Julian Baggini has a new book out, The Duck that Won the Lottery and 99 Other Bad Arguments, which is based on his old "Bad Moves" columns. I haven't read the book yet, but the columns were excellent, so I would expect the book to be, as well. Of course, I'd like to receive a review copy. I am a bit puzzled by the title, though: Why a duck? Why-a no chicken?
Source: Julian Baggini, "A Few Updates", Talking Philosophy, 9/29/2008
Resource: "The Cocoanuts―Why a Duck?", Why a Duck?
Presidential Debate Fallacies, Part 1
In the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the candidates spent time attacking straw men instead of each other. Near the beginning of the debate, Obama said:
Now, we also have to recognize that [the financial crisis] is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down.
After Obama had beaten the stuffing out of that straw man, McCain attacked a straw plan:
…I want to make sure we're not handing the health care system over to the federal government which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama's health care plan. I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government.
According to The Washington Post's fact checker, Obama's plan will support the purchase of private health insurance through tax credits and subsidies, as well as mandating insurance for children, which isn't a federal take-over of the health care system. McCain seems to have forgotten that Obama, not Hillary Clinton, is his opponent.
Note: This is not an exhaustive logical analysis of the debate. If you think that there is some fallacy or logical point that I have overlooked, please let me know.
Political Doublespeak Dictionary
Cases in point:
I'd ask them to cut this out, but….
Q: A spam email invited me to take "The Barack Obama Test". I dismissed the test as bunk, but my coworker argued the questions are valid and fair. Or "fair and balanced," as it were. I thought your take on the questions asked in the survey might be interesting, and if I can serve my coworker with a big "so there!" then that wouldn't be the worst thing, either.―Jessica Lindberg
A: The test is part of a promotional website advertising the book The Audacity of Deceit, by Brad O'Leary. Judging from the title alone, it's obviously anti-Obama. Supposedly, you can take the test to determine to what extent you agree with Obama's positions on issues. This could be a useful exercise so long as the test accurately reflects Obama's actual positions, but I'll leave the correctness of those positions to the fact checkers, while I logic check the questions.
Many of the questions on the test are logically unproblematic, but there are three types of question that set logical boobytraps for the unwary:
The quiz is also slanted in its choice of questions: in addition to showing what is supposed to be Obama's positions, the answers given include public opinion on the issues taken from polls. Almost all of Obama's positions are opposed by the majority of poll respondents, which suggests that the particular questions used on the test were selected for this reason. In this way, many people who take the test may get the false impression that they disagree with Obama more than they actually do.
A test such as this would be more useful if all candidates were included, or at least the two major ones, which would make it more difficult to slant the questions in favor of one of them. Also, the questions could be chosen so as to cover the most important issues, or those most revealing of the differences between the candidates, rather than to show any one of the candidates in a bad light.
As it is, I suspect that most people will react to the test in the way that Jessica and her co-worker did: those who are inclined to support Obama will reject it as bunk, whereas those who oppose him will think that it's "fair and balanced".
Ben Goldacre reports on a new study of publication bias, or "the file drawer effect":
For decades people have known that negative results tend not to get printed in academic journals, and it can happen for all kinds of reasons: they're not newsworthy, they're not much fun to write up, they don't look good on your CV, and they might not flatter your idea or product. … We may never know what was in that unpublished data, but those missing numbers will cost lives in quantities larger than any emotive health story covered in any newspaper. Doctors need negative data to make prescribing decisions. Academics need to know which ideas have failed, so they can work out what to study next, and which to abandon.
We also need some idea of how many studies are done in order to judge the statistical significance of those that are published. This problem is related to the issue of the confidence level of polls that I discussed in "How to Read a Poll" (see the Resource below): the 95% confidence level is used in most medical research as a measure of statistical significance. So, a study that gets a positive result at the 95% level will probably be published. However, if there are 19 studies of the same thing that got negative results and went unpublished, then the one positive study may well be due to chance. So, the larger the "file drawer effect", the higher our confidence level should be in order to minimize random errors.
Source: Ben Goldacre, "Missing in action: the trials that did not make the news", The Guardian, 9/20/2008
Update (9/21/2008): Coincidentally, I was just re-reading Joel Best's More Damned Lies and Statistics―the sequel, of course, to Damned Lies and Statistics―with an eye to reviewing it for the Bookshelf, when I came across the following mention of publication bias:
Sometimes researchers compare the results of several studies in what is called a meta-analysis. The logical assumption is that if several studies consistently show an effect, even if the effect is not powerful…, the multiple consistent results ought to give us more confidence that the relationship is real. The problem with this logic is that researchers often do not seek to publish―or have greater difficulty publishing―disappointing results. This publication bias means that it is hard to get studies with weak results published. Thus, meta-analyses tend to include only the most successful studies―those with results strong enough to get published.
So, another problem with publication bias is the way that it skews meta-analyses, or the scientific consensus, in a positive direction.
Source: Joel Best, More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues (2004), p. 82.
Acknowledgment: The illustration is an altered cover of a Weird Science comic book.
Routledge, the publishing house, is holding a contest for students. The prizes are copies of Nigel Warburton's books Thinking from A to Z and The Basics of Essay Writing, and an approximately $50 coupon for other Routledge titles. I haven't read the book on essay writing, but Thinking from A to Z is an excellent reference book covering informal fallacies and other logical topics. The deadline is 9/26/2008; see the Source below for details.
Source: Nigel Warburton, "Study Skills: Win Copies of Thinking from A to Z and The Basics of Essay Writing", Virtual Philosopher, 9/11/2008
"We're on a mission from God!"
Here's an exchange from the recent interview of Sarah Palin by Charlie Gibson:
GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?
Here is the relevant portion of Palin's remarks to the church; I've emphasized the parts quoted by Gibson:
Pray for our military. He's [Palin's son] going to be deployed in September to Iraq. Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country―that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. Thatís what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is Godís plan.
So, Gibson didn't actually quote Palin's "exact words", as he insists, but that's not the big problem with those quotes. There are two contextomies here, and each is the latter half of a sentence. The first half of each sentence makes it clear that Palin is asking the church members to pray that "our national leaders are sending [our military men and women] out on a task that is from God", and that "there is a plan and that that plan is Godís plan." This is different from asserting that the war is a "task from God" or part of "God's plan".
There are so many contextomies flying back and forth between the campaigns, do we really need reporters getting into the act?
Update (9/13/2008): Another exchange from this same interview is of logical interest:
GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
My first thought when I read this was: "'The Bush Doctrine'? What's that?" However, I'm not running for Vice President, so perhaps I couldn't be expected to know. I assume that Gibson was trying to test Palin's knowledge of foreign policy, which is not likely to be one of her strong points, and the fact that she doesn't know what the Bush Doctrine is would seem to be evidence of ignorance.
However, it appears that there is more than one doctrine that has been called "the Bush doctrine". As I explained in the Resource linked below, a noun phrase beginning with "the" is a definite description, and one characteristic of definite descriptions is uniqueness of reference: in order for "the Bush doctrine" to refer at all, there must be exactly one Bush doctrine. Since, in this case, there are multiple "Bush doctrines", the phrase fails to denote. So, Palin's confusion as to what Gibson was referring to―and mine, as well!―is the logically correct response.
Resource: "A" v. "The", 7/19/2008
Too Good to Check it Out
I've often wondered how much of bad science reporting is the result of just plain ignorance and how much the result of willful ignorance. Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column, which discusses how statistical insignificance was ignored in the reporting of a recent study, provides one piece of evidence:
…[W]ere the journalists blameless, and guilty only of ignorance? For any individual, nobody can tell. But Dr Dimitris Ballas, the academic who did the research, had this to say: "I tried to explain issues of significance to the journalists who interviewed me. Most did not want to know."
Source: Ben Goldacre, "Cheer up: it's all down to random variation", Bad Science, 9/16/2008
A lawsuit against Goldacre and The Guardian, the British newspaper that he writes for, has just been dropped. It was brought by one of the snake oil salesmen that he had criticized in his Bad Science column. I wasn't aware of this suit because he was legally muzzled from writing about it for the last year. Even though the suit was dropped, The Guardian spent nearly $900,000 defending it, though the man who sued has been ordered to pay part of those expenses.
England is more hospitable to such suits than the United States is, and plaintiffs more likely to win there. This is one reason why Holocaust-denier David Irving sued American historian Deborah Lipstadt in England, when her book was published there (see the Resource below), though Irving also lost.
Using lawsuits and the threat of them in order to stifle criticism is an all-too-common form of the appeal to force. Instead of trying to shut people up by physically attacking them, or threatening to do so, all that is often necessary is to threaten a lawsuit. Even winning such a suit can be a Pyrrhic victory, since the expense of defence may be exorbitant.
Source: Ben Goldacre, "With their Money, Myopia and Abuses, these Pill Makers Match Big Pharma", The Guardian, 9/12/2008
Resource: Book Review: Lying about Hitler, 10/28/2002
Acknowledgment: The illustration is an altered cover of a Weird Science comic book.
Blurb Watch: TransSiberian
I don't know whether the star trick is getting more common, or I'm just now noticing it, but here's another example. According to the ad for the new movie TransSiberian, critic Boo Allen of the Denton Record-Chronicle gives it three-and-a-half stars. What the ad doesn't tell you is that this is out of five, not four, stars possible. In other words, this is a 70% positive rating rather than 88%: not bad, but not great either.
Previous Blurb Watches:
Fallacy Files Book Club: Nudge,