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March 31st, 2007 (Permalink)

Silly Celebrity, Too

To say that we don’t know that it [World Trade Center 7] imploded, that it was an implosion and a demolition, is beyond ignorant.―Rosie O'Donnell on "The View"

Rosie O'Donnell has jumped on the conspiracy theory bandwagon with Charlie Sheen. On her weblog and on the goofily-titled television show "The View", O'Donnell has claimed that World Trade Center building 7 must have been destroyed by a controlled demolition. Check out Popular Mechanics' debunking of her claims, but there is one that is of particular interest to us.

On her weblog, O'Donnell quotes Larry Silverstein, the owner of the building: "Silverstein said to the fire department commander 'the smartest thing to do is pull it'". This is interpreted by some conspiracy theorists as an order to blow up the building, where "pull" is supposed to be jargon or a slang term for a controlled demolition and "it" refers to the building.

Here is the full context of what Silverstein said:

I remember getting a call from the fire department commander, telling me that they were not sure they were going to be able to contain the fire, and I said, "We’ve had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it." And they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse.

Now, this is still ambiguous, since it's not clear what "it" refers to, or what meaning of "pull" Silverstein intended. However, after conspiracy theorists began quoting him, a spokesman for Silverstein put out the following statement:

In the afternoon of September 11, Mr. Silverstein spoke to the Fire Department Commander on site at Seven World Trade Center. The Commander told Mr. Silverstein that there were several firefighters in the building working to contain the fires. Mr. Silverstein expressed his view that the most important thing was to protect the safety of those firefighters, including, if necessary, to have them withdraw from the building. … [W]hen Mr. Silverstein was recounting these events for a television documentary he stated, "I said, you know, we’ve had such terrible loss of life. Maybe the smartest thing to do is to pull it."

The spokesman indicated that by "it," Silverstein was referring to the group of firefighters in the building. So, by "pulling it", he meant to have the firefighters leave the building before it collapsed. While Silverstein's original statement was unclear, his subsequent explanation makes sense and jibes with the lack of any solid evidence that the building was blown up.

This is not difficult to discover: Phil Molé explained it in depth last year in an article available online―see the Resource. At most, a few hours of internet research would reveal it, and O'Donnell could have had one of the many people who work for her do the research. Rosie O'Donnell is beyond ignorant: she's willfully ignorant.



Reader Response (4/7/2007):

Ben Sibley writes:

You are overlooking the context or actual real world situation under which Mr. Silverstein made his comments in regards to the World Trade Center 7 building. First, I think we can safely assume that Mr. Silverstein is familiar with the basic laws of grammatical syntax.

That's not such a safe assumption. Many people make grammatical errors, especially when speaking off the cuff. Case in point: George W. Bush.

If the "it" he referred to was a search and rescue operation conducted by firefighters and other rescue personnel, then he would have naturally said "them." Clearly, "them" would have been used since he was claiming to be concerned about the loss of life that had occurred and wished to keep others from being injured or killed.

Actually, "operation" is singular and would grammatically require "it". The problem is that we don't know the antecedent of "it", which is why Silverstein's remark is ambiguous. Perhaps he was referring to the firefighters in the building collectively―say, as a "group", "team", or "squad"―in which case the pronoun should be singular: "The team is in the building; pull it out."

Right after he says "pull it" he finishes the statement by saying something like "and we watched the building come down." These two statements are clearly linked when one considers the context under which they are made.

There is indeed a convention of language that two statements linked by "and" should be relevant to one another, and this suggests that the "pulling" is somehow relevant to the building's collapse. However, this is a very thin reed to build a conspiracy theory on, especially since we have Silverstein's spokeman's subsequent explanation of what Silverstein meant. People often speak misleadingly, especially when they speak extemporaneously. Witness George W. Bush.

The term "pull it" as anyone in the demolition industry will tell you, is technical jargon for destroying a building with explosives.

I've only read this claim made by people who are not in the demolition industry but in the conspiracy theory industry.

Furthermore, even if we give Mr. Silverstein the benefit of the doubt by ignoring context, a basic grammatical error, and the use of technical demolition jargon, the following problem remains: the time at which Silverstein claims to have made his statement occurred at a time when building 7 had already been evacuated!

Giving you the benefit of the doubt that what you say is actually correct, people make mistakes, including mistakes about when exactly they said something.

Lastly, why have the insurers of building 7 not paid Silverstein the money they owe him? Perhaps it's because they smell a rat. Don't you?

I do, when I hear complicated conspiracy theories built on such flimsy evidence and ignoring all counterevidence. Again, assuming that what you say is correct, which is another big assumption, insurance companies don't like to pay out large claims and often will delay or deny them. Am I supposed to believe that Silverstein was involved in some kind of insurance scam and just happened to blurt out on national television that he had his own building blown up? Pull the other one!

Source: Robert J. Gula, Precision: A Reference Handbook for Writers (1980), p. 21. A book, unfortunately out of print, by the author of Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies.

March 28th, 2007 (Permalink)


John Congdon wrote to ask about the "argument from silence", or argumentum ex silentio in Latin. This is a type of argument in which something is inferred from the fact that a person or text does not say something. The Fallacy Files lacks an entry for this type of argument because it isn't necessarily fallacious. As I discuss in the entry for the argument from ignorance, the fact that a bus schedule does not list a route from one stop to another makes it likely that no such route exists.

From the fact that someone doesn't mention something, it may be reasonable to infer that they don't know about it. However, if there are other possible explanations for the person's silence, then such reasoning will be weak.

One particularly common use of this type of argument, which is usually weak if not fallacious, is in debates. If one side in the debate fails to answer the argument of the other, the other side will often claim to have won the argument. However, there are many possible reasons for not answering an argument. For instance, one may think that the other side's argument fails to meet the burden of proof and, therefore, does not need refuting. Some debaters simply make a habit of never conceding defeat, and will wear down the opposition until it is silent, at which point they proclaim "victory". This may be a rhetorical victory, but it's not a logical one.

March 24th, 2007 (Permalink)

Check it Out, Too

The current issue of Scientific American has an "Ask the Experts" column by mathematician Chris Wiggins on the use of Bayes' Theorem to argue for the existence of God. This is a topic that I wrote about here three years ago―see the Resource below―when Stephen Unwin's book The Probability of God came out. A longer and more thorough version of the column is available in the online version of "Ask the Experts" from late last year; apparently, the current magazine column is a condensation of the web column. According to Wiggins in the web version of the article, the Bayes' Theorem argument for God goes back at least to the philosopher Richard Swinburne in 1979, who set the prior probability of God's existence at 50%. So, apparently Unwin's argument doesn't even have the virtue of originality.


Resource: GIGO, 3/10/2004

March 23rd, 2007 (Permalink)

New Book

First there was Unspeak, now comes UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. It's by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who are the founders of Annenberg Political Fact Check, which is the least biased of the political watchdog groups. Judging from the introduction, which is available online―see the Resource―it's not just a rehash in book form of what they do on the website, but a guide to how to do it yourself. It would be so nice if they sent me a review copy.

Resource: "UnSpun". This website for the book contains the book's introduction, blurbs, updates, and links to sources for many of the book's claims―a nice feature.

March 20th, 2007 (Permalink)

Confidence in CNN Editors Down Sharply

A CNN headline:

Poll: Confidence in Iraq war down sharply

This headline caught my attention because it seems surprising that confidence would be "down sharply" given that the situation in Iraq has changed little in the last few months or, if anything, has improved slightly. Of course, the headline doesn't answer the question "since when?" You have to read down into the article to find out the terms of the comparison:

WASHINGTON (CNN)―Americans are starkly less confident and proud of their country's involvement in Iraq, according to poll results released Sunday. However, the poll―results of which were released on the eve of the Iraq war's 4-year anniversary―also indicated that Americans are no more worried about the conflict than they were when it began in March 2003. The CNN poll of 1,027 adults was conducted March 9-11 by Opinion Research Corp. The sampling error for the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points. According to the results, 35 percent of Americans are confident about the war, the poll said. When the war began, 83 percent of Americans expressed confidence in the campaign.

So, confidence is down considerably from four years ago, but this is not a "sharp" drop, which would be one that is sudden. Of course, this is not to criticize the poll itself, which for all I know is well done and reasonably accurate. Rather, it's primarily the headline, which was probably written by an editor at CNN, that is misleading.

Source: "Poll: Confidence in Iraq war down sharply", CNN, 3/18/2007

March 16th, 2007 (Permalink)

Check it Out

I've just discovered Shankar Vedantam's Department of Human Behavior column in the Washington Post. The most recent one concerns the tendency of people to attribute bad faith, dishonesty, or self-interest to those who disagree with them about the situation in Iraq. The Department's archive has a number of older articles that may also be of interest to students of reasoning. Here are a few worth checking out:

Via: Robin Hanson, "None Evil or All Evil?", Overcoming Bias, 3/13/2007

March 12th, 2007 (Permalink)

Another Weblog and Another Reading List

Carl "The Numbers Guy" Bialik has launched a weblog to accompany his columns, and his second entry is a reading list on innumeracy. I, of course, concur in his recommendation of the Huff and Paulos classics. I also liked Joel Best's first book, though I haven't read the sequel yet. I've read Crossen's book, which I think is more about interest groups and the way that they manipulate the media, including getting exaggerated and misleading statistics into the news. I've also read Koomey's book, and even quoted it, but I haven't found it useful for the layman trying to understand mathematics in the media; I suspect that people whose jobs require them to use numbers would get more use out of it. I enjoyed Freakonomics as well, which I've also quoted, but I haven't read Moneyball as I'm not interested in baseball. I also haven't read, and am rather skeptical of, The Wisdom of Crowds. Now, I'll have to add these latter books to my already lengthy reading list. Thanks, Carl!

Source: Carl Bialik, "Carl’s Reading List", The Numbers Guy, 3/8/2007

March 6th, 2007 (Permalink)

Lessons in Logic 3: Arguments

The smallest piece of reasoning occurs when we infer a single statement from one or more other statements. Such a piece of reasoning is called an argument, that is, an argument is a piece of reasoning in which a single statement is inferred from a set of statements.

Warning: It is important to realize that an "argument" in logic is not the same as an "argument" in everyday speech. In common usage, an argument is a disagreement between two or more people. In logic, an argument is a set of statements, one of which is inferred from the others. Arguments are the basic unit of logical study, so they will be our main subject for the rest of these lessons.

Here are some important words for talking about arguments:

The second skill that you need to learn to become a logician is how to recognize arguments. Not every set of statements, nor every written passage, is an argument. Statements can be put to other uses, such as description and narration.

How can you tell whether a passage is an argument? One clue is the occurrence of argument indicators, which are words or phrases that indicate that the passage in which they occur contains an argument. Here are some of the most common argument indicators:

therefore, since, so, because, thus, hence

Warning: With the exception of "therefore", each of these words has other meanings. For instance, "since" is also used to indicate the passage of time. So, don't use indicators mechanically, that is, don't assume that just because you see the word "since" you have an argument! Instead, use your background knowledge and understanding of the context in order to determine if the passage is an argument.

Exercises: Determine which of the following passages are arguments and which are not.

  1. When interest rates fall, investors put higher values on future corporate earnings and dividends and thus bid up share prices.
    Source: Wall Street Journal, 1/27/1986
  2. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.
    Source: Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 1
  3. Since…all bodies, whether upon earth or in the heavens, are heavy,…we must certainly allow that gravity is found in all bodies universally….
    Source: Preface to the second edition of Newton's Principia
  4. Parents are principally responsible for the education and upbringing of their children and are, therefore, the most qualified persons to select the formal schooling for their children.
    Source: Letter to the Editor
  5. In the 28 years since that book [Godel, Escher, Bach] appeared, Hofstadter has lived with these ideas, working out their implications. From being a semivegetarian…he became, just recently, a strict one.
    Source: George Johnson, "A New Journey into Hofstadter's Mind", Scientific American, 3/2007, p. 100
  6. We have no image…corresponding to [God]. Hence we are forbidden to worship God in the form of an image….
    Source: Thomas Hobbes, Objections to Descartes' Meditations
  7. Nancy…crossed the lawn and pressed the front-door bell. The house had four entrances, and when, after repeated knockings, there was no response at this one, she moved on to the next…. Here the door was partly open; she opened it somewhat more…. She knocked, rang, and at last walked around to the back of the house.
    Source: Truman Capote, In Cold Blood


Previous Lessons:

  1. Introduction
  2. Statements

Next Lesson: Conclusion Indicators

March 2nd, 2007 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Norbit

The new Eddie Murphy movie "Norbit" has a metascore from Metacritic of 27, which means "generally negative reviews", and a "rotten" 10% on the "Tomatometer", which is a very low score. Also, the Chicago Tribune's critic Michael Wilmington gives it two stars out of four. Yet, an ad for the movie has the following blurb:

"Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense."
―Michael Wilmington, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

If you suspect that some context is missing, you're right:

Murphy's comic skills are immense, and "Dreamgirls" shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies…swollen, monstrous and full of hot air…? "Norbit" makes you long for the days of "Beverly Hills Cop," when Murphy was lighter on his feet, and his movies were too.

Here's a blurb you won't be seeing:

―Michael Wilmington, CHICAGO TRIBUNE


Answers to the Exercises:

  1. Argument: the indicator is "thus".
  2. Not an argument but a description. The last word, "so", is not functioning as an argument indicator, but refers back to the word "fertile".
  3. Argument: the indicator is "since".
  4. Argument: the indicator is "therefore".
  5. Not an argument: the word "since" occurs in its temporal sense.
  6. Argument: the indicator is "hence".
  7. Not an argument but a narrative.

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