Record Gas Prices?
According to some news media, gas prices are at an all-time high. Here are some typical quotes:
- "Gasoline prices around the country have shot up to record levels as more motorists squeeze in late summer road trips at a time supplies have been reduced by power outages at refineries and a major gasoline pipeline break in Arizona."
- "The number of Americans traveling over Labor Day weekend is expected to hit an eight-year high, and those driving to and fro will be paying the highest U.S. gasoline prices ever."
- "The average [Texas] statewide price of gasoline went up 7 cents in the past week to $1.60 for self-serve regular, while the U.S. average hit a new record on Friday of $1.74 a gallon, beating a record price of $1.72 set in March."
However, gas prices are only at a record high if inflation is not taken into account. That's comparing apples to oranges or, in logical terms, equivocating. A dollar today simply isn't worth as much as it was ten or twenty years ago, so that claiming "record" prices based on unadjusted numbers is misleading. Adjusted for inflation, the actual record high for gasoline prices at the pump over the last twenty-five years was set in 1981.
- "Record Gas Prices for Labor Day", Reuters, 8/29/2003
- "Drivers to Pay Record Gas Prices", Reuters, 8/25/2003
- "Texas Gas Prices Near Record High for Labor Day", Austin American-Statesman, 8/30/2003
Via: "All-Time Records", The Volokh Conspiracy
Resource (Added 9/3/2003): Stephen Moore & Phil Kerpen, "The Pump Jumpin Perspective", National Review, 8/28/2003
Yesterday's New York Times ran an ad for the new movie, "Spy Kids 3D: Game Over", which carried the following blurb:
"Kids will adore this movie more than the 'Harry Potter' series!"
LA Weekly, Scott Foundas
Oh, really? But that's not what Foundas meant, as is clear from reading this contextomy in context:
"Kids will adore this movieeven more than the Harry Potter series, it taps into their macabre fantasieswhile adults can marvel at Rodriguez’s one-man-band moviemaking ."
By excising the dash, and dropping the last part of the sentence, the ad's creators have changed the reviewer's meaning. It's odd that they felt this kind of quoting out of context necessary, since the review is a generally favorable one.
Source: Scott Foundas, "Review of 'Spy Kids 3D: Game Over'", L.A. Weekly
Reader Derek Jensen wonders what fallacy, if any, is committed by the following example:
"An advocate of child health and welfare complained that 'automobiles are the leading cause of injury and death among children.' She then went on to advocate that children be encouraged to walk and bicycle more. Astonishingly, this same person then casually mentioned that pedestrian accidents were formerly the leading cause of injury and death among children, and that a steep decline in them could be attributed primarily to the fact that children now usually ride in cars.
"I see this sort of thing all the time on billboards and such. 'Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over 30,' for example. My response is usually, 'What do they want to be the leading cause of death in the women over 30? Zebra stampedes?'
"It seems to me that this is some sort of fallacy of presenting a fact as if it were a problem, when it has not yet been established that it is really a problem."
Derek, what you're describing is a type of onesidedness. One of the goals of advocates for social causes is to convince us that a problem is sufficiently serious to do something about, which usually involves writing a check. It's not easy to convince people to part with money, and such advocates will frame the problem in whatever way they can to make it seem important. Moreover, they're unlikely to provide the kind of perspective needed to judge whether the problem really is important, at least if that perspective will undermine their case.
For example, the "leading" cause of death for young people (at least, in the developed world) is usually some form of violence, whether accidental or intentional. One reason for this is that young people tend to be healthy, and they seldom die from diseases. So, the fact that car accidents are the leading cause of death of children only tells us about where auto accidents stand relative to other causes of death; it doesn't tell us anything about their absolute rate of occurrence, which might well be quite small. However, the advocate won't mention that it is a small rate, because that would lessen the chance that we open our checkbooks.
For reasons explained in the entry for Onesidedness, I doubt that this sort of omission is really a fallacy. In the end, we can't expect advocates for a cause to go around discouraging people from supporting it. Instead, we have to all be on our guard when we read fundraising appeals, and expect that such appeals will present a one-sided case for supporting the cause. However, if we aren't suitably skeptical, then it is we who commit a fallacy of Onesidedness, by reaching a conclusion that we should support a cause on the basis of hearing only one side of the case.
Reader Shaun Oakford sends the following example:
"A: A manager complains that his staff as a whole are taking too long to complete individual tasks, and that the average length of time to complete each task must be reduced.
"B: At the same time he is requesting that more detailed research and more complex annotations be provided to each individual task.
"He wants A & B to occur at the same time, but B negates A and will in fact cause an increase in task completion times. How would this best be categorised in terms of a logical fallacy, or is it something else?"
Shaun, the manager you describe is making inconsistent demands. Inconsistency is not itself a logical fallacy, but it is irrational. It would be fallacious to argue from inconsistent premisses, because an argument with inconsistent premisses is unsound. However, it doesn't appear that the manager is trying to argue from his inconsistent demands, but that doesn't absolve him of irrationality.
Resource: Robyn Dawes, Everyday Irrationality: How Pseudo-Scientists, Lunatics, and the Rest of Us Systematically Fail to Think Rationally (Westview Press, 2001), pp. 1-3.
Check it Out
Spinsanity's Ben Fritz has the scoop on a contextomy in the William Pryor nomination debate.
Source: Ben Fritz, "The Debased Pryor Debate", Spinsanity, 8/4/2003
Update (8/7): Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptic's Dictionary prints and responds to a critic's letter in the latest edition of his newsletter, analyzing it for examples of fallacies.
Source: Robert Todd Carroll, "Responses to Selected Feedback and Critical Thinking Mini-Lesson #5 - Fallacies", Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter, #29, 8/6/2003
Here is a list of the fallacies Carroll finds and discusses:
- Red Herring
- Post Hoc
- Straw Man
- Appeal to Questionable Authority
- Begging the Question
- Tu Quoque
- Genetic Fallacy
That's a lot of fallacies for one letter, even a long one!
Update (12/11/2003): Unfortunately, this annotated letter has been removed.
Update (8/16): John Allen Paulos' Who's Counting? column this month discusses the work of cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on "cognitive illusions". Cognitive illusions are cognitive versions of optical illusions, that is, persistent types of fallacious reasoning. Kahneman and Tversky's book, below, has become a classic source, but it's a heavy, technical tome. Piattelli-Palmarini's book is a shorter and more accessible introduction for the non-specialist.
Source: John Allen Paulos, "Behavioral Puzzles in Business and Diplomacy", Who's Counting?, 8/3/2003
- Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, editors, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge University Press, 1982).
- Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds (John Wiley & Sons, 1994).