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April 30th, 2012 (Permalink)

All Apologies

Hilary Rosen has apologized once again for saying that Ann Romney never worked a day in her life. I guess the earlier apology didn't take. I didn't pay enough attention to this controversy the first time around to comment on it because it seemed too trivial to bother with. However, thinking about it since, one point of interest occurred to me. The verb "work", like most words, is ambiguous, having at least the following two meanings:

  1. To engage in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result.
  2. To be employed, typically in a specified occupation or field.

These are distinct meanings since, as anyone who's worked in sense 2 knows, it's perfectly possible to do one without the other. When Rosen said that Mrs. Romney had never "worked" a day in her life, maybe she meant "work" in the sense of 2, above. Whether it's true that Romney has never held a job "a day in her life", I don't know, though it sounds unlikely; perhaps it was hyperbole. However, much of the outrage about the comment seemed to interpret Rosen to have meant the first sense of "work". In other words, it's possible to have "worked" hard (first sense), without having "worked" a day in your life (second sense). A housewife and mother, such as Romney, who doesn't have a job as such, may well work harder than most people who are employed. The outrage at Rosen's remark was based on the interpretion that because Romney had never worked in sense 2, she had never worked in sense 1. Yet, as the mother of five children, Romney may well have worked very hard in sense 1, while never working in sense 2.

Reading the context of Rosen's remarks (see the PolitiFact article, below), I'm not sure what she meant by "work". However, even if she did mean sense 2 rather than sense 1, it's reasonable for her to apologize for using a word that could be so easily misinterpreted.


Acknowledgment: Thanks to Warren Esty for drawing this to my attention.

April 28th, 2012 (Permalink)

New Book: How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass

I haven't read this book, so I can't recommend it. I just find the title amusing.

Source: Christopher W. DiCarlo, How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions (2011)

April 25th, 2012 (Permalink)

The Zimmerman Contextomy

David Carr of The New York Times has a recent article on the failure of NBC to issue a correction on The Today Show where the contextomy of George Zimmerman aired (see the Resource, below, for background to this entry):

Somewhere in the four expansive hours of “Today”―perhaps between the segment about a loud peacock that was bothering neighbors and the preview of Eva Longoria’s show about “hunky bachelors”―somebody could have looked into the camera and set the story straight.

The head of NBC News agreed that it was a mistake not to have a correction on The Today Show, but it's unclear from the article whether that means a correction will yet be made. It's better late than never. Carr notes that television news broadcasts have traditionally made corrections more rarely than print publications, but that's no excuse. It's never too late for them to mend their ways.

Even periodicals and online publications are not exactly ideals to be imitated. They're usually quick to correct trivial errors, such as misspellings of people's names, but seriously misleading mistakes are often ignored or downplayed. Moreover, as Carr notes, such corrections are usually in a special corrections area of the publication, which most people don't bother to read. Still, it would be a step up for TV news if it became as bad about correcting itself as most newspapers are.

What Carr doesn't mention is the three online news articles at NBC's Miami affiliate that used the contextomized quote prior to either of The Today Show's broadcasts. Since these articles received attention, they have been silently corrected to remove the truncated quote, but there was no acknowledgment made of the change―other than a timestamp showing when it was done. Now, it's certainly a good thing that the contextomy has been corrected, but the lack of an explicit admission attached to the article makes it appear that the affiliate is hiding its mistakes.


Resource: An Audio Contextomy, 4/4/2012

Update (4/26/2012): At about the same time as I was writing the above entry, the NBC affiliate in question, Channel 6 in Miami, posted what it calls an "explanation" of the misleading edit. So, unfortunately, I can't claim that my criticism encouraged the affiliate to address the issue―not that they would have been aware of or paid any attention to it, in any case. Unfortunate, also, is the "explanation" itself, which is as short as and actually less informative than the network's apology. Despite its title, it doesn't really explain how the edit came about, except to say that it was due to "an error in editorial judgment". Also, it doesn't describe what actions the station is taking to address the problem except in the most general terms. It does, however, apologize. Apparently, they also aired a correction and apology; again, better late than never.

For the specific actions the station has taken, we have to turn to The Miami Herald. By the way, isn't it weird that we have to find out from another news source what's happening at the station? The station is sitting on top of a story that is considered newsworthy by The Herald, at least, yet it doesn't report it. No doubt, what happened is embarrassing, but wouldn't honest reporting of it go a long way to restore the station's lost credibility? The fact that they keep trying to conceal the facts only further hurts their reputation. Not only that, but they're leaving the story to be reported by a competitor, who has less motivation to avoid reporting damaging rumors and speculation. There are always rumors and speculation that are worse than the truth! In any case, this is a good example of the importance of competition in the news marketplace, for competitors help keep each other honest.

Anyway, The Herald reports that NBC6 has fired a reporter for making the misleading edit. It also reports that a spokesman for the station claimed that "the Today show and Miami edits took place in two separate incidents involving different people", which I find completely incredible. The probability of the same misleading edit being made in separate, unrelated incidents that just happen to be at an NBC show and an NBC affiliate is so low as to be for all practical purposes zero. So, this is further evidence that the station is trying to cover up what actually happened. Don't newspeople remember the lesson of Watergate that the cover-up is always worse than the original crime?


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April 24th, 2012 (Permalink)

Not an Easy Case

This is an unavoidably somewhat technical entry dealing with a Supreme Court decision handed down recently that turns partly on a logical issue:

We begin “where all such inquiries must begin: with the language of the statute itself.” … First, we must decide when a “patent does not claim…an approved method of using” a drug. … (P. 10)

For ease of reference, let's call the relevant part of the statute sentence S. The court continues:

An…applicant sued for patent infringement may bring a counterclaim “on the ground that the patent does not claim…an approved method of using the drug.” … The parties debate the meaning of this language. [The plaintiff] reads “not an” to mean “not any,” contending that “the counterclaim is available only if the listed patent does not claim any (or, equivalently, claims no) approved method of using the drug.” … In contrast, [the defendant] reads “not an” to mean “not a particular one,” so that the statute permits a counterclaim whenever the patent does not claim a method of use for which the…applicant seeks to market the drug. (P. 11)
Truth be told, the answer to the general question “What does ‘not an’ mean?” is “It depends”: The meaning of the phrase turns on its context. … (“Ultimately, context determines meaning”). “Not an” sometimes means “not any”…. If your spouse tells you he is late because he “did not take a cab,” you will infer that he took no cab at all (but took the bus instead). If your child admits that she “did not read a book all summer,” you will surmise that she did not read any book (but went to the movies a lot). And if a sports-fan friend bemoans that “the New York Mets do not have a chance of winning the World Series,” you will gather that the team has no chance whatsoever…. But now stop a moment. Suppose your spouse tells you that he got lost because he “did not make a turn.” You would understand that he failed to make a particular turn, not that he drove from the outset in a straight line. Suppose your child explains her mediocre grade on a college exam by saying that she “did not read an assigned text.” You would infer that she failed to read a specific book, not that she read nothing at all on the syllabus. And suppose a lawyer friend laments that in her last trial, she “did not prove an element of the offense.” You would grasp that she is speaking not of all the elements, but of a particular one. The examples could go on and on, but the point is simple enough: When it comes to the meaning of “not an,” context matters. (P. 12)

The court is certainly right that context matters here, and that the ambiguity of the statute can only be resolved by looking at that context. Nonetheless, some of what they say in the decision is still a bit misleading. Specifically, framing the issue as "what does 'not an' mean" is misleading in that the phrase "not an" does not have a single meaning in isolation from the sentence in which it occurs, and the phrase itself does not actually occur in sentence S. Rather, S and all of the examples that the court considers have a "not" followed by an "a" or "an" with an intervening verb.

In other words, the court seems to be assuming that the ambiguity of S is the result of the ambiguity of the phrase "not an", whereas the type of ambiguity involved is really amphiboly, that is, grammatical ambiguity. Specifically, the type of amphiboly is scope ambiguity (see the Resource, below, for more on scope and its ambiguity). Otherwise, the court's analysis is quite right.

There are two sources of scope ambiguity in S, the most obvious of which is the negation expressed by the word "not". However, "an" is an existential quantifier, which can be seen by paraphrasing S as: The patent does not claim some approved method of using the drug.

This sounds less ambiguous than S, but that the ambiguity is still there can perhaps be seen by emphasizing the "some", as emphasis is often used to indicate wider scope: The patent does not claim some approved method of using the drug. Thus, there are two different meanings of S:

  1. Negation has widest scope:

    It is not the case that: the patent claims some approved method of using the drug.

    In standard logical symbolism: ~∃x(Ax & Cx), where "Ax" means that x is an approved method of using the drug and "Cx" means that the patent claims x.

  2. The existential quantifier has widest scope:

    There is an approved method of using the drug that the patent does not claim.

    Symbolically: ∃x(Ax & ~Cx)

That's all that logic has to say about this issue, and I leave to the court which of these two meanings is the correct analysis of sentence S.

Source: "Caraco Pharmaceutical Laboratories, Ltd., et al. v. Novo Nordisk A/S et al.", Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 2011 (PDF)

Resource: Scope Fallacy

Via: Orin Kerr, "Does 'Not An' Mean 'Not Any' or 'Not That Particular One'?", The Volokh Conspiracy, 4/17/2012

April 21st, 2012 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Lockout

A New York Times ad for the new movie Lockout cites a four star review from Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York. Now, you might think that four stars is a perfect score―though probably not if you've read Blurb Watch before (see the Resources, below)―but elsewhere on the same page is an ad for the new Bob Marley documentary with a five-star blurb also from Rothkopf. Of course, ads that cite four-star reviews from Time Out NY never mention that it uses a five-star rating system. However, in this case an attentive reader could notice, by glancing elsewhere on the same page, that four stars is not the best a movie can do. Fortuitously, the Times has supplied the missing context.



April 19th, 2012 (Permalink)

The Puzzle of the Three Conspirators

The Agency for Counter-Terrorism (ACT) has a house under surveillance. So far, the three men inside have stayed out of sight, but ACT has managed to electronically eavesdrop upon some of their communications. The only clues to their identity have come from snippets of conversation ACT has intercepted.

In these communications, the three have been called by the first names Tom, Dick, and Harry and the last names Smith, Jones, and Robinson. However, ACT has not been able to determine which first names go with which last ones. Since these names are so common, attempting to identify the three suspects without their full names would be almost impossible. From its surveillance, ACT has been able to acquire only four additional clues as to their identities:

  1. The man referred to as Tom once addressed another one of the trio as Mr. Smith.
  2. The man addressed as Dick referred to his grandfather Joe Anderson.
  3. Someone mentioned that Dick's wife is Jones' sister.
  4. In a conversation among the three men about a fourth man named Jim Johnson, Jr., it was mentioned that his father was the brother of Mr. Smith's mother.

Can you help the ACT identify the full names of each of the three suspects?


April 17th, 2012 (Permalink)


A text taken out of context is just a con.


Who said it? If you have any idea who first made this statement, please let me know.

April 4th, 2012 (Permalink)

An Audio Contextomy

Most of the examples of contextomies that we've seen have come from print publications, but here's one taken from an audio source. NBC's Today Show and its cable network MSNBC both ran misleadingly edited versions of the 911 call made by George Zimmerman before shooting Trayvon Martin:

Edited Version Unedited Version
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black. Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

911 operator: Okay. And this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

The broadcast version makes it sound as if Zimmerman suspected Martin simply because he was black, whereas the full version makes it clear that Zimmerman was just describing Martin in answer to the operator's question. NBC has issued a public apology to its viewers for the bad editing, calling it an "error" despite the fact that it's hard to see how it could have been a simple mistake. However, it's good for their credibility that they quickly apologized rather than stonewalling or pretending that the editing wasn't misleading.


Update (4/6/2012): The New York Times is now reporting that the producer responsible for the misleading edit has been fired by NBC. Earlier, Reuters reported that NBC's internal investigation found that a "seasoned" producer was responsible for the misleading edit, which was "a very bad mistake, but not deliberate." However, this explanation makes it even more difficult to understand how the edit came about in the first place, since it seems more likely that an inexperienced person would commit such a mistake than a "seasoned" one. The Reuters article goes on to say:

The Today show's editorial control policies―which include a script editor, senior producer oversight, and in most cases legal and standards department reviews of material to be broadcast―missed the selective editing of the call, said the NBC executive.

This doesn't particularly surprise me, since you can't tell from the edited call alone that something is missing. These overseers would have had to have been familiar enough with the call to notice that something was edited out. At any rate, by taking such serious action so soon, NBC has gone some distance to repair its credibility.


Update (4/9/2012): This story has taken a strange and surprising turn: some energetic bloggers have turned up earlier instances of the same contextomy that got the producer fired. Apparently, an earlier Today Show episode used the same truncated quote and, though the episode itself seems not to be available from NBC, there's a transcript. This raises―not begs!―the question of whether both segments were produced by the same person: if not, it would seem that either the wrong person was fired or the producer of the earlier version ought to be fired, too.

In addition, NBC's Miami affiliate ran at least three news articles on its website with the same contextomy before either Today Show episode aired. Is it just a coincidence that an NBC affiliate ran such stories, or are they connected in some way to what ran on the Today Show?

According to Reuters, the fired producer was "Miami-based", so that might explain how the contextomies started out at the Miami affiliate and then spread to the national Today Show. While this explains the evidence of at least five different versions of the contextomy appearing on two separate NBC outlets, it's contradicted by NBC's explanation of what happened. Here's that explanation from the Reuters article:

As part of the investigation, the producer who edited the call was questioned extensively about motivation, and it was determined that the person had cut the video clip down to meet a maximum time requirement for the length of the segment―a common pressure in morning television―and inadvertently edited the call in a way that proved misleading.

This assumes that the first instance of the contextomy appeared on the Today Show, but we now know that there were at least three earlier ones at the Miami affiliate. If the same producer is responsible for all of these occurrences―which seems the most likely explanation―then NBC's explanation of what happened must be wrong.


April 2nd, 2012 (Permalink)

New Edition: Becoming a Critical Thinker

Sherry Diestler's Becoming a Critical Thinker: A User-Friendly Manual is now in its sixth edition. There's also a version available for the Kindle if you've got one of those newfangled gizmos.

April 1st, 2012 (Permalink)


Lawyers Give Poor Free Legal Advice

You get what you pay for.

Source: Richard Lederer, Anguished English (1989), p. 93

Solution to the Puzzle of the Three Conspirators: The three conspirators are: Harry Smith, Dick Robinson, and Tom Jones.

From the first clue, we know that Tom is not Mr. Smith, so he is either Mr. Jones or Mr. Robinson. From the second clue, we know that one of Dick's grandfathers is named Joe Anderson, and since Anderson is not one of the three surnames, he must be Dick's maternal grandfather. From the last clue, we know that Jim Johnson, Jr.'s father―Jim Johnson, Sr.―is the brother of Mr. Smith's mother. This means that Mr. Smith's mother's maiden name is Johnson, so that Smith's maternal grandfather is also a Johnson. Thus, Dick is not Mr. Smith, either.

Therefore, Harry must be Mr. Smith. From the third clue, we know that Dick is not Mr. Jones, unless he's married to his own sister! So, Dick must be Mr. Robinson. That leaves Tom, who must be Mr. Jones.

Source: Boris A. Kordemsky, The Moscow Puzzles: 359 Mathematical Recreations, edited by Martin Gardner (1972). The puzzle above is adapted from puzzle 262.

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