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June 29th, 2005 (Permalink)

Speaking of Orwell…

Christopher Hitchens, a great admirer of Orwell and author of Why Orwell Matters, had an interesting column in yesterday's Slate concerning the circumstantial ad hominem argument that people who have no children in the military are wrong to support war. Some people may think ill of those who support a war but won't have to face any of its bad consequences because they are too old to serve, but that does not mean that they are logically wrong to support it. Similarly, some may think badly of those who oppose a war when they are young enough to be drafted and are afraid, but that also doesn't mean that they are logically wrong to oppose it. The point to remember is that arguments, unlike testimony, must stand or fall on their own, not on who makes them. A bad person can make a good argument, just as a good person may make a bad one.

Source: Christopher Hitchens, "Don't 'Son' Me", Slate, 6/28/2005

June 27th, 2005 (Permalink)

An Orwellian Doublespeak Puzzle

One symptom of the ambiguity of language is that words with very different meanings can share a synonym. For example, "autumn" and "drop" are certainly not synonymous, but they share the synonym "fall". Of course, this is possible because "fall" is ambiguous. We can extend this process to longer chains of pairs of synonyms, for example: healthy, sound, tone, tint, hue.

These observations raise the question of what words can be linked by chains of synonyms. Given two words, can they be linked at all by a chain of synonyms; and, if so, what is the shortest such chain possible? Of course, it is more impressive to connect words with very different meanings than those similar in meaning, and most impressive to connect antonyms.

The totalitarian society in Orwell's novel 1984 lived according to three slogans composed from antonyms: "war is peace", "freedom is slavery", and "ignorance is strength" (though "ignorance" and "strength" are not really antonyms). By applying Orwellian doublespeak, can you link "war" and "peace" by a chain of English synonyms? The winners will be those who do so using the fewest links. Of course, the use of perfect synonyms is neither necessary nor possible, but the closer the synonyms in meaning, the better the solution.


June 24th, 2005 (Permalink)

The Lancet Lanced

The Lancet has been publicly rebuked by 30 members of the British Royal Society, including two Nobel laureates, for poor peer review. It appears that the Iraq casualties survey was just one in a string of questionable papers published in the journal.

Source: Mark Henderson, "'Scaremongering' Lancet Accused of Causing Harm to Health and Wasting Millions", Times Online, 6/18/2005

Resource: Update on the Lancet 100,000, 5/14/2005

Via: Trevor Butterworth, "Prestigious Medical Journal Slammed by Prestigious Scientists", Statistical Assessment Service, 6/23/2005

June 17th, 2005 (Permalink)

Check 'Em Out

June 9th, 2005 (Permalink)

What's New?


Acknowledgment: "It's tough keeping up with Tom Cruise's idiocy", Church of Critical Thinking, 6/14/2005

June 7th, 2005 (Permalink)


Q: "I noticed you don't have the is-ought fallacy listed on your page. Also called the naturalistic fallacy, I looked around and found this:
'…I don't consider the Naturalistic "fallacy" to be a logical fallacy, nor even a mistake in ethics.'

"This is great! I can't decide whether is it better to turn my computer off after using it, or keep it on. However, since I didn't turn it off last night, I therefore should not be turning it off. Moreover, since I think you ought to have the 'is-ought' fallacy listed on your web site, therefore you do!

"Am I committing some error above? If so, what?"―Bo Zimmerman

A: Bo, the phrase "is-ought fallacy" is ambiguous. You seem to have in mind reasoning from "ought" to "is", that is, an argument of one of the following forms:

It ought to be the case that P.
Therefore, it is the case that P.
You ought to do A.
Therefore, you do A.

Arguments of these forms are obviously not valid in general, because people often fail to live up to their obligations, and the world isn't all that it should be. However, they are not usually considered fallacies because the invalidity of these types of argument is too obvious. A fallacy is a type of uncogent argument which is deceptive, and therefore commonly committed. The above types of argument, while uncogent, would not be likely to fool even some of the people some of the time.

What's usually called the "is-ought" fallacy is roughly the reverse of the above types of argument, that is, reasoning from an "is" to an "ought". Ever since David Hume, most philosophers have thought that it is impossible to reason cogently from premisses which are only "is" statements, that is, ones which contain no "ought"s or other evaluative terms, to conclusions which do.

To confuse things even more, while the phrase "Naturalistic fallacy" is often used to refer to this same supposed fallacy, it was originally used by G.E. Moore to refer to a distinct but related "fallacy": defining "good" in nonevaluative terms. It was this that I rejected as a fallacy in the sentence that you quoted.

I don't consider either the "is-ought fallacy" or the "Naturalistic fallacy" to be genuine fallacies, though the reasons why are a long story. If you are interested, check out John Searle's book Speech Acts, Chapter 6 (the Naturalistic "fallacy") and Chapter 8 (the is-ought "fallacy").

Source: Q&A, 12/24/2003

June 3rd, 2005 (Permalink)

The Guantánamo Archipelago?

In the Foreword to its annual report, the Secretary General of Amnesty International calls the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay the "gulag of our times". However, there is only a weak and superficial analogy linking Guantánamo with the Soviet Gulag, so that the comparison is either hyperbole or the result of profound historical ignorance.

This kind of overstatement is similar to the frequent Hitler analogies and comparisons to the Holocaust made in public debates. The effect of such exaggerated analogies is to diminish the seriousness of such accusations. The Executive Director of the U.S. branch of A.I. has since backed away from the hyperbole with the understatement that it was "not an exact analogy."


Resource: Anne Applebaum, "Inside the Gulag", New York Review of Books, 6/15/2000

Update (6/6/2005): It turns out that William Schulz, the Executive Director of Amnesty International in the United States, is an apparent high-level architect of terrorism. Of course, I don't know for sure whether this is true, but it would be fascinating to find out. Would it turn out that Schulz, like others, was in the pay of Saddam Hussein? I have no idea.

Making unfounded accusations, assuming guilt, and then demanding that the accused prove their own innocence is part of what's usually called "McCarthyism". Like McCarthy, Schulz reports that A.I. has a "list of those who may be considered high-level torture architects". Yet, again like McCarthy, the only evidence against some of the accused appears to be unsupported allegations. Of course, this is not an exact or a literal analogy, but there are some similarities.

Check out Schulz's brutal interview with Chris Wallace. It wouldn't surprise me if Wallace's interrogation technique would qualify as torture under the Geneva Convention!


Via: Glenn Reynolds, "Instapundit", 6/6/2005

Resource (Added: 6/18): Pavel Litvinov, "No American 'Gulag'", The Washington Post, 6/18/2005

June 2nd, 2005 (Permalink)


Bush Anxious to Learn More of Deep Throat

Update (6/6/2005): The recent revelation of the secret identity of one of Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate sources has been a bonanza for those of us who like headline double entendres. Here's another:

Deep Throat's Lessons for Whistle-Blowers

Solutions to the Doublespeak Puzzle: Chris Cooper came up with the shortest chains, each of five links: war, quarrel, break, rest, peace; and war, scrap, residue, rest, peace. John Congdon submitted an eight-link chain that starts out similar to Chris' second chain, but then veers off in a different direction: war, fight, scrap, piece, join, union, harmony, peace. Jeremy Miller sent in the following chain: war, strive, aim, plan, order, peace. Michael Koplow submitted the chain with the most creative synonyms; here is the chain followed by his glosses: war, odds, partiality, favor, kindness, affection, love, nothing, freedom, peace.

"Some explanations (MW = Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate):

"War, odds: at war/odds with someone
Odds, partiality: MW, odds, def 4a: 'special favor : PARTIALITY'
Kindness, affection: MW, kindness, def 2b: 'archaic : AFFECTION'
Love, nothing: tennis
Nothing, freedom: 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose'.
freedom, peace: as any old Woodstock-generation leftoid knows."

Here's my own solution to the puzzle, which is rather different than any of those submitted: war, fight, encounter, face, countenance, composure, serenity, peace.

Congratulations to everyone who solved the puzzle!

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