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Saturday, November 30, 2002 ( 2:36 AM ) (Permalink)

Blurb Watch

Thursday's N. Y. Times ran an ad for the new movie "Friday After Next", with the following blurb:

Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

As usual, the exclamation point and all-capitals font are not in the original review. Here's the relevant context from which the quote is torn, with the quoted part in italics:

"As crude and rude as much of it is…the first third is front-loaded with laugh-guaranteed nonstop jokes…."

Perhaps the theater will refund two-thirds of your money if you leave after the first third of the movie.

Friday, November 22, 2002 ( 9:18 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

I have added a funny headline example to the fallacy of equivocation.

Update (11/23): I've also added a new example to the Examples page, and moved one from there to the strawman fallacy page, which lacked an example.

Update (11/27): I've added another funny headline example to Stalking the Wild Fallacy.

Update (11/28): There's now another resource in the Fun with Fallacies section of the Sources and Resources page.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002 ( 10:31 PM ) (Permalink)

Moore Spinsanity

From Ben Fritz's review of Michael Moore's new documentary "Bowling for Columbine":

"Beyond the satire and the fabrications, just what is Moore's argument? It's often hard to tell. At times, while dismissing the influence of pop culture, he blames the government's militarism, suggesting that it's somehow relevant that the day of the Columbine High School shootings was also the day of one of the heaviest U.S.-led NATO bombings in Yugoslavia. … Even setting aside this questionable chain of causality, Moore contradicts his own thesis that foreign bombing leads to domestic gun violence when he approvingly notes that the United Kingdom, which played a leading role in bombing Yugoslavia with the U.S., had only 68 homicides the same year America had 11,127."

Name that Fallacy!

Follow-Up (11/21): There's another interesting topic raised in the review:

"…Moore interviews and cites the work of USC Professor Barry Glassner, whose book The Culture of Fear attacks the media for sensationalizing incidents of bad news while ignoring the bigger picture. One of the book's primary examples is extensive media coverage of school shootings that ignores the overall downward trend in youth violence in recent years. Indeed, Glassner points out that people are three times more likely to be struck dead by lightning than die in a school shooting. Moore, however, focuses extensively in the film on the Columbine massacre and a school shooting in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and doesn't seem all that concerned with the country's epidemic of lightning strikes."

I haven't read Glassner's book, which will go on my "to read" list, but his point is sound. Media coverage of sensational but rare incidents of violence lead people to overestimate the likelihood of such events, an error known as the Volvo fallacy. Unfortunately, Moore's documentary is likely to contribute to the problem.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002 ( 4:42 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added some new links to the Sources and Resources page:

Sunday, November 10, 2002 ( 10:36 PM ) (Permalink)

Fallacies in the News

The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine has a review by Richard M. Fisher of Bjorn Lomborg's recent book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Fisher accuses Lomborg of committing several logical fallacies, including straw man, appeal to questionable authority, and ad hominem. I haven't read Lomborg's book, so I can't confirm Fisher's criticisms.

Update (12/12/2003): This review is now available online:

Richard M. Fisher, "Skeptical About The Skeptical Environmentalist", Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2002

Saturday, November 09, 2002 ( 1:41 AM ) (Permalink)

Blurb Watch

Yesterday's New York Times ran an ad for the new movie "Femme Fatale", which had the following blurb:

"A SPECTACULAR sex fantasy thriller."
-Michael Wilmington, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Here's the quote in the context of the beginning of the review, with the quoted part emphasized:

"Whenever a good director makes a visually stunning movie out of a flawed or absurd scenario, there's a tendency to applaud his sow's-ear-to-silk-purse witchcraft and forgive the script's shortcomings. But how do you deal with a movie like Brian De Palma's 'Femme Fatale,' where the lousy scenario the filmmaker rescues with his expertise was written, unaided, by that very same director?… Set in France, 'Femme Fatale' is a bizarre, pictorially spectacular sex-fantasy thriller…."

This is a good example of one of the blurbwriter's favorite tricks: Even the most negative reviewer usually says something favorable about some aspect or part of a movie, such as praising an actor's performance or the set designs. So, the quoter can take it out of context in such a way as to make it sound like praise for the film as a whole. It was done in this case by dropping the word "pictorially" that makes it clear the reviewer is complimenting only the look of the movie.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002 ( 11:54 PM ) (Permalink)

Fallacies in the News

ABC News has a short article on the ways in which mediums use vague and ambiguous statements to convince people that they are in contact with a dead relative or friend. Also, it's clear from the comments of some audience members at the end that wishful thinking plays a role, since they continue to believe that they contacted "the other side" despite the "medium" admitting and explaining his technique. "My hope that it was real will make it real", says one.

( 1:11 AM )

What's New?

An appropriate and amusing quote for the strawman fallacy.

Monday, November 04, 2002 ( 2:35 AM ) (Permalink)

"Average" Ambiguity

The Republican National Committee has a Flash movie which claims that the Democrats want to raise taxes on the "average family" by $9,961. It's unclear how the R.N.C. came up with this figure, so let's not worry about that. Instead, let's concentrate on the notion of an "average" family. Here's a brief review from Darrell Huff:

"When you are told that something is an average you still don't know very much about it unless you can find out which of the common kinds of average it is—mean, median, or mode."

Here are short definitions of these:

Back to Huff:

"The different averages come out close together when you deal with data, such as those having to do with many human characteristics, that have the grace to fall close to what is called the normal distribution. If you draw a curve to represent it you get something shaped like a bell, and mean, median, and mode fall at the same point.

"Consequently, one kind of average is as good as another for describing the heights of men, but for describing their pocketbooks it is not. If you should list the annual incomes of all the families in a given city you might find that they ranged from not much to perhaps $50,000 or so, and you might find a few very large ones. More than ninety-five per cent of the incomes would be under $10,000, putting them way over toward the left-hand side of the curve. Instead of being symmetrical, like a bell, it would be skewed. Its shape would be a little like that of a child's slide, the ladder rising sharply to a peak, the working part sloping gradually down. The mean would be quite a distance from the median. You can see what this would do to the validity of any comparison made between the 'average' (mean)…and the 'average' (median)…."

So, what is an "average" family? For tax purposes, it might well be a family with an "average" income, but in what sense of "average"? Since incomes are skewed, the mean, median, and mode are likely to be different. It would be easy for the R.N.C. to pick whichever one of these produces the highest tax raise. At any rate, until the R.N.C. explains how it arrived at this figure, it is so ambiguous a claim as to be virtually without meaning.


Update (11/9): Timothy Roscoe Carter writes in to add:

"You (and Darrell Huff) forgot another type of 'average'. The 'mid-range' is the number exactly between (the mean of) the highest and lowest data points. In Stat 101, they taught us that this was the rarest form of an 'average', and the only example of its common usage we were given was in weather reports of the 'average' temperature for a given day. Presumably, even the Republicans would not use this for average income, as it would presumably be half of Bill Gates' income! Still, it's existence in statistics further bolsters your point regarding the ambiguity of the term 'average'."

Thanks, Timothy. Stephen K. Campbell, in his book Flaws and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking, mentions three further types of average: the weighted mean, the geometric mean, and the harmonic mean (p. 67). He also elaborates upon a point just hinted at in the above post:

"To speak of an 'average man' or of 'average weather,' etc., is to speak nonsense even though many people do it. A man may be average with respect to height, weight, income, I.Q., excitability, or any other specific, measurable quality. But the term 'average man' conveys nothing except maybe the vague notion that the man in question is not outstanding in any way that meets the eye. Similarly, the weather might be average with respect to temperature, rainfall, or humidity, but not just 'average.' The term, to have any precise meaning, must be used in conjunction with some specific quantifiable property." (PP. 66-67)

The same point applies to "average family".

Saturday, November 02, 2002 ( 12:53 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

A funny example for the fallacy of amphiboly.

Friday, November 01, 2002 ( 1:29 AM ) (Permalink)

Hitchens on Orwell

Here's an excerpt from a recent interview with Christopher Hitchens about his new book Why Orwell Matters, which I'm now reading:

"There are people who cannot forget, as neither do I, the lesson of the years of the Indochina War. Which was, first, that the state is capable of being a murderer. A mass murderer, and a conspirator and a liar. For some people that's definitive. They can't get over it. So the idea that the United States could use force with moral justification is to them totally alien. They can't—they can't go there. They won't. But that is more a proof of their inflexibility than their attachment to principle. It's an empty position. It's a nihilistic position. If they said, 'Yes, if bin Laden's the only revolutionary, he may not be perfect, but we're on his side,' well, I could sympathize. No—I won't say sympathize, but I could see it, I could respect it. But they don't do that. They look for bogus equivalencies that actually lead to a cop-out. 'Well, he did this bad thing, but we've done this bad thing.' That leaves you exactly nowhere. And surely it should at least condemn both. In fact it appears to excuse both.

"And Orwell was clever about this. I mean, there were a lot of people, a very large number in fact, in 1940, for example, not just in England but in Europe and America, who would say, 'Well, this Nazi business in Poland is pretty rough, obviously, but look at how the British behave in India. Why should we pick a side?' He sort of knew by the same instinct that I hope your readers have why that stinks as a means of arguing. I could explain why it stinks, but if I had to explain why to someone who didn't get it right away, I probably would never succeed.

"Because it's obvious on its face?

"I would distrust at once someone who didn't see there was a fallacy there. And those who didn't I think would not be open to persuasion.

"What is the fallacy?

"The fallacy is one of moral equivalence. The motive for it, or the ruse of it, is—I prefer to call it masochistic. It's a self-hatred. It's a refusal to believe that you would ever be justified yourself in having the arrogance to define and defend yourself against or to destroy an enemy. That would surely make you no better than them. But this is disabling."

Actually, I don't think that "moral equivalence" itself is a fallacy; after all, some things are morally equivalent. At least, it's not a logical fallacy, which seems to be what Hitchens is claiming. Rather, false moral equivalences are the result of weak analogies and tu quoque arguments. For an example, see the review below of Lying About Hitler.

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