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Monday, June 30, 2003 ( 10:53 PM ) (Permalink)

The Reconstituted "Whopper"

Eugene Volokh has a new article on the Cheney "reconstituted nuclear weapons" contextomy. He covers the same points that I made back on May 25th, though pointing out some additional media occurrences of the misleading quote. Perhaps this article will finally put this misquote to rest.

Speaking of reconstitution, I had to reconstitute the archive for May of this year by hand because of some Blogger bug. The archive for April is still missing, as I haven't had the time yet to do it. I will try to have it up within the next few days.


( 6:43 AM )

Down the Slippery Slope

Mick Hume has a recent article bemoaning the prevalence of slippery slope arguments, and giving some good recent examples. He also explains why we should be able to make judgments about where to stop the slide down these slopes. However, at the end of the article he seems to slip on such a slope himself:

"If people are not to be trusted to make those judgements for ourselves, the alternative will always be more regulation and control, a creeping advance of state and third-party interference in everything from how parents raise their children to how scientists conduct their research. Now that's what I would call a dangerous slippery slope—and one that we are already 'some way down'."

This is a version of a common slippery slope argument to the effect that any government regulation of something will inevitably lead to total tyranny, for example, that mild gun regulations will lead to confiscation of all firearms. History doesn't support the supposed slipperiness of this slope.

Perhaps Hume was being intentionally ironic, though it doesn't sound like it. If not, this may go to show just how slippery slippery slope arguments are.

Sources: Mick Hume, "Down with the 'Slippery Slope' Argument", Spiked, 6/27/2003

Via: Norman Jenson

Sunday, June 29, 2003 ( 3:05 PM ) (Permalink)

Dumb and Dumberest

The publicists for the new movie Dumb and Dumberer must have had a hard time finding a critic who liked it: Its Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer rating—an average of critics' ratings—is 11% or "Rotten". Metacritic's Metascore—a similar system for averaging critics' ratings—is 17, which is described as suggesting "overwhelming dislike or disgust from critics".

Nonetheless, they did manage to find one blurb for the newspaper ads:

"A slap-happy time at the movies!"
—Eleanor O'Sullivan, Gannett News Service

However, taken in context, this is not as favorable as it sounds taken out of context:

"All in all, Dumb and Dumberer…is a slap-happy time at the movies, if you enter with bottom-feeder expectations."

Thursday, June 26, 2003 ( 6:55 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

I've revised the entry for Argumentum ad Verecundiam, the fallacy of questionable authority, mainly by adding an explanatory paragraph to the analysis of the Example given, in order to answer some criticism from readers. In addition, I added a couple of Resources, and made a few minor edits.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003 ( 11:33 PM ) (Permalink)

Logic Police Brutality?

Norman and Chris Jenson have filed a complaint for false arrest against the "logic cop", Keith Burgess-Jackson. You be the judge.


Monday, June 23, 2003 ( 7:50 PM ) (Permalink)

Correlation v. Causation

Eugene Volokh has a recent article criticizing the way a statistical study on gun ownership and death by guns was performed and reported:

"What the…study found was a statistical correlation: Gun ownership is correlated with gun deaths. But that two things are correlated doesn't prove that one causes the other. The sex-crime rate is correlated over time with the use of air conditioning, but not because air conditioning causes sex crime; rather, both rise during the summer months. Likewise, whether someone in your home has been to the hospital recently is correlated with death in your home, but not because hospital care tends to kill people (though sometimes it does). Rather, both hospital stays and deaths often have a common cause: serious illness."

I haven't read the study yet, so I can't vouch for the correctness of his criticism, but this is certainly a common problem in the reporting of statistical studies.

Source: Eugene Volokh, "Domestic Disputes", National Review Online, 6/17/2003

Wednesday, June 18, 2003 ( 10:19 PM ) (Permalink)

You're Another!

Brendan Nyhan of Spinsanity has an article debunking the "myth" that Senator Robert Byrd criticized the cost of President Bush's recent speech on an aircraft carrier. In fact, it was not Byrd, but Representatives Henry Waxman and John Conyers who leveled this charge.

While it's good to get the facts straight, of more interest to me were comments made by pundits, such as Margaret Carlson, who believed the "myth":

"Bush could land on the carrier twice, and I wouldn't whine. Speaking of whining about that, isn't Sen. Robert Byrd himself the king of government spending and cost overruns? He's paved over West Virginia and gotten every federal building to move there. It's not for him to complain about the marginal cost of Bush going out to meet the carrier as opposed to waiting on shore."

This is the usual "pot calling the kettle black" charge, also known as "tu quoque" in Latin. Factually, it's worth knowing that Byrd did not make the criticisms, but logically it's irrelevant. Whether it was Byrd, Waxman, or Conyers who raised the issue, it is still a legitimate criticism. There are a few rational responses to this criticism that might be offered: perhaps the speech really didn't cost any more to do on the carrier than anywhere else, or the additional expense was justified as a way of honoring the sailors for their service. However, the following is no answer:

"The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina entered the fray on May 15 with yet another accusation of hypocrisy leveled without a single direct quote from Byrd, claiming his 'complaints about the extravagance of President Bush's recent arrival on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln contrast poorly with the senior Senate Democrat's own record of federal spending.'"

In this case, the fallaciousness of this sort of defense is only highlighted by the fact that "Senator Pork" was not the one raising the complaint. But if he had, he wouldn't have been any more wrong than Waxman or Conyers.

Sources: Brendan Nyhan, "The Myth of Robert Byrd and the USS Abraham Lincoln", Spinsanity

Monday, June 16, 2003 ( 10:20 PM ) (Permalink)

Dissent on Moore

This is a guest entry from Fallacy Files contributor Michael Koplow:

Kevin Mattson, who teaches American history at Ohio University, writes in the spring 2003 issue of Dissent:

"Since he began making movies, reviewers have often documented Moore's errors. … 'Bowling for Columbine' suggested that the two students who shot their fellow students had been in a bowling class at 6 a.m. that day. Police reports contradict this. The film's opening scene shows Moore walking into a bank and getting a free gun in return for setting up an account. 'You think it's a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?' Moore asks while raising a rifle to his shoulder. Apparently, this scene was staged; bank customers actually had to go to a separate gun shop for their rifle—bad enough, so why not tell it straight? … These complaints about Moore's work often have more to do with politics than a commitment to factual accuracy. It was Forbes magazine that documented the errors of 'Bowling for Columbine', and I doubt its editors show a similar interest in, say, the errors of Republican Party spokespeople. Besides, Moore's critics fail to recognize how much he gets right."

We need to be careful not to do a contextomy on Mattson here. He is not claiming that Moore's sometimes being right makes his wrong stuff okay; he's saying that we shouldn't just dismiss everything Moore says. In effect, he's warning us against ad hominem rejections of Moore's every utterance. Fair enough. But why would anyone—a history teacher, no less—want us to trust a source that's sometimes right?

Mattson says: "These complaints…often have more to do with politics than a commitment to factual accuracy." This is a red herring. The motives of Moore's critics have nothing to do with the accuracy or inaccuracy of his writing. Moore's errors are fair game for his opponents, just as Rush Limbaugh's errors are for those who want to discredit him.

Mattson's red herring of an assertion is based on a not unreasonable ad hominem guess ("I doubt its editors…") about Forbes magazine. The mention of Forbes is itself an ad hominem, and a very misleading one. Look again at his wording: "It was Forbes magazine that documented the errors of 'Bowling for Columbine'." The initial drum roll of a phrase—"It was Forbes magazine that"—makes it sound like Forbes was the first source. In fact, Spinsanity was documenting Moore's errors before Forbes published Dan Lyons's "Bowl-o-Drama" in December 2002 (which I'm assuming is what Mattson is referring to—like Mattson, I'm making an assertion based on a guess). He also says that "Forbes documented the errors." That "the" is inaccurate; it would have been correct to say "Forbes documented a few of the errors."

Why is the mention of Forbes an ad hominem? After all, the statement is almost true. It's an ad hominem because it allows Mattson to dwell not on the source's accuracy but on its agenda. It would have been quite another matter if he had written "It was Spinsanity, among others, that documented the errors."


Sunday, June 15, 2003 ( 8:23 PM ) (Permalink)

Time Bites the "Whopper"

Michael Duffy, in a column in Time magazine, has swallowed the Dana Milbank/Timothy Noah "Whopper" contextomy whole:

"As the U.S. prepared to go to war in Iraq last winter, the most compelling reason advanced by George W. Bush to justify a new kind of pre-emptive war was that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological arms—weapons of mass destruction (wmd). 'There's no doubt in my mind but that they currently have chemical and biological weapons,' said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in January. 'We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons,' said Vice President Dick Cheney in March."

According to Duffy, the President claimed that Iraq possessed "nuclear, chemical and biological arms", and provides as evidence two quotes, one from Rumsfeld supporting the chemical and biological part of the claim, and the other from the Vice President supposedly claiming that Iraq had nuclear weapons as well. However, as explained below, the Cheney quote is taken out of context, and it is clear in its full context that Cheney said—or intended to say—that Hussein had a "reconstituted nuclear weapons [program]", not that he had nuclear arms.

Slate has still not corrected its "Whopper of the Week" entry, which I suppose is the source that Duffy used. Hopefully, this contextomy won't spread any further.


Tuesday, June 10, 2003 ( 1:21 AM ) (Permalink)

The Logic Police

Philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson has a recent article on how philosophers can play a role in public debate on issues as the "logic police", and he provides an example of how to do it. Another philosopher and veteran logic cop, Julian Baggini, has a new Bad Moves column on the ancient fallacy of Argumentum ad Antiquitam. Unfortunately, this venerable fallacy is still missing from the Fallacy Files, so check it out.

Now, move along! There's nothing more to be seen here!


Friday, June 06, 2003 ( 11:42 PM ) (Permalink)


Mark Glaser of the Online Journalism Review has an article on the recent spate of media quoting out of context, and the role of weblogs in fact-checking misquotes with the help of online transcripts of speeches and interviews. Check it out.

Source: Mark Glaser, "Feeling Misquoted? Weblogs, Transcripts Let the Reader Decide", Online Journalism Review

Monday, June 02, 2003 ( 9:13 PM ) (Permalink)

Not Your Average Tax Cut

Ben Fritz of Spinsanity has a report on the Bush administration's use of averages to tout its recent tax cuts. As I explained in the Resource, the term "average" is ambiguous and may be misleading to many people. The administration is using the "mean" tax cut as the average tax cut, which may mislead you if you expect that you will receive an "average" cut. There's nothing wrong with using the mean as an average—which is what people understand by the word "average"—but when dealing with incomes, which are skewed away from the lower end of the scale, the mean may be higher than what most people make. Similarly, the mean tax cut is likely to be higher than what most people will receive.

Source: Ben Fritz, "More Misleading Averages from Bush Administration", Spinsanity, 5/31/2003

Resource: "'Average' Ambiguity"

Sunday, June 01, 2003 ( 10:44 PM ) (Permalink)

A New Contextomy Controversy

There's yet another controversy about an administration official allegedly being quoted out of context: this time it's Paul Wolfowitz, who was interviewed by Vanity Fair for an article that is supposed to appear in its July issue. Unfortunately, that issue is not yet available on newsstands, at least in Austin. However, the controversy seems to have been ignited by a press release publicizing the article, which—also unfortunately—does not appear to be available on the web. See the Washington Post article for an account of the controversy generated in Europe by news of the article. However, a transcript of the interview, provided by the DOD is available. CNN's account of the DOD's charges about the article do seem to show that Wolfowitz was quoted out of context in a misleading way:

"The article by Sam Tanenhaus quoted Wolfowitz as saying, 'For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.' … According to a tape recording made by the Pentagon, the actual quote is, 'The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason.'"

The key omission here is the phrase "the core reason" at the end, since that implies that WMDs were not the only reason. However, until I can get my hands on a copy of the article or press release, I will reserve judgment on whether this is a genuine contextomy or not.


Update (6/17): The July issue of Vanity Fair is now on the stands, and I have acquired a copy of the Tanenhaus article. It's unfortunately not available on the web, but here is the part relevant to the controversy:

"When we spoke in May, as U.S. inspectors were failing to find weapons of mass destruction, Wolfowitz admitted that from the outset, contrary to so many claims from the White House, Iraq's supposed cache of W.M.D. had never been the most compelling casus belli. It was simply one of several: 'For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one everyone could agree on.' Everyone meaning, presumably, Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 'Almost unnoticed but huge,' he said, is another reason: removing Saddam will allow the U.S. to take its troops out of Saudi Arabia, where their presence has been one of al-Qaeda's biggest grievances. 'Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door' to a more peaceful Middle East, Wolfowitz said, adding, 'I don't want to speak in messianic terms.'"

There doesn't appear to be any misleading quoting out of context in this passage. It's true that Tanenhaus' quotes are not identical to those from the transcript, presumably because he was not writing the article from the transcript or from a tape recording but from his handwritten notes, as mentioned at the beginning of the interview. However, the quotes, while not verbatim, are accurate paraphrases of what Wolfowitz said.

The Pentagon's complaints, reported in the CNN article linked to above, are puzzling in light of the full article. One complaint seems to be that Wolfowitz was misrepresented as saying that there was only one reason for the war, namely, WMD; however, Tanenhaus' article makes it clear that it was "one of several". Another is that Wolfowitz was contradicting the White House in saying that the WMD reason was only one of several, which is true but contradicts the first complaint. Perhaps the explanation for the confusion is to be found in the still elusive press release. If anyone knows where I can find a copy, please let me know.

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