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October 15th, 2018 (Permalink)

Unspeakable Acts

Some acts of Congress have boring, unmemorable names, such as the Smoot-Hawley Act1, the Taft-Hartley Act2, and the McCain-Feingold Act3. They are often named for a pair of legislators, one from the Senate and one from the House of Representatives. However, the cutting edge of congressional act naming is to give an act a brand name to sell it to the public, especially via an acronym. Such names fit Steven Poole's definition of "unspeak":

…[A] name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite.4

Here are some examples from the last few decades:

Most acts of Congress nowadays are so long that nobody reads all of them10―and I mean nobody, not even members of Congress. Certainly, most citizens do not have the time, energy, or inclination to wade through thousands of pages of bureaucratese. As a result, all that we usually know about legislation is what politicians tell us is in it, and the name they give the bill. Are we being sold bills of goods?


  1. Editors, "Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
  2. Brian Duignan, "Taft–Hartley Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
  3. Clifford A. Jones, "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9/4/2018.
  4. Steven Poole, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How that Message Becomes Reality (2006), p. 3.
  5. Brian Duignan, "USA PATRIOT Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/13/2018.
  6. "USA Freedom Act: What’s in, what’s out", The Washington Post, 6/2/2015.
  7. Brian Duignan & Jeannette L. Nolen, "No Child Left Behind", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
  8. See: "An Act Entitled The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.".
  9. Ami Lynch, "Violence Against Women Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/16/2018.
  10. For instance, the PDF of the Obamacare bill itself is over 900 pages long; see note 8, above. Also, there were an additional 11,000 pages of regulations; see: Jayne O'Donnell & Fola Akinnibi, "How many pages of regulations are in the Affordable Care Act?", USA Today, 10/23/2013.

October 2nd, 2018 (Permalink)

New Book: The Sherlock Effect

There is no question that Conan Doyle was a great writer of fiction. Indeed, he was so good that he made the methods of Sherlock Holmes plausible not only to a general readership but also to a wide variety of forensic doctors, academicians, and scientists. People seem to have forgotten that Sherlock Holmes is make-believe. It is both sad and terrifying to note that professionals from the Victorian Era to the present day apply fictional methods to true-life happenings.1

I'm on record in a previous "New Book" entry as skeptical about Sherlock Holmes being treated as a model of logical reasoning2. I mentioned that I like the stories, and I've read every one of the originals written by Doyle more than once3. However, anyone trying to imitate Holmes would soon find themselves frequently mistaken. Holmes is never wrong only because the stories don't take place in the real world, but in a fantasy world created and controlled by Doyle.

This brings me to the current New Book by Thomas W. Young, a forensic physician, subtitled: "How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective". Clearly, this new book differs from the previous one, Mastermind, in being critical of the effect of Holmes' example.

I'm also skeptical of the notion that forensic scientists have been so influenced by a fictional character4. However, assuming that Holmes has indeed had such an influence, I'm less skeptical that it would be at least partly negative, though "disastrous" is a strong word.

In a review of the book in Psychology Today, Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, writes:

Young begins with Holmes’ explanation to Watson of “reasoning backwards.” It works like this: Holmes learns about or observes a result…and then uses intuition to describe the steps required for the incident to have occurred. “The reader is tricked into thinking that backwards reasoning is brilliant,” says Young, but it doesn’t actually work. Here's why: “For any result, any set of clues, there may be numerous possible ‘trains of events’ that could explain the result.” … So, any given “result” might have numerous possible routes, and one cannot be certain with intuition alone which one to pick.5

Intuition alone doesn't work because it's only part of the first half of the scientific method: forming an hypothesis to explain a set of evidence. There's nothing wrong with using intuition or imagination to form hypotheses; in fact, it's an essential step. What's missing is the next step in which the hypothesis, or intuition, is tested. In Doyle's fictional world, Holmes' intuitions always turn out to be correct; but in the real world, it's often necessary to go through many hypotheses before hitting upon the correct explanation.

Hopefully, this book not only critiques Holmes' methods, as portrayed in Doyle's stories, but also provides better methods. As a logician and fan of Doyle's Holmes stories, I'm looking forward to reading it.


  1. Thomas W. Young, The Sherlock Effect: How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective (2018), Chapter 2: "Sherlock and His Successors".
  2. See: New Book: Mastermind, 2/14/2013. I never reviewed this book, though I have read it. I was not favorably impressed.
  3. There are also so many Holmes pastiches of varying quality that I've only read a small fraction of them. However, one that I can recommend for those who like Holmes, and are also interested in logic and probability theory, is Colin Bruce's Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales Of Logic, Math, And Probability (2008).
  4. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist who reviewed the book for Psychology Today, is also skeptical of this so-called "Sherlock Effect". See the next note.
  5. Katherine Ramsland, "Sherlock's Curse", Psychology Today, 5/30/2018. Young's response is here: "A CRC Press author reviews and critiques The Sherlock Effect in Psychology Today", CRC Press, 5/31/2018.

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