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February 29th, 2008 (Permalink)

New Book

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, has a book out called Predictably Irrational. I haven't read it yet―I wish that someone would send me a review copy―but it appears to concern how the cognitive illusions made famous by the psychologists Kahneman and Tversky affect economic decisions. This is "predictable" irrationality because it's systematic, and for that reason we can devise ways to compensate for it.


February 27th, 2008 (Permalink)

A Primary Puzzle

Four candidates of the Republicrat Party―one is Calhoun―each from a different state―one is from Hawaii―are competing in a Presidential primary. Use the following clues to determine the title, name, and state of each candidate, and the order in which they finished in the voting.


February 23rd, 2008 (Permalink)

Name that Fallacy!

An Israeli MP has blamed parliament's tolerance of gays for earthquakes that have rocked the Holy Land recently. Shlomo Benizri, of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, said the tremors had been caused by lawmaking that gave "legitimacy to sodomy". Israel decriminalised homosexuality in 1988 and has since passed several laws recognising gay rights. Two earthquakes shook the region last week and a further four struck in November and December.


Source: "Israeli MP blames quakes on gays", BBC, 2/20/2008

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Dominic Sisti.

February 22nd, 2008 (Permalink)


Dog bites man:

Marine Serving in Iraq Finds Friend in Rescued Dog

Queen bites swan:

Queen Elizabeth ‘sorry’ for swan bite

King gets ticket:

MLK's driver remembers 'chasing the dream'

February 21st, 2008 (Permalink)

Just Keep Telling Yourself: "It's Only a Theory"

I've written before about the role that equivocation on the word "theory" plays in the anti-evolution movement: everyone hears about the "theory" of evolution, but is it just a theory? To say that it's "just a theory" is to contrast it with what has been "proven"―in the colloquial sense―to be a fact. That is, it's the colloquial sense of "theory" that is used in the claim that evolution is "just a theory". No one would say that the roundness of the earth is "just a theory" for this would suggest that it's not also a well-established fact. However, the "theory" of evolution is also a fact, if not as well-established as the roundness of the planet.

The latest "just a theory" controversy comes from Florida, where the state recently adopted new standards for the teaching of science. Apparently, the state previously taught about evolution but under the euphemism of "biological change", which I've also criticized previously as doublespeak. To their credit, the current standards use the word "evolution", but always preface it with the phrase "scientific theory of".

I've looked at the new standards―though I haven't read them carefully―and they explain what a scientific theory is before the phrase "scientific theory of evolution" is introduced:

BIG IDEA 3: The Role of Theories, Laws, Hypotheses, and Models

The terms that describe examples of scientific knowledge, for example; "theory," "law," "hypothesis," and "model" have very specific meanings and functions within science.

Recognize and explain that a scientific theory is a well-supported and widely accepted explanation of nature and is not simply a claim posed by an individual. Thus, the use of the term theory in science is very different than how it is used in everyday life.

There's nothing that I can see wrong with the standards, and the use of the term "theory" as applied to evolution won't be misleading, so long as the standards themselves are actually followed. Nonetheless, some of the news accounts of the controversy over the standards suggest that the inclusion of the word "theory" somehow undermines the teaching of evolution. I don't see any sign of this from the standards themselves. Perhaps the only people who will be fooled by the inclusion of the word "theory" are those scientific illiterates who oppose the teaching of evolution.



Bad Science
February 18th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check it Out, Too

Pseudoscience is imitation science and, as such, one of its characteristics is its use of scientific-sounding, but often meaningless, language. Many people are so scientifically illiterate that they are impressed by scientific-sounding words into mistaking claptrap for science. Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column gives an example of pseudoscience being sold―literally―with neuroscientific language.

Source: Ben Goldacre, "Banging your head repeatedly against the brick wall of teachers’ stupidity helps increase blood flow to your frontal lobes", Bad Science, 2/16/2008

Acknowledgment: The image is an altered cover of a Weird Science comic book.

Definitely, Maybe
February 15th, 2008 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Definitely, Maybe

Here's a blurb from an ad for the new movie Definitely, Maybe:

"The Best Romantic Comedy Since 'Annie Hall.'"

The Times? What Times is it? The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or maybe the Toad Hop Times? This is a trick that I don't recall seeing in movie blurbs before, namely, quoting a newspaper review but calling the paper simply "The Times", "The Tribune", or "The Herald", thus making it hard to check the review. Add to that leaving out the critic's name and it's very difficult to track the quote down.

However, despite the best efforts of the ad writer, with the help of the miracle of internet searching, I was able to find the review in question. It's by Wendy Ide of the Times of London. Maybe the ad writer worried that American audiences wouldn't be too impressed by a British review even if it's a rave, and hoped that potential moviegoers would assume that the paper in question was "the newspaper of record".

Or, maybe, the ad writer wanted to make it difficult to discover the other flaw in this blurb, namely, that it isn't a quote from the text of the review but from a subheading probably written by an editor. Of course, that fact also supplies an innocent motive for not mentioning the critic, but there's the corresponding problem that maybe the editor in question hadn't seen the movie. Also, even though the review is a positive one, the blurb is a doubtful summary of the critic's judgment. Here's the relevant portion of the review:

What was the last truly great romantic comedy? Woody Allen's Annie Hall, in 1977. The Meg Ryan years produced a few little gems―When Harry Met Sally (1989) and the defiantly odd Joe versus the Volcano (1990). But they will always be guilty pleasures compared with Annie Hall's neurotic brilliance.

So, Ide doesn't actually say that Definitely, Maybe is the best romantic comedy since Annie Hall, rather the point of Ide's digression into film history seems to be that there have been few good romantic comedies since 1977. Does Ide think that the movie is the best romantic comedy since Annie Hall? Maybe. Is the blurb nonetheless misleading? Definitely!

By the way, Gelf magazine's "The Blurbs" feature this week gives its "Bogus Blurb of the Week" award to another blurb for this same movie from a different ad. It must be hard to find good quotes for this movie.


February 12th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check it Out

The Statistical Assessment Service has an excellent primer on how to write journalistic scare stories. Here are the fallacies you will need:

Source: Trevor Butterworth, "If You Vomit While Talking to a CBS Reporter Are You Allergic to CBS?", STATS, 2/12/2008

February 7th, 2008 (Permalink)

What's New?

The Fallacy Files has a new look. It's undergone some cosmetic surgery, but there is one navigational change: the main menu is now available in the navigational pane to the left, so that you don't have to go back to the main page to access it. I hope that you enjoy the new look!

February 3rd, 2008 (Permalink)


February 2nd, 2008 (Permalink)

Thanks for Your Support!

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Solution to a Primary Puzzle:

  1. Representative Anderson of Florida
  2. Governor Drummond of Hawaii
  3. Senator Boyce of Texas
  4. Mayor Calhoun of Indiana

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