The Last Debate
The 2020 presidential debate season is now officially over so we can rest easy for another four years. It seems to have ended rather abruptly because the first debate was a waste of time1 and the second was cancelled2. So, it's as if there was only one real "debate" between the presidential candidates.
The new format, in which each candidate was given two uninterrupted minutes to address each question while the other candidate's microphone was turned off3, seems to have worked reasonably well as there were fewer of the interruptions that turned the first debate into a free-for-all. Both of the candidates had chances to speak uninterruptedly for two minutes at a time, though neither was particularly articulate.
I don't have much to say about the substance of the debate, but there is an issue that I examined back during the Democratic primaries that arose in the following short passage:
President Donald Trump: You shouldn't be bringing up Wall Street. Because you're the one that takes the money from Wall Street, not me. …
Former Vice President Joe Biden: Average contribution, $43.3
This is the same amount that Biden was touting as his average contribution in last year's Democratic debates4. According to more recent sources, his current average is $445, which isn't much of a difference.
Of course, as I explained in the previous entry on this topic, this stuff about average contributions is malarkey, to use one of Biden's favorite words. In this case, it's even more malarkey than usual since the numbers given by Biden seem inconsistent. According to a brief video of Biden from the middle of this month, his campaign raised $380 million in September from 5.5 million donors for an average contribution of $446, but the mean is actually $69.
This example highlights a problem with reporting averages, namely, that it isn't clear which one is meant: mean, median, or mode. It's possible that the campaign chose the median since, as I mentioned in the entry on the vice presidential debate earlier this month7, the median tends to be lower for distributions involving money. Unlike the mean, the median cannot be calculated simply from the amount contributed and the number of contributors―instead, the underlying data is needed―so I can't tell whether $44 is the median contribution.
In any case, whether the mean or the median, the "average" is easily gamed by the campaigns in order to make it artificially low. For instance, Biden's campaign site8 has, along with more round amounts, a button to donate exactly $32. When I scroll down the page, a banner pops up at the bottom saying that the average donation this month is $38, with a button to donate that exact amount. It's possible that the campaign is encouraging individual contributions of this amount so that it can report the mode as the average, but it's more likely that this is simply a way to keep the mean or median low.
By interjecting his "average" contribution in response to Trump's claim that Biden takes money from Wall Street, Biden was suggesting either that he doesn't do so or, more likely, that the contributions from Wall Street are dwarfed by those from "Main Street". However, the more relevant figures would be the total amount of money donated by Wall Street as opposed to the total amount from other contributors.
Another significant fact is that both National Public Radio and Newsweek9 reported these numbers with no mention of the apparent inconsistency between them. All that's necessary to see that the reported "average" cannot be the mean is to divide the total amount of contributions by the number of contributors, but that appears to have been beyond the capabilities of the reporters. As a result, both of these articles are just rewritten press releases from the Biden campaign.
Update (10/24/2020): I just realized that there's another possible interpretation of the numbers given by the Biden campaign: In the short video, Biden says that there were 5-and-a-half million donors―not donations―and the average contribution was "something like" $44. Since individual donors can donate more than once, as long as their total amount donated does not exceed campaign financing limits, it may be that the mean amount donated is $69 per donor while the mean donation is only $44. Since Biden didn't say how many donations there were, we can't determine the mean donation. This is one way that the average can be gamed, that is, by individual donors breaking up their contributions into multiple small amounts. For this reason, the mean amount donated by each donor would be a more revealing statistic than the mean donation.
- Debate Clinic, 10/1/2020.
- The Vice-Presidential Debate, 10/9/2020. See the "Updates".
- "Debate transcript: Trump, Biden final presidential debate moderated by Kristen Welker", USA Today, 10/23/2020.
- And Then There Were Seven, 12/21/2019.
- Amita Kelly, "Biden Announces Record $383 Million September Haul", National Public Radio, 10/14/2020.
- In the video, Biden says: "You know, the average contribution out there for all that money this month was something like $44 or something―it was under $50." So, he doesn't seem to be too sure of the average.
- The Vice-Presidential Debate, 10/9/2020.
- Biden/Harris, accessed: 10/24/2020.
- James Walker, "Joe Biden's Campaign Raised Over Twice as Much as Hillary Clinton Did at This Stage in 2016", Newsweek, 10/15/2020.
Fact-checking Vs. Nit-picking
A diversion can occur when a person makes a petty objection. You make a slight mistake and your opponent pounces upon you for that mistake, even though the mistake is a minor one and does not alter by one jot the point you have been making. … Your credibility may be weakened. People may assume that, because you were wrong on this one point, you are wrong in other areas. Such pettiness is sometimes called nit-picking.1
In the introduction to this new occasional series on fact-checking I mentioned that one difference between amateur and professional fact-checking is that the pros must spend a lot of time and energy checking trivia, whereas we amateurs are only interested in the important facts2. But how can you tell whether a supposed fact merits checking?
Nit-picking in argumentation is a red herring that can distract the audience or opponent from the point of the argument, as well as lowering an arguer's credibility. As amateur factcheckers, we should avoid nit-picking for two reasons: it's unfair to those who we are checking, and it's a waste of our time.
Unfortunately, there is no way in advance to classify a factual claim as important or trivial; instead, context determines which it is. For example, most of the time the exact spelling of a person's name would be a matter of little concern, except of course to that person, especially if the mistake were a matter of one letter. However, in the case of reporting a crime, the difference between John Smith and Jon Smith could lead to accusing an innocent man of that crime, so the letter "h" is of vital importance.
A factual claim is important if it plays an important role in the context of the argument in which it occurs, but it is trivial when it plays either no role, or a minor one, in that context. So, when considering whether to check a factual claim, ask yourself: Would the truth or falsity of this claim make a difference to the argument in which it occurs? If not, then it probably is not worth checking.
For example, in the course of writing a previous entry on errors in Michael Wolff's most recent book3, I came across a couple of trivial errors in articles pointing out Wolff's errors, which was ironic as some of the alleged errors in both of Wolff's books appeared to be insignificant ones. I declined to discuss those errors in that entry as they were too much of a digression, though I did mention one of them in a footnote4. That those who engage in picking others' nits end up making small mistakes themselves suggests that they need to take the old advice: "Medice, cura te ipsum!5"
In an article on the fact-checking of Wolff's first book, Fire and Fury, we read:
Wolff misstated the year in which John A. Boehner left his post as House speaker, for example. He mixed up lobbyist Mike Berman and Washington Post reporter Mark Berman. … Wolff wrote that communications strategist Hope Hicks was 26 when she joined Trump's campaign (correct) but also wrote that she was 26 during his transition to the White House (incorrect).6
No doubt it's annoying to Mike Berman and Mark Berman that Wolff mixed them up, but does it matter to most other readers of the book? What difference does Hope Hicks' exact age during the transition make to anyone other than perhaps Hicks herself? Nothing seems to ride on any of these errors.
In his second book, Siege, the following error is cited:
When asked about his mistake in claiming that former Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand was nominated by former President Barack Obama, when she was actually nominated by President Donald Trump, Wolff said: "Even if I was wrong, I'm not going to admit it to you." Although the error was small, the author continued to defend the contents of his book with a no-apology approach against further allegations of inaccuracies and problematic claims.7
The author of the article here admits that the error is a small one, and if it weren't for the more serious errors cited, this would look like nit-picking.
There are at least two attitudes one might adopt towards minor errors in published works:
- Errors are inevitable and, as long as they are minor ones, not too important. What's important is the big picture, not all the little details. For instance:
Perhaps Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, spoke for the masses when he looked at the list of "Fire and Fury" mistakes…and said, "Gosh, those Wolff errors seem kind of flea-size, no?" "It's worth pointing out [that] errors creep into almost all nonfiction books, especially on politics and history," he said. "Some of our most meticulous and scrupulous authors will get things wrong."6
Wolff himself has fallen back on this defense:
- An alternative view is that small mistakes, especially those that would be easy to correct, show a lack of care about the facts. This view is expressed by a former professional fact-checker:
"To me, as a former fact-checker, that's alarming when I see tiny things," [he] said. "Easy fixes, easy catches―if those get missed and if those are wrong, then it does not inspire a ton of confidence in the big details."6
I think there is truth in both of these viewpoints: a few trivial errors are probably inevitable, but the big picture is composed of a lot of little details, and if enough of those details are wrong then the big picture will be wrong, too. While a few errors are to be expected, a lot of mistakes shows a lack of due diligence on the part of the author, publisher, and their fact-checkers if any. The more small errors I find, the less I trust that there are no big ones.
For this reason, I recommend that the amateur fact-checker concentrate on important claims as opposed to trivia. However, if you happen to notice an unusually large number of trivial mistakes, such as some of the examples in this entry, that's a warning sign of an unreliable source.
- Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies (2002), p. 58; emphasis in the original.
- Why You Need to be Able to Check Facts, 9/8/2020.
- See: Wolff's Howlers, 6/12/2019.
- See footnote 2 of the entry in the first note above.
- Translation: "Physician, heal thyself!", Latin. See: Medice, Cura Te Ipsum, 6/1/2019.
- Callum Borchers, "How did Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury' get past a fact-checker? It's not clear that the book was vetted.", The Washington Post, 1/9/2018. This article itself contains a minor error in the following passage:
Orlean added that book publishers don't feel the same level of fact-checking pressure that news outlets do because readers often don't know or care who prints books and, therefore, are unlikely to blame publishers for errors. "I guess the simple way of putting it is this: With magazines, the brand is more prominent than the individual writer, and they have a lot at stake in their contents," Orlean said. "A publisher is a little bit more of a weigh station; content flows through it to the public."
I think Orlean meant "way station" rather than "weigh station". A way station is a train station in between main stations that a train might stop at for only a short time. Metaphorically, it came to mean any place one would stop for a break on a longer trip. So, a way station is not a destination but a temporary stop along the way. Given its connection to railroads, "way station" seems to have originated in the 19th century.
In contrast, a "weigh station" is a place where road vehicles―usually trucks―must stop to be weighed. These stations are often placed at borders where a vehicle entering a state or country is checked for compliance with local weight regulations. So, a weigh station is a kind of way station, but not the other way around.
Obviously, since they are pronounced the same, these two phrases are easily confused. However, unless you're talking about weighing something, the phrase should be spelled "way station" if you mean a temporary stop. In the above quote from Orlean, it's clear that she means that the publisher is a stop on the voyage of a book from its author to the reader. Moreover, since Orlean was presumably interviewed orally for this article, it was the newspaper that is responsible for misspelling what she said.
- Christina Zhao, "Michael Wolff Defends New Book From Allegations of Factual Inaccuracies in Heated Interview: 'This Critique is Bulls**t!'", Newsweek, 6/8/2019. There's a small error in a quote in this article which is probably not Wolff's fault; see the next note.
- "Tenure" makes no sense in this context. Instead, I wonder whether Wolff meant "tenor", which would sound much the same. Outside of the musical context, "tenor" is an old-fashioned word that can mean the condition or direction of something, and that seems to fit what Wolff was saying. Given their similarity in sound, and the fact that "tenor" in its non-musical sense is uncommon, I wouldn't be surprised if whoever transcribed Wolff's remarks mistook "tenor" for "tenure".
Both this and the error discussed in the previous note were made in going from the spoken word to the written word, that is, transcription errors. Homophones―such as "way station" and "weigh station"―and near homophones―such as "tenor" and "tenure"―are traps waiting to trip up reporters transcribing what they are hearing.
- Michael Isikoff, "Confronted with multiple errors in his new Trump book, a testy Michael Wolff says, 'You have to trust me'", Yahoo! News, 6/8/2019.
Movie Review: Mr. Jones
…[I]f you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.―George Orwell1
Title: Mr. Jones
Writer: Andrea Chalupa
Director: Agnieszka Holland
- James Norton as Gareth Jones
- Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty
- Vanessa Kirby as Ada Brooks
- Joseph Mawle as George Orwell
Review: The "Mr. Jones" in the title of this "based on a true story" movie refers to Gareth Jones, a nearly forgotten journalist of the early twentieth century. Jones' main claim to what little fame he has is that he was one of only a few journalists to tell the truth about the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s.
There are two important true stories told in this movie:
- The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933: Unlike most famines, it was not caused by a drought or other natural disaster, but by the policies of the government of the Soviet Union of which Ukraine was a part. Exactly how many people died will never be known, but a low-end estimate seems to be at least four million Ukrainians and another million in the Soviet Union outside of the Ukraine2.
One reason why we will never know exactly how many died is that the Soviets rather successfully concealed the existence of a famine, let alone its full extent, from the rest of the world. Foreign reporters were forbidden to travel to the Ukraine, and the government censored all reports telegraphed to other countries3.
As a result, there is an asymmetry in what Americans know about the crimes against humanity committed by Nazis and those committed by communists. Part of the reason for this is no doubt that the Nazis were our enemies in World War 2, whereas the Soviets were our allies. Also, the Nazis lost the war and all of their crimes were subsequently exposed; the Soviets won and successfully covered up theirs. Some people alive today lived through those years, yet many Americans don't even know that there was such a famine. I never even heard of it until I was well into adulthood and, as far as I can recall, it was never mentioned in any of my schooling.
- Gareth Jones Vs. Walter Duranty: Both Jones and Duranty were foreign reporters in the Soviet Union at the time of the famine, the latter being The New York Times' "man in Moscow". While superficially similar, the two did not live parallel lives, in Plutarch's sense, but perpendicular lives that only met at one important point in history.
Jones appears to have been sympathetic with the Soviet Union on arrival there, but he nonetheless violated the ban on travelling to the Ukraine and then reported what he saw there. Duranty, in contrast, kept the communists' secrets, even though he appears not to have been a communist himself. Worse still, when Jones' report came out Duranty denied it. So, it ended up being the word of a young freelance journalist against that of a Pulitzer prize winner4 writing for the prestigious New York Times. No wonder we still know so little.
Jones was killed before his thirtieth birthday under mysterious circumstances in Mongolia, whereas Duranty died at the ripe age of 73. I suppose it's a cliché to say that, in these times of fake news, we desperately need more reporters like Mr. Jones and fewer like Mr. Duranty, but some things are clichés because they're true.
Mr. Jones is, of course, a fictional movie, despite many of its characters being based on real people and its events on historical events. There really was a Gareth Jones, a George Orwell, a Walter Duranty, and millions of people were actually starved to death in the Ukraine in 1932-1933. So, I want to discuss some of the liberties the movie takes with history, though I don't mean to criticize it simply for doing so.
The movie makes a connection between Jones and a much better-known writer, George Orwell. The first scene shows Orwell writing his novel Animal Farm, and the first mention of "Mr. Jones" refers to the farmer in that book whose farm is taken over by the animals. The Orwell character narrates the first line of the novel which begins with the words "Mr. Jones", at which point the movie's title flashes upon the screen. This is about the strongest visual way to give the impression that Animal Farm's "Mr. Jones" is the namesake of the movie's hero. However, this makes little sense as the Jones of Orwell's book is its human villain―there are also animal villains. Presumably, Orwell gave the character that name because it is such a common one, and because he is a representative farmer―it could just as well have been "Mr. Smith"―and not because of any connection to the journalist with the same last name.
There are a few additional brief scenes of Orwell writing, dispersed throughout the movie, which I suspect will just confuse most viewers. Unless you're familiar enough with Animal Farm to recognize the book that he's writing, you won't realize until later, when there's a short scene of Jones meeting him for lunch, that he's even supposed to be Orwell. All of this seems to be intended to piggyback Jones' reputation on Orwell's greater fame, but if anything it tends to overshadow Jones.
Orwell was a journalist who told the truth even when it was inconvenient, as was Jones. Orwell is famous and a journalistic hero, whereas Jones is largely forgotten. There is, thus, a conceptual if not historical link between the two, which I suppose is the point of the movie's Orwell scenes. Regular readers will realize that I'm a great admirer of Orwell, but even accepting that he and Jones met, the connection between the two seems strained and distracting.
I don't mean to criticize the movie for suggesting a meeting between the two that probably never happened. After all, it is a fictionalized movie, and it's at least possible that the two may have met for lunch. Rather, the connection the movie makes is confusing to anyone familiar with Orwell, and distracting to those who don't.
While ostensibly in color, the movie uses such a washed-out palette that it might almost be in black and white. It makes sense that the scenes in the Ukraine, with snow and leafless trees, are nearly colorless, and it fits with the bleak mood of a famine. However, there's little visual contrast with the earlier and later scenes in England and Moscow, which should have been more colorful.
Gareth Jones, as portrayed in this movie at any rate, is almost as colorless a character as most of the movie itself. The movie does a poor job of dramatizing or even explaining his actions, giving the viewer little sense of why he does anything or even what he's doing much of the time. On a first viewing, I had trouble following the plot, despite the fact that I knew a little about the history going in. On a second viewing, it became clearer, but how many viewers will bother to watch it a second time?
As a result, much of the first half of the movie is dull and confusing, with its colorless main character and dreary photography. Perhaps it's inevitable that the colorful bad guy is a more interesting character than the bland good guy, but the movie only comes alive in the first half when Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty is on the screen. While the real Duranty may have figuratively sold his soul to the devil, the movie's Duranty plays the role of the devil tempting Mr. Jones to sell his soul.
Jones is able to resist all such temptations because he doesn't drink or smoke, and his love life seems to consist of an apparently sexless friendship with Duranty's secretary, Ada Brooks. Vanessa Kirby, who plays Brooks, is particularly affecting when Duranty later tempts her to betray Jones.
While its first half is slow and hard to follow, the second half, when Jones finally makes it to the Ukraine, is harrowing. If you're looking for something scary to watch for Halloween, you might try this movie, but keep in mind that it's not about ghosties and ghoulies or even long-leggedy beasties. This is a real horror movie about real horrors, not supernatural ones but the natural horrors of starvation and what it does to the human body and mind. It's not scary-fun, but scary-sad.
Recommendation: I can't recommend Mr. Jones as entertainment, but it's an occasionally powerful tragedy with excellent performances, especially Sarsgaard and Kirby. Given its unpleasant and depressing subject, I don't blame you if you don't want to watch it. It's rated R, and shouldn't be shown to young children, who would probably be bored and wouldn't understand most of it anyway. Not recommended for highly sensitive people. In addition to scenes of famine and the consequences of starvation, there is a wild party at Duranty's apartment with naked people―including Duranty!―and heroin use. Save the popcorn and Jujubes for another night.
As an alternative or supplement to the movie―and corrective to some of its fictionalization―I recommend the two articles by Anne Applebaum linked in the following endnotes. Applebaum also won a Pulitzer prize5, but don't hold that against her.
- 1984, Part 3, Chapter 4.
- Anne Applebaum, "Holodomor", Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2020.
- Anne Applebaum, "How Stalin Hid Ukraine's Famine From the World", The Atlantic, 10/13/2017.
- Mark von Hagen, "The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won", History News Network, 7/24/2003.
- For Gulag: A History, see: "2004 Pulitzer Prizes", The Pulitzer Prizes, accessed: 10/14/2020.
The Vice-Presidential Debate
A debate was held between the vice-presidential candidates, incumbent Mike Pence and challenger Senator Kamala Harris, on Wednesday night. This was a better debate than the previous presidential debacle, though it could scarcely have been otherwise. There were some interruptions and exceeding of time limits, but not so many that the moderator, Susan Page, lost all control of the proceedings. However, the candidates simply ignored many of Page's questions, which means that the moderator's role is still a dubious one. If the candidates are not going to address the issues and answer the questions raised by the moderator, why not do away with the position and adopt a modified Lincoln-Douglas format?
As I mentioned in a previous entry1, this was an unusually important debate because the Vice Presidential candidates this year are more important than they usually are. Given the age and health issues of both presidential candidates, it's more than usually likely that whoever is elected this year will either die in office or become incapacitated, and if that happens then one of these two people will become president. Page actually made this issue the second one that she raised, after the inevitable coronavirus questions, but unfortunately both candidates ignored it and talked about other matters.
Let's turn from process to substance. Here's a heavily edited excerpt from the exchange on taxes:
Page: Senator Harris, the Biden-Harris campaign has proposed new programs to boost the economy and you would pay for that new spending by raising $4 trillion in taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Some economists warn that could curb entrepreneurial ventures that fuel growth and create jobs. Would raising taxes put the recovery at risk? And you have two minutes to answer, uninterrupted.
Harris: …Donald Trump…passed a tax bill benefitting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit that the American people are gonna have to pay for. On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He'll get rid of it. …
Pence: President Trump cut taxes across the board. Despite what Senator Harris says, the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings in taxes. … But America, you just heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one Joe Biden's gonna raise your taxes. It's really remarkable to think, Susan―
Harris: That's not what I said.
Pence: … Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to raise taxes. …
Page: Thank you, Vice President Pence. Senator Harris?
Harris: Well, I mean, I thought we saw enough of it in last week's debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth. And the truth of the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear. He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year―
Pence: He said he's gonna repeal the Trump tax cuts.
Harris: Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking. I'm speaking.
Pence: …[I]t'd be important if you said the truth. Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he's going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year―
Harris: That is absolutely not true―
Pence: Senator, that's the math―
Harris: ―[T]hat tax bill―
Pence: Is he only gonna repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?
Harris: … Joe Biden will not raise taxes on anyone who makes less than $400,000 a year. He has been very clear about that. …
Pence: … But look, Senator Harris, you're entitled to your own opinion but you're not entitled to your own facts.2
There are two issues here of logical interest:
- Did Harris contradict herself? In her first statement in this quoted passage, Harris says:
Donald Trump…passed a tax bill benefitting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit that the American people are gonna have to pay for. On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He'll get rid of it.
Presumably, the bill that she's referring to benefitted the wealthy and big corporations, as well as contributing to the large deficit, by cutting taxes on them. Later, Pence says: "But America, you just heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one Joe Biden's gonna raise your taxes," at which point, Harris interrupts and says: "That's not what I said."
Is she denying what she just said? Or, is she making a hair-splitting distinction between "raising taxes" and "repealing tax cuts"3? Obviously, there is a procedural difference between a bill that raises a tax rate and one that repeals a tax cut, but the effect is the same: higher taxes. What difference would it make to taxpayers when their taxes go up that it was the result of the repeal of a tax cut rather than a tax raise? Unfortunately, neither Page nor Pence followed up on this by asking Harris exactly what she was denying she said.
- What is an "average American family" or "average working family"? Pence claimed that Trump's "tax cuts…gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year" and "the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings in taxes". There are three logical points to make about this claim:
- Mathematically, there's no such thing as an "average American family of four" or an "average working family", since "average" can only be applied to things that are quantifiable. There are American families of average income and working families of average size, but not just plain "average". Presumably, what Pence meant was that the average tax cut was $2,0004.
- "Average" is ambiguous between the mean and the median. The mean is calculated by adding up the total amount of tax money cut and dividing by the total number of taxpayers; the median is the middle tax cut when the individual cuts are arranged in ascending order. Which sense of "average" did Pence mean? We don't know because he didn't say and nobody asked.
- For a normal distribution, that is, a symmetrical bell curve―the mean and median are so close to each other that it doesn't matter which you use. However, if the distribution is asymmetrical―that is, skewed―the mean and median can be far apart. Distributions involving money, such as income, wealth, and tax cuts, tend to skew towards the higher amounts. This is because no one can have less than zero income or wealth, but there is no upper limit on them. As a result, the mean tends to be greater than the median when dealing with financial matters.
So, which measure of central tendency a politician chooses to use will depend on whether he or she wants a larger number or a smaller one. Presumably, Pence was interested in making the tax cut for typical American working families appear as large as possible, so that he would use the mean, rather than median. However, the median is usually the better measure of central tendency for a skewed distribution5.
This was a confusing exchange between the candidates, and I doubt that any viewers came away better informed about their positions on taxes. The moderator might have been able to clarify matters by questioning the candidates but the format, with its rigid division of the time into a series of distinct issues, together with the tendency of the debaters to ignore questions, made it impossible to cross-examine them. In the end, what the casual viewer is left with is just a he said-she said series of accusations and counter-accusations and it's not even clear what they're claiming, let alone what the truth is.
Update (10/10/2020): In other debate news, the second presidential debate, originally scheduled for the 15th, apparently has been officially cancelled by the CPD6. After the president tested positive for coronavirus, the commission tried to make a last-minute change to a virtual debate, but the president refused to participate7.
The CPD, despite its name, is a private organization set up by the two main political parties8, and has no legal power to compel candidates to participate in debates. The primary reason that candidates do so is the opportunity to be heard by a large audience, and public pressure.
Trump's diagnosis was a weak reason for the change to a virtual format. The candidates, moderator, and any other participants in the debates can be protected from transmission of the virus without being in different locations. The CPD has known of this problem for months now, and has no excuse for being unable to protect the participants.
There was also a minor scandal involving the scheduled moderator of that debate, Steve Scully, who appeared to have "tweeted" a questionable "tweet"9. Now, he claims that his Nitwitter account was hacked, which seems to be the current version of "the dog ate my homework". Moreover, Scully appears to have a history of claiming that his account was hacked, having complained of it twice previously10. Quick, someone show Steve how to come up with a secure password! I don't know how much all of this nonsense entered into the decision to cancel the debate, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was the last straw.
Apparently, the final debate, scheduled for the 22nd, is still on and will not be virtual.
Update (10/16/2020): Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Steve Scully has now admitted that he lied about his Nitwitter account being hacked11. His employer C-SPAN has suspended him. This seems to be one of those Watergate-type cases where the attempted cover-up was worse than the original crime. If only Scully had just been honest and apologized about the "tweet", this whole thing would probably have blown over in a day. It's too bad as, based on my viewing of C-SPAN over the years, their hosts are excellent at maintaining a poker-faced neutrality. I'm not sure how that would translate into moderating a debate, but now we'll probably never find out.
- The Debate About the Debates, 8/31/2020.
- Susan Page, "Read the full transcript of vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris", USA Today, 10/8/2020. Ellipses mark parts that I edited out and dashes indicate interruptions.
- This is not a new distinction, see: Fact Check it Out, 5/30/2007. Damer, in his textbook, has an entry for the fallacy of "Distinction Without a Difference". If Harris was actually trying to claim a distinction between raising taxes and repealing a tax cut, then she would have committed this fallacy. See: T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (3rd Edition, 1994), pp. 74-76. My thanks to Phillip Veldhuis and his students for recently calling this fallacy to my attention in a different context. I might not have noticed this example if they hadn't sensitized me to it.
- See: Who's an "Average" American?, 2/17/2007.
- For more on the distinction between the mean and the median, see: "Average" Ambiguity, 11/4/2002. For an extended example of the difference a mean or median can make, see: The $604 Question, 4/17/2013.
- "Statement by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD): October 15 Presidential Debate Will Not Proceed", Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/9/2020.
- Andrew Solender, "October 15 Presidential Debate Canceled After Trump Refuses To Go Virtual", Forbes, 10/9/2020.
- "The Commission on Presidential Debates: An Overview", Commission on Presidential Debates, accessed: 10/8/2020.
- Yaron Steinbuch, "Steve Scully’s question for Anthony Scaramucci raises eyebrows ahead of debate", New York Post, 10/9/2020.
- Joseph A. Wulfsohn, "Steve Scully has history of blaming 'hackers' for posts made on his Twitter account", Fox News, 10/9/2020.
- Elahe Izadi, "C-SPAN suspends Steve Scully after he says he lied about his Twitter account being hacked", The Washington Post, 10/15/2020.
The Care Bears are Back!
A New York Times headline from yesterday:
Most Patients' Covid-19 Care Bears Little Resemblance to Trump's*
The story beneath the headline is almost as ludicrous as the headline: it's point is that the President received better care in the hospital than the average person would. This is news? Not only that, but given that Trump is at the same time being criticized for supposedly being cavalier about his treatment, just imagine if he had refused to go to the hospital!
* Julie Bosman, Sarah Mervosh, Amy Harmon & Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, "Most Patients' Covid-19 Care Bears Little Resemblance to Trump's", The New York Times, 10/6/2020. This link goes to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine snapshot of the page from early yesterday. The headline has since been changed to the less amusing: "Most Patients' Covid-19 Care Looks Nothing Like Trump's". Note that it took four people to write this silly story!
Man 1: Now, let's get one thing quite clear: I most definitely told you.
Man 2: Oh no, you didn't!
Man 1: Oh yes, I did!
Man 2: Oh no, you didn't!
Man 1: Oh yes, I did! …
Man 2: Oh look, this isn't an argument.
Man 1: Yes, it is!
Man 2: No, it isn't, it's just contradiction!
Man 1: No, it isn't!
Man 2: It is!
Man 1: It is not!
Man 2: You just contradicted me!
Man 1: No, I didn't!
Man 2: You did!
Man 1: No, no, no!
Man 2: You did just then!
Man 1: Nonsense!
Man 2: Oh, this is futile.
Man 1: No, it isn't!
Man 2: Yes, it is! … An argument isn't just contradiction.
Man 1: Well, it can be.
Man 2: No, it can't! An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
Man 1: No, it isn't!
Man 2: Yes, it is! It isn't just contradiction.
Man 1: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Man 2: Yes, but it isn't just saying "no it isn't".
Man 1: Yes, it is! …
Man 2: No, it isn't! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
Man 1: It is not!
Man 2: It is!
Man 1: Not at all!1
That isn't an excerpt from the transcript of the first presidential debate of 2020, but it almost could be, except for the part where the second man tried to explain what an argument is. Throw in some name-calling, personal accusations, an ineffectual moderator, then shake well and you've got the so-called debate.
Part of the problem with this pseudo-debate was that the moderator, Chris Wallace, wasn't able to exercise much control over the participants. In previous entries, I've complained of too many moderators in the Democratic primary debates2, and there are still too many! What's the point of having even one if he's unable to exercise control? Either the moderator should be given the tools to do so, such as the ability to shut off an interrupting or filibustering candidate's microphone, or there should be no moderator. As it is, the moderator is worse than useless, since he ends up being just a third voice trying to talk over the other two all at the same time.
How could a debate be conducted without a moderator? I would suggest going back to something like the Lincoln-Douglas debate format, only shorter. Instead, of having both candidates standing at lecterns with microphones, have a single lectern with one microphone and let the candidates take turns using it. If it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, it ought to be good enough for Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
If that doesn't work, then let's just admit defeat and stop having these pseudo-debates. We got along for over a century-and-a-half without presidential debates, so I guess we can muddle through without them. How does hearing the candidates insulting and interrupting each other for an hour and a half help us decide who to vote for?
One thing this event may have accomplished is to lay to rest the age issue. Biden didn't do so with a joke, like Reagan3, but by not seeming any worse than the incumbent, though that's not much of an achievement. In terms of age, both candidates sounded like squabbling children, with Wallace as an ineffectual father failing to get them to behave.
I may have more to say about the specifics of the "debate" after I've had time to read the entire transcript carefully4. However, from what I've studied so far, the candidates interrupted each other so often that there was little if any coherent argumentation. Moreover, it makes for painful reading and I can only imagine that it was worse to watch. I'm not sure that either of these candidates is capable of constructing an actual argument, but the current format or lack thereof certainly doesn't encourage argumentation.
The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that they plan to change the format for future debates, though not how5. If the next two presidential "debates" are conducted anything like this one, I'm just going to ignore them, and I suggest the American people do likewise.
- "The Argument Sketch", Monty Python, accessed: 10/1/2020. You can watch the sketch here: "Argument―Monty Python", YouTube, 10/6/2017.
- The Debate About the Debates, 8/31/2020
- "Read the full transcript from the first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump", USA Today, 9/30/2020.
- "CPD Statement", The Commission on Presidential Debates, 9/30/2020.