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August 21st, 2006 (Permalink)

Check 'Em Out

Both the Numbers Guy and STATS' Trevor Butterworth are on the case of a recent poll with a built-in bias.


Update (8/22/2006): The Mystery Pollster has now also criticized this poll:

One point not raised in Bialik's excellent piece is that the survey reports a margin of error ("plus or minus three percentage points"). The margin of error is a measure of random sampling error, which applies only where there is a random sample. This survey was based on a sample drawn from a volunteer panel, not a random sample survey. … Yes, random sample surveys face challenges of their own, but if a sound statistical basis exists for reporting a "margin of error" for non-probability samples, I am not yet aware of it.

Source: Mark Blumenthal, "Another Online Poll on Online Activity", Mystery Pollster, 8/22/2006

August 20th, 2006 (Permalink)

Headline, Too

Consumer prices up, factory output slows

That sounds like bad news, and so does the first paragraph:

WASHINGTON - Consumer inflation accelerated in July, reflecting a big jump in gasoline and other energy prices. In evidence that the economy is slowing, industrial output in July slipped to just half the June pace.

Here are the details of the slowdown:

…[T]he Federal Reserve reported that output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities increased by 0.4 percent last month, just half of the 0.8 percent gain in June.

So, output actually increased instead of decreased last month, but the increase was half the previous month's increase. Maybe that's still bad news, but its not nearly as bad as what the headline leads you to believe.


August 19th, 2006 (Permalink)

Logic Check

Annenberg Political Fact Check has two new reports out concerning two recent internet political ads:

  1. A Republican National Committee ad quoted Congressman John Murtha out of context:
    When future dictionaries define the term "taken out of context" they might consider using this RNC Internet ad as an example. We seldom see such an extreme case of editing a person's words to change their meaning.
    What Murtha Said:
    Florida International University, June 24 2006
    RNC Version Full Version
    Rep. John Murtha: We're more dangerous to world peace than North Korea or Iran. Murtha: Fifty-six per cent of the people in Spain think it's more dangerous, the United States is more dangerous in Iraq than Iran is. Every one of our allies think that the United States being in Iraq is more dangerous to world stability and world peace, every one of our allies, Great Britain, every single country, they think it's, we're more dangerous to world peace than North Korea or Iran. That says something.

    Source: Brooks Jackson & James Ficaro, "RNC Ad Mischaracterizes Murtha", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 8/17/2006

    Reader Response (8/26/2006):

    Murtha―in context―points to support for the proposition that the United States (by being in Iraq) is more dangerous to world peace/stability than Iran or North Korea (as they exist, notwithstanding any other factors). Murtha's statement is an appeal to authority ("Fifty-six percent of the people in Spain…") but, more tellingly, he may or may not be adopting the same proposition―after all, why would he utter the admittedly inflamatory proposition but to adopt it or refute it in whole or in part? That he commits a logical fallacy by appealing to authority is clear. What's less clear is why he fails to adopt the same position as Spain et al. By cloaking his intentions, he invites speculation as to whether he adopts the same position. The ad merely fills the void. He is free, of course, to deny that he is adopting the same position. He would then need, though, to explain why he uttered such nonsense in the first place (hey, why not poll the Hottentots to see what we should do about North Korean nukes?).―Matthew G. Davis

    I'm not sure what point Murtha was trying to make, Matthew, as he is quite unclear about it. He just says at the end: "that says something", without saying what it says! However, an alternative to your interpretation is that Murtha was citing opinion polls in countries with which the U.S. is allied as evidence that the war in Iraq has decreased support for the U.S. among our allies.

    By the way, I don't think that Murtha's argument would be an appeal to authority even as you interpret it, but a bandwagon appeal. However, he may not be citing the opinion polls to either agree or disagree with them, but to use the fact of such opinions as evidence in his argument against current policies. That he opposes current policy on Iraq we know from other things he's said.

    Now, if this is Murtha's argument, it's not very strong, for a number of reasons: As Fact Check pointed out in their report, he exaggerated the degree to which public opinion among our allies is anti-American. From these polls alone, we cannot conclude with much confidence that public opinion in allied countries has actually become worse since the war in Iraq began. We would need a comparison between polls taken prior to the war and those taken recently to show a falling off of support, and Murtha did not do this. Moreover, even if we had polls showing an increase in anti-American attitudes in allied countries since the war, that would not be enough to show that the war caused the change in attitudes. To support the causal claim, we would need to actually ask people in other countries if their attitude had changed, and if so, why? Furthermore, Murtha doesn't explain why we should be concerned about public opinion in other countries, even allies, especially if such opinion is ignorant or prejudiced. So, one can fairly criticize both the unclarity and weakness of Murtha's speech without misrepresenting what he said.

    Instead, the ad took Murtha's words out of context in a way that gave the impression that he, himself, claimed that the U.S. is more dangerous to world peace than Iran or North Korea, which is about as deceptive a contextomy as you'll find.

  2. A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee internet ad criticized the Republicans' handling of terrorism with a dangling comparative: "Four times as many terror attacks in 2005." Four times as many as what? Apparently, it's four times as many as the previous year, but there was a low redefinition of "terrorism" in the meantime:
    A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad that appeared on the Internet this week attacks the record of "Bush and the GOP" on homeland security, but makes some factual stumbles.

    It claims terror attacks have increased four-fold under Bush, which isn't true. The official count jumped due to a much broader definition of what constitutes a terrorist attack. …

    The ad says that there were "four times as many terror attacks in 2005." However, that's not true.

    The Washington Post did report on April 29 that "the number of terrorist attacks worldwide increased nearly fourfold in 2005 to 11,111." But a look at the underlying statistics shows that's an apples-to-oranges comparison reflecting a much broader legal definition of "terrorism."

    The article draws its figures from the State Department's 2005 Country Report's [sic] on Terrorism. However, the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) which compiled the statistics for the report explained in a release that those figures could be misleading because of a change in terminology:

    NCTC: The previously used statutory definition of "international terrorism" ("involving citizens or territory of more than one country") resulted in hundreds of incidents per year; the currently used statutory definition of "terrorism" ("premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets") results in many thousands of incidents per year.

    The report goes on to note that this discrepancy "limits our ability to do 2004/2005 comparisons." The Post noted this vital caveat (toward the end of its story) but the DNC ad did not.

    Source: Justin Bank & Emi Kolawole, "Democrats Ask, Do You Feel Safer?", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 8/18/2006

Both ads appear to have been withdrawn from the internet.

August 17th, 2006 (Permalink)


Plan would add planets to solar system

The plan is to redefine the word "planet" in such a way that the asteroid Ceres will count, along with Charon, Pluto's largest moon, and a recently discovered object beyond Pluto's orbit. This plan will not, of course, add any new planets to the solar system, which will remain unchanged. Instead, astronomers will simply agree to use the word "planet" differently than they have previously. I suppose that the editor can be forgiven for the attention-grabbing headline, since few would actually be deceived by it into thinking that someone―God?―is planning to make or acquire some new planets.

"Planet" is an inherently vague term, since there are satellites orbiting the sun ranging in size from tiny specks of dust up to giant balls of gas. I don't know why astronomers think it worthwhile to spend time trying to redefine the term more precisely. What does it matter whether there are nine planets or twelve? This is not an empirical issue, since it's not a matter of discovering three new planets that we didn't know were there. Rather, the astronomers are simply deciding upon an arbitrary cutoff point between planets and smaller solar system bodies.

Given the vagueness of the word "planet", there are bound to be borderline cases such as Pluto, Ceres, and even our own moon. Though any precise redefinition of the word will get rid of the borderline cases, it will do so at the expense of introducing arbitrary distinctions. Whenever a vague concept is given a precise definition an arbitrary line must be drawn, so it is no criticism of the new definition that it makes such arbitrary distinctions.

One criticism of the proposed definition is that it might lead to there being many more than a dozen planets in the solar system if more asteroids like Ceres are discovered to be round. Apparently, some astronomers want to keep the number of "planets" small. An alternative, offered by proponents of the new definition, is to make a distinction between regular "planets" and "dwarf planets", so that new asteroid planets will be dwarves. However, since the concept of "small" is vague, this seems to bring back the problem of vagueness through the rear door. If astronomers can tolerate the vagueness of "dwarf planet", why not just tolerate the vagueness of "planet" itself?


Fallacy: Vagueness

Update (8/25/2006): The Numbers Guy's latest column discusses the International Astronomical Union resolution on this issue. The definition discussed above was rejected in favor of one which decreased the number of "planets" to eight, with Pluto being reclassified as a "dwarf planet".

The new definitions raise a separate logical issue from vagueness: In English, a "dwarf X" is usually an X; for instance, a dwarf elephant would still be an elephant, albeit a small one. Thus, one would expect a "dwarf planet" to be a small planet, in which case Pluto would still be a "planet" and the number of "planets" at least nine. However, the definitions given of "planet" and "dwarf planet" in Resolution 5A, adopted by the IAU, are contrary, so that nothing can be both a "dwarf planet" and a "planet". Thus, "dwarf" in "dwarf planet" is logically similar to "toy" in "toy gun": a toy gun is not a gun, and a dwarf planet is not a planet. This is likely to create confusion, since it runs counter to the common usage of "dwarf". It would have been better to have introduced a new term, such as the suggested "Pluton", for this class of objects.


August 10th, 2006 (Permalink)

Reader Response

Reader Ed Brown makes the following criticism:

One thing that I take mild exception to is the use of the term "doublespeak". As far as I can tell the term basically means "euphemism". But when using the term to denounce someone for using a euphemism to gloss-over an unfavourable feature of whatever it is they may be describing, "doublespeak" has the added rhetorical force and bluntness of a direct cognitive association, in the reader, with a horrifying Orwellian dystopia. In light of this, the term "doublespeak" would seem to be something of a cacophemism for the term "euphemism". And if we're denouncing someone for using a euphemism to conceal a certain unpleasantness, it does not seem particularly appropriate for us to use a term which makes or could make that concealment seem far more treacherous or Machiavellian than it really is, in a similar kind of way.

I don't know who coined the term "doublespeak", Ed, but I think that William Lutz at least popularized it. Lutz lists four kinds of doublespeak:

  1. Euphemism
  2. Jargon
  3. Bureaucratese
  4. Inflated language

While euphemism is a type of doublespeak, this doesn't mean that all euphemisms count as doublespeak. If a euphemism is used simply to spare someone's feelings, it shouldn't be condemned as doublespeak. Instead, the term "doublespeak" should be reserved for euphemisms that misleadingly conceal some important fact. So, though I agree with you that calling a euphemism "doublespeak" condemns it, I hope that any euphemism that I have so called deserves condemnation.

George Orwell did not invent or even use the term "doublespeak". It's associated with his novel 1984 because the novel describes an artificial language, Newspeak, that is designed as much to conceal as to communicate ideas. In the appendix on Newspeak, Orwell says the following about euphemism:

A great many [Newspeak words] were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labor camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i.e., Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.

However, Lutz' other forms of doublespeak would be difficult or impossible in Newspeak. Apparently, technical jargon was limited to those who actually needed it. So, the objectionable use of jargon would be impossible, since that involves using jargon in inappropriate contexts to intimidate the audience. Similarly, inflated language would be nearly impossible in Newspeak because of its limited vocabulary. Bureaucratese, which Lutz describes as "simply a matter of piling on words, of overwhelming the audience with words, the bigger the words and the longer the sentences the better", seems to violate the spirit if not the letter of the principles of Newspeak. However, it does bear some similarity to what in Newspeak is called "duckspeak", which means to speak in a meaningless way that sounds like the quacking of a duck.

Another Newspeak word, "doublethink", which means believing contradictions, presumably inspired the term "doublespeak". While Newspeak may have eliminated types of doublespeak other than euphemisms, Orwell certainly condemned the use of jargon, bureaucratese, and inflated language in other places, notably his essay "Politics and the English Language".

So, while the term "doublespeak" does have important connections to Orwell and his novel 1984, those connections are somewhat tenuous and convoluted. The word may be in some ways an unfortunate one, but it refers to a useful concept and is widely known in the English language. Moreover, it is not enough simply to call a euphemism a "euphemism", at least not if it is an example of doublespeak, for not all euphemisms are doublespeak or otherwise objectionable. For these reasons, I think that I'll keep using the term, though perhaps more cautiously.


Another Reader Responds (8/24/2006): Reader John Congdon writes:

I quite agree with your assessment that "the term 'doublespeak' should be reserved for euphemisms that misleadingly conceal some important fact." In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary agrees, equating "Doublespeak" with Sense 2 of "Double talk": "Deliberately ambiguous or evasive language." There is an Orwellian resonance here, since much of Newspeak (especially the examples Orwell gives in his appendix) is obviously designed to put a positive face on a negative reality.

However, the Doublespeak entry in the Fallacy Files simply directs one to the entry for Equivocation. Somehow, this doesn't seem to fit. As I understand it, equivocation is lexical ambiguity (confusion between two different, but legitimate, senses of a word) that can lead to the Fallacy of Equivocation. Doublespeak, on the other hand, strikes me as a deceptive rhetorical device, and thus more similar to Loaded Words.

The essential feature of doublespeak is not ambiguity (as it is with equivocation), but deception. This can be an exploitation of ambiguity, a deliberately misleading euphemism, a red herring, or any other device to distract, conceal, or otherwise change the terms of discussion. Thus, the term "Re-education camp" (the Vietnamese euphemism for forced labor camp, similar to Orwell's "joycamp") is clearly doublespeak (since it conceals the true nature of the camp itself) rather than equivocation (since "forced labor" is not a widely accepted sense of "re-education").

I grant that this example, like almost any example of doublespeak, does depend on which side one is on (dedicated Maoists, after all, do believe in "re-education through labor"), and I doubt anyone would ever consider their own words doublespeak. For example, both "Pro-Choice" and "Pro-Life" are sometimes considered doublespeak by their opponents, who would more "fairly" substitute the labels "Anti-Life" and "Anti-Choice" respectively!

One meaning of "doublespeak", or "double talk", is ambiguous language, as your dictionary entry indicates. This is the reason for including "doublespeak" as an alternative name for the fallacy of equivocation, though perhaps it ought to link to the more general fallacy of ambiguity instead. You have put your finger on a gap in the Fallacy Files as there simply is no entry for "doublespeak" in its more Orwellian meaning, which you're right is more like loaded language than like ambiguity.

No doubt the users of doublespeak and loaded language would not admit to it, even if they were aware of it. All four of the terms that you list are in fact loaded. In this case, each side is correct in pointing out the loaded language of the other side! "[W]hy beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

While we're on the subject of "joycamps", here's another example making the news:

Conversions of Muslims to Christianity are not common in Malaysia…. One 38-year-old convert, who said in an interview at a Roman Catholic parish that he would provide only his Christian names, Paul Michael, and not his surname, for fear of retribution, described how he led a double life. … He was fearful, he said, that if his conversion became public the religious authorities would come after him, and he could be sentenced to a religious rehabilitation camp. One such place, hidden in the forest at Ulu Yam Baru, 20 miles outside the capital, is ringed like a prison by barbed wire, with dormitories protected by a second ring of barbed wire. Outside a sign says, "House of Faith," and inside the inmates spend much of their time studying Islam.

Source: Jane Perlez, "Once Muslim, Now Christian and Caught in the Courts", New York Times, 8/24/2006

Via: Eugene Volokh, "Conversion to Christianity Earns Death Threats, Risk of Incarceration", The Volokh Conspiracy, 8/24/2006

August 8th, 2006 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Doonesbury's take on the black-or-white fallacy.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Tim van Gelder for the tip.

Update (5/18/2008): This comic, dated 8/6/2006, appears to be no longer available free online.

August 7th, 2006 (Permalink)

Letter to the Editor

Quarantines are used to curb deadly diseases. Polio, small pox, even influenza have been subject to strict limits of exposure by controlling travel. Terrorism is potentially the most deadly disease we've faced.

Certain cultures, ethnic groups and religions are intent on spreading death to this country. Our benefits, our colleges, our whole country have welcomed tourists and immigrants. But times and circumstances change.

Let's stop all entry to this country from Arab or Muslim nations. Of course, this will stop some peaceful Muslims or Arabs from entering, but if only one in 10,000 intends us harm it must be done.

And we need to expel every Arab who is not an American citizen.…

If we do this the world will scream, but if we don't countless U.S. citizens will die. Our children deserve to be protected, regardless of how much it offends our so-called friends.―Gene Ripley, Tulsa

Quarantines are only used against communicable diseases, but in what way is terrorism catching? The worst danger of allowing terrorists into the country is not that they will infect Americans with the terrorism virus, but that they will commit acts of terrorism themselves while here.

Fallacy: Weak Analogy

Source: "Quarantine is Necessary", Tulsa World, 7/27/2006

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Adria L. Morrison for this example.

August 4th, 2006 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Who Killed the Electric Car?

An ad for the new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? sports the following blurb:


Actually, Wilmington only says that the picture is "often fascinating", which is not quite the same thing. Perhaps it's occasionally boring too! However, the ad writer's worst offense is in the second part of the quote which comes at the beginning of the review, where Wilmington is explaining electric car history before discussing the film. Here's the context:

Given the problems wrought on our planet by the oil industry, geo-politics and massive pollution, it would obviously be a dream come true if some inventor and auto company could come up with an electric car that runs on batteries, doesn't consume fossil fuel and doesn't pollute the environment. What a glorious fantasy! Maddeningly, though, this particular dream happens to be true, a wondrous tale with an infuriating ending….

So, the "wondrous tale" is not the movie at all, but the history of the electric car. Hopefully, the interviews in the movie aren't taken out of context as badly as this blurb.


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