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November 26th, 2011 (Permalink)

Ron Paul on Drugs

There was yet another debate of the candidates for the Republican nomination for president, this time moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer. After Congressman Ron Paul volunteered that the so-called "war on drugs" ought to be cancelled, Blitzer asked:

Blitzer: …When you say cancel the war on drugs, does that mean legalize all these drugs?

Paul: I think the federal war on drugs is a total failure. … Why don't we handle the drugs like we handle alcohol? Alcohol is a deadly drug. The real deadly drugs are the prescription drugs. They kill a lot more people than the illegal drugs.…

Since this is a logic check as opposed to a fact check, let's just assume that Paul is correct that prescription drugs kill more people than illegal ones―it's certainly plausible. Does this fact support his claim that they are deadlier than illegal drugs and, therefore, the currently illegal ones should be made as legal as alcohol?

I've mentioned before (see the Resource, below) the old riddle: why do white sheep eat more than black ones? Answer: Because there are more of them. Presumably, prescription drugs are taken by far more people than take illegal ones, so even if prescription drugs are far safer than those that are illegal, it's possible that more people die from prescription drugs than illegal ones.

In fact, legal non-prescription drugs are probably taken by more people than prescription ones, so it's even possible that more people die from taking over-the-counter medicines than from prescription ones, or from illegal drugs. Yet, OTC drugs are available without a prescription partly because they are considered safe enough for people to use without a doctor's supervision. However, this doesn't mean that such drugs are completely safe, or that no one ever dies as a result of using them.

Similarly, alcohol is a much more widely used drug than heroin, and no doubt many more people die as a result of drinking alcohol than from using heroin. However, this doesn't mean that alcohol is a deadlier drug than heroin. What is needed is a comparison that takes into consideration the fact that there are more white sheep than black ones: what percentage of people who drink alcohol die from it as compared to the percentage of heroin-users who die from heroin?

So, Paul's claim does not support his intermediate conclusion that prescription drugs are more deadly than illegal ones, let alone his final conclusion.

Source: "Full Transcript of CNN National Security Debate, 20:00-22:00", CNN, 11/22/2011

Resource: The Riddle of the Sheep, 10/13/2011

November 24th, 2011 (Permalink)


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November 23rd, 2011 (Permalink)

Contextomy Watch

Mitt Romney's campaign for president has put out a video ad that quotes President Obama out of context in a misleading way:

Quote Context
If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose. Even as we face the most serious economic crisis of our time; even as you are worried about keeping your jobs or paying your bills or staying in your homes, my opponent's campaign announced earlier this month that they want to "turn the page" on the discussion about our economy so they can spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead. Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."

This is an interesting example, since Obama was himself apparently quoting some unnamed person in McCain's campaign, but dropping the context―including, the all-important quotation marks―makes it seem as if Obama is saying it himself.


November 6th, 2011 (Permalink)

Innumeracy at Slate

A couple of weeks ago, Slate ran the following correction:

In the Oct. 17 "DoubleX," Lauren Sandler incorrectly stated that 42 percent of women live in poverty. In fact, this statistic refers only to women who head families, and the correct percentage is 40.7, not 42 percent. …

Logically, the mistake involved is that of dropping a qualification or, as it is known in Latin, "secundum quid"―the full Latin phrase is "a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter", which means "from something said with a qualification to something said without qualification", which makes up for in explicitness what it lacks in brevity. In this case, the qualification dropped was the phrase "who head families" which qualified "women".

However, the really striking thing about this mistake is how far off it is. Who would believe that 42% of American women live in poverty? The real figure is closer to 14%, according to the source that Slate links to in its corrected version of the article, so the claim was treble the reality. Moreover, the "DoubleX" column where this mistake occurred is one that is devoted to news and issues relating to women. It's surprising enough that anyone could believe the original 42% figure, let alone a journalist who specializes in issues relating to women.

So, how did this mistake come about? Is it possible that the qualifying phrase "who head families" was accidently dropped at some point in the editing process? Here's the original, uncorrected section of the article:

Women who are already mothers have more abortions than anyone else, and by an increasingly wide margin. When Guttmacher Institute researchers last ran the numbers in 2008 they found that 61 percent of women who terminate a pregnancy in this country already have at least one child. That was before the recession, though―before the poverty rate rose to swallow 42 percent of women, almost half of them mothers, many of whom know they can’t afford another child.

The wording doesn't support the hypothesis that the qualification was dropped due to an editorial slip-up, since restoring the qualification would produce the following sentence: "That was before the recession, though―before the poverty rate rose to swallow 42 percent of women who head families, almost half of them mothers, many of whom know they can’t afford another child." Who would believe that less than half of women who head families are mothers? This would be just as puzzling an error as believing that 42% of all American women live in poverty.

In any case, this example serves as a warning against swallowing whole the statistics found in popular journalism. Even egregiously erroneous numbers can slip by the layers of journalists, editors, and fact checkers. Perhaps their eyes glaze over and their brains seize up when they see a number.


November 3rd, 2011 (Permalink)

Pop Quiz

If you choose a single answer to this question at random from among the four possible answers below, what is the probability that you will select the correct answer?

  1. 25%
  2. 50%
  3. 100%
  4. 25%

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