Instead of watching a boring parade on television, why not ring in the New Year by catching up on your reading? Here are some recent articles that may be of interest to Fallacy Files visitors:
- Tanya Basu, "CNN Lets 'Food Babe' Spout Pseudoscience on Lettuce Outbreak", The Daily Beast, 11/30/2018
One type of fake news originates from fake experts, and this article describes an example. Unfortunately, we can't always rely on news outlets to avoid pseudo-experts.
- Mark Fischetti, "Normal Body Temperature Is Surprisingly Less Than 98.6", Scientific American, 12/1/2018
I've previously quoted John Allen Paulos on the notion that human body temperature is exactly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit―see the fallacy of Overprecision. It's overly precise in two ways:
- The original normal temperature was given as 37 degrees Celsius, which was then converted into 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. However, this conversion gives the impression that the average is accurate to the tenths of a degree Fahrenheit, whereas the original measurement was in whole degrees Celsius. A less precise but also less misleading conversion would have rounded off to a whole degree Fahrenheit―either 98 or 99.
- Human body temperature varies by a whole degree or more Fahrenheit―as shown in the chart in the above article―from person to person and depending on such factors as the time of day. Giving the normal temperature in terms of tenths of a degree may give the false impression that insignificant differences from the norm indicate an illness, such as fever.
- Sam Levin, "'They don't care': Facebook factchecking in disarray as journalists push to cut ties", The Grauniad, 12/13/2018
If this isn't itself fake news then it's all the more reason why people need to learn how to do fact checks themselves. Don't rely on Facebook, Twitter, or Google to do it for you. This doesn't mean that you should not use Snopes, PolitiFact, FactCheck, or other institutional factcheckers, but they're not infallible nor completely unbiased.
- Ivan Oransky, "Political scientist asks for correction, gets flip-flop", Retraction Watch, 12/14/2018
A political scientist noticed an error in his paper himself and requested a correction by the journal that published it. Good for him! This is exactly what scholars and scientists are supposed to do. However, the journal itself initially refused to issue a correction on the grounds that the error was too small and petty. This is presumably a holdover from the days when journals only appeared in ink on paper: for such a publication, correcting a trivial error might not be worth the trouble. However, nowadays, even if it's still not worth it to correct the paper version of a journal, there should be no problem with issuing a correction on the internet.
There are two lessons, in the political scientist's own words:
- …[I]t shows how easily errors can reproduce themselves―I never noticed this rather glaring inconsistency….
- It shows that this only works if people speak up about errors they find. Surely, somebody had noticed this particular error before. Itís a fairly well-cited paper and I know it is assigned pretty widely in courses. Maybe people thought the error was inconsequential so they didnít want to bother raising it. But Iím rather embarrassed it happened and I wish one of the people who saw it would have told me earlier. Science is only worthwhile if it is accurate, so better to get it accurate earlier rather than later.
A Puzzle for Santa Claus
A few days before Christmas, Santa Claus needed to pick up some last-minute toy-making supplies. So, Santa and two of his elves hooked up a reindeer team to his sleigh and took off for the closest Toys R Us1. It was a foggy morning but, unfortunately, Rudolph was too ill to guide the sleigh2.
After picking up the supplies, Santa and the elves climbed back into the sleigh for the return flight to the North Pole. Taking off in the sleigh, which was heavy with supplies, the reindeer team barely made it over the trees. The sleigh itself banged into a tree, dumping Santa and the two elves out into its branches3. Thankfully, they were not seriously hurt in the fall, but the stupid reindeer flew off with the sleigh, leaving Santa and the elves stranded4. So, Santa and his two companions were faced with the long trek on foot back to his North Pole headquarters.
After climbing down from the tree and walking many miles over the frozen tundra5, the three came across a vast crevasse in a glacier6. It was too wide to jump across and stretched off both east and west as far as the eye could see7. If they had to walk around it, they might be too late to finish their preparations for Christmas Eve. How were Santa and the two elves to get back to the North Pole in time? Was there some way to get to the other side?
Fortunately, there was an old, dead tree buried in the ice at the edge of the crevasse. The tree was on the same side as our three heroes, and a big limb stuck out over the canyon. Now, you might think that they could climb the tree, then crawl out on the limb to the other side. However, the branch only reached about halfway across the gap, and it would still have been too far for any of them to jump.
Perhaps they could run out to the end of the branch, jump up and down on it like a diving board, thus getting enough momentum to launch themselves across to the other side. But the limb was barely strong enough to hold Santa's weight as it was, and jumping on it would surely break it, plunging him into the abyss. Each of the elves weighed half what Santa weighed, but could they make it to the other side? If they fell short, they would fall into the crevasse. Santa decided that it was too risky.
Luckily, there was a long vine that hung down from the end of the tree branch, and its other end was wrapped around the trunk of the tree. The vine was just long enough to reach the edge of the crevasse on both sides. Santa could easily grasp the end of it, then swing like Tarzan across to the far side, but that would strand the two elves on the near side of the cleft. Without someone to swing on it, the vine would not swing far enough back to the near side so that the elves could grab it. Then, it would end up hanging straight down above the canyon where it would do no one any good.
However, Santa could still swing across the gap, then walk the rest of the way to the North Pole alone. If the sleigh and reindeer were there, he could fly back and pick up the two elves. So, Christmas would be saved.
Still, is there some way that all three of our heroes can use the vine to swing across the crevasse?
- This was, of course, before Toys R Us closed all its stores.
- He had a cold so his nose was brighter red than usual.
- The sleigh lacks seatbelts, unfortunately.
- There's no cellphone reception in the Arctic Circle, so they couldn't call for help.
- What is tundra, anyway, and why is it always frozen?
- Global warming.
- The fog had lifted by that time.
Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!
Reasonís victories are almost never final. It is always surrounded by unreason, which is always more popular. Reason is the stout resistance, the flickering lamp in the darkness, the perpetual underdog, the stoic connoisseur of defeat, the loser that dusts itself off and fights another day.1
This is the first entry on the first rule in the series on rules of argumentation introduced last month2. The rule is simple: treat those you argue with as rational human beings by appealing to their reason. To do otherwise is to treat people as "its", as things, rather than as fellow rational beings. You might wonder what else you might appeal to and the answers are many:
- Faith: What is faith? It's hard to define, but one thing is clear: it's not reason. To appeal to faith is to attempt to get someone to believe something on a non-rational basis.
If you have faith and believe in something because of it, good for you. However, you cannot expect others to share your faith. If they do so, then you don't need to convince them to believe what you believe. However, if they don't, then you will have to appeal to something other than faith to convince them. Historically, when appeals to faith have failed, the back-up has been the appeal to force3. Try reason, instead.
- Authority4: Some appeals to authority, especially appeals to religious authorities, try to get us to believe something because a holy book or a holy man says so. If what the book or the man says appeals to reason in its own right, then all's well; but if it doesn't make sense, then neither does the book or the man.
Clearly, there's an overlap between appeals to faith and appeals to religious authority. Often we are asked to have faith in the authority of a religious text or a prophet, and to believe what the text or prophet says simply because they say it. But both books and men can be, and often are, wrong.
- Emotion5: Feelings such as fear, anger, hatred, even love can be used to bypass or overwhelm reason. We've all had the experience of getting angry, or falling in love, and doing or saying things that we later realize were irrational.
It isn't always wrong to use emotional appeals in argumentation, but to appeal to emotion instead of reason, or to arouse emotions in such a way as to overcome reason, is to treat people as purely emotional, rather than as partly rational, beings.
- Force6: That is, violence or the threat of it. If the way you deal with those who disagree with you is to kill them, assault them, or threaten to do so to gain compliance, then you are not dealing with them as reasonable beings. Instead, you are treating them like non-rational animals that must be whipped to get them to do what you want, or killed to get them out of your way.
This is not to say that it is always logically wrong to use violence in dealing with other people. If others initiate violence or use the threat of it to coerce you, then you may have no alternative but to defend yourself. If others refuse to treat you as a rational being, then you may be justified in responding in kind.
Obviously, there is an overlap between the preceding two types of non-rational appeal, since violence is frightening. Threats of violence are both appeals to force and to fear.
Using reason is risky: there's no guarantee it will work. When you appeal to reason, some will come back at you with appeals to faith, authority, or emotion. When those fail to work, they may appeal to force. Be brave! To quote the philosopher Immanuel Kant: "Sapere aude!"7
Next month: Rule 2.
- Leon Wieseltier, "Reason and the Republic of Opinion", The New Republic, 11/11/2014.
- See: Rules of Argumentation: Introduction, 11/18/2018.
- See below.
- The most general related fallacy is: Appeal to Misleading Authority.
- The most general related fallacy is: Emotional Appeal. There is a named subfallacy for most emotions.
- The related fallacy is: Appeal to Force.
- Translation: "Dare to use your reason!" (Latin). See: Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment?", accessed: 12/13/2018. "Sapere aude!" is sometimes translated as "Dare to know!", which doesn't make much sense and apparently isn't an accurate translation. "Sapere" seems to mean something closer to "think" than to "know". Ehrlich gives "dare to think independently" as a translation. See:
- Eugene Ehrlich, Veni, Vidi, Vici: Conquer Your Enemies, Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin (2001).
- Thomas Mautner, Editor, A Dictionary of Philosophy (1996).
Solution to a Puzzle for Santa Claus: Here's how Santa solved the problem:
First, the two elves grasped the vine together, jumped off the edge of the crevasse, swinging across to the far side. Since together they weighed about the same as Santa, neither the vine nor the limb broke.
Second, one of the elves, still holding on to the vine, swang on it back to the near side where Santa waited. Then, Santa took the vine from the elf and swang on it across to the far side. The elf on the far side then took the vine from Santa, swinging back to the near side where his fellow elf waited.
Finally, the two elves once again grasped the vine together and swang across the great divide to the far side, where Santa waited. Now, all three companions were across the crevasse. As a result, they were able to make it back to the workshop in time to prepare all the toys for Christmas. The End.
This puzzle is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters to actual elves, living or dead, is coincidental. No reindeer were harmed in the making of this puzzle.