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June 30th, 2011 (Permalink)

In the Mail: Believing B.S.

I mentioned Believing B.S.: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole earlier this month after reading an interview with its author Stephen Law (see the Resource, below), and I'll have more on it as soon as I'm able to read it.

Resource: New Book: Believing B.S., 6/17/2011


Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One

Eight is too many!

Source: Richard Lederer, The Bride of Anguished English (2000), p. 108

June 27th, 2011 (Permalink)

Fine-Tuning the Fine-Tuning Argument

In his book Lady Luck, Warren Weaver does not directly discuss the "fine-tuning argument"―for one thing, the book was first published in 1963, which was probably before the argument became prominent―but he does shed some light on it:

Suppose that an event has a small, even a very small, probability of occurrence; and suppose that an experiment or trial is carried out and the event actually occurs. What should be one's reaction? …[J]ust because the event is rare, should we perk up or even be astonished when it does occur? Is the occurrence of a very rare event properly to be viewed as very interesting?

To comment on the last question first, interest seems usually to be a very subjective response. Some persons are interested in snakes, others in Renaissance art, and others in football. So I guess all one can say about this last question is, O.K. If the occurrence of this rare event interests you, go ahead and be interested. That is your personal privilege.

But if you use the word interesting in the universal sense that every person who knows about the occurrence of the event should be interested―and surprised―and even astonished, then it is necessary to consider the matter more carefully.

Suppose one shuffles a pack of cards and deals off a single bridge hand of thirteen cards. The probability, as reckoned before the event, that this hand will contain any thirteen specified cards is…1 divided by 635,013,559,600. Thus the probability of any one specified set of thirteen cards is, anyone would agree, very small.

When one hand of thirteen cards is dealt in this way, there are, of course, precisely 635,013,559,600 different hands that can appear. All these billions of hands are, furthermore, equally likely to occur; and one of them is absolutely certain to occur every time a hand is so dealt. Thus, although any one particular hand is an improbable event, and so a rare event, no one particular hand has any right to be called a surprising event. Any hand that occurs is simply one out of a number of exactly equally likely events, some one of which was bound to happen. There is no basis for being astounded at the one that did happen, for it was precisely as likely…to have happened as any other particular one.

Weaver goes on to contrast the bridge hand with the case of flipping a coin: a coin can come up either heads or tails with a probability of slightly less than half, but there is a very small probability―which Weaver takes to be one-in-a-billion―that it lands on edge:

Standing on edge would be improbable, rare, interesting, and surprising. But this surely surprising event is more than 635 times as probable as would be a…hand in our previous illustration. So standing on edge is not surprising just because it has a low probability. Why is it surprising?

It is surprising, of course, not because its probability is small in an absolute sense, but rather because its probability is so small as compared with the probabilities of any of the other possible occurrences. Standing on edge is half a billion times as unlikely as the only other two things that can happen, namely, heads or tails, whereas the…hand is precisely as likely…as any of the possible alternative outcomes of the dealing process.

Thus one concludes that…a rare event is interesting or not depending on whether you consider it interesting or not, and that an event is surprising only providing its probability is very small as compared with the probabilities of the other accessible alternatives. This requires that a surprising event be a rare event, but it does not at all require that a rare event be a surprising event.

Is the "fine-tuning" of the universe like Weaver's bridge hand or like the coin that lands on edge? Clearly, it's highly improbable, but should we be surprised by it? Any particular setting of the physical constants of the universe is as unlikely as any other, just as any particular bridge hand has the same probability as any other, so we should be no more surprised at "fine-tuning" than by the bridge hand we've been dealt.

To use Weaver's terminology, the fact that the universe seems to be "fine-tuned" for life is interesting―because we're alive and life interests us―but it's not surprising―because any other settings of the physical constants would have been just as unlikely, even though less hospitable to us. Because it's not surprising, it doesn't require an explanation, any more than we demand an explanation for every bridge hand that we're dealt.

Source: Warren Weaver, Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability (1982), pp. 290-293.


June 24th, 2011 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

He's not the only one. The people who create ads for movies just can't stop pulling the same old tricks. An ad for the new documentary about the talk show host cites a four-star review from Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York. However, as we saw earlier this year (see the Resource, linked below), Time Out NY uses a five-star system for rating movies. Unsurprisingly, the ad does not mention this fact.

Source: Ad for Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, The New York Times, 6/24/2011, p. C18

Resource: Blurb Watch: The Eagle, 2/25/2011

June 17th, 2011 (Permalink)

New Books: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning & Believing B.S.

June 14th, 2011 (Permalink)

Cain's Train

They're already having political debates leading up to next year's presidential election, so it's time once again to examine them with a fine-tooth comb for fallacies. Last night, the first debate between candidates for the Republican nomination for president was held in New Hampshire. One of the seven participating candidates was Herman Cain, the CEO of Godfather's Pizza restaurants, who answered the first question asked by the moderator, John King of CNN:

King: Mr. Cain, let me start with you tonight. And be as specific as you can. I hope I don't have to repeat this throughout the night. What would you do as president of the United States to create jobs?

Cain: The thing we need to do is to get this economy boosted. This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine. And the administration has simply been putting all of this money in the caboose. We need an engine called the private sector. That means lower taxes, lower the capital gains tax rate to zero, suspend taxes on repatriated profits, then make them permanent. Uncertainty is killing this economy. This is the only way we're going to get this economy moving, and that's to put the right fuel in the engine, which is the private sector.

This is a mixed-up analogy: first, the economy is like an engineless train. Then, the private sector is the engine, but since we still have a private sector to the economy, the train can't lack an engine. Finally, we need to put fuel into the engine to get it moving again, but what is that fuel? Cain mentions lowering taxes, specifically, the capital gains tax and taxes on repatriated profits, so perhaps the fuel is the extra money in the private sector that would come from lower taxes. But how is that different from the stimulus spending under both presidents Bush and Obama? I guess that's what Cain is referring to by the money that the administration is putting in the caboose, but what does that mean exactly? In case you don't know, a caboose was a type of rail car that was put on the ends of trains, but most trains don't even have cabooses (or should that be "cabeese"?) nowadays. I guess it's supposed to be a bad thing to put money in the caboose, but why? Whatever the answer, an engineless or stalled train is a poor analogy for the economy.

Source: Transcript of the Republican Debate, CNN, 6/13/11

Fallacy: Weak Analogy

Update (6/15/2011): The Democratic National Committee responded to the Republican debate by putting out a commercial ridiculing it. The commercial leaves the impression that the candidates spent a lot of time discussing such issues as the space program and same-sex marriage, but it excerpts less than a minute of the entire debate. Most people, and especially Democrats, probably won't watch any of the debate, so they may well believe that this is an accurate representation. You can watch the commercial at the article linked below, which also points out that the candidates were responding to questions from the moderator, reporters, or audience members.

Source: Jake Tapper, "Obama Campaign Sends Around Misleading DNC Video on GOP Debate", ABC News, 6/14/11

Fallacy: Quoting Out of Context

June 11th, 2011 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Here's Harriet Hall on comment threads:

The Internet is a wonderful medium for communicating ideas and information in a rapid, interactive way. Many online articles are followed by a section for comments. Like so many things in this imperfect world, comments are a mixed blessing. They can enhance the article by correcting errors, adding further information, or contributing useful thoughts to a productive discussion. But all too often the comments section consists of emotional outbursts, unwarranted personal attacks on the author, logical fallacies, and misinformation. It provides irrational and ignorant people with a soapbox from which to promote prejudices and false information.

The rest of the article is a case study in the sort of comments that appear all too often at the ends of online articles: ad hominems, post hocs, and other fallacies. Read the whole thing.

Source: Harriet Hall, "Defending Isagenix: A Case Study in Flawed Thinking", Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 35.1, January/February 2011

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