July 3rd, 2015 (Permalink)

Puzzle it Out

Before you read any further, check out the interactive puzzle at the first Source listed below. There are spoilers in the explanation following the Sources, below, that may give away the solution to the puzzle. So, do the puzzle before reading further. Now, read the additional explanation at the second Source. After that, if you haven't forgotten what you were doing and why, please return here for even more commentary on the puzzle. I'll wait.


  1. David Leonhardt, "A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving", The New York Times, 7/2/2015
  2. Steven Novella, "A Quick Logic Lesson", Neurologica, 7/3/2015

You're back! Regular readers of The Fallacy Files may not have been too puzzled by that puzzle because we've seen a version previously―see the Resource, below, for a reminder or in case you missed it. This is a good one to try on your smartalecky, know-it-all friends, though maybe not if you want to keep them.

As explained in the first Source, the puzzle illustrates confirmation bias. As Steven Novella explains in the second Source, people tend to formulate a hypothesis and then seek out evidence to confirm it. However, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper famously pointed out, it's even more important to test a hypothesis by trying to disconfirm. It's almost always possible to find some evidence to support a hypothesis, no matter how wrong that hypothesis may be. It's only when a hypothesis withstands determined attempts to disprove it that we are warranted in provisionally accepting it.

Confirmation bias is one reason why smart people often believe "weird" things, such as conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. The smarter they are, the easier it will be for them to come up with evidence that seems to support their pet theory, whereas they ignore or dismiss the mass of evidence that disproves it.

Resource: Rolling Stone's Worst-Case Scenario, 4/19/2015

June 23rd, 2015 (Permalink)

Poll Watch: Much Ado about Nothing Much

We're over a year away from the next presidential election, and even the earliest state primaries are more than a half-year away, but apparently it's not too soon to start polling. The primaries and conventions are so distant that it's unlikely that a poll will tell us much even about who will be nominated, let alone about who will win in November of next year. Nonetheless, here is the headline of a news article about a recent poll:

Walker leads nationally in new poll

What does that mean? Does it mean that Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is ahead of Hillary Clinton in the poll? Not at all. Here are the first two paragraphs of the article following the headline:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leads a tight field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, according to a new survey from Public Policy Polling. Walker is alone in first place in the poll with 17 percent, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 15 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) at 13 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 11 percent.
Source: Jonathan Easley, "Walker leads nationally in new poll", The Hill, 6/16/2015

Now, if you know that almost all national public opinion polls have a margin of error (MoE) of at least plus-or-minus three percentage points, you'll immediately spot a problem here: The difference between Walker and his nearest competitor, Jeb Bush, is only two percentage points, which is within the MoE. Similarly, the difference between Bush and the next candidate, Senator Marco Rubio, is also two percentage points. Finally, Rubio differs from the following candidate, Ben Carson, by a single percentage point, and Carson is only one point ahead of Mike Huckabee. Thus, none of the differences between any of the top five candidates and their nearest competitors is statistically significant.

However, the situation is worse than that, though this particular article does not supply the relevant information. For that information, you have to go to the report on the poll put out by Public Policy Polling―see the Source, below. At the end of The Hill article, we're told that 1,129 people were polled for a MoE of 2.9 percentage points, which is about what we would expect. However, as we learn from the polling report itself, the comparisons of the Republican candidates came from a subsample of 429 Republican voters, and so the MoE for these results is actually ±4.4 points. Thus, Walker, Bush, and Rubio are all within the MoE of one another.

What can we learn from this poll and the reporting of it?

Source: "Walker, Bush, Rubio lead GOP Field Nationally, Clinton Still Dominant", Public Policy Polling, 6/16/2015

Resource: How to Read a Poll

June 5th, 2015 (Permalink)

The Case of the Puzzling Statement

A suspect was arrested on a charge of murder. When interrogated by the police, the suspect volunteered to write a statement if he was left alone with a sheet of paper and a pen. The police proceeded to do so, but a lawyer hired by the suspect's wife showed up soon thereafter, demanding to see the suspect in private. Afterward, the suspect refused to write or say anything further on the advice of his attorney. All that was written on the piece of paper was the following:

If the victim was asleep when I arrived but the front door was locked, or the back door was open, then either I killed him or both a light was on in his room near midnight and the murder weapon was a gun, unless neither was he drunk when he died nor was the murder weapon a knife.

Unsurprisingly, the police are baffled by this statement and have very little evidence against the suspect. All that they know for sure is that the victim was not shot but killed with a knife, and that the back door had been left open. If they can't decipher the cryptic statement, the suspect will surely walk. Can you help the police make sense of the suspect's statement?

Assuming that the suspect's statement is true, and that the evidence gathered by the police is correct―that is, that the victim was killed with a knife, not a gun, and the back door was open―can you determine whether or not the suspect killed the victim? If you think you know the answer, click on "Solution", below, to find out if you cracked the case.


June 2nd, 2015 (Permalink)

New Book: Spinglish

"Spinglish" is a combination of the words "spin" and "English"―in analogy to the more familiar term "Spanglish"―describing English words and phrases used to "spin". Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf have produced a book of that title, subtitled The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language. Beard and Cerf are best known for writing humor books, so I'm not sure how serious a work this is. Also, having not yet read it, I don't know whether it adds anything much to William Lutz' doublespeak dictionary, or Steven Poole's Unspeak. Some of the words and definitions I've seen attributed to the book were discussed previously by Lutz or Poole. However, I do think it will be a useful reference even if it just gathers together all of the examples from previous writers in dictionary form together with citations.


Update (6/27/2015): There's an excerpt from Spinglish in The Daily Beast consisting of the introduction and all of the entries in the book that fall under the letter "G"―see Source 1, below.

Some of the words are new to me, such as "gallerist", which is an inflated term for "art dealer"; others are familiar, for instance, "gaming" used as a general euphemism for the more specific "gambling"―William Lutz includes it in his 1999 book Doublespeak Defined, see Source 2, below. I wrote about "government relations professional" back when it was in the news as a proposed euphemism for "lobbyist"―see the Resource, below.

Some of the definitions are themselves tendentious, for example, "[t]he hunting or mass slaughter of wild animals" as a definition of "game management". It's true that "game management" is often used as a euphemism for the more specific "hunting", but throwing in "mass slaughter" adds nothing to the definition but emotional bias against hunting as a means of controlling the population of animals. Moreover, if you're going to include "gun grabber" as "[a] term for someone who supports gun control legislation favored by those who don’t", why not include "gun nut" as "a term for someone who opposes gun control legislation favored by those who support it"? There seems to be a degree of spin in what counts as "spinglish".

However, some of these words are not like the others; some of these words just don't belong. For instance, "greenwashing" is not a euphemism, but if anything the opposite, since it's used by environmentalists to condemn businesses that promote their practices as "green" when they're really not. This is a problem with introducing a new word, such as "spinglish" or "unspeak", no matter how clever and amusing it may be: unless such a word is precisely defined, it's hard to know what counts as an instance. The closest that Beard and Cerf come to defining "spinglish" seems to be the following passage from the introduction:

But what precisely is Spinglish? Well, in spite of its polyglot-sounding name, it isn’t some foreign language. It’s just our native tongue, transformed into a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication through the use of careful word choice and the artful rephrasing and reframing of familiar terms. To put it another way (which, of course, is what Spinglish is designed to do), it all comes down to making me sound better, or you sound worse, or both.

Unfortunately, that isn't a very precise answer. "Careful word choice" and "artful rephrasing" are characteristics of good writing. The only real help in this "definition" is that it characterizes spinglish as "a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication". In other words, what seems to separate spinglish from good English is that the latter aims at communication whereas the former's goal is obfuscation. However, it's perfectly possible to mislead people without using the euphemisms, doublespeak, loaded language, and weasel words that seem to constitute most of the entries in this book.

"Greenwashing" doesn't seem to meet this vague definition, since it serves as a label for a certain type of spin. If "greenwashing" is spinglish, then would "spinglish" itself count as spinglish?

I hope I don't sound too much like a pedantic killjoy. Beard and Cerf might well reply that their book is intended as amusing and entertaining light reading rather than a scholarly monograph, and my goal is not to spoil anyone's enjoyment of it, but to point that out.


  1. Henry Beard & Christopher Cerf, "How to Translate ‘Spinglish’", The Daily Beast, 6/23/2015
  2. William Lutz, Doublespeak Defined: Cut Throught the Bull**** and Get the Point (1999), p. 153

Resource: Doublespeak Dictionary, 9/24/2013

Previous Entry

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