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March 28th, 2004 (Permalink)

Name that Fallacy!

"So I guess, the other thing I would say about Dick Clarke is that he was here throughout those eight years, going back to 1993, and the first attack on the World Trade Center; and '98, when the embassies were hit in East Africa; in 2000, when the USS Cole was hit. And the question that ought to be asked is, what were they doing in those days when he was in charge of counterterrorism efforts?"—Vice President Cheney


Source: "Vice President Cheney Participates in Radio Interview", 3/22/2004

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Tim van Gelder.

March 26th, 2004 (Permalink)

A Kerry Contextomy

Spinsanity's latest Philadelphia Inquirer column discusses a contextomy of John Kerry:

"…President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been taking a quote from Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, out of context to distort their opponent's views on the war on terror.

"During a March 6 interview with the New York Times, Kerry stated that 'the final victory in the war on terror depends on a victory in the war of ideas, much more than the war on the battlefield. And the war—not the war, I don't want to use that terminology. The engagement of economies, the economic transformation, the transformation to modernity of a whole bunch of countries that have been avoiding the future.'

"In context, it is clear that Kerry was referring to the 'war of ideas' when he said he did not want to use the term war, which he then rephrased, describing it as 'the engagement of economies, the economic transformation, the transformation to modernity.'

"Yet the White House has spun Kerry's comments to suggest that he was referring to the war on terror itself…. On March 11, for instance, President Bush stated that 'my opponent indicated that he's not comfortable using the word "war" to describe the struggle we're in. He said, "I don't want to use that terminology."' Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made this claim repeatedly in the last few weeks, ignoring the fact that Kerry repeatedly referred to the 'war on terror' in the interview in question."

I agree that Bush and Cheney are quoting Kerry out of context in a misleading way, but I don't think that the analysis of Kerry's meaning is correct. Kerry doesn't seem to be refusing to talk about a "war" of ideas, rather what he doesn't want to call a war is "[t]he engagement of economies, the economic transformation, the transformation to modernity of a whole bunch of countries that have been avoiding the future." This is not the sort of ideological struggle that might be called a "war of ideas", but what is usually called "globalization".


March 23rd, 2004 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a new "wild" example—that is, a real-life example, as opposed to an invented one—to the examples file.

Source: Stalking the Wild Fallacy

March 21st, 2004 (Permalink)

Poll Watch

In the past, I've been critical of the misleading way that Newsweek magazine has reported its polls, so in fairness I should point out that their report of the current poll does not suffer from the same problems. Unfortunately, this can't be said of Bloomberg's coverage of the same poll. Here's how Bloomberg's report begins:

"Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and U.S. President George W. Bush are tied at 48 percent support each, according to a poll of registered voters by Newsweek magazine.

"Bush…has gained 3 percentage points in the past month, the poll said. The previous Newsweek poll showed Kerry…with a 48 percent to 45 percent lead. Each survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points."

It's nice of them to include the margin of error in the very paragraph which it shows to be misleading! In fact, Bush's rating is statistically unchanged from last month, when Bush and Kerry were also tied. The report continues:

"When independent candidate Ralph Nader…was added to the ballot in the most recent poll, Bush led with 45 percent, to 43 percent for Kerry and 5 percent for the consumer advocate."

However, given the poll's margin of error, Bush doesn't really lead Kerry, even with Nader in the race, which the Newsweek report got right for once. Hurrah, Newsweek! Boo, Bloomberg!



March 20th, 2004 (Permalink)


Q: "Since both imminent threat from WMDs and links to terrorists are no longer considered valid claims for war with Iraq, I have been hearing a new reason surface: 'Saddam was a bad guy, and we needed to liberate his people.' So my question is: Is there an 'after-the-fact-switcheroo' fallacy for making up new reasons after we have already gone to war?"—Scott Kennedy

A: I have never heard of such a fallacy, and I don't think that arguing in this way is necessarily fallacious. In logic, one needs to keep the argument and the arguer distinct.

When an argument is made will not make a difference to its soundness, unless the truth-value of one of its premisses is affected. That doesn't seem to be the case here, so whether the argument is a good one or not won't be affected by whether it was made before the war or after.

There are a lot of reasons why an arguer might not have made the above argument before the war but after: The other reasons you mention may have seemed stronger then; or the argument seemed a weak one at the time; or, though the argument seemed a strong one, he thought that his audience would find it weak.

If the arguer would not have accepted that the liberation of a country was sufficient justification for invasion before the war, then it may be dishonest to make the argument afterwards. If the arguer is simply presenting an argument designed to sway others, that may be objectionably manipulative. However, these are moral objections aimed at the arguer, rather than logical objections to the argument itself.

So, to sum up, in evaluating the argument for liberating Iraq, you should put aside the question of whether it was made before or after the war, as this issue doesn't seem to be relevant. However, in evaluating the honesty of the arguer, it may well be relevant.

Thanks for the question, Scott.

March 17th, 2004 (Permalink)

Can't Keep a Good Fallacy Down

Three fallacious arguments previously exposed in this weblog and elsewhere are making reappearances:

  1. Ben Fritz has a follow-up to his initial report about the "imminent threat" straw man, which has made some recent appearances.


    • Ben Fritz, "Russert, Kennedy, Ignatieff Misleading with 'Imminent Threat' Evidence", Spinsanity, 3/16/2004
    • Check it Out, 11/10/2003
  2. The "reconstituted nuclear weapons" contextomy has shown up on John Kerry's official weblog, in a list of "Statements Made by the Bush Administration that Proved False":
    "2. There was 'no doubt' Iraq had 'reconstituted' nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction"


  3. Some news media are again reporting nationwide record high gas prices based on the nominal price of gas at the pump, rather than the real price—adjusted for inflation—though such records are insignificant.


    • "Lundberg Survey: U.S. Gas Prices Hit Record High", Fox News, 3/15/2004
    • Record Gas Prices?, 1/2003

March 15th, 2004 (Permalink)

Why do we fall for loaded questions?

Julian Baggini has the answer in his latest column. Check it out.

Source: Julian Baggini, "Fallacy of the Complex Question", Bad Moves, 3/15/2004

March 13th, 2004 (Permalink)

Taking Gay Marriage Too Far

Dean appears with his wife, Jimmy Carter

Source: Headlines, The Tonight Show

Fallacy: Ambiguity

March 11th, 2004 (Permalink)

Name that Fallacy!

"If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election, it's that simple. It will be interpreted that way by enemies of the United States around the world."—Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.)


Source: Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer & Brendan Nyhan, "Unfair to Call a Kerry Victory a Comfort to our Enemies", Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/11/2004

March 10th, 2004 (Permalink)


There's an old computer science saying: "Garbage in, garbage out". It means that if you put unreliable data into a computer, you'll get unreliable results out of it. This applies also to mathematics: the numbers that you get out of an equation are no more accurate than what you put in. In fact, the principle is a general logical one: in reasoning, the conclusion is never more secure than the premisses that you start with.

Some recent news reports provide an illustration of this principle: Stephen Unwin's book The Probability of God uses Bayes' Theorem to argue that the probability of God's existence is 67%. Bayes' Theorem is an equation in the theory of probability that allows one to calculate the probability of a hypothesis on some evidence, given information about other probabilities. One of the probabilities that has to be plugged into the formula is what's called the "prior probability" of the hypothesis, that is, the probability of the hypothesis before considering the evidence. What is the prior probability of God's existence? According to Unwin, it is 50%.

Where does Unwin get this prior probability? Apparently it is based on giving equal weight to the existence and non-existence of God. However, if that is the case, then the prior probability of the existence of Santa Claus will also be 50%. What's next, a "proof" of the existence of old St. Nick? Here's what the mathematician Warren Weaver says about using Bayes' theorem in Lady Luck:

"Bayes' theorem furnishes a sound and simple procedure. But unfortunately it is very seldom applicable to really serious problems of statistical theory, for the good reason that in such situations one seldom has any positive knowledge of the a priori probabilities." (PP. 314-315)

Reporters are often so innumerate that they are impressed by anything involving mathematics, because they don't understand it and precise numbers seem scientific. A little knowledge of logic could help them to avoid being bamboozled by such phony precision.

I haven't read Unwin's book yet, so perhaps its arguments are better than those reported in the articles linked below. If not, it will end up in the Fallacy Files library, on the shelf next to Hitler: Neither Vegetarian Nor Animal Lover and The Abortion Holocaust.


Fallacy: Fake Precision

March 8th, 2004 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a Reader Response to the entry for the fallacy of accent.

Source: Accent

March 5th, 2004 (Permalink)

A Prize Puzzle

For this month's puzzle, the prize is a copy of David B. Annis' book Techniques of Critical Reasoning. To win the prize, solve the following puzzle, and explain what fallacy makes it tricky.

A nightclub caught fire and every single person inside it that night was killed. However, two people who were inside the club that night survived. How was this possible?

The first person to email The Fallacy Files with a correct solution and explanation will win.

Update: The puzzle has been solved and the prize claimed!

Solution to the Puzzle

March 3rd, 2004 (Permalink)

Welcome to Blurbwatch

It's not unusual for ad blurbs for movies to pick a single word or phrase out of a review, even when the phrase does not refer to the movie as a whole. There's an odd example of this practice in the newspaper ad for the new movie Welcome to Mooseport, which has the following two blurbs:

KEVIN THOMAS, Los Angeles Times
MARK CARO, Chicago Tribune

What's odd about these two blurbs is that if you read Thomas' review, you discover in the first sentence that it is the movie's star, Gene Hackman, who is said to be "bristling with wit and energy". Moreover, here is the only place in Caro's review where the words "fresh and humorous" sort of appear:

"… [Hackman] is such a wily pro that he makes this charming SOB seem fresh and humorously distinct from the other charming SOBs he's played throughout his career."

In each case, it's Hackman's performance which is being described, and not the movie as a whole. This might be understandable—though not excusable—if the reviews were negative, but they are both generally positive. Maybe blurb writers are just so used to quoting out of context that they can't help themselves.


Update (3/4/2004): Here's a useful article on movie ad blurbs which, though not new, I just discovered. The writer's experiences with trying to verify blurbs matches my own. The article has several examples of contextomies, as well as other problems with such ads. Check it out.

Source: Matthew Baldwin, "This Is The [Best]…Article…Of The Summer!", The Morning News, 8/28/2002

March 2nd, 2004 (Permalink)


Solution to the Puzzle: Congratulations to Michael Koplow who was the first to send in the correct answer to the puzzle. Here is Michael's solution:

"Obviously the survivors were married (although not necessarily to each other). The problem is the ambiguity of 'single' in 'every single person.' Intuitively, it just emphasizes 'every' (note that in this reading, you could omit 'single' and not change the meaning of the sentence)."

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