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January 30th, 2010 (Permalink)

Headline, Too

"Avatar" Becomes Highest-Grossing Movie

Here's the "Numbers Guy" on "Avatar"'s record-breaking box office:

Barely a month into its theatrical run, "Avatar" set a record for world-wide ticket sales, topping $1.85 billion. That is a reflection of its wide popularity, and also a reminder of the quirky way that Hollywood crowns champions. In recent decades, the agreed-upon benchmark for movie dominance has been box-office revenue, unadjusted for inflation. That means "Avatar," like the previous all-time leader, 1997's "Titanic," and prior box-office kings benefited in part from favorable comparisons. Since tallies of ticket sales aren't adjusted for inflation, rising ticket prices have helped pave the way for a number of more-recent films, including "The Dark Knight" and "Transformers," to land near the top of box-office rankings. Of the top 25 grossing films of all time on Hollywood.com's U.S. box-office ranking, 18 were released in the past decade. Adjust the totals for higher admission prices mainly due to inflation, and "Avatar" would be the only one of those 18 to make the list―at No. 24, as of Thursday.

If inflation didn't exist, Hollywood would invent it.


Salvador Dali
January 28th, 2010 (Permalink)


Bacon and eggs could help pregnant women boost their baby's intelligence

According to Britain's Daily Mail newspaper:

The traditional English breakfast is not normally associated with good health. But scientists have found that eating a plate of bacon and eggs could help pregnant women boost the intelligence of their unborn child. Women are usually given a list of foods to avoid during pregnancy and it is well documented that a pregnant woman's diet can affect her unborn baby. But the new study suggests that a chemical in pork products and eggs can help the baby's growing brain to develop. Scientists at the University of North Carolina have discovered that the micronutrient, called choline, is vital in helping babies in the womb develop parts of their brains linked to memory and recall.

Before you run out to Denny's for a Grand Slam breakfast, read the rest of the article:

Dr Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology journal, which published the research told The Telegraph: "We may never be able to call bacon a health food with a straight face, but [similar studies] are already making us rethink what we consider healthy and unhealthy." Other foods that contain a high level of the nutrient include liver, milk, chicken and nuts. Previous studies have suggested that large doses of choline could help protect against heart problems.

So, pregnant women could just drink milk or eat nuts to get choline, rather than eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Of course, the article leaves this important fact until its penultimate sentence, because otherwise it wouldn't seem especially interesting. For instance, here's a headline you won't be seeing:

Liver and Milk Good for Fetuses

That would be as accurate as the actual headline, but how many people would bother to read the following article? Instead, the real headline gets your attention by playing upon wishful thinking: wouldn't it be so nice if bacon and eggs were actually good for you?

The Daily Mail isn't the only British newspaper to run this story: both the Telegraph and the Express also ran almost identical stories with similar headlines (see the Resources below).

Source: Anny Shaw, "Bacon and eggs could help pregnant women boost their baby's intelligence", Mail Online, 1/6/2010


Acknowledgment: The illustration is a detail of a painting by Salvador Dalí.

January 21st, 2010 (Permalink)

Check 'Em Out

January 18th, 2010 (Permalink)


Q: I've had trouble categorizing a logical fallacy I'm encountering more and more often. The argument usually takes the form:

  1. P is a statement about Person X.
  2. X protests that P is inaccurate or untrue.
  3. Therefore, P is true.

Examples I can give―not actual examples, just simplified summations from the arguments I've witnessed:

The objection, of course, being that X's opinion of P (a statement about him) has no bearing on P's truth or falsity; if P is a criticism of X, there is no way to logically infer that it is an accurate criticism from the simple fact that X complains about it. Is there already a category of fallacy that this argument could be squeezed into, or do you suppose that it's some new mutation?―Jacob C.

A: These sound like cases of poisoning the well, and as such are not a new phenomenon. It's not so much a logical fallacy as a rhetorical move aimed at putting an opponent at an argumentative disadvantage. For instance, if you accuse someone of being an habitual liar, that person's denial can then be dismissed as another lie. One of my favorite examples is "You talk too much!": if you try to defend yourself against this accusation, you may seem to be merely confirming it. Another good one is "You just like to argue!" Try arguing against that!

When the well has been successfully poisoned, it's heads they win, tails you lose. If you don't deny the charge, that may be taken as an admission of guilt. If you do deny it, that may also be taken to be proof of guilt. This is what is so insidious about poisoning the well.

Because of this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" quality, the only defense is to confront it directly. Point out the unfairness of an accusation that you cannot defend yourself against, and then hope that your audience will be convinced to give your defense a fair hearing.

January 14th, 2010 (Permalink)

Doublespeak Dictionary

Doublespeak Definition
At hope Poor

Here's a good example of euphemism inflation:

Decades ago, poor children became known as "disadvantaged" to soften the stigma of poverty. Then they were "at-risk." Now, a Washington lawmaker wants to replace those euphemisms with a new one, "at hope."

Euphemism inflation is the process in which euphemisms lose their value over time and must be replaced. William Lutz, in his book Doublespeak Defined of 1999, documented the use of "economically disadvantaged" as a euphemism for "poor". "Economically disadvantaged" is actually closer in meaning to "poor" than just plain "disadvantaged", since poverty is only one of many ways to be disadvantaged. However, the full phrase is quite a mouthful, so it's no wonder that "economically" was dropped.

When that euphemism wore out, "at risk" was introduced. Presumably, "at risk" is narrower in application than "disadvantaged", since it's usually only children who are "at risk". Poor adults would be included among the "disadvantaged", but it would sound strange to call them "at risk".

What are those poor children at risk of? Not poverty, since they're already poor. My guess is that "at risk" began its career as an educational euphemism, where the risk was probably that of dropping out of school―I've certainly heard the phrase used that way. Lutz does not mention "at risk" as a euphemism for poverty, so far as I can tell. So, unless Lutz missed it―which is certainly possible―it may have come into use after 1999. If so, then the effective life of a euphemism may be about ten years.

The Washington lawmaker in question, Rosa Franklin, thinks that "at risk", which started out its career as a euphemism for "disadvantaged", is a "negative label":

Democratic State Sen. Rosa Franklin says negative labels are hurting kids' chances for success and she's not a bit concerned that people will be confused by her proposed rewrite of the 54 places in state law where words like "at risk" and "disadvantaged" are used. … "We really put too many negatives on our kids," the state Senate's president pro tem says. "We need to come up with positive terms."

This illustrates how words or phrases that begin as "positive" terms eventually take on a negative charge from association with an unpleasant concept. Hence, the felt need for new euphemisms every decade or two.

Though euphemisms, "disadvantaged" and "at risk" are at least meaningful English, while "at hope" is barely English at all. Of course, the words "at" and "hope" are English, but what do they mean when put together? "Children at risk" is an imprecise concept, but at least it means something. What does "children at hope" mean? You can't just take two random words of English, stick them together, and expect the result to be meaningful.

I assume what happened is that Franklin wanted to replace the "negative" word "risk" in "at risk" with a positive word, and latched onto the trendy "hope", which was popularized during the campaign of our current president. "Children at change" would've been confusing, and "children at hope and change" would've been too long and too partisan.

I'll give Tom Pink the final word:

"While I respect what the legislator wants to do, I think we can all agree that changing the words doesn't change the problem," Pink says, adding "it maybe even takes attention away from what perhaps should really be happening."


Update (1/29/2009): Anne Soukhanov, in her book Word Watch of 1995, says that "at-risk" is a "cliché that began in the eighties". If that's the case, then the lifespan of a euphemism may be longer than I speculated above. Also, if the timeline of the article is correct, then "disadvantaged" must be an even older euphemism for "poor". This seems plausible to me, as I can't now recall a time when "disadvantaged" wasn't used to refer to poor people.

Source: Anne H. Soukhanov, Word Watch: The Stories Behind the Words of Our Lives (1995), p. 56.

January 7th, 2010 (Permalink)

Contextomy Watch

…Israelís problem is not that the rules [of the Geneva Convention] are inappropriate for asymmetric conflict, but that the government chose to ignore them in Gaza. …[W]hen the Israeli military used such weapons as heavy artillery, flechettes, and white phosphorous (which causes horrible burns) in densely populated areas of Gaza, and when it authorized the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure, it flouted the law. …[T]here is strong evidence that Israel wanted Gazan civilians to pay the price for Hamasís abuses, and that the decision to impose that cost was taken not by junior officers in the field but by senior government officials. …[A]s the foreign minister at the time, Tzipi Livni, said during a wartime debate in parliament: "On my way here I heard that Hamas declared the man killed by a rocket in Ashkelon Ďone of the Zionistsí despite being an Israeli Arab. They don't make a distinction, and neither should we." With culpability running to such senior levels of government, it is no surprise that Israel wants to rewrite the rules.
Source: Kenneth Roth, "Geneva Conventions Still Hold Up", Human Rights Watch, 12/30/2010
The Knesset held a special recess session Monday in light of the Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip and the security situation in southern Israel. … [Said Tibi:] "As a humane person, I oppose targeting civilians wherever they are. Naturally, however, every time an Arab is injured it hurts me more because we are members of the same nation." … Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said during the meeting, "On my way here I heard that Hamas declared the man killed by a rocket in Ashkelon 'one of the Zionists' despite being an Israeli Arab. They don't make a distinction, and neither should we."
Source: Amnon Meranda, "Tibi: Politicians counting Palestinian bodies", Ynet News, 12/29/2008
Sometimes a quote taken out of its context and set into a different context can seem to mean almost the opposite of what was intended. Roth uses Tzipi Livni's words as evidence that "the decision to [make Gazan civilians pay the price for Hamasís abuses] was taken not by junior officers in the field but by senior government officials." Livni was a senior government official at the time, and her words seem to suggest that Israel should be as indiscriminate in retaliating against Hamas as Hamas was in attacking Israelis.

However, the source of Livni's words was a news article reporting on a debate in Israel's parliament. In the context of that article, Livni appears to have been responding to the remarks of Tibi―an Arab member of the Knesset―that "every time an Arab is injured it hurts me more because we are members of the same nation". Livni answers that, since Hamas makes no distinction between Israeli Arabs and "Zionists", neither should "we"―presumably meaning the Knesset, or perhaps Israeli society as a whole. So, in context, Livni doesn't appear to be talking about how Israel should treat Gazans, but about how Israel should treat its own citizens, namely, equally. Thus, taken out of context, Livni's words seem to express the opposite sentiment from what they do in context.

Via: David Bernstein, "Typical Human Rights Watch Dishonesty", The Volokh Conspiracy, 1/4/2010

January 3rd, 2010 (Permalink)

Check it Out

John Allen Paulos' latest "Who's Counting?" column is a worthwhile read on how to understand medical statistics. Unfortunately, we all need to know something about such statistics both as probable patients and actual citizens. Read the whole thing, but note Paulos' discussion of a familiar fallacy―at least, it ought to be familiar to readers of The Fallacy Files.

Source: John Allen Paulos, "Who's Counting: Medical Statistics Don't Always Mean What They Seem to Mean", ABC News, 1/3/2010

January 2nd, 2010 (Permalink)

A New Puzzle for a New Year

The Agency for Counter-Terrorism (ACT) is tracking a suspected terrorist. Satellite photographs show the suspect entering a small building, but all that can be determined from the photos is that the suspect has blond hair. Public records reveal that the building the suspect entered is an apartment house with four apartments rented by four separate individuals. In order to protect the innocent, the renters will be referred to here only as Subjects A, B, C, and D. Surveillance reveals that only the four subjects occupy the house, so the suspect must be one of the four.

ACT discovered that Subject A rents apartment 1, Subject D lives in apartment 3, and the tenant in apartment 4 was seen to have black hair. The rules of the apartment house allow only one pet per tenant. Either Subject A or B was observed walking a dog in the neighborhood. Apartment 2 is home to a parakeet, and one of the tenants has a goldfish.

The subject walking the dog had blond hair, while the one who has a parakeet has brown. A cat was observed sitting on a windowsill of apartment 4.

The tenant in apartment 3 was seen to have red hair. Subject B's hair color could not be determined except that it was not dark enough to be black. Subject D was the only one identified as a woman.

ACT can make no headway in identifying the suspected terrorist from this information, but is afraid that more intense surveillance would alert the suspect. Can you identify which of the four subjects is the suspected terrorist?


Solution to the New Puzzle for a New Year: To start with, the only things we know for sure are that the suspect has blond hair and is one of the four tenants in the apartment house. From the information given, one tenant has black hair, another has blond, one has brown, and the last is a redhead. Since this accounts for all four tenants, the suspect must be the blond. Since four different pets are mentioned―a dog, a parakeet, a goldfish, and a cat―and only one pet is allowed per apartment, it follows that each of the subjects has one and only one pet.

In explaining the solution, it will help to number the clues:

  1. The suspect has blond hair.
  2. Subject A rents Apartment 1.
  3. Subject D rents Apartment 3.
  4. The tenant in Apartment 4 has black hair.
  5. Either Subject A or B has a dog.
  6. The tenant in Apartment 2 has a parakeet.
  7. One subject has a goldfish.
  8. The subject who has a dog has blond hair.
  9. The subject with a parakeet has brown hair.
  10. The tenant in Apartment 4 has a cat.
  11. The tenant in Apartment 3 has red hair.
  12. Subject B's hair is not black.
  13. Subject D is a woman.

    Here is a step-by-step solution with the clues from which the steps come given in parentheses:

  14. The suspect has a dog. (1, 8)
  15. The suspect is either Subject A or B. (5, 14)
  16. Subject B does not live in Apartment 1. (2)
  17. Subject B does not live in Apartment 3. (3)
  18. Subject B does not live in Apartment 4. (4, 12)
  19. Subject B lives in Apartment 2. (16-18)
  20. Subject B has a parakeet. (6, 19)
  21. Subject B has brown hair. (9, 20)
  22. The suspect is not Subject B. (1, 21)
  23. The suspect is Subject A. (15, 22)

This may not be the only way to solve the puzzle, so if you found a different path to the same solution, good for you!

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