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April 19th, 2018 (Permalink)

Three-Card Monty

“'Three-card Monty' is the name; three-card monte is the game!" shouted the dealer to the passing crowd at the county fair. A young couple paused and looked his way.

"Come on now and try your luck," Monty continued, "win a prize with a single buck!"

The couple slowly approached his carnival booth. "Hear me if you want to get paid," Monty said to them, pointing to three playing cards lying face down in a row on the counter in front of him, "to the right of a Queen there lies a Spade."

Unlike most three-card monte dealers, Monty did not manipulate the cards. Instead, he gave verbal clues to their positions.

"To win or not to win, that's the rub!" he continued, "to the left of a King there is a Club."

The young man, John, took a dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to his companion.

"If you want to win, here's the thing: to the right of a Heart there is a King."

The young woman, Mary, placed the dollar bill on the counter.

"Listen to the final fact," Monty concluded, "to the left of a Heart you'll find a Jack. Are you ready to find the lady?" Monty asked them, "find a gent, you won't win a cent!"

Which card should John and Mary pick to win a prize? Be careful! When Monty says that a card is to the right or left of another, he doesn't necessarily mean the immediate right or left.


April 18th, 2018 (Permalink)

Book Review: The Truth Matters

Title: The Truth Matters

Sub-Title: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks

Author: Bruce Bartlett

Number of Pages: 136

Publisher: Ten Speed Press

Date of Publication: 2017

Quote: "My model is a famous book, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Generations of writers have learned how to write from this simple book, much of which consists of grammatical rules we all learned at one time but forgot or didn't entirely understand. I expect that much of what I write in this book will be equally familiar in terms of news gathering and consumption, but I also expect every reader, from savvy citizens to professional journalists, to come away with some tips they were unaware of."1

Review: True to its model, this is a short, quickly-read book. The copy I have is a small, pocket-sized paperback that could easily be read within 90 minutes. It's a basic primer in media literacy, that is, how to tell the difference between real news and "fake" news, false stories, hoaxes, or propaganda masquerading as news. It's skewed towards political and economic news rather than, say, scientific journalism, presumably because Bartlett's own education and experience is in government and the economy2. Some topics treated are: the difference between primary and secondary sources3, the importance of adjusting for inflation4, the value of the median as opposed to the mean for averages involving money5, and the perils associated with public opinion polling6.

Despite its subtitle, the book seems of two minds about who its intended audience is, as a substantial part is aimed not at citizens but at journalists. For instance, in the chapter on the problem of "fake" news7, Bartlett writes:

News organizations have responded [to fake news] by setting up fact-checking operations. … While fact checking is all to the good, my problem with it is that it shouldn't be considered a separate journalistic function, but rather the core function of all journalism. If reporters and editors aren't routinely fact checking everything they publish, what the heck are they doing instead?8

I couldn't agree more, but unless and until reporters and editors stop doing whatever the heck they are doing instead of checking facts, we consumers of the news need the fact-checking sites. I mentioned earlier this year9 that there has been a decline in the invisible fact checking once done by magazines and publishers at about the same time as the rise of visible fact checking. At the risk of committing a cum hoc fallacy10, perhaps this isn't just a coincidence. In any case, we consumers need to learn how to fact check what we consume ourselves, which is why we need a book like this.

Another chapter11 is primarily a criticism of the unsigned editorials that many newspapers publish. I don't feel strongly about such editorials, since I don't read them anyway12, so I certainly wouldn't be distressed if newspapers were to abandon the practice. However, this seems more a pet peeve of Bartlett's than something of value to the average newspaper reader. If you're a citizen just looking for advice on how to avoid fake news, you might as well skip it.

However, there is much good information on how to do your own fact checking, especially online, and how not to. For instance, one issue I've discussed here in the last several years is Wikipedia. I agree with Bartlett, who writes: "Wikipedia is a great place to start research and a terrible place to end it"13. He had an interesting experience with it:

…[M]any years ago I started my own Wikipedia entry with a bit of information about my life and work. … But I confess that I have not looked at my entry for a long time. I once looked at it, found that some inaccuracy had crept in, and attempted to fix it. A Wikipedia editor asked me for documentation before allowing the change to take effect. I said the documentation is that I am me and I know that what was written was wrong. The editor told me that wasn't good enough. Lacking documentation that I could link to, I gave up my effort to fix my own Wikipedia entry and have not looked at it since. … To me, this is a cautionary tale about the risk of relying on Wikipedia.14

To me, too! It's also a familiar tale, as I've seen similar stories previously15.

Another topic that I've discussed here repeatedly is expertise, its alleged "death"16, and how to tell when someone has it. Bartlett doesn't have a lot to say on the latter subject, except that those who work for universities are more trustworthy than those at think tanks, because the latter tend to be more politicized17. On the subject of "public experts"―that is, those whose faces we see on television or bylines we read in general-interest periodicals―he writes:

…[O]ne cannot necessarily trust those anointed as "experts" on cable news or even in quality newspapers to really be experts on the subjects they are talking about. Even those who at least have degrees in the subjects they opine about may not be up to speed on the latest research, or their area of specialization may be well outside the area they are being quoted on.18

One way that the individual citizen can fight fake news is to resist the temptation to spread it. Bartlett confesses to having contributed to the problem himself:

Even when someone is well aware of the fake news problem, the ease and simplicity with which one can repost or forward something interesting that one comes across on the Internet or in an email can overwhelm common sense for a moment, and suddenly you find that you have added to the fake news problem. I myself am guilty of tweeting such items after reading only the headline of a story that looked interesting―perhaps too interesting.19

Here's how he suggests resisting the temptation:

Other than forcing myself to calm down, wait a moment before posting a comment, and reading a story all the way through before acting, I have found that my best defense is the old adage: If something is too good (or outrageous) to be true, it probably is. That is, try to resist gullibility and credulousness; be skeptical and agnostic until you can determine the truthfulness or validity of some news item, especially if it confirms something you want to believe.20

This is excellent advice and, if widely adopted, would go a long way to suppress fake news since, as Bartlett discusses21, the fakers are often motivated by the desire to make money or spread political propaganda. Take away the incentive to make fake news, and much of it should disappear.

In a book about how to tell the difference between facts and fakery, it's important that it get the facts right. There aren't a lot of factual claims made in this book, but I'm pleased to say that I discovered only one minor error22.

In the final chapter, "How to Fight Fake News", Bartlett claims that "critical thinking is the best defense against fake news.23" This is not really a book on critical thinking, but luckily there are many fine books to follow this one up with24.

Recommendation: Recommended, especially, for beginners, such as high school students or freshmen in college. However, it's worth a look even to more advanced readers, since it's a quick read and likely contains unfamiliar research techniques and suggestions. I learned a few things and I'm certainly no tyro, if I do say so myself. Like Wikipedia, it's a useful place to start learning how to do your own fact checking, but don't stop there. Once you've finished, proceed to a more advanced book, such as David Helfand's Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age.


  1. P. 3.
  2. For a short biography, see: "Bruce Bartlett", The New York Times, accessed: 4/18/2018.
  3. Chapter 2.
  4. Pp. 60-64.
  5. Pp. 66-67.
  6. Chapter 10.
  7. Chapter 12.
  8. P. 98.
  9. See: New Book: Deciding What’s True, 1/30/2018.
  10. See: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.
  11. Chapter 14.
  12. I suppose that's a further argument for their abolition.
  13. P. 87.
  14. Pp. 89-90.
  15. See, for instance, Philip Roth, "An Open Letter to Wikipedia", The New Yorker, 9/6/2012.
  16. See: The Limits of Experts, 6/30/2017.
  17. Pp. 45, 48 & 51.
  18. P. 47.
  19. Pp. 120-121, italics in the original.
  20. P. 121, italics in the original.
  21. P. 97.
  22. In discussing government leaks to the press, Bartlett mentions the columnist team of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, both now deceased, but gives Evans' first name as "Robert" (p. 18). See: "Rowland Evans", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3/16/2018.
  23. P. 119.
  24. A classic is Antony Flew's How to Think Straight.

Email Outage

I had a technical problem for the last day or two and haven't always been able to access email. It's possible that some messages either were never received or were accidentally deleted. So, if you tried to send me an email in the last few days and either had it returned undelivered, or perhaps just haven't received a reply, please try again. It should work now. Sorry for the bother!

Solution to Three-Card Monty:

John turned to Mary and said: "All I got out of that is that the three cards are a Jack, Queen, and King, so the Queen must be the lady we need to pick to win. But that doesn't tell us which one she is!"

"He also mentioned three suits," Mary replied, "Spade, Club, and Heart, so the three cards must be one of each of those three suits."

"Yeah, but which is which, Mary? I remember he said that the Spade is to the right of the Queen, so the Queen must be either a Club or a Heart, but that doesn't tell us where she is!"

"That's right, John, but if there's a card to the right of it, then it must be either the leftmost card or the center one. That narrows it down."

"Now we're getting somewhere! He also said that the Club and the Heart are to the left of the King. So the King must be the rightmost card."

Right, and by elimination it must be the Spade! But what was the last thing he said? I'm trying to remember."

"Let me see. I think he said that the Jack wasn't a Heart."

"So, the Jack must be the Club and the Queen is the Heart, but he also said that the Heart was to the right of the Jack."

"Which means that the Queen of Hearts is the middle card!"

"We choose the card in the middle," Mary announced to Monty, and the young couple walked away with a prize.

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