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July 30th, 2019 (Permalink)

C'mon, Marianne

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.―"Albert Einstein"1

Marianne Williamson is running for president and participated in the second of the stand-up comedy shows―oops! I mean "debates", of course―of Democratic candidates last month. The first part of the next one takes place tonight and Williamson made the grade again2. Is she just "a passing fling and not a permanent thing3", or will she be the next President of the United States?

Williamson is a long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination, let alone winning the election. However, Donald Trump was also an unlikely candidate for the Republican nomination, not to mention winning the presidency. Trump and Williamson have a lot in common: neither had any government experience before running for president and both were primarily known as celebrities.

One reason Trump was able to gain the Republican nomination is that the field of candidates was so large in 2016 that it was hard for any one of them to stand out―except for Trump, of course. Moreover, though there was considerable opposition to Trump within the Republican party, it was never able to come together around a single opposition candidate.

The current field of Democratic candidates is even larger than the Republican one three years ago, and most of them are minor figures like Williamson with minimal support. So, there is at least a chance of a replay of 2016, but this time in the Democratic party.

Trump and Williamson have another thing in common: both have expressed doubt about the safety of vaccination. Remember this?

Trump: Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control. I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Because you take a baby in―and I've seen it―and I've seen it, and I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two or three year period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump―I mean, it looks just like it's meant for a horse, not for a child, and we've had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic. …I'm in favor of vaccines, do them over a longer period of time, same amount. … But just in little sections. …I think you're going to see a big impact on autism.4

Here's what Williamson said about vaccination at a campaign event in New Hampshire:

To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate. The US government doesn't tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.5

The next day, appearing on The View, Williamson back-pedaled:

Meghan McCain: You came out as the anti-vaxxer candidate.

Williamson: No, I did not.

McCain: Let me finish. You said, calling a mandate on them would be, quote, Draconian and Orwellian. What about the kids exposed to measles and all of that, and the people suffering because of the measles outbreak? Why would you say that?

Williamson: I am not anti-vax. I think I misspoke in that one sentence, but I would like to express myself. … The fact that you have a problem with the revolving door policy by which big pharma and the CDC and the FDA are so cozy, so that millions of Americans who are not anti-science and are not anti-vaccine have some deep concerns. The days of blind faith in big pharma are over. The days of blind faith in the idea that our government agencies are doing the proper oversight and proper advocacy for the American people, against the times of overreach against profit-making industries that are putting money before people, that is not an irrational or unreasonable thing.

McCain: Now you're okay with mandatory vaccines?

Williamson: I haven't changed since yesterday. I misspoke on that one sentence, but I will say this. If I were president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, there will be a commission of scientists talking about―learning so that the American people see what's going on with these vaccines―who are not paid by big pharma. …

Sunny Hostin: I don't know that you have answered Meghan's question. Do you support mandatory vaccinations?

Williamson: …I understand that public safety must come first, but I also understand that we must have a balance between public safety and the issues of individual freedom. I do not trust the propaganda on either side. I would have to say that there are situations where there are absolute outbreaks and I understand there are epidemics where vaccines are life-saving. I support vaccines.6

In a chirp she made almost exactly the same claims as on The View, showing that she's carefully worked out her vague and ambiguous position:

I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives. I recognize there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines. I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma. I am sorry that I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke.7

The View is a silly show, but I have to give The Viewers credit for trying to get a straight answer out of Williamson. However, as you can see from the above exchange, Williamson has already mastered the ability to dodge questions, so in that respect at least she's ready for prime-time politics.

Williamson claims that she "misspoke" on one sentence, though it's unclear what sentence she's referring to. Perhaps she meant the one where she condemned mandatory vaccination, but there's little chance that she was misspeaking. She might have changed her mind given the negative reaction to her statement, but that's different from having misspoken. However, if she did change her mind, then why didn't she affirmatively answer McCain's question as to whether she supports mandatory vaccination?

All she really said is that some vaccines are life-saving, but then some may not be. So, she can still deny the safety and effectiveness of other vaccines, such as those that some think cause autism. Either that, or she can use the same out that Trump did, namely, blaming autism on the vaccination schedule, rather than the vaccines themselves.

What she does say near the end suggests that she would only support mandatory vaccination in "situations where there are absolute outbreaks" and where "there are epidemics where vaccines are life-saving". But part of the point of vaccination is to prevent outbreaks of diseases before they start, and you can't do that if you wait until an epidemic is ongoing. Moreover, if the vaccines are indeed life-saving, as she admits, then lives will be lost by waiting for outbreaks or epidemics.

In addition to appearing on The View, Williamson cheeped:

… I am not anti-science (that one is almost funny, given how much I quote Einstein). And I am not an anti-vaxxer. …7

The notion that quoting Einstein a lot means you're not anti-science is not almost funny, it's entirely funny. Moreover, Williamson doesn't actually quote Albert Einstein, the famous physicist, she only thinks that she does. Instead, she quotes "Einstein", a mythic figure of profound wisdom who miraculously manages to say exactly what Marianne Williamson wants to say. This is yet another eerie parallel between Williamson and Trump, who also likes to quote "Einstein", even using some of the same quotes9.

Now, I don't think that Williamson is "anti-science". Rather, I think she doesn't know enough about science to be against it. Marianne Williamson is no Einstein.

I'm puzzled by what a person who quotes with approval the sentiment that reality is an illusion would think about vaccines. Perhaps she thinks that diseases, being part of reality, are part of the illusion, so we don't need vaccines. Or, it could be that vaccines, being part of the reality illusion, don't really work. In contrast, she could support involuntary vaccination and if anyone complains, just point out that it's an illusion that you're being jabbed in the arm with a needle. So, it seems that you could go either way.

It will be interesting to see tonight whether any of the moderators or other candidates challenge Williamson on vaccines, but to judge from her performance on The View she probably won't give a straight answer.


Notes:

  1. Of course, reality, by definition, is not an illusion, but that Albert Einstein, the famous physicist, said that it is is. See: Matt Novak, "Marianne Williamson Loves Spreading Fake Quotes From Albert Einstein", Gizmodo, 7/23/2019, for a discussion of this and other bogus Einstein quotes used by Marianne Williamson.
  2. Stefanie Marsh, "Marianne Williamson: the 'leftwing Trump' preaching the Politics of Love", The Grauniad, 7/30/2019.
  3. L. Russell Brown & Raymond Bloodworth, "C'mon, Marianne".
  4. Debate Watch, 9/17/2015.
  5. Julia Jester, "Marianne Williamson leans in to vaccine skepticism in NH", Twitter, 6/19/2019.
  6. "Marianne Williamson says vaccines must 'balance' public safety and individual freedom", ABC News, 6/20/2019.
  7. Marianne Williamson, "I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives….", Twitter, 6/20/2019
  8. Marianne Williamson, "I am not a cult leader….", Twitter, 7/23/2019
  9. See the article linked in note 1, above. I've discussed the prevalence of "Einstein" quotes in general, though not specifically those used by Williamson, in the following entries:

July 26th, 2019 (Permalink)

Correction

Since I'm continually criticizing people's mistakes on this weblog―it's my job, after all―it's incumbent upon me to be forthright about my own. I now believe that the solution of a Christmas puzzle that I posted over three years ago was incorrect. I've added a correction to the puzzle that explains why I think the original "solution" is incorrect, together with the correct solution*. However, it occurs to me that some regular readers who may have seen the original puzzle with the incorrect solution are unlikely to see the correction unless I draw attention to it here. So check it out.

* See: A Puzzle for Christmas, 12/25/2015


July 18th, 2019 (Permalink)

The Second Draft of History

The recent theme of this weblog has been fact-checking or, more precisely, the lack of it. Of course, mistakes will happen, but some recent ones are egregious errors that can only happen because those who commit them fail to make even a minimal effort to check them. Here's a recent example from the beginning of a newspaper article on the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 to the moon:

A few days before the historic walk on the moon, Apollo 11 took off from the earth―50 years ago on July 16. Four days later John Glenn would step onto the only other planet we have ever walked on, and uttered the famous words "on [sic] small step for a man, one giant step for mankind."1

Putting aside the grammatical and spelling errors, there are three mistakes in the second of these two sentences2:

  1. John Glenn never walked on the moon.
  2. The moon is not a planet. Sadly, no human being has ever walked on another planet.
  3. It was Neil Armstrong who spoke the words: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."3

First of all, it surprises me that anyone would not know the first two of these facts. Secondly, even more surprising is that a newspaper would publish this without someone catching and correcting the errors. A quick visit to NASA's page on the mission4 would be enough to correct the first and third errors. The second is an elementary error in astronomy, and could be corrected by consulting a dictionary of astronomy, but you could also just type the question: "Is the moon a planet?" into Bing, and it would helpfully inform you otherwise5.

Of course, none of this will help any if you don't do it. The primary problem is not that it would take lengthy research to discover these facts, since doing so should take no more than five minutes. Nor is the main problem even factual ignorance, though that is indeed a concern. Rather, the crux is ignorance about ignorance―meta-ignorance, if you will: the illusion of knowledge that led the author and editors to not have bothered to spend those five minutes checking.

An old journalism saying is: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." In other words, even if you're convinced you already know something, check it anyway. Don't trust anyone, least of all yourself! As Richard Feynman said: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself―and you are the easiest person to fool.6"

There's another old journalistic saying that news is "the first, rough draft of history"7, but the launch of Apollo 11 was half a century ago so this is at least the second, even rougher, draft. At this rate, in another fifty years it will be Yuri Gagarin who was the first man to set foot on the moon.


Notes:

  1. Alex Griswold, "New York Daily News Reports That 'John Glenn' Was First Man on 'Planet' Moon", The Washington Free Beacon, 7/16/2019. The following is the corrected version of the original article: Theresa Braine, "Relive humanity’s journey to the moon, starting with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 launch day", New York Daily News, 7/16/2019. The original, uncorrected version of the story seems to have been removed without notice by the Daily News, but there was also a Facebook post publicizing the article which contained its first two sentences. That post, too, has disappeared from Facebook, but Google still has a cache of it; see: "New York Daily News", Facebook, 7/16/2019. It's understandable that the Daily News is embarrassed by these mistakes, but concealing them in this way risks removing an incentive to get things right, namely, reputational damage. For this reason, the newspaper should also be embarrassed for sweeping this under the rug.
  2. It would be a hasty generalization to conclude based on this one instance that the New York Daily News averages one-and-a-half mistakes per sentence on all of its stories. However, this may answer negatively the question whether newspapers do any fact-checking.
  3. Armstrong intended to say: “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, but a lot of people―myself included―didn't hear the "a", and it is still sometimes given without it. However, without the "a" the sentence doesn't make any sense, since "man" and "mankind" both refer to the human species. So, Armstrong would have been saying that the first human step onto the moon was both a small step and a giant leap, which is impossible. What Armstrong meant was that this was a small step for himself―"a man"―but a giant leap for humanity. See: "Armstrong’s famous “one small step” quote―explained", The Associated Press, 7/13/2019.
  4. Sarah Loff, "Apollo 11 Mission Overview", NASA, 5/15/2019.
  5. I'll leave it to you to check this for yourself.
  6. Richard P. Feynman, "Cargo Cult Science", Caltech, 1974. Feynman, of course, was talking about science, but the principle applies to any attempt to find out something about the world.
  7. This saying is often attributed to publisher Philip Graham, but versions of it appear to have been around before Graham popularized it. See: Jack Shafer, "Who Said It First?", Slate, 8/30/2010.

July 7th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 61: Defend your position!

This is how arguments usually start: someone makes an affirmative claim that someone else either denies or at least doubts and challenges. If you are the person making a claim and someone challenges it, the burden is on you to defend that claim. If you cannot or do not wish to defend it, then you should withdraw it2.

You may be familiar with the notion of burden of proof in the Anglo-American legal system. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At the very least, the prosecutor must present a prima facie3 case for guilt. If the prosecution succeeds in presenting a prima facie case then the burden of proof switches from the prosecution to the defense. However, if the prosecutor fails to present such a case then the defense wins, that is, the defendant need not even present a case unless the prosecution meets its burden of proof.

Another way of making this same point is that in the Anglo-American legal tradition there is a presumption of innocence, that is, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The presumption of innocence is the other side of the burden of proof coin: the burden is on the prosecution and the presumption is in favor of the defendant. If the prosecutor meets the burden with a prima facie case, then the burden and presumption switch: the burden is then on the defense to rebut the prosecution's case sufficiently to show a reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt.

The notions of burden of proof, presumption, prima facie evidence, and the shifting of the burden of proof can all be extended from the legal realm to argumentation in general. However, it's not obvious who gets the burden and who gets the presumption, that is, who plays the role of the prosecutor and who the defendant?

The answer is that the burden is on the affirmative rather than the negative, that is, on he who affirms as opposed to she who denies. The reason for this is an asymmetry between affirmative claims and denials, namely, that it is much easier to find evidence for an affirmation than a negation4. Moreover, unless they just blurt out claims for no reason, those who introduce a claim should be able to produce some evidence to support it. In contrast, you may be skeptical of a claim without having studied or considered the matter enough to present evidence against it.

The burden of proof is not all or nothing, but comes in degrees. If you assert a plausible claim then the burden of proof will be light, whereas an implausible claim places a heavy burden on you. This is the basis for the familiar saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence5.

Logical fallacies that result from attempts to evade the burden of proof include6:

So, the burden of this rule is that if you make an affirmative claim, be prepared to defend it. If, in contrast, you are the challenger and the proponent of the challenged claim makes a prima facie case, then accept the burden of proof. It is now up to you to either make a case against the claim, or to accept it.

Next Month: Rule 7


Notes:

  1. Previous entries in this series:
    1. Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
    2. Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
    3. Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
    4. Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
    5. Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
  2. As with all the rules discussed in this series, this is a rule of thumb, that is, a rule that has exceptions. For this rule, common sense is an exception. For instance, a person who asserts that every living thing eventually dies does not bear the burden. Instead, those who challenge such a claim must make a prima facie case against it, and only then does the burden shift to the claimant.
  3. Latin for "at first sight". See: Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985). A prima facie case for a claim is one that is sufficiently strong to prove the claim unless successfully rebutted.
  4. It is often said that you can't prove a negative, which is over-stated but a good rule of thumb. For an explanation of how much truth there is in this saying, see: Logical Literacy: "You can't prove a negative.", 3/14/2015.
  5. Popularized by the astronomer Carl Sagan, see: Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1980), p. 73.
  6. For more on each fallacy, see the entries under the names of the fallacies available from the drop-down menu in the navigation pane to your left.

July 4th, 2019 (Permalink)

An Independence Day Puzzle at the Logicians' Club

In July of 2019, the Logicians' Club* held its monthly meeting on the fourth. To celebrate the holiday, the members played a game. On this day, its three regular members were in attendance: Mrs. A, Miss B, and Mr. C. It was the latter who suggested the game and organized it for the other two members to play. They met in a private room of the tavern where the club meetings were held.

"Fellow logicians," Mr. C began impressively after clearing his throat, "I have here a bag of patriotic hats," he said, holding up a large opaque bag. "Two of the hats are red, two are blue, but only one is white." He reached into the bag, pulled out a white hat and placed it on his own head.

"In a few minutes," he continued, "I will turn out the lights and pull two hats out of the bag. Then I will place a hat on each of your heads. When I turn the light back on, both of you will be able to see the color of the other's hat, but you won't be able to see your own. I will ask each of you to guess the color of your own hat by whispering in my ear so that the other player won't know your guess. If at least one of you is right, you will both win a prize which you can share.

"Now, I'm going to step out of the room for a few minutes and allow you time to confer. It won't be cheating if you agree between you on a strategy for playing the game. Remember two things: first, only one of you has to guess the color of her hat correctly in order to win the prize―it doesn't matter whether the other player's guess is incorrect; second, if you win you will share the prize, so this is not a competitive game. Good luck!" And he left the room.

Is there a strategy that the two logicians can use to ensure that they win the prize? If so, what is that strategy?


* For other meetings of the club, see:

(Added 7/9/2019) An anonymous reader wrote in wondering whether Mr. C could have taken the white hat that he put on his own head and put it on one of the two players when the lights were out. Of course, he could have, but rest assured that he didn't.

(Added 7/5/2019) Thanks to Lawrence Mayes for pointing out a loophole in the description of the game which has now been closed by amending this sentence.


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