So, What Else is New?
- I've added a new fallacy to the files: appeal to celebrity!
- (7/31) I've added a Reader's Response and my reply to the slippery slope fallacy.
Eagle Shootings Something Rotten
"Psychic detective" Carla Baron is again "helping" the police not find a missing person. Cindy Song, the missing person in the case which was documented by ABC's "Primetime" newsmagazine show, has been missing since 2001. The current case is that of District Attorney Ray Gricar who disappeared on April 15th.
Here's an example of the vague information that Baron gives the police:
"Baron has…said that she thinks Gricar was killed and thinks more than one person was involved…. Among the visions she's had is of some warehouses, although she isn't sure if Gricar was taken there or if the people involved in his disappearance have some connection to them. …Baron described several other landmarks near the warehouses―train tracks on a slight incline, a ramp and some pillars, for example. Gricar's first wife, Barbara Gray, is also in contact with Baron and made trips to the Lewisburg area to look for places that are similar to those described by Baron. Using an opinion shared by Baron that Gricar is within 10 or 15 minutes from where [Gricar's] Mini Cooper was parked, Gray found a couple of sites similar to what Baron described and then spoke to police about them, she said. … She…visited several of the sites including…one with many of the features Baron described near a group of warehouses in Milton. Police have looked around that area, but found nothing of note."
The description of warehouses is fairly specific, but Baron hedges it with the proviso that "she isn't sure if Gricar was taken there or if the people involved in his disappearance have some connection to them". If Gricar is found anywhere near warehouses, Baron can claim a direct hit; but if not, then she can fall back on the claim that the people "involved" have some unspecified connection to warehouses. No wonder Gricar is still missing.
Source: Erin L. Nissley, "Gricar Sightings Still Trickling In", Centre Daily Times, 6/4/2005
Via: Robert Todd Carroll, "Mass Media Funk", Skeptic's Dictionary, 7/24/2005
Doublespeak Puzzle Two
The second slogan of Oceania was "Freedom is slavery". Can you find a chain of synonyms from "freedom" to "slavery" in seven links or less?
Resource: An Orwellian Doublespeak Puzzle
The latest report from Annenberg Political Fact Check concerns some statistical claims of Senators Barbara Boxer and Rick Santorum. According to Fact Check, statistics cited by both Senators are either wrong or misleading. Given the fact-checking mission of the organization, it is natural that they concentrate upon whether the Senators have their facts right. However, some one needs to check Senator Santorum's logic.
"Back before 1973, there were all sorts of claims in favor of legal abortion. Legal abortion would lead to less domestic violence, since young women would not be forced into unhealthy and inappropriate marriages. Fewer desperate women would commit suicide. There would be fewer out-of-wedlock births. There would be fewer divorces. There would be fewer children in poverty, less crime, and less child abuse, since all children would be wanted and grow up in stable families. None of this happened. Not a single social ill improved as a result of legal abortion: in fact, they all got worse, much worse."
Fact Check concludes:
"Santorum would have been correct to say that many of the arguments for legalizing abortion proved to be unfounded. But he doesn't have the facts to include female suicide and crime among his examples."
However, logically, the statistics don't support either Santorum's or Fact Check's conclusions. This is because suicide and crime have complex causes: not all women who committed suicide before 1973 did so because of unwanted pregnancies. For this reason, even if the suicide rate had risen, as Santorum falsely claims, it still wouldn't show that legalized abortion had not led to fewer suicides. The number of suicides due to other causes could easily have risen while the number due to unwanted pregnancies had fallen.
The same point applies to crime and even to the statistics that Santorum was right about. For instance, even though domestic violence statistics have risen since the Roe v. Wade decision, it may well be that domestic violence due to unwanted pregnancy has fallen. In other words, the fact that a social ill seems to have become worse doesn't mean that it wouldn't have become even worse yet without legalized abortion.
Source: Jennifer L. Ernst & Matthew Barge, "Abortion Distortions", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 7/18/2005
Check It Out, Part 3
The latest edition of the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter is now online, full of examples of fallacies and the consequences of bad reasoning, and seasoned with a healthy dash of skepticism.
Source: Robert Todd Carroll, "Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 57", 7/16/2005
Blurb Watch: Dropping Qualifications
Here are a couple of blurbs for an ad for the new movie "Rebound" together with their contexts:
|"FUN FAMILY COMEDY!"
Michael Booth, The Denver Post
|"Rebound" is a reasonably fun family comedy…|
Matthew A. Thomas, Akron Beacon Journal
|"Rebound" scores with younger set|
Of course, we wouldn't want to have an unreasonable amount of fun, so it's reasonable to drop the "reasonably"; and if you're not in the "younger set" then what are you doing going to a movie?
- Ad for "Rebound", Indianapolis Star Weekend, 7/8/2005, p. G6
- Michael Booth, "From Meltdown to 'Rebound'", Denver Post, 7/1/2005
- Matthew A. Thomas, "'Rebound' Scores with Younger Set", Akron Beacon Journal, 7/1/2005
The Ministry of Truth
During World War 2, George Orwell worked as a radio propagandist for the BBC, and he subsequently modeled the Ministry of Truth in his novel 1984 after that organization. So, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that the BBC has a policy to avoid using the word "terrorist". Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell's novel, worked at the ministry rewriting old newspaper reports to bring them in line with current policies. The ministry's ultimate goal was to replace plain English with Newspeak, an artificial language designed to prevent "thought crime".
Briefly, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings a week ago, the BBC called the London bombers "terrorists". However, since then the descendents of Winston Smith at the Beeb are busy rewriting those initial reports into Newspeak.
The BBC claims that its policy is an exercise in avoiding emotionally-loaded language, but "terrorist" is not a loaded word in the way that "weed" or "beast" is. Many words have emotional charges to them: "mother", "murder", and "war", for instance. Yet the BBC hasn't adopted a policy of avoiding such words just because of their emotional effects, since they acquire those effects from what they mean. "War" is a frightening word because war is a frightening thing; similarly with "terrorism". So, the Beeb's explanation for its policy cannot be correct, since it doesn't explain why the word "terrorist" is avoided but not the word "rapist".
People rightfully complain when the Pentagon uses such euphemisms as "collateral damage" and "friendly fire" to conceal the realities of war. We should also complain when the BBC uses euphemisms to conceal the realities of terrorism.
As if that wasn't enough, the BBC is defending itself with a public exercise in doublethink, claiming that it does not have a ban on the word "terrorist". It's almost as if the Beeb is proud of being the model for the Ministry of Truth and wants to remind us of the fact.
Source: Tom Leonard, "BBC Edits Out the Word Terrorist", Telegraph, 7/10/2005
- Nick Cohen, "Stop Castrating the Language", Guardian Unlimited, 7/17/2005 (Added: 7/17):
"[T]he censors instruct: 'We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator, such as "bomber", "attacker", "gunman", "kidnapper", "insurgent" and "militant". Our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audience to make their own assessment about who is doing what to whom.' But with the exception of 'kidnapper', none of the BBC's words is specific or objective. 'Bomber', 'attacker' and 'gunman' allow no distinction between fighters who assault military targets and fighters who assault civilian targets. The leaders of the rail unions are 'militants' in the sense they will call out their members in the private rail companies whenever they can. They don't put bombs on trains."
- George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"
Check It Out, Part 2
Julian Baggini's latest column concerns category mistakes, for which there is no Fallacy Files entry, but a definition in the Glossary. Category mistakes are not, strictly speaking, logical fallacies, but are conceptual errors of putting objects into the wrong categories. While not fallacies, category mistakes are certainly bad moves.
Source: Julian Baggini, "Category Mistakes", Bad Moves, 7/11/2005
Addendum (7/13): Reader Michael Koplow writes:
"Whenever I see the phrase 'the same people who,' I assume that we're getting into ad hominem territory―the writer is about to change the subject and talk about the people he or she disagrees with instead of about the actual disagreement. In the Baggini article you're now citing, we find '[the American and British governments] have been accused of exaggerating the terrorist threat, sometimes by the same people who, when Madrid and then London were both hit, claimed that these attacks were inevitable.' The business about 'the same people who' is an irrelevancy and a distraction. In this case, it was limited to the aside and didn't take over the argument."
I think Mike is right about the phrase and about Baggini's particular use of it. Specifically, I think that it's a tu quoque. Even Baggini makes an occasional bad move!
It's That Time Again
It's time to remind ourselves that the price of gasoline is not at a real record high: it is only the nominal price, unadjusted for inflation, that is making new records. The real record continues to be just over $3, which was set in 1981.
- "Gas Prices Rise to Record of $2.31-Survey", Reuters, 7/10/2005
- "Real Petroleum Prices", Energy Information Administration, 7/2005
- Record Gas Prices?, 8/31/2003
- Can't Keep a Good Fallacy Down, 3/17/2004
- Dubious Data, 12/30/2004
- The ABCs of Myth, 2/4/2005
- Deja Vu, 3/19/2005
Here's a review of a new book on business language. I haven't read it yet, so I can't recommend it. Moreover, the review makes it sound rather shallow, but it may be a source of humorous examples of business doublespeak.
Source: Thomas J. Brady, "Adding Value in Language Capability", Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/3/2005
Check It Out
What are the chances within the next decade of a terrorist attack similar to today's attack in London but using a nuclear weapon? 29.2%, according to a recent report. The "Numbers Guy" explains how this spuriously accurate number was arrived at.
Source: Carl Bialik, "Pondering the Chances of a Nuclear Attack", The Numbers Guy, 7/7/2005
I've revised the "Exposure" section of the entry for the Hitler Card fallacy.
Unloading Safire's Language
A useful exercise for appreciating the effect of loaded language is to take a heavily-loaded passage and revise it, replacing the loaded words with neutral synonyms. Here is a sentence from a recent column by William Safire:
"The Supreme Court has just flinched from its responsibility to stop the unjust jailing of two journalists―not charged with any wrongdoing―by a runaway prosecutor who will go to any lengths to use the government's contempt power to force them to betray their confidential sources."
That's a lot of loaded words in one sentence! "Flinched" is a negatively-loaded term, suggesting that the court acted out of fear rather than on principle; a less loaded term is "refused". While the court had the power to stop the jailings, the word "responsibility" implies that the court was obligated to do so. That the jailing would be "unjust" may be true, but Safire at this point is simply asserting that it is. A "runaway" prosecutor is one who is out of control and unpredictable; or, more neutrally, an independent one. Saying that the prosecutor will "go to any lengths" suggests a disregard for others' rights, whereas a less loaded charge would be of aggressiveness. Finally, the word "betray" is ambiguous, having the neutral meaning of "reveal" but also suggesting treachery and disloyalty. Here is the sentence unloaded:
The Supreme Court has just refused to exercise its power to stop the jailing of two journalists―not charged with any wrongdoing―by an independent prosecutor who will use the government's contempt power aggressively to force them to reveal their confidential sources.
Now, Safire was not committing a fallacy in his sentence, rather, he was setting up a loaded logical boobytrap. The critical reader needs to be wary not to be tricked by Safire's powerful language into accepting, without evidence, Safire's judgments. Safire has a right to express his opinions, but his readers also have a right to form their own.
Source: William Safire, "The Jailing of Judith Miller", New York Times, 6/29/2005
I've added a new example to the examples page.
Solution to Doublespeak Puzzle Two:
Freedom, liberty, liberation, delivery, labor, drudgery, slavery.
Other solutions are no doubt possible; perhaps even shorter ones, especially if the synonyms are looser or more creative.