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December 31th, 2011 (Permalink)

Pop Quiz 2

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

  1. 20%
  2. 40%
  3. 100%
  4. 20%
  5. 0%


Resource: Pop Quiz, 11/3/2011

December 28th, 2011 (Permalink)

Yet Another Side to the Story

In an article in The Guardian newspaper, Neil Clark criticizes the late Václav Havel and those who praise him:

He was the symbol of 1989, the anti-communist playwright who helped free his country―and the rest of eastern Europe―from Stalinist tyranny and who put the countries that lay behind the iron curtain on the road to democracy. So goes the dominant narrative of the life of Václav Havel, the former Czech president, who died on Sunday aged 75. Havel, we are told, was a hero and one of the greatest Europeans of our age. But…there is another side to the story. No one questions that Havel, who went to prison twice, was a brave man who had the courage to stand up for his views. Yet the question which needs to be asked is whether his political campaigning made his country, and the world, a better place. …Havel, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur whose companies were nationalised when the communists came to power, showed little concern for the plight of ordinary people who lost out in the change towards a market economy. And there were losers aplenty. While the years following the liberation of eastern Europe from communism by Havel and his fellow dissidents are routinely portrayed in the west as one big success story, the reality is rather different. A 2009 Lancet study concluded that as many as 1 million working-age men died due to the health problems brought on by mass privatisation.

One of the most insidious fallacies―called "slanting", "onesidedness", or "card stacking" in the context of propaganda―is to ignore inconvenient facts that undermine one's case. The reason it's so insidious is that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to discover what has been left out, and it may not even be clear that something was omitted. Most people won't bother to try to check factual claims in the media, let alone look up studies to see whether anything important has gone unmentioned. Case in point:

One piece of evidence Clark offers that Havel was over-rated is that "a 2009 Lancet study concluded that as many as 1 million working-age men died due to the health problems brought on by mass privatisation." One might get the impression from what Clark wrote that a million men died in the Czech Republic due to privatisation, but according to a contemporary BBC account of the study:

The researchers examined death rates among men of working age in the post-communist countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union between 1989 and 2002. They conclude that as many as one million working-age men died due to the economic shock of mass privatisation policies.

So, the one million figure applies to all of the formerly communist countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union―an enormous country―over a period of thirteen years. But wait, there's more:

Countries that adopted a slower pace of change, gradually phasing in free-market conditions and developing appropriate institutions, fared much better. The best were Albania, Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia, which experienced only a 2% increase in unemployment―and a 10% fall in male mortality. [Emphasis added.]

That is, the Czech Republic actually had a drop in the male mortality rate after privatisation. The BBC report is misleading in that it groups the Czech Republic with countries that had slower rates of privatisation, whereas it in fact was grouped by the study with those countries that had faster rates―the so-called "mass privatisers"―as can be seen in a sidebar to the article. From the study itself:

Outside the former Soviet Union, only one of nine countries―the Czech Republic―had implemented a mass privatisation programme by 1994; overall, the privatisation process was more gradual than in the former Soviet Union, and handled on a firm-by-firm basis. When we restricted the sample to countries outside the former Soviet Union, we noted that greater progress in privatisation was associated with a neutral or favourable effect on mortality rates from 1991 to 2002, unlike in countries of the former Soviet Union.

So, privatisation was indeed―at least so far as we can learn from the study―a success story in the Czech Republic, and the Czech people were not "losers". Did Havel's political campaigning make his country a better place? According to this study, it did. Keep that side of the story in mind when remembering Václav Havel.

Correction (9/19/2013): This entry originally stated that the Lancet study covered a three-year period, when it actually covered thirteen years, a mistake which undermined my own argument! It has now been corrected.


Fallacy: Onesidedness

December 26th, 2011 (Permalink)

New Book: An A to Z of Critical Thinking

An A to Z of Critical Thinking, edited by Beth Black, is a new dictionary of terms used in critical thinking. I haven't read the whole book yet, but I was able to read some of the entries listed under the letter A using Amazon's preview function. The sample entries were very clearly written and quite accurate, though I could perhaps quibble about a few things. So, assuming this sample, though not random, to be representative of the quality of entries in the book, it should be excellent. Judging from the incomplete "List of Entries" in the back of the book, most of the standard fallacies have entries.

The only previous dictionary of critical thinking, as far as I'm aware, is Nigel Warburton's excellent Thinking from A to Z. Checking Warburton's book against the List of Entries shows a great deal of overlap, and even where they differ both books seem to cover the same conceptual territory. The most obvious omissions are terms from psychology, such as "confirmation bias" and "availability", but I suppose this reflects a general ignorance of psychology in the field of critical thinking rather than a deficiency of either dictionary.

December 21st, 2011 (Permalink)

Lose Your Illusions

Freeman Dyson has an interesting, anecdote-filled, review of Daniel Kahneman's new book Thinking, Fast and Slow. This part caught my attention:

At the end of his book, Kahneman asks the question: What practical benefit can we derive from an understanding of our irrational mental processes? We know that our judgments are heavily biased by inherited illusions, which helped us to survive in a snake-infested jungle but have nothing to do with logic. We also know that, even when we become aware of the bias and the illusions, the illusions do not disappear. What use is it to know that we are deluded, if the knowledge does not dispel the delusions? Kahneman answers this question by saying that he hopes to change our behavior by changing our vocabulary. If the names that he invented for various common biases and illusions, “illusion of validity,” “availability bias,” “endowment effect,” …become part of our everyday vocabulary, then he hopes to see the illusions lose their power to deceive us. If we use these names every day to criticize our friends’ mistaken judgments and to confess our own, then perhaps we will learn to overcome our illusions. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will grow up using the new vocabulary and will automatically correct their congenital biases when making judgments. If this miracle happens, then future generations will owe a big debt to Kahneman for giving them a clearer vision.

This is what I also hope for from a study of logical fallacies, but it would be nice to see some experimental evidence from psychologists that such an effect really occurs.

I find Dyson's defense of Freud at the end of the review puzzling, since he says such things as "Freud is literary while Kahneman is scientific" and refers to "the poetic fantasies of Freud". If Freud were alive today, I think he would be very surprised to be called "literary", and most of his early defenders at least thought that his work was scientific. The notion that Freud's work is "literary" is a fall-back position―that is, one adopted by those such as Dyson who still find some value in it―since it's now so widely understood to be pseudoscientific.

Dyson goes on to say that the highly emotional and sexual parts of the human mind that Freud dealt with can't be studied experimentally, which I'm not so sure about, though there's no doubt that it would be more difficult, and perhaps raise ethical problems. Nonetheless, as far as I'm concerned, if something can't be studied scientifically, that's no excuse to study it pseudoscientifically or to go off on flights of poetic fantasy. However, there's nothing wrong with poetic fantasies so long as we keep in mind that that's what they are, and not expect them to be science or medicine. The trouble with Freud is that many people wasted a lot of time and money trying to treat their mental problems through psychoanalysis.

I have no idea what Dyson means when he writes: "Freud can penetrate deeper than Kahneman because literature digs deeper than science into human nature and human destiny." In what sense is it "deeper"? Kahneman is truer than Freud, and I'll settle for a shallow truth over a deep falsehood any day.

Source: Freeman Dyson, "How to Dispel Your Illusions", The New York Review of Books, 12/22/2011

Resource: New Book: Thinking, Fast and Slow, 10/27/2011

December 16th, 2011 (Permalink)

Obituary: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, author of Why Orwell Matters among many other books and essays, has died at the much too young age of 62.

Source: Juli Weiner, "In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011", Vanity Fair, 12/15/2011

December 15th, 2011 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Discover Magazine has an article worth reading on systematic mistakes people make about risk:

…[W]e focus on the one-in-a-million bogeyman while virtually ignoring the true risks that inhabit our world. News coverage of a shark attack can clear beaches all over the country, even though sharks kill a grand total of about one American annually, on average. That is less than the death count from cattle, which gore or stomp 20 Americans per year. Drowning, on the other hand, takes 3,400 lives a year, without a single frenzied call for mandatory life vests to stop the carnage. A whole industry has boomed around conquering the fear of flying, but while we down beta-blockers in coach, praying not to be one of the 48 average annual airline casualties, we typically give little thought to driving to the grocery store, even though there are more than 30,000 automobile fatalities each year. In short, our risk perception is often at direct odds with reality.

Much misevaluation of risk is due to the anecdotal fallacy:

In the summer of 2001, if you switched on the television or picked up a news magazine, you might think the ocean’s top predators had banded together to take on humanity. After 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast’s arm was severed by a seven-foot bull shark on Fourth of July weekend while the child was playing in the surf of Santa Rosa Island, near Pensacola, Florida, cable news put all its muscle behind the story. Ten days later, a surfer was bitten just six miles from the beach where Jessie had been mauled. Then a lifeguard in New York claimed he had been attacked. There was almost round-the-clock coverage of the “Summer of the Shark,” as it came to be known. By August, according to an analysis by historian April Eisman of Iowa State University, it was the third-most-covered story of the summer…. All that media created a sort of feedback loop. Because people were seeing so many sharks on television and reading about them, the “availability” heuristic was screaming at them that sharks were an imminent threat.

Another source of mistakes about risk that the article mentions―which I've never heard of before but seems quite plausible―is that people tend to overestimate manmade risks while underestimating natural dangers. This, of course, is a variation on the fallacy of appeal to nature, that is, that the natural is good or safe while the artificial is bad or risky.

Source: Jason Daley, "What You Don't Know Can Kill You", Discover Magazine, 10/3/2011

December 11th, 2011 (Permalink)


Report: Hunting is safer than golf

Something smells not quite right here. I have heard of golfers getting hit by lightning, but how many get shot? The report in question turns out to be one put out, not surprisingly, by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which calls itself "the trade association for the firearms industry". As far as I can tell, the only "report" put out by the NSSF, which says that "its mission is to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports", is a press release (see the Sources, below). The headline above is from an unsigned article in the Idaho Statesman that is just a rewrite of the release.

I point out the source of the "report" not simply to dismiss it as an example of advocacy research, since such research can be true. Rather, I point out the source because it should set off an alarm bell, and we need to be especially wary when confronted with supposed research that comes from an obviously biased source. Another basis for skepticism is the fact that the report's claims are so implausible: not only is hunting "safer" than golf, but it's safer than fishing! According to the report, hunting is even "safer" than cheerleading!

In this case, skepticism is justified. Hunting is "safer" than these other activities because there are fewer "injuries" in hunting, that is, the way the research was done was simply to count up the number of "injuries" reported in a sport, and declare a sport "safer" if it had fewer injuries. So, no attempt was made to take into account the severity of injuries; for instance, if every kid who plays video games gets repetitive strain injuries in the thumbs, then playing video games is less safe than hunting by this metric. So, parents, get your kids off the couch, take that joystick away, put a gun in their hands, and send them out into the woods!


December 9th, 2011 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: I Melt with You

I feel sorry for the poor people who have to try to market the oddly-titled new movie I Melt with You. Apparently, there were mass walkouts from its Sundance film festival showing. Its Tomatometer rating is an anemic 13%, and its Metacritic score a "generally unfavorable" 22 out of 100. As a result, the blurbs for the movie ad are mostly drawn from industry publications rather than reviews intended for a general readership.

Blurb Context
-David D'Arcy, Screen International
Despite its cast, I Melt With You, with all its explosive tactility, doesn’t offer much that you won’t get from watching anything by Danny Boyle, who seems one of its stylistic roadmaps. Since its stars are marketable, the testosterone blowout could get a shot at the US and international audience.
"VIRTUOSO VISUALS, PULSATING MUSIC AND MUSCULAR ACTING. Pellington and his gutsy cast have thrown caution to the wind and gone all the way. Deliriously shot and cut so as to produce a virtual contact high, the men's first night bacchanal alone is enough to make one consider a stint in rehab.
-Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
This Magnolia Sundance pickup poses significant marketing challenges, beginning with the odd title and also including the assaultive artistic approach and despairingly negative nature of the drama. But there's no denying that Pellington and his gutsy cast have thrown caution to the wind and gone all the way with bold material, and it's this fierce, edgy attitude that could strike a chord with a segment of the public, including viewers half the age of those onscreen. … Backed by hugely amped up tunes by the Sex Pistols, the Clash and innumerable other bands, many of them punk, and deliriously shot and cut so as to produce a virtual contact high, the men's first night bacchanal alone is enough to make one consider a stint in rehab. … But Pellington and Porter have nothing if not the courage of their convictions, boldly rolling over one's dramaturgical reservations on their way to making a genuinely devastating critique of contemporary male inadequacies and inability to deliver the goods. … The issues being addressed could not be plainer and detractors can convincingly hold up I Melt with You as a case of major artistic overkill. But it is equally arguable that the combined power of the virtuoso visuals, pulsating music and muscular acting is what drives the central concerns home to the extent that they register with such force and cannot just be brushed aside.
"FOR ANYONE WHO WORSHIPPED AT THE ALTAR OF THE SEX PISTOLS IN THEIR YOUTH, only to wake up one day an adult trapped in an unsatisfying suburban nightmare."
The film’s overriding punk romanticism is, unsurprisingly, not for everyone. It’s for anyone who worshiped at the altar of the Sex Pistols in their youth only to wake up one day an adult trapped in an unsatisfying suburban nightmare, an extreme realization of an all or nothing fantasy that one can atone―if at great cost―for falling off the path they’d set for themselves.


Answer to Pop Quiz 2: It's a trick question containing a vicious circle, and there's no right answer. Since there are five possible answers given, you might at first think that the answer to the question is one-in-five, or 20%. However, both answers 1 and 4 are 20%, so if that were the correct answer, then the chance of choosing it would be two-in-five, or 40%. But 40% is answer 2, and there is only a one-in-five chance of choosing it, so that the correct answer should be 20%, after all.

Now, we're back where we started, and if we keep reasoning in the same way we'll just go on chasing our tail. So, we might despair and conclude that the chance of finding the correct answer is actually 0%. However, that's answer 5, and the chance of picking it at random is again one-in-five, or 20%. Oh no, here we go again!

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Michael Koplow for this vicious variation on the original pop quiz.

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