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November 24th, 2017 (Permalink)

New Book: How to Think

Not to toot my own horn, but I think I already know how to think, though I'm sure there's always room for improvement. That's what I'd like to get out of Alan Jacobs' new book, so I think a better title for it would be: "How to Think Better".

In these "New Book" posts, I'm always complaining about the titles and subtitles of the books, despite the fact that I know that they may have been forced on the author by the publisher. However, I haven't read the books yet, so there's not much else I can say about them.

So, to continue my carping, the subtitle of the U.S. edition is: "A Survival Guide for a World at Odds". I'm not sure what that means. The U.K. edition has the same title but a different subtitle: "A Guide for the Perplexed"1. That's better, but perplexed about what? I'm perplexed by quantum mechanics; is Jacobs going to explain that to me? I'm often perplexed by the titles and subtitles given to books. Perhaps Jacobs can begin by explaining his, and I'm completely willing to hear that they weren't his idea.

Judging from what I've been able to read about the book so far, it appears that Jacobs is primarily concerned about political, ethical, and perhaps religious thinking, as opposed to thinking about subatomic physics. More specifically, he seems especially worried about controversial issues about which people disagree, often contentiously. For instance, Jacobs writes: "I have admitted that the chief impetus of this book was the ever-increasing hostility and (often malicious) misunderstanding of one another that became one of the chief themes of the 2016 Presidential election here in the U.S. and of the debate over the Brexit referendum in the U.K."2 This is a limited type of thinking, though no doubt an important one.

Another thing that perplexes me is that Jacobs refers to "the error of believing that we can think for ourselves"1. I was not aware that that is an error. This suggests to me that the book's title ought to be: "How to Not Think"; subtitle: "Let Someone Else Do it!" However, even if you don't think for yourself, someone else is going to have to do your thinking for you3, and that person will have to think for him or herself4.

I hope this isn't a case of making an outrageously false claim just to get people's attention, then rapidly retreating when challenged5. I'll be very disappointed if Jacobs isn't at least serious, but I suspect that his notion of what "thinking for yourself" means must be different from my own. However, I'll probably have to read the actual book to find out what he does mean.


  1. Alan Jacobs: "Welcome!", How to Think, Accessed: 11/24/2017
  2. Alan Jacobs: "Can politicians think?", How to Think, 10/19/2017
  3. Perhaps in a few decades we'll be able to let computers think for us, but they're not there yet.
  4. Unless someone else does that person's thinking for him or her, but this regress can't go on forever: at some point, some individual person is going to have to think.
  5. À la Stanley Fish.

November 23rd, 2017 (Permalink)

A Thanksgiving Recipe Puzzle

This Thanksgiving I'm planning to make my famous turkey gravy. Thankfully, I have a full 12-ounce container of turkey stock, which is hard to come by. For the recipe, I need exactly 6 ounces of stock. Unfortunately, I have only two measuring cups, one of which holds exactly 5 ounces and the other 7 ounces. What's more, the cups are so old that all of their markings have worn off. So, it appears that I can only measure out exactly 5 ounces or 7 ounces of stock.

Now, of course, I could just pour the stock into the 7 ounce cup and estimate when it is about an ounce less than full. Or, I could double all of the ingredients and make twice as much gravy. Or, I could run out to a store and buy a new and improved measuring cup. But is there any way, using only the two measuring cups I have, to measure out exactly 6 ounces of stock?

If you think you know the answer, click on the solution, below.


November 23rd, 2017 (Permalink)

A Traditional Thanksgiving Thank You!

On this day of thanksgiving, thanks to all of those who have supported The Fallacy Files since last year, whether by clicking on ads, donating directly via the PayPal button on your right, or just reading it! Also, The Fallacy Files is an Amazon Associate and, with the holidays approaching, please consider doing any shopping at Amazon by way of one of the links from this site. It won't cost a penny extra and will help keep The Fallacy Files busting fallacies for another year. Thanks!

Update (4/20/2021): The Fallacy Files is no longer an Amazon Associate.

Weird Science-Fantasy
November 6th, 2017 (Permalink)

Java Jive: A Refill

A recent headline reads:

Study: Coffee may help kidney disease patients avoid early death1

In a previous entry2, I discussed how three classes of words and phrases may help you understand science and health reporting. The above headline contains two of them: "may" and "help". "May" is one of a class of related words that indicates that the results of the study are less than definitive. Coffee may help; but, then again, it may not. No one now would say that cigarette smoking may cause lung cancer because this would suggest a reasonable doubt about it. "Help" is a word from a different class that indicates that the supposed healthful effect of coffee is weak.

The article beneath the headline begins:

Can caffeine help people with chronic kidney disease [CKD] live longer? That's the suggestion of a new study that found that among more than 2,300 Americans with chronic kidney disease, those who drank the most caffeinated drinks reduced their risk of premature death by 24 percent.1

"Suggestion" is another word, like "may", that indicates that the results of the study are less than conclusive. Also, we now learn that it is "caffeinated drinks", rather than coffee, that supposedly "reduced" the risk of death. So, presumably, you could get the same effect by drinking tea, or one of those highly-caffeinated "energy" drinks, instead of coffee.

When reading news reports of scientific studies, I strongly suggest reading the whole thing or at least skipping down to the end and reading the last few paragraphs: it's often there that we get the bad news. In contrast, in this article we get the bad news as early as the fourth paragraph:

"…[O]ur observational study cannot prove that caffeine reduces the risk of death, but only suggests the possibility of such a protective effect," [lead researcher Dr. Miguel Bigotte Vieira] said.1

This, despite the fact that a couple of paragraphs previously we were told that "those who drank the most caffeinated drinks reduced their risk " of death. Now, the lead researcher tells us that the study only "suggests" such a "possibility". It's a good thing that he didn't say that it may suggest such a possibility!

However, the study found a "dose-dependent inverse association"3 between caffeine consumption and death, which does indeed suggest a causal relationship between the two.4 However, since it was only an observational study, it cannot establish such a relationship, which is why Vieira goes on to note:

The findings also need to be replicated in a trial that compares caffeine consumption with no caffeine consumption before patients are counseled to drink more coffee or other caffeinated drinks….1

I think this is exactly right, but it comes close to contradicting what Vieira said in a press release:

These results suggest that advising patients with CKD to drink more caffeine may reduce their mortality. This would represent a simple, clinically beneficial, and inexpensive option, though this benefit should ideally be confirmed in a randomized clinical trial.3

This suggests that, while it would be ideal to have a randomized clinical trial, it's not too soon for CKD patients to increase their caffeine intake. In contrast, Dr. Leslie Spry, a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation, is quoted at the end of the original article:

This is yet another observational study, Spry noted, where only an association was found, not cause and effect. Given the relatively small size of the study, and the small reduction in death risk, Spry said he's not willing to tell kidney patients that the more caffeine they drink, the longer they'll live. "I would rather say that compared to little or no caffeine intake, those people with the highest intake of caffeine as estimated by dietary recall, may have a lower mortality, but the reason for this lower mortality is not proven by this association research," he said.1

This is actually a better-than-average news report on a new study, for it includes something that most such articles leave out: a second opinion from an independent expert. Moreover, Spry's cautions are not included in the original press release, so this is not just a rewritten press handout, which is all too common nowadays.


  1. Steven Reinberg, "Study: Coffee may help kidney disease patients avoid early death", UPI, 11/4/2017
  2. See: Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffery, 6/11/2017
  3. American Society of Nephrology, "Caffeine consumption may help kidney disease patients live longer", EurekAlert!, 11/3/2017. This is the press release that probably started it all. A "dose-dependent inverse association" between caffeine intake and death means that the more caffeine the study's subjects consumed, the longer they lived.
  4. This is an application of John Stuart Mill's "method of concomitant variation", see: Philosophy of Scientific Method (Hafner, 1963), Book 3, Chapter 8, Section 6.

Solution to a Thanksgiving Recipe Puzzle:

Here's how I did it: First, I filled the 7-ounce measuring cup with stock from the 12-ounce container. Then, I poured the 7-ounce measuring cup into the 5-ounce cup, filling it. After that, I poured the 5-ounce cup back into container of stock. I proceeded to pour the 2 ounces of stock from the 7-ounce cup into the empty 5-ounce cup, then refilled the empty 7-ounce cup from the stock container. I then filled the 5-ounce cup to the top from the 7-ounce cup, leaving 4 ounces in the 7-ounce cup. I emptied the 5-ounce cup back into the container, then transferred the contents of the 7-ounce cup to the empty 5-ounce cup. I refilled the empty 7-ounce cup from the container, then filled the 5-ounce cup to the top from the 7-ounce cup, leaving―Ta-Da!―exactly 6 ounces in the 7-ounce cup. Finally, I made the gravy.

Well, that was a lot of work! Next Thanksgiving, I think I'll just buy a new measuring cup.

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