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February 29th, 2004 (Permalink)

Was Hitler a Vegetarian?

It's a rare event, but every so often I come across an entire book based on a fallacy. An old example is The Abortion Holocaust, an obscure and bizarre book based on a weak and question-begging analogy between abortion and the Nazi holocaust. Judging from a review in Slate, a new example is a book by the vegetarian cookbook writer Rynn Berry, Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover.

I haven't read Berry's book yet, but he has an article online explaining why Hitler supposedly wasn't a vegetarian. Berry is worried that people criticize vegetarianism because Hitler practiced it:

"…I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitlerís vegetarianism has not been raised. Invariably, at every bookstore signing, at every lecture, on every phone-in talk show, at least one person has asked me half-mockingly: 'Is Hitler in your book?' or 'Why didnít you put Hitler in your book?'"

These sort of rhetorical questions represent the classic "argumentum ad Nazium", or "Hitler card", version of the fallacy of guilt by association. The fact that Hitler was a vegetarian does not discredit vegetarianism, any more than the fact that he didn't smoke discredits not smoking. For Berry to give credence to such fallacious arguments is to commit the fallacy himself.

In order to make his case that Hitler was not a vegetarian, Berry has to engage in a "high redefinition" of "vegetarianism", that is, redefining the term to have a narrower meaning. The claim that Hitler wasn't a "vegetarian" is based on some evidence that he occasionally ate meat, but many vegetarians would fail to count as "vegetarians" under this narrowed meaning.

When other people say that Hitler was a vegetarian, they use the word in its ordinary meaning, that is, a person who generally—as a rule of thumb—avoids meat. Berry equivocates on these two meanings of the word, for the evidence that Hitler was not a "vegetarian", in Berry's sense, does not show that he was not a vegetarian, in the usual sense.


Resource: High and Low, 2/9/2004

February 28th, 2004 (Permalink)


"Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one's own ratiocination, and does not extend to that of other men."

Source: Charles Sanders Peirce, "The Fixation of Belief", Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), pp. 1-15.

February 27th, 2004 (Permalink)

Is Paris Sinking?

Julian Baggini has a new Bad Moves column about an extremely one-sided and alarmist article on global warming in the Observer. As he points out, the article misrepresents a report prepared for the Pentagon. For example, the article quotes the report as follows:

"Climate change 'should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern', say the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network."

However, here is the context of this quote from the report itself:

"This report suggests that, because of the potentially dire consequences, the risk of abrupt climate change, although uncertain and quite possibly small, should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern." (Emphasis added.)

Here is one of the few other quotes from the report in the article:

"An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is 'plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately', they conclude."

But the context of the quote tells a different story:

"We have created a climate change scenario that although not the most likely, is plausible, and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately." (Emphasis added.)

It's clear from the report itself that the article's authors carefully mined it for the most alarming information, and studiously ignored the many indications that this was an unlikely, but possible worst-case scenario. This article—alongside the original report—should be adopted by journalism schools as a textbook example of slanted reporting.


Update (2/28/2004): Baggini has another interesting column on how he was passed over for appearances on television issue discussion shows because he isn't extreme enough. I suppose that this is an improvement on the kind of one-sidedness displayed by the Observer article; however, having two extremists shout at each other is not the best way to shed light, rather than heat, on an issue.

Source: Julian Baggini, "Our Society is Complex. Please Discuss", Guardian Unlimited, 2/18/2004

Via: "Butterflies and Wheels"

February 26th, 2004 (Permalink)

Straw Candidate

The Spinsanity guys have an excellent report today in the Philadelphia Inquirer on a straw man defense used by the Kerry campaign: every time someone criticizes Kerry's record on defense, the Kerry campaign dodges legitimate criticism by labeling it an attack on Kerry's patriotism. Of course, given Kerry's service record, it's easier to defend his patriotism than to deal with fair challenges to his voting record in the Senate. Check it out.

Source: "Spinsanity", Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/26/2004

February 25th, 2004 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a recent real-life example to the fallacy of the Texas sharpshooter, and revised the entry while I was at it.

February 15th, 2004 (Permalink)

The Big Blurb Contextomy

The newspaper ad for the new movie The Big Bounce has the following blurb:

"'The Big Bounce' is like a paid Hawaiian vacation."

Here's the quote in context:

"Coming at the end of a dismal and frigid January, 'The Big Bounce,'…is like a paid Hawaiian vacation—somebody else's. Everyone involved with this picture…seems to have had a good time making it, which was nice for them, but it may not do you much good. There are a few vicarious pleasures to be gleaned…but the movie itself seems to have been misplaced amid all the sun and surf, the pineapples and bikinis."

Guess who'll be paying for those actors' vacations in Hawaii.


February 11th, 2004 (Permalink)


Complete Solar System

Source: "Headlines", The Tonight Show

Resource: Ambiguity

February 10th, 2004 (Permalink)

Who's Stupid?

In responding to a newspaper advertisement sponsored by Duke University's Conservative Union, which criticized the University for a lack of political diversity in its faculty, the Chair of the Philosophy Department defended his department as follows:

"'We try to hire the best, smartest people available,' Brandon said of his philosophy hires. 'If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.

"'Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too.'"

Actually, it doesn't explain it at all. To continue Brandon's analogy, what explains why NBA players tend to be tall is that short people are usually bad basketball players, not that bad players tend to be short. There are lots of tall people who are bad basketball players, too.

What would explain it is if most conservatives were stupid, but this was specifically disavowed by Mill. Here's the quote in full:

"I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it." (Via: EpistemeLinks)

Even if Mill were correct that stupid people are generally conservative, this would not tend to explain a lack of conservatives in academia, since it says nothing about the proportion of conservatives among smart people. It could be the case that most smart people are conservative as well.

The nature of this elementary logical mistake is more apparent if we simplify the argument enough to present it as a categorical syllogism:

All stupid people are conservatives.
No philosophy hires are stupid people.
Therefore, no philosophy hires are conservatives.

This argument commits a fallacy of illicit major, as the major term—"conservatives"—is distributed in the conclusion, but undistributed in the first premiss.

Doesn't Duke's philosophy department require its hires—let alone its chairman—to have taken an elementary logic course?

Sources: Cindy Yee, "DCU Sparks Varied Reactions", The Chronicle Online, 2/10/2004

Via: Andrew Sullivan, "Why Academia is Biased", 2/10/2004

Update (2/12/2004): Eugene Volokh gives an odd defense of Brandon against the charge of committing a fallacy, which has a lot of needless math, since all it comes down to is the claim that Brandon really meant that conservatives are generally stupid. As I pointed out above, this would indeed make a nonfallacious, though perhaps unsound, argument. Here's the resulting syllogism:

All conservatives are stupid.
No philosophy hires are stupid people.
Therefore, no philosophy hires are conservatives.

The problem with this defense is that if this is what Brandon meant, he should have said so. Instead, he said that stupid people are generally conservative by quoting a passage of Mill, who in the previous sentence disavowed claiming that conservatives are generally stupid. The burden of proof is not on Volokh, or anyone but Brandon himself, to make sense out of his argument. What Brandon actually said was fallacious.

Source: Eugene Volokh, "Stupidity, Conservatism, and Math", The Volokh Conspiracy, 2/12/2004

Update (2/14/2004): Brandon has written a short editorial responding to some of the criticism he received for his remarks. Though he doesn't address the fallacy charge, except to suggest that the comment was a joke, he does say something which undermines the Volokh defense:

"If one looks carefully at what I was quoted as saying in The Chronicle, I did not say that all conservatives are stupid, nor even that most conservatives are stupid. I will go on the record as saying that some conservatives are stupid, but so are some liberals; there is plenty of stupidity to go around."

Source: Robert Brandon, "Guest Commentary: Clarification and Reflection", The Chronicle Online, 2/13/2004

Update (2/18/2004): Eugene Volokh is back on the case of the Mill quote about the political orientation of stupid people, and seems to have tracked down the original source in a speech. As Volokh notes, the context makes it clear that Mill was talking about the—big "C"—Conservative party of England, rather than—small "c"—conservatives. Additionally, it is anachronistic to apply the political terminology of over a century ago to current politics; for instance, Mill himself probably had more in common politically with today's conservatives than with today's liberals. For this reason, using Mill's remarks as if they apply to conservatives of today is equivocating on "conservative".

Brandon's explanation of why there are so few conservatives in his department is like an onion: it has many layers, and the more you peel, the more it stinks.

Exercise for the Reader: I leave as an exercise for the reader to discover yet another fallacy in Brandon's argument—there is at least one. If you think you have an answer, send it to me. I will publish the best responses here.

Source: Eugene Volokh, "Stupidity and Sciolism", The Volokh Conspiracy, 2/18/2004

February 9th, 2004 (Permalink)

High and Low

Julian Baggini is back with a Bad Moves column on what's called "low redefinition", which is the redefining of a term to have a broader meaning. There's also a "high" redefinition, which is redefining a term to have a narrower meaning. Both forms of redefinition are logical boobytraps, because they can easily lead to equivocation on the redefined term. There is no logical rule against redefining terms, but one must be careful to use a redefined term in its new meaning and not lapse back into using the old one. Check it out.

Source: Julian Baggini, "Low Redefinition", Bad Moves

February 8th, 2004 (Permalink)

Meet the Associated Press

An Associated Press summary report on today's Meet the Press interview with President Bush sounds like it has some big news:

"Bush, who pledged after the Sept. 11 attacks to get suspected mastermind Osama bin Laden 'dead or alive,' said Sunday: 'I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice.'"

This sounds as if the President doubts whether bin Laden will ever be captured, but the context tells a different story:

"Tim Russert: Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican…said he is absolutely convinced we will capture Osama bin Laden before the election.

"President Bush: Well, I appreciate his optimism. I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice, may be the best way to put it. I know we are on the hunt…"

The context makes it clear that Bush was expressing doubts as to whether bin Laden would be captured before the election, as Grassley said, not ever. This contextomy may have been the result of basing the article on notes rather than the transcript.


Via: Glenn Reynolds, "Update", InstaPundit, 2/8/2004

Update (2/9/2004): A subsequent article by the same reporter represents the quote accurately:

"Bush also was asked about the fugitive Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks whom the president had pledged to get 'dead or alive.'

"He chuckled when told that a Republican lawmaker had predicted Osama would be captured before the presidential election. 'I appreciate his optimism,' Bush said. 'I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice. I know we are on the hunt.'"

Source: Deb Riechmann, "Bush Defends War in TV Appearance", AP, 2/9/2004

February 7th, 2004 (Permalink)

News Weak Poll

Another Newsweek poll is out, and again there is little or no news in it, but that doesn't prevent the following from being reported:

"…President George W. Bush continues to lose ground in his approval ratings, according to the latest Newsweek poll. … Bushís approval rating remains below the 50 percent mark, with just 48 percent approving of the presidentís overall job performance…. In December, shortly after the capture of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, his approval rating was at 54 percent."

Once again, the margin of error is plus-or-minus 3%, so Bush's supposed losing of ground is undetectable as far as this poll is concerned. Also, there are two other meaningless changes in public opinion of Bush:

"A full 45 percent of voters feel strongly that Bush should not be reelected (up four points from the new year), compared with 37 percent who feel strongly that he should be reelected (down three points)."

The margin of error is actually worse for registered voters—who are a subset of the sample polled—namely, plus-or-minus 4%. So, these numbers are actually unchanged since the previous poll. No news is good news at Newsweek.

Source: Brian Braiker, "Newsweek Poll: Bush Under Fire", Newsweek, 2/7/2004

Resource: Poll Watch, 1/26/2004

February 6th, 2004 (Permalink)

A Friday Puzzle

A cowboy rode into town on Friday, stayed exactly five days, then rode out of town on Friday. How was this possible?

A Hint

Update (2/13/2004): The Answer

February 1st, 2004 (Permalink)

The "Evolution" of Doublespeak

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."—George Orwell

Here's a new entry for the Doublespeak Dictionary:

Evolution = biological changes over time

This is an example of the kind of euphemism which replaces a precise word with a more general phrase. "Biological changes over time" applies not only to evolutionary change, but also to such phenomena as growth and ageing, which makes the phrase misleading. It appears that the euphemistic phrase was intended to avoid stirring up the controversy that "evolution" does, but it seems to have backfired.


Answer to the Friday Puzzle: Friday was the cowboy's horse!

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