October 31st, 2018 (Permalink)
A Halloween Puzzle in Transylvania
One moonless night in Transylvania―it was All Hallow's Eve, as a matter of fact―Count Dracula, Lawrence Talbot, and Professor Van Helsing were fleeing from a torch-bearing mob of angry villagers. The three came to the banks of the Danube river, which marks the boundary of Transylvania with the rest of Romania. If only they could cross the river, they would be safe from the murderous mob. Luckily, upon the bank they spied a rowboat, but it was only big enough to carry two people, vampires, or other monsters. Clearly, for all three to get to safety would require multiple crossings.
However, there were two problems:
- Despite the fact that they were fleeing the mob together, Dracula the vampire and Van Helsing were old enemies. If ever they were alone together on a bank of the river, or in the boat, either Dracula would bite Van Helsing or the famous vampire hunter would drive a stake through the Count's heart. However, as long as Talbot was present, he could prevent a fight.
- It's a well-known fact, at least in Transylvania, that vampires and werewolves are deadly enemies. So, if Dracula was ever alone with Talbot―who was a werewolf better known as "The Wolfman"―on a riverbank or in the boat, one of them would be destroyed. However, Van Helsing's presence prevented such an unfortunate outcome.
In contrast, Van Helsing and Talbot were old friends, and this was a night when the moon was not full, so that they could be alone together without either being harmed. Moreover, any two of the three companions could switch places from the boat to the riverbank or back without a deadly fight ensuing.
So, it looks bad for these three. If the mob catches up to them, they will surely all be destroyed. Of course, Van Helsing and Talbot could cross the river to safety leaving Dracula to be destroyed by the angry mob. However, is it possible for all three of them to escape to safety on the other side of the river? If so, how?
October 24th, 2018 (Permalink)
Here are some recent articles that may be of interest to readers of The Fallacy Files, together with a few short quotes and comments:
- Team Full Fact, "How to series: a guide to factchecking the internet", Full Fact, 10/12/2018
A series of reports from the British fact-checking group Full Fact; the following are most likely to be of value to the do-it-yourselfer:
- Joël Reland, "How to spot misleading images online", 7/18/2018
Explains how to use a reverse image search to check online images.
- Abbas Panjwani, "How to spot misleading poll figures", 8/3/2018
A limited look at evaluating polls which doesn't even mention the importance of random sampling in getting representative samples. Weighting, which it does discuss, is a much less important factor than that the sample was randomly selected. Also, margins of error only apply to random samples. I suggest at least supplementing this article with "How to Read a Poll": see the Main Menu to the left.
- Grace Rahman, "How to spot misleading videos online", 8/9/2018
How to extend reverse image searches to online videos.
- Abbas Panjwani, "How to spot misleading crime reporting", 9/11/2018
Some of the advice here is specific to the UK, but nonetheless applies elsewhere mutatis mutandis.
- Joël Reland, "How to spot misleading images online", 7/18/2018
- Kevin Lomangino, "It’s time for AAAS and EurekAlert! to crack down on misinformation in PR news releases", Health News Review, 10/9/2018
Since much of health and science reporting is just the rewriting of press releases, one way to improve the reports would be to improve the releases.
- Brett Dahlberg, "Cornell Food Researcher's Downfall Raises Larger Questions For Science", NPR, 9/26/2018
This article about junk food scientist Brian Wansink is more a short history of his "downfall" than an examination of any "larger questions" raised by it. I wrote about him earlier this year, see:
Junk Food Science, 2/28/2018
- "If You See Disinformation Ahead of the Midterms, We Want to Hear From You", The New York Times, 9/17/2018
- Chi Luu, "The Tangled Language of Jargon", JSTOR Daily, 9/12/2018
…[J]argon―outwardly a sober, professional kind of talk for experts from different occupational fields―has always carried with it some very human impulses, placing power and prestige over knowledge. A doctor, for example, might inappropriately use jargon in explaining a diagnosis to a patient, which prevents the patient from participating in their own care. This quality of jargon attracts those that might want to obscure biases, beef up simplistic ideas, or even hide social or political embarrassments behind a slick veneer of seemingly objective, “scientific” language without being challenged.
- Peter Hitchens, "War of words: my battle to correct Wikipedia", The Spectator, 8/18/2018
Hitchens had what I suspect is a common experience:
I signed up some years ago as a Wikipedia ‘editor’, thinking that, as I knew a little about some subjects, I could help to straighten out the online encyclopaedia a bit. Heaven knows, it needs some help. … But I soon found out why nobody else had managed to put this right. Almost every significant article is guarded by powerful forces that appear from nowhere if you dare to make changes. Unless you have unlimited time, and a squadron of determined helpers, they will simply remove any alterations you make, and put things back the way they were. In the end, I did not care enough to fight these battles.
October 15th, 2018 (Permalink)
Some acts of Congress have boring, unmemorable names, such as the Smoot-Hawley Act1, the Taft-Hartley Act2, and the McCain-Feingold Act3. They are often named for a pair of legislators, one from the Senate and one from the House of Representatives. However, the cutting edge of congressional act naming is to give an act a brand name to sell it to the public, especially via an acronym. Such names fit Steven Poole's definition of "unspeak":
…[A] name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite.4
Here are some examples from the last few decades:
- The USA PATRIOT Act (2001)5: With a name like that who could be against it except someone who is unpatriotic? Its title is actually an acronym for: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism". In the same vein, there's the more recent:
- USA FREEDOM Act (2015)6: The name is short for: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring". Who is against freedom? This was basically the Patriot Act Lite.
- The No Child Left Behind Act (2002)7: Who would want to leave any child behind? Unfortunately, despite its name we seem to have left some behind, or why would the next one have been needed?
- The Every Student Succeeds Act (2015)7: What will they call the next act when some students fail?
- The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010)8: Better known as "Obamacare". Who would be against protecting patients and affordable care?
- The Violence Against Women Act (1994)9: Who could oppose it except those in favor of violence against women?
Most acts of Congress nowadays are so long that nobody reads all of them10―and I mean nobody, not even members of Congress. Certainly, most citizens do not have the time, energy, or inclination to wade through thousands of pages of bureaucratese. As a result, all that we usually know about legislation is what politicians tell us is in it, and the name they give the bill. Are we being sold bills of goods?
- Editors, "Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
- Brian Duignan, "Taft–Hartley Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
- Clifford A. Jones, "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9/4/2018.
- Steven Poole, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How that Message Becomes Reality (2006), p. 3.
- Brian Duignan, "USA PATRIOT Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/13/2018.
- "USA Freedom Act: What’s in, what’s out", The Washington Post, 6/2/2015.
- Brian Duignan & Jeannette L. Nolen, "No Child Left Behind", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
- See: "An Act Entitled The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.".
- Ami Lynch, "Violence Against Women Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/16/2018.
- For instance, the PDF of the Obamacare bill itself is over 900 pages long; see note 8, above. Also, there were an additional 11,000 pages of regulations; see: Jayne O'Donnell & Fola Akinnibi, "How many pages of regulations are in the Affordable Care Act?", USA Today, 10/23/2013.
October 2nd, 2018 (Permalink)
New Book: The Sherlock Effect
There is no question that Conan Doyle was a great writer of fiction. Indeed, he was so good that he made the methods of Sherlock Holmes plausible not only to a general readership but also to a wide variety of forensic doctors, academicians, and scientists. People seem to have forgotten that Sherlock Holmes is make-believe. It is both sad and terrifying to note that professionals from the Victorian Era to the present day apply fictional methods to true-life happenings.1
I'm on record in a previous "New Book" entry as skeptical about Sherlock Holmes being treated as a model of logical reasoning2. I mentioned that I like the stories, and I've read every one of the originals written by Doyle more than once3. However, anyone trying to imitate Holmes would soon find themselves frequently mistaken. Holmes is never wrong only because the stories don't take place in the real world, but in a fantasy world created and controlled by Doyle.
This brings me to the current New Book by Thomas W. Young, a forensic physician, subtitled: "How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective". Clearly, this new book differs from the previous one, Mastermind, in being critical of the effect of Holmes' example.
I'm also skeptical of the notion that forensic scientists have been so influenced by a fictional character4. However, assuming that Holmes has indeed had such an influence, I'm less skeptical that it would be at least partly negative, though "disastrous" is a strong word.
In a review of the book in Psychology Today, Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, writes:
Young begins with Holmes’ explanation to Watson of “reasoning backwards.” It works like this: Holmes learns about or observes a result…and then uses intuition to describe the steps required for the incident to have occurred. “The reader is tricked into thinking that backwards reasoning is brilliant,” says Young, but it doesn’t actually work. Here's why: “For any result, any set of clues, there may be numerous possible ‘trains of events’ that could explain the result.” … So, any given “result” might have numerous possible routes, and one cannot be certain with intuition alone which one to pick.5
Intuition alone doesn't work because it's only part of the first half of the scientific method: forming an hypothesis to explain a set of evidence. There's nothing wrong with using intuition or imagination to form hypotheses; in fact, it's an essential step. What's missing is the next step in which the hypothesis, or intuition, is tested. In Doyle's fictional world, Holmes' intuitions always turn out to be correct; but in the real world, it's often necessary to go through many hypotheses before hitting upon the correct explanation.
Hopefully, this book not only critiques Holmes' methods, as portrayed in Doyle's stories, but also provides better methods. As a logician and fan of Doyle's Holmes stories, I'm looking forward to reading it.
- Thomas W. Young, The Sherlock Effect: How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective (2018), Chapter 2: "Sherlock and His Successors".
- See: New Book: Mastermind, 2/14/2013. I never reviewed this book, though I have read it. I was not favorably impressed.
- There are also so many Holmes pastiches of varying quality that I've only read a small fraction of them. However, one that I can recommend for those who like Holmes, and are also interested in logic and probability theory, is Colin Bruce's Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales Of Logic, Math, And Probability (2008).
- Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist who reviewed the book for Psychology Today, is also skeptical of this so-called "Sherlock Effect". See the next note.
- Katherine Ramsland, "Sherlock's Curse", Psychology Today, 5/30/2018. Young's response is here: "A CRC Press author reviews and critiques The Sherlock Effect in Psychology Today", CRC Press, 5/31/2018.
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September 26th, 2018 (Permalink)
A Meeting of the Logicians' Club
The Logicians' Club1 is an organization for perfect logicians who assume nothing and never make a mistake. Moreover, when asked a question, perfect logicians answer with the exact truth and never volunteer information. As you might expect, not many people are eligible for membership. In fact, the current membership of the club consists of three logicians, appropriately known only as A, B, and C2.
This month, the club decided to hold its monthly meeting at a local tavern. When the three logicians had seated themselves at a table, a waiter approached them.
"Would anyone like a beer?" the waiter asked.
"Yes", said A.
"Yes", said B.
"Yes", said C.
The waiter left the table and returned a few minutes later carrying a tray with three glasses of beer on it. He set a glass of beer on the table in front of each logician. A raised the glass of beer and took a sip.
"I don't want this", said B, indicating the glass of beer.
"I don't want this", said C, pushing the glass away.
Why did B and C refuse their glasses of beer?
- For an earlier visit to the club, see here: A Puzzle at the Logicians' Club, 1/31/2016.
- These are not their real names.
September 25th, 2018 (Permalink)
Meet the Press
In an interview with Omarosa Manigault Newman, Chuck Todd, current host of NBC's venerable Meet the Press, said the following:
… [Trump] has said a lot of racial things. He said a lot of racial things during the campaign, calling Mexicans rapists, attacking a federal judge because he was hispanic, you even talk about his obsession with the "Central Park Five" mythology there. Retweeting false crime statistics. …1
What is a "racial thing"? Did Barack Obama say a lot of "racial things"? I guess that Todd didn't want to come right out and accuse the president of saying a racist thing, so he substituted the word "racial" for "racist". The effect of that, however, is to make the accusation into an innuendo. If Trump has actually said racist things, then Todd ought to say so outright; if not, then Todd should refrain from insinuating that he did.
In any case, how is "calling Mexicans rapists" a "racial thing"? Mexican is not a race, but a nationality. Similarly, "hispanic" is not a race but an ethnicity. So, how are those two things "racial"?
It's impossible to evaluate Todd's claim that Trump's supposed "obsession with the 'Central Park Five' mythology" is a racial thing, at least based on what little he says here. Similarly, "[r]etweeting false crime statistics" is certainly a bad thing, and it might even be a "racial thing" depending on the statistics in question, but it's impossible to know without some detail about the statistics.
It's difficult even to make sense out of most of what Todd said, let alone to see what is "racial" about it, but one part of it that it is possible to evaluate is his reference to Trump "calling Mexicans rapists". Todd is alluding to the following passage from Trump's announcement of his candidacy for the presidency:
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. … When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.2
Trump's remarks are not very coherent, but they're not any less so than Todd's quoted above. No doubt his remarks are impolite and impolitic; so what else is new? However, it's clear from context that he's not saying that all Mexicans are rapists, or that Mexicans are generally rapists, or even that illegal Mexican immigrants are generally rapists. Instead, he's listing a series of "problems" that such immigrants bring with them, including drugs and crime. Moreover, the last sentence makes it clear that he's not condemning all immigrants from Mexico as bad people.
Over two years ago, Salon, of all places, in reference to this contextomy wrote: "The media needs to stop telling this lie about Donald Trump.3" Politifact, not exactly known as a far-right fact-checker, debunked it4.
I won't go as far as Salon and call Chuck Todd a liar; perhaps he genuinely didn't know what he was talking about. But, then, what is he doing at the helm of Meet the Press?
Notes:, NBC News, 8/12/2018
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