November 30th, 2016 (Permalink)
New Book: Dialogues in Argumentation
Volume 3 in the Windsor Studies in Argumentation series is now available, namely, Dialogues in Argumentation edited by Ron von Burg. This is a collection of papers presented at two different scholarly conferences, so it's not for beginners. It contains papers by such argumentation scholars as Tony Blair, Dale Hample, and Hans Hansen.
November 24th, 2016 (Permalink)
A Big 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 the Google ads or donating directly via the PayPal button on your right! Also, The Fallacy Files is an Amazon Associate. With the holidays approaching, please consider doing any shopping at Amazon by way of one of the links from this website. It won't cost a penny extra and will benefit the site. Thanks to everyone who helped keep The Fallacy Files going for another year!
November 23rd, 2016 (Permalink)
A Puzzle for Thanksgiving
This Thanksgiving I'm planning to do something I've never done before, namely, to hold a celebration at my house for family members and prepare a Thanksgiving feast for them.
Unfortunately, as soon as I decided to do this, complications cropped up. Some of my relatives have dietary requirements that must be taken into account. Moreover, some have personal conflicts with others such that they may refuse to attend if others do, but some may fail to come unless others do. After considerable consultation and thought, I was able to reduce all of the constraints on various relatives attending the dinner down to the following five rules.
- If either Aunt Alice comes to the dinner or Uncle Bert refuses to attend then Cousin Carl will refuse to come.
- If Cousin Carl refuses to attend then I will either roast a turkey or bake a ham or possibly both.
- If Aunt Alice doesn't come then Uncle Bert will.
- If Uncle Bert comes then I will serve both fish and a baked ham.
- If either Aunt Alice comes or I do serve fish then I will roast a turkey if and only if Cousin Carl attends.
Here's what's puzzling me: Should I bake a ham? When you think that you know the answer, click on the solution, below.
November 15th, 2016 (Permalink)
Lesson in Logic 14: Equivalence
Now that everything but the wailing and gnashing of teeth is over for this election, we can return to our regularly-scheduled programming. The logic lessons got pushed aside in the last couple of months by the debates and other election tomfoolery, but here's the next one in the series on how to read Venn diagrams.
One value of using Venn diagrams to represent statements is to see logical relationships between the statements. For instance, if we draw diagrams for two statements about the same two classes, the diagrams will show whether the two sentences are logically equivalent.
To say that two statements are logically equivalent is to say that they say the same thing in terms of logic. There may well be, and probably will be, subtle differences of nuance in the meanings of the two statements. Equivalent statements do not necessarily, and usually don't, mean exactly the same thing, but only make the same claim, logically speaking. If two categorical statements are logically equivalent, then the Venn diagrams representing the two statements, as you might guess, will be either identical or mirror images of each other―assuming that the circles represent the same classes. Look at the following example.
Example: All bats are non-birds.
Make a Venn diagram of this statement. First, draw the primary diagram, that is, the two overlapping circles. Now, label the two circles, which is a little tricky because the second class term is the complement of the class term "birds". So, there are two ways you can diagram the statement depending on whether you choose "birds" or "non-birds" as the second class. It doesn't matter which you choose, so long as you're consistent. For the sake of this example, label the second circle "birds".
As you should have learned in the last lesson, to represent an A categorical statement―"all S is P"―shade in the part of the subject class, S, that is outside of the predicate class, P, thus showing that any member of S is a member of P. Here, S=bats and P=non-birds. In your diagram, however, the second circle represents birds. As you learned in lesson 11, the complement of a class, P, is the class of everything outside of P. So, the class of non-birds is represented in your diagram by the area outside of the "birds" circle. Thus, to represent the Example sentence, you need to shade the part of the bats circle which is outside of the non-birds area. However, the part of the bats circle that is outside of the non-birds area is the same as the part of the bats circle that is inside of the birds area, which just happens to be the football-shaped overlap area of the diagram. So, your diagram should look like this:
Now, if you've been paying attention, you should notice that this is the same diagram that you would draw for the E statement "no bats are birds", which shows that these two statements are logically equivalent. In fact, as a general matter, statements of the form "all S are non-P" are equivalent to statements of the form "no S are P", when S and P represent the same classes in both statements.
In traditional logic, this logical relation between these two types of statement is called "obversion", each statement is said to be the "obverse" of the other, and to replace one such statement by its obverse is said to "obvert" it. To obvert any categorical statement, simply change an A to an E, or vice versa, or an I to an O, or vice versa; also, replace the statement's predicate term with its complement. For example, the obverse of the I statement "some philosophers are logicians" is the O statement "some philosophers are not non-logicians". It should be intuitively obvious that these two statements are equivalent, but you can also draw a Venn diagram of each and they should turn out to be identical.
Rather conveniently, any of the four traditional categorical statements, A, E, I, and O, is logically equivalent to its obverse. You could memorize this fact, together with the definition of "obversion", but one of the advantages of learning to use Venn diagrams is that you won't need to, since you can use diagrams to check whether any two statements are equivalent. The same is true of the traditional equivalences called "conversion" and "contraposition", about which I won't go into detail, but see the following exercises.
Exercises: Use Venn diagrams to determine whether the following pairs of statements are logically equivalent:
|1.||All bats are mammals.||All mammals are bats.|
|2.||Some philosophers are not logicians.||Some non-logicians are not non-philosophers.|
|3.||No bats are birds.||No birds are bats.|
|4.||Some logicians are philosophers.||Some non-philosophers are non-logicians.|
Source: William Angus Sinclair, The Traditional Formal Logic: A Short Account for Students (Fifth Edition, 1963), pp. 35-36 & 38-39
- Lesson in Logic 11: Class Diagrams, 6/22/2016
- Lesson in Logic 12: Two-Circle Venn Diagrams, 7/16/2016
- Lesson in Logic 13: Categorical Statements, 8/17/2016
November 13th, 2016 (Permalink)
Dewey Defeats Truman, Again
One last election-related entry, then maybe we can move on. Among those wringing their hands and rending their garments in the wake of the election are some pollsters and poll-watchers.
A famous photograph shows a beaming President Harry Truman holding up a copy of a newspaper whose headline reads: "Dewey Defeats Truman". Truman, of course, had won. Dewey had led Truman in the polls up to election day, and so the newspaper had proceeded to print up an edition proclaiming Dewey's victory before the votes were counted. As a result, the picture has become a famous cautionary example about the dangers of being misled by polls―I've used it that way, myself; see the Resource, below.
This year, Newsweek magazine has committed a similar gaffe by accidentally releasing copies of its magazine proclaiming Hillary Clinton the next president―see the picture, above. Much the same thing seems to have happened as did with the newspaper: the magazine wanted to get copies of its commemorative edition into bookstores as soon as possible. Apparently, Newsweek prepared issues for both Clinton and Trump but, based on the polls, a distributor printed up and shipped the Clinton issue before the results were in.
So, why is it that the polls seem to have been wrong this election? One thing to keep in mind is that this was a very close election. The popular vote has still not been completely tabulated, but the current difference between the two major candidates is a little over 700,000 out of almost 122 million votes cast. In other words, the difference between the two candidates is less than a single percentage point of the total popular vote.
Not only that, but the candidate who has that small lead is Hillary Clinton! That's right, Donald Trump won the election but Clinton is on the way to winning the popular vote, albeit by a very narrow margin. How is this possible?
Who wins the election is not determined by the popular vote, but by the electoral college. The electoral college is not a college that you attend to become an elector; rather, every state has a certain number of electoral votes, and the winner of the election is the candidate who receives the greatest number of electoral votes. Almost all states are "winner-take-all", which means that if a candidate wins the popular vote in that state that candidate will receive all of the state's electoral votes. If the popular vote winner's supporters are concentrated in a few states, whereas the popular vote loser's supporters are spread out over many states, it's possible that the latter will win more states, and thus more electoral votes than the former.
This is exactly what happened this time around. Clinton's supporters were concentrated in two places: the northeast and the west coast, whereas Trump's supporters were spread all over the rest of the country. As a result, despite the fact that the two candidates received close to the same number of votes, Trump was able to win a decisive number of electors.
The reason I raise these points is that to expect polls to be able to predict such a close election, especially one in which the winner loses the popular vote, is expecting too much. You'd probably have as much success by simply flipping a coin.
Now, many people got the impression from the polls that Clinton was likely, even very likely, to win. However, much of Clinton's lead was in polls earlier in the year, and as we approached the election that apparent lead began to shrink, with some late polls even showing Trump ahead. One thing to keep in mind is that at best polls give evidence of public opinion at the time they are taken. This election year seems to have been a particularly volatile one, as indicated by the polls themselves, so that public opinion may well have changed over time. Perhaps those early polls were just plain wrong, or perhaps public opinion actually shifted as election day neared.
Public opinion polls are not designed to determine the electoral college vote. Those polls that showed Hillary Clinton ahead in the popular vote were in fact correct, though some surely exaggerated the extent of her lead.
I often point out that individual polls are not perfectly precise, which is why they have a margin of error. Thus, it is not shocking that a poll should be off by as much as three percentage points, since this is within the standard margin. I also recommend looking at multiple polls as a way of compensating for the lack of precision in individual ones, but the result of such aggregation is not perfectly precise, either. Polling is not now, and never will be, a precise science. Especially in an election as close as this one, we shouldn't be surprised if polls are off by a few percentage points.
- "2016 National Popular Vote Tracker: Overall Vote%s", Accessed: 11/13/2016
- "FAQ: How is it possible for the electoral vote to produce a different result than the nation-wide popular vote?", National Archives and Records Administration, Accessed: 11/11/2016
- Carl Bialik & Harry Enten, "The Polls Missed Trump. We Asked Pollsters Why.", FiveThirtyEight, 11/9/2016
- Drew Desilver, "Trumpís victory another example of how Electoral College wins are bigger than popular vote ones", Pew Research Center, 11/9/2016
- Harry Enten, "Trump Is Just A Normal Polling Error Behind Clinton ", FiveThirtyEight, 11/4/2016
- Natalie Jackson & Ariel Edwards-Levy, "Pollsters And Forecasters Had A Rough Night", Huffington Post, 11/9/2016
- Tim Jones, "Dewey Defeats Truman", Chicago Tribune, 2016
- Keith J. Kelly, "Newsweek under fire for presidential commemorative covers", New York Post, 11/9/2016
- Keith J. Kelly, "National recall after Newsweek misfires with Clinton cover", New York Post, 11/9/2016
Resource: How to Read a Poll
November 7th, 2016 (Permalink)
"Don't Waste Your Vote"
One thing that is unusual in this election year―one of many things―is how disliked the two major candidates are. Here was the situation about five weeks ago:
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most disliked presidential nominees in modern American history. That was true at the beginning of this campaign, and, as we sprint toward Election Day, itís still true now.
Source: Harry Enten, "Trump Is More Unpopular Than Clinton Is―And That Matters", FiveThirtyEight, 9/30/2016
As a result, many of the arguments in favor of voting for one of the two major candidates are actually framed in terms of rejecting the other one. If you pay attention to the election, you will often hear these types of argument made by pundits, surrogates for the candidates, and their supporters. For instance, here's David Gelernter on why he will vote for Trump:
Mrs. Clinton has nothing on Mr. Trump when it comes to character. She lies…the way basketball stars shoot baskets―constantly, nonstop, because itís the one thing she is best at and (naturally) it gives her pleasure to hear herself lie―swish!―right onto the evening news. … Iíll vote for Mr. Trump―grimly. But there is no alternative, no shadow of a responsible alternative.
Source: David Gelernter, "Trump and the Emasculated Voter", The Wall Street Journal, 10/14/2016
Here's Noam Chomsky, of all people, on why he would vote for Clinton in a "swing state":
If Clinton is nominated and it comes to a choice between Clinton and Trump, in a swing state, a state where itís going to matter which way you vote, I would vote against Trump, and by elementary arithmetic, that means you hold your nose and you vote Democrat. I donít think thereís any other rational choice.
Source: "Chomsky on Supporting Sanders & Why He Would Vote for Clinton Against Trump in a Swing State", Democracy Now!, 5/16/2016
We hear this sort of argument every four years, but this year, because of the unprecedented unpopularity of the two major candidates, it seems to be the main political argument. Here is its logical form:
- You should vote for one of the two major-party candidates for president: A or B.
- You should not vote for candidate A.
- Therefore, you should vote for candidate B.
In other words, the argument has two premisses, one of which is a disjunction. The second premiss denies one of the two disjuncts. Therefore, the argument concludes that the other disjunct must be true. The form of this argument is disjunctive syllogism (DS), which is a syllogism because it has two premisses, and disjunctive because one premiss is a disjunction. DS is a validating form of argument, that is, every argument of this form is valid. Thus, the argument above is valid. Note: The account in the above paragraph is not quite correct; see the Technical Note, below, for details.
So, what if anything is wrong with this argument? Validity isn't everything: all validity means is that if the premisses are true then the conclusion is true. But are the premisses true?
I won't address the question of who's worse; you'll have to make up your own mind about that. Rather, it's the other premiss that I want to examine, that is, the disjunctive premiss. Specifically, is it true that you should vote for one of the two major party candidates?
If the disjunctive premiss is false―that is, if there are one or more alternatives that it leaves out―then the argument is unsound. Moreover, it commits the black-or-white fallacy, also known as a false dilemma, among other names―see the Fallacy, below, for details. Note: Again, this is not quite correct; see the Technical Note, below, for details.
There are other candidates running, including Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. What would the argument look like if we included one or more of these candidates? Let's add Johnson as an alternative, and look at the pro-Clinton version of the argument just as an example:
- You should vote for Clinton or Trump or Johnson for president.
- You should not vote for Trump.
- Therefore, you should vote for Clinton for president.
This argument is invalid! Also, it lacks the form of a DS, though it superficially looks like one. A validly-drawn conclusion would be: You should vote for Clinton or Johnson for president. Indeed, a Johnson supporter could make the following alternative argument:
- You should vote for Clinton or Trump or Johnson for president.
- You should vote for neither Clinton nor Trump.
- Therefore, you should vote for Johnson for president.
Of course, people such as Gelernter and Chomsky, who argue that you should vote for either Clinton or Trump, at least in "swing states", are aware that there are other candidates on the ballot. They didn't just forget that Johnson and Stein are running. Instead, they think that you should vote for one of the two major-party candidates, that is, they think that the first premiss of the original argument is true, at least when the chips are down. Why do they believe this?
The usual argument against voting for a third-party or independent candidate is that to do so would be to "throw away" or "waste" your vote. But in what sense would it be a "waste"? Couldn't you argue just as well that to vote for a candidate you despise or think is unfit for the office is to "throw away" your vote?
Some claim that candidates such as Johnson and Stein are not real alternatives. However, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, is on the ballot in all fifty states. All that is necessary for him to be elected is for more voters to vote for him than for any other candidate. In this respect, he is exactly like Clinton and Trump. The Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, is on the ballot in 44 states, which is enough that she has a mathematical chance of acquiring enough electors to win the election. Again, all that's needed is that enough people vote for her.
I'm not naive about the chance of a third-party candidate actually winning the election. Recent polls show that both Johnson and Stein each have only single-digit support. However, part of the reason why this is so is that so many voters have bought into the claim that third parties can't win. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: as long as most voters believe it, they won't "throw away" their votes on minor-party candidates. If it's true that third-party candidates can't win, a large part of the reason is simply because people continue to believe and act as if it's true.
I certainly wouldn't bet on either Johnson or Stein winning tomorrow. But this isn't a gambling game, it's an election. The way that an election is supposed to work is that you vote for the person you think is the best of the available choices, not the one you think is most likely to win. Your vote is neither "wasted" nor "thrown away" because the candidate you vote for isn't elected.
Now, I'm not telling you who to vote for tomorrow. If you think Clinton is the best candidate, then vote for her; if you prefer Trump, then vote for him. If you don't like either one of them, but like Johnson or Stein even less, then you're on your own. What I'm trying to do is to counter the specious argument that you must vote for one of the two major party candidates even if you have to hold your nose to do it. In all fifty of the United States, there are other alternatives.
- Kim LaCapria, "Green Part-of-y", Snopes, 10/3/2016
- Jordyn Phelps, "Gary Johnson on November Ballot in All 50 States", ABC News, 9/14/2016
Fallacy: Black-or-White Fallacy
Technical Note: The type of argument discussed in this entry is not exactly DS, because the first premiss is not quite a disjunction. Rather, the first premiss is a disjunction within the scope of the deontic modality "should". Instead of DS, the argument is a similar form of argument in deontic logic, which is the logic that deals with normative notions such as "should". Its form is:
- You should do either A or B.
- You should not do A.
- Therefore, you should do B.
It should also be intuitively obvious that this form of deontic disjunctive syllogism is validating, for it is a familiar form of moral reasoning. When we are faced with a moral choice between two courses of action, and we know that we should not choose one, we conclude that we should choose the other.
Similarly, the fallacious version of this argument, when there are more legitimate choices than given in the first premiss, is not exactly the Black-or-White fallacy, but a deontic version of that fallacy. Clearly, the following form of argument is non-validating:
- You should do either A or B or C.
- You should not do A.
- Therefore, you should do B.
If, as I contend, Johnson and Stein―and perhaps others―are legitimate candidates, then the argument that you should vote for one of Clinton or Trump because the other one is so terrible commits the deontic version of the Black-or-White fallacy.
October 31st, 2016 (Permalink)
A Hallowe'en Party Puzzle
I will be attending a Hallowe'en costume party tonight because I know that four friends of mine will be there. My friends have told me that the most frightening costumes for the four of them to wear in this election year would be the two major presidential candidates and their vice-presidential running mates. They got this idea because they found masks and costumes for the four candidates at a local party store. However, they have not been able to decide on which candidate each one of the four should portray. None of them insists on portraying a particular candidate, but they did express their wishes and intentions. I questioned each friend in turn, and was able to gather the following clues:
- Either Bill will wear a Donald Trump mask or Dave will portray Tim Kaine.
- If Carla comes dressed as Mike Pence, then Dave won't wear a Hillary Clinton mask.
- Dave decided against wearing the Kaine costume.
- If Dave dresses as Pence, then Alice won't come as Kaine.
- Either Carla or Dave will wear the Clinton costume.
What selection of costumes for my four friends will satisfy each of the above clues to their desires? When you think you know the answer, click on the "Solution", below.
October 27th, 2016 (Permalink)
During the past ten years, I've occasionally mocked celebrities who have endorsed candidates, quackery, or conspiracy theories. In fact, just this election year I pointed to some of the sillier celebrity endorsements of the presidential candidates―see the Resource, below.
Now comes a silly, celebrity-obsessed magazine apparently attempting to nudge those less-silly celebrities who have so far remained silent into taking a public stand:
In a normal election, many people would likely discredit a celebrity's endorsement of a presidential candidate as a meaningless gesture. … In fact, given one of the candidates once had his own reality show, appeared in Home Alone 2, and has done most of his policy talks with Howard Stern―it's logical to say that celebrity opinions matter after all. A shockingly large number of Americans are prepared to make a reality TV star the ruler of the free world. Celebrities literally have the attention of millions of adoring fans at their fingertips, and it's hard to deny these people's influence. Yes, they've made a name for themselves doing, in most cases, everything other than politics, but so has Donald Trump!
Source: Matt Miller, "Why Are Influential Celebrities Remaining Silent This Election?", Esquire, 12/16/2016
No, it's not logical. A celebrity endorsement is, indeed, a meaningless gesture, or at least it should be. If anything, for the very reasons cited here, we need less celebrity involvement in this election than usual.
This from the magazine that has articles with such titles as: "Don't Freak Out, But Ties are Getting Wider Again" and "Oral Sex is Great Until Science Says it Isn't". It also appears to think it important that a band that calls itself "Pussy Riot" thinks that "Donald Trump is a misogynist pig". In other words, it's sort of a Cosmo for men.
So, Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Cam Newton, Danica Patrick, Bruno Mars, Carrie Underwood, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Pratt, and Tom Cruise, thank you for singing songs, acting in movies, posing in your underwear, throwing footballs, and driving really fast. Also, thank you for knowing when to keep your mouths shut.
Resource: Silly Celebrity Endorsements, 3/16/2016
Fallacy: Appeal to Celebrity
October 20th, 2016 (Permalink)
Logic Checking the Last Debate
Perhaps I will have more to say about the last presidential debate of this election year, but for now I want to focus on something different than I have for previous debates: the audience. Not the audience at home watching on their televisions, but the audience in the hall where the debate took place.
Why was there an audience? In a "town hall" format, of course, there has to be an audience since they are participants in the questioning. However, this and two other debates this year had a single moderator asking questions. What purpose does an audience serve in this format? Here's what the moderator, Chris Wallace, said to the audience at the beginning of the debate:
The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent. No cheers, boos, or other interruptions so we and you can focus on what the candidates have to say. No noise, except right now, as we welcome the Democratic nominee for president, Secretary Clinton, and the Republican nominee for president, Mr. Trump.
Source: "Transcript of the Third Debate", The New York Times, 10/20/2016
Then, there was applause as the candidates entered, and there was also applause allowed at the end of the debate. However, despite this warning, the audience applauded a couple of times during the debate and a few times there was audible laughter. If the audience is expected to sit there silently listening, and not participate in any way in the debate, even by applause or laughter, why have it? Again, if the audience is instructed not to applaud or otherwise make noise, but is not able to abide by these instructions, why have it?
The first televised presidential debates in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon had no audiences, but were simply shot in television studios with a panel of journalists asking questions. Did anyone complain about the lack of audiences? What value would adding a silent audience have brought to the debates?
Here's frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer's description of how he dealt with audiences:
One of the rules that the [Presidential Debate] commission adopted after 1992 was strict silence from the audience in the hall. So after being introduced to the audience of six hundred people chosen by the campaigns and debate sponsors, I laid down the law. I reminded everyone that they were not there to participate. This was not a talent show. Applause, cheers, hisses, and/or boos to demonstrate approval or disapproval were not only not permitted; they were mortal sins. I told them that if this rule were ever violated, I would stop the debate, turn around, and point to the culprit before a national television audience that would likely include everyone they have ever known in their lives.
Source: Jim Lehrer, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain (2011), p. 123
I don't know what Wallace said to the audience, but he either didn't threaten them the way that Lehrer did, or he didn't follow through on the threats. There was certainly no stopping of the debate after the applause or laughter, and no attempts to publicly humiliate the culprits.
Another problem with allowing an audience is that the candidates have brought or threatened to bring guests to sit in the audience to embarrass their opponents. First, Hillary Clinton brought Mark Cuban, a businessman who opposes Donald Trump, to the first debate. In retaliation, Trump threatened to bring a former mistress of Bill Clinton to the next debate. Such shenanigans would be impossible if there were no audience.
Perhaps eliminating the audiences in the single-moderator debates would help stop their turning into circuses.
- Jim Lehrer, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain (2011), p. 11
- Dan Merica, "Clinton: Mark Cuban 'unsettled my opponent' Donald Trump", CNN, 9/29/2016
- Sophie Tatum, "Trump threatens to bring Gennifer Flowers to debate", CNN, 9/29/2016
October 19th, 2016 (Permalink)
New Book: A Field Guide to Lies
During this election season, it seems that we need a field guide to lies more than ever, and Daniel J. Levitin's new book, subtitled "Critical Thinking in the Information Age", purports to be just that. We first met Levitin a couple of years ago when his previous book, The Organized Mind, came out―see the "New Books" list, below.
There's been a spate of books in this genre in the last few years, presumably because we need them and we know it. In addition to Levitin's two books, there have been at least five such books in the past couple of years―see the chronological list, below. Those that I have read―Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to be Wrong and Standard Deviations―are excellent, and I recommend them highly.
This new field guide has chapters on lying with statistics, charts and graphs, logical fallacies, how to identify expertise, and Bayes' theorem. I'm very pleased to note that the first chapter after the introduction deals with how to check numerical claims for plausibility. I noted just a few months ago that the new book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age also discusses this subject. I've been beating the drum for the importance of such checks for the last several years, so it's good to see that books on this subject are starting to teach it.
I'm not sure that most people need to read more than one of these recent books, since there's much overlap among them, but I think most could benefit from reading at least one. In general, I'm glad to see this trend and pleased that the books that I have read have been so good. But don't let the glut of such books put you off; pick one and read it!
Previous "New Books":
- How Not to be Wrong, 6/3/2014
- Standard Deviations, 8/30/2014
- The Organized Mind, 9/9/2014
- Truth or Truthiness, 6/18/2016
- Everydata, 7/2/2016
- A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, 8/11/2016
October 7th, 2016 (Permalink)
Debate Watch: The Veepstakes
As I mentioned in my previous entry on preparing for the presidential debates―see Resource 1, below―one common criticism of past debates was that they lacked "clash", that is, there was little argumentation between the candidates. This was at least partly because the usual format for such debates consisted of a panel of journalists who would take turns asking questions of the candidates. As a consequence, such events took a form more akin to a simultaneous news conference with both candidates than a debate.
Presumably in reaction to this criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) left the old news conference format behind twenty years ago―see Source 2, below. All of the subsequent debates have had either a single moderator―as in the first presidential debate―or a "town hall" format, where questions are taken from the audience―as in the next scheduled presidential debate. The final presidential debate this year will return to the single moderator format of the first debate.
The first presidential debate this year did not lack clash, as I remarked in my first entry on it―see Resource 2, below. Indeed, at times it appeared that the moderator, Lester Holt, had difficulty keeping the candidates from interrupting each other and bickering. The vice presidential debate also had the single moderator format, with Elaine Quijano serving as moderator. Unfortunately, Quijano had even less control over the debaters than Holt, with the result occasionally turning into a free-for-all.
In 1990, frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer interviewed former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had debated as both a vice presidential and presidential candidate. After Mondale recommended the at-that-time traditional panel format, Lehrer asked:
Lehrer: What would you say to those who say that they ought to keep the press out of it altogether? Let the two candidates stand up there with a moderator and go at it.
Mondale: I have done it both ways. When you get into the others, you have to start fighting over time. You have to start hollering over the other person to get some time. You have to play tricks to try to get the camera to cover you and not the other person. … What they're trying to get at, of course, is that the present form, and the one I'm recommending, isn't perfect. There are no perfect formats. It happens to be better than any other because I think it gives you a chance to go into these issues of substance with good newsmen and women. It wouldn't happen otherwise. … If you have a format where the two of them just go at each other, it'll be a cat fight because they'll both be fighting desperately for time to be heard. They'll be cutting across each other's answers. There'll be no logical or in-depth exploration of anything. So, I think that the debate format that we've had…for all of its inadequacies, is demonstrably better than any other.
Source: Debating Our Destiny, 5/25/1990
The V. P. debate seems to have confirmed Mondale's concerns. According to ABC News, Democrat Tim Kaine interrupted Republican Mike Pence 70 times, and Pence returned the favor 40 times―see Source 1, below. After the debate, Kaine told a group of supporters: "I got dinged a little bit even by my wife for interrupting too much."
As a horrid example, here's one exchange from the debate―I've indicated when people were talking at approximately the same time by putting what they said in parallel columns:
Quijano: All right. I'd like to turn now to the tragedy in Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand…. You can have 30 seconds, Governor, quickly, please. Pence: Can I speak about the cybersecurity surge at all? … [A minute or so later.] Quijano: I'd like to ask you about Syria, Governor. … [A minute or so later.] Quijano: All right, we are moving on now. Two hundred fifty thousand people, one hundred thousand of them children―Governor… Pence: If your son or my son handled classified information the way Hillary Clinton did they'd be court martialed. Kaine: That is absolutely false and you know that. And you know that, Governor. Pence: Absolutely true. Quijano: Governor… It's absolutely true. Gentlemen, please. Kaine: Because the FBI did an investigation. Gentlemen. And they concluded that there was no reasonable prosecutor who would take it further. Sorry. Senator Kaine, Governor Pence, please. Syria. I want to turn now to Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand people, 100,000 of them children, are under siege in Aleppo, Syria. Bunker buster bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons are being dropped on them by Russian and Syrian militaries. Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale, Governor Pence? Source: Aaron Blake, "The Mike Pence vs. Tim Kaine vice-presidential debate transcript, annotated", The Washington Post, 10/5/2016
It takes four tries for Quijano to finally get the entire question out without being interrupted. We also get a childish "Is so!"/"Is not!" back-and-forth along with accusations of lying. Perhaps this makes for good television, but so does professional wrestling. However, it's not very good debating, though I'm not claiming the entire debate was as bad as this, because it wasn't.
What can be done to prevent this sort of thing in future debates? As I mentioned earlier, there are two more presidential debates remaining this year, and the last one will have this same format. It's probably too late to change the format, but perhaps the moderator, Chris Wallace, will learn a lesson from this debate and take a firm hand in controlling the debaters. Perhaps the CPD should consider bringing back the panel format for at least one of the three presidential debates in future elections.
- Jessica Hopper, "Tim Kaine on VP Debate: 'I Got Dinged' for Interrupting Too Much", ABC News, 10/5/2016
- Newton N. Minow & Craig L. Lamay, Inside the Presidential Debates (2008), Appendix F
October 4th, 2016 (Permalink)
Did Trump "win" virtually every poll?
That's what he claimed after the debate―see Source 3, below. Apparently, the only specific polls that he claimed to "win" were those conducted by CBS and TIME, though he did mention CNN as an exception―which is why he added the adverb "virtually". However, CBS did not actually conduct a post-debate poll, though it did have a focus group of supposedly undecided Pennsylvania voters who awarded the "win" to Clinton―see Source 2, below. But what about TIME?
In previous entries about polls, I've usually pointed out examples of the media reporting polls as if they are precise down to a single percentage point (Hint: They're not―see the Resource, below.). However, in this case, we have a politician committing a different mistake, namely, treating an unscientific poll as if it is a meaningful measure of public opinion. The Time poll actually includes this disclaimer―see Source 4, below:
Online reader polls like this one are not statistically representative of likely voters, and are not predictive of how the debate outcome will affect the election. They are a measure, however imprecise, of which candidates have the most energized online supporters, or most social media savvy fan base. After all, what they are counting is the number of Internet-devices controlled by people who want to vote.
That's very well explained, but it does raise the question: why does a supposedly serious news organization such as TIME conduct such "polls"? Moreover, when I checked the poll, there were over 1.7 million votes split exactly 50/50 between Clinton and Trump, though I assume that Trump was ahead when he made his claim. As far as I can tell, you can still vote in this poll if you want to, though what good would it do? A single vote, or even several, is not going to significantly shift the results.
One problem with these kind of online polls is that it's easy to stuff the ballot box. Individuals may be able to take the poll multiple times, and spread word to other supporters of the candidate to take it. Did 1.7 million individuals actually take the poll, or was there massive multiple voting? At best, such polls show whose followers are better organized. In this case, it seems that both candidates' supporters are about equally well-organized, though perhaps Trump's are quicker out of the gate.
By the way, the Vice Presidential debate is tonight, and I may have comments on it tomorrow or the next day.
- "Trump: 'We won virtually every poll': Transcript", Reuters, 9/27/2016
- "Undecided Pa. voters on who they think won the presidential debate", CBS News, 9/26/2016
- Brian Stelter, "The problem with Donald Trump's 'we won every poll' claim", CNN Money, 9/27/2016
- TIME Staff, "Vote Now: Who Won the First Clinton-Trump Debate?", TIME, 9/26/2016
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