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.
- "Predictably Irrational". The accompanying website for the book, which has some short excerpts and a weblog.
- Elizabeth Kolbert, "What Was I Thinking? The latest reasoning about our irrational ways.", The New Yorker, 2/25/2008. A review of the book and another related one.
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.
- The Senator received fewer votes than Governor Drummond.
- The Mayor either came in first or dead last.
- Boyce received more votes than the Mayor, but fewer than the Florida Representative.
- Drummond received fewer votes than the Representative.
- Anderson received more votes than the Hoosier.
- The Texan didn't finish last.
- Drummond is neither the Texan nor the Hoosier.
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.
Dog bites man:
Queen bites swan:
King gets ticket:
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.
- "Science Standards", Florida Department of Education, p. 50, 2/19/2008 (PDF)
- Marc Caputo, "Evolution: Just a theory?", Miami Herald, 2/6/2008
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.
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.
- Ad for Definitely, Maybe, Dallas Morning News, 2/15/2008
- Wendy Ide, "Definitely, Maybe: The Return of the Thinking Woman's Chick Flick", Times Online, 1/31/2008
- David Goldenberg, "The Blurbs: Hudson and McConaughey Embark on a Fool's Errand", Gelf Magazine, 2/15/2008
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:
- The Anecdotal Fallacy:
Joan Kramer…claims that [she and her husband] experienced difficulty breathing, swollen eyes, and splitting headaches after sleeping on a new mattress. They blame the chemicals….
- Appeal to Misleading Authority:
Don’t, under any circumstances, interview a toxicologist, … an allergist, or anyone with a scientific credential. That just complicates things. CBS went, instead, to ABC Carpets and Homes in New York….
- Hasty Generalization:
If the new mattress code is really creating severe allergic reactions, couldn’t CBS find a bigger sample than just one couple and one mattress? That isn’t a statistic, it’s an anecdote.
- Post Hoc:
Mr and Mrs Kramer simply intuited causation from the correlate of a new bed; did they check for anything else unusual in their environment? How do they really know it was the chemicals in the bed…?
Source: Trevor Butterworth, "If You Vomit While Talking to a CBS Reporter Are You Allergic to CBS?", STATS, 2/12/2008
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)
- Q: I was wondering if I could get your help identifying a fallacy. I'm having trouble figuring out which bucket of fallacies it falls into. The fallacy goes something like: "The New York Yankees are the best team in baseball, Alex Rodriguez is the best player on the New York Yankees, therefore Alex Rodriguez is the best player in baseball."―Ryan Brooks
A: This is an interesting example. The argument is really just a non sequitur―that is, an obviously bad and unconvincing argument. However, there seems to be a fallacious argument concealed within it. Why would the fact that Rodriguez is the best player on the best team imply that he's the best player, period? Presumably, the arguer is making the following inference:
The New York Yankees are the best baseball team.
Therefore, the players on the Yankees are the best baseball players.
From the conclusion of this argument and the fact that Rodriguez is the best player on the Yankees, it follows that Rodriguez is the best baseball player. However, the argument above is an instance of the fallacy of division, that is, the mistake of reasoning that a part must have all the properties of the whole. A baseball team is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, so the best team need not be composed of the best players. It is easy to see that the best baseball player might be stuck on some mediocre team with a lot of poor players. So, even though the argument that you're asking about does not itself have the form of the fallacy of division, I suspect that a fallacy of division underlies it. (2/4/2008)
- Q: I hope you can help me. I ran into this argument:
P1: You are either with us or with the terrorists.
P2: You are not with us.
C: You are with the terrorists.
The one who put forward the argument acknowledged that P1 was a false dichotomy but asserted that the argument is still logically valid since the conclusion followed from the premises. I argued that since P1 was a fallacy the argument was rendered invalid. Who was correct here?―Christopher Dargan
A: Surprisingly, the argument is, indeed, valid. It's an instance of a validating argument form known as "disjunctive syllogism". This shows that validity is not enough: good deductive arguments also must be sound, which means that the premisses must be true, as well. So, if P1 is false because "you" are neither for us nor with the terrorists, then the argument is unsound. So, the answer to your question, and what you can reply to the arguer, is: "Yes, the argument is valid, but it's unsound."
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- Representative Anderson of Florida
- Governor Drummond of Hawaii
- Senator Boyce of Texas
- Mayor Calhoun of Indiana