based upon informal experience, of what fallacies are most common. It also should be kept in mind that a fallacy―at least, as I define the term―is a common type of error, so that all of the fallacies listed in the files are at least common enough to merit a name. However, there is an exception to this requirement for the formal fallacies, which are part of formal systems of logic and may be uncommon. Also, I have not attempted to list the fallacies in order from most common to least common; rather, I've just listed what seemed to me the six most common formal and dozen most common informal fallacies.
- Affirming the Consequent
- Denying the Antecedent
- Base Rate Fallacy
- Gambler's Fallacy
- Hot Hand Fallacy
- Undistributed Middle
- Quoting Out of Context
- Appeal to Ignorance
- Begging the Question
- Black-or-White Fallacy
- Post Hoc
- Ad Hominem
- Tu Quoque
- Appeal to Misleading Authority
- Straw Man
- Slippery Slope (Causal Version)
- Weak Analogy
Good luck with your meeting!
The "100 Years" War
I haven't commented previously on the "100 years" war contextomy of John McCain because it seemed to have been sufficiently debunked in the mainstream media. Annenberg Fact Check debunked the quote back in February, the Washington Post's Fact Checker recently gave it two Pinocchios, and the St. Petersburg Times' "Truth-O-Meter" pronounced Barack Obama's use of it "false". So, all three major independent factchecking groups have debunked it, yet the Obama campaign continues to use it.
McCain made an interesting comment in answer to a question about the "100 years" remark (my emphasis):
"Could be 1,000 years or a million years," he said. "We have bases in Kuwait right now. We have bases in South Korea and Japan, Germany. I mean (the allegation by critics is) a straw man. It's a fallacious argument by people who don't understand that it's not American presence, it's American casualties. If we can get American casualties down and eliminate them, Americans are not concerned―in fact, they may be glad we have a secure base in that part of the world as we do in Kuwait."
He's exactly right: those who use the contextomy are attacking a straw candidate.
- Bill Adair, "Straight Talk, Twisted", PolitiFact
- Michael Dobbs, "McCain's '100-Year War'", The Fact Checker, 4/2/2008
- Brooks Jackson, "Smear or Be Smeared?", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 2/8/2008
- Zachary Roth, "The U.S., Iraq, and 100 Years", Columbia Journalism Review, 4/1/2008
Solution to LSAT Logic Puzzle 3: No. Since Dr. Boole is going (5), either Dr. Carroll will go but Dr. DeMorgan won't or DeMorgan will but Carroll won't (2). On one hand, suppose that Carroll goes and DeMorgan doesn't. Then Dr. Euler can't be going, because Carroll is (3). On the other hand, suppose that DeMorgan goes and Carroll doesn't. Then Arnold can't be going (1). Since Arnold isn't going, neither is Euler (4). So, in either case, Euler won't be attending the conference.