Recommended Reading & Viewing

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June 30th, 2021 (Permalink)

The Tank Man &
Speaking Out Against Lockdowns

The theme of this month's recommended reading and viewing is censorship. Voluntary self-censorship is spreading through the American news media and so-called social media as fast as the coronavirus spread through the country last year. This month we received a free sample of Chinese-style censorship to see how we liked it:

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles and the video, but I think they're worth reading and watching as a whole. In formatting the excerpts, I may have changed the paragraphing.

June 28th, 2021 (Permalink)

Q&A: The Fox Butterfield Effect

Q: There's one fallacy I keep coming back to which I do not know the name of, and for which perhaps there is no name. However, I think it's either overdue for a name, or we need to make a bigger deal about generating awareness of it if it has a name, because it keeps cropping up in modern politics and it drives me nuts!

Here's the basic structure of it, with an example embedded:

  1. Oil spills happen.
  2. Regulation reduces the occurrence of oil spills.
  3. Because there is no epidemic of oil spills, we therefore don't need the burden of regulation because it is addressing a problem that doesn't exist. This statement often comes in the form of: "Where are all these oil spills that you want to burden us with regulations for?"

I've heard similar arguments with regards to taxation―e.g., why continue taxing me when society is already functioning fine?―vaccination―e.g., polio isn't a big problem so we shouldn't be pre-emptively vaccinating people for it―and a host of other topics that typically involve people who don't know what they are talking about. Does this fallacy have a name? If not, there are certain people for whom this fallacy should be named.―Rahul P. Kamath

A: Strangely enough, this sort of mistake has already been named after a person: the oddly-named Fox Butterfield. It has been called both "the Butterfield Effect1" and "the Butterfield Fallacy2", the latter of which suggests that it might be a logical fallacy. However, not all fallacies are logical ones; for instance, the well-known Sunk Cost Fallacy3 is a mistake in economics rather than logic. So, we need to consider whether the so-called Butterfield Fallacy is a logical fallacy, some other kind of fallacy, or not a fallacy at all.

Who is Fox Butterfield4? Butterfield is a journalist who used to write for The New York Times, producing stories with headlines such as the following:

Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling5

The conjunction "but" indicates a contrast between the two clauses conjoined. A similar headline on a different Butterfield article makes this contrast more explicit:

Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates6

"Despite A, B" means that B is true and A is a reason to think that B is false. So, the headline suggests that less crime gives us a reason to expect that there would be a decrease in incarceration, or at least not an increase.

In addition to the linking words "but" and "despite", the order of the clauses also contributes to the contrast. Compare the first headline above to the following revision that simply reverses the order of the clauses and uses the non-contrastive conjunction "and":

Prisons Keep On Filling and Crime Keeps On Falling

Literally, this says the same thing as the actual headline, but the impression it gives is entirely different. The order of the clauses suggests that the filling prisons cause the falling crime. In the original headline, the order suggests that the falling crime precedes the filling prisons, so that the latter could not be the cause of the former.

Now, as I often point out, headlines are usually written by editors rather than writers, but Butterfield himself wrote:

The nation's prison population grew 2.6 percent last year, the largest increase since 1999, according to a study by the Justice Department. The jump came despite a small decline in serious crime in 2002.7

This is from an article published in 2003, so all that it tells us is that the number of prisoners grew and the amount of crime declined "last year". The word "despite" suggests that we should be surprised at this, but should we? Isn't at least part of the reason for putting people in prison to prevent them from committing crimes, especially serious ones?

Wall Street Journal reporter James Taranto, who may be responsible for the name, writes: "The Butterfield Fallacy consists in misidentifying as a paradox what is in fact a simple cause-and-effect relationship…2." Such a misindentification wouldn't commit a logical fallacy in the strict sense of a common type of misleading argument, since it wouldn't be an argument at all. Yet, there appears to be an underlying argument in Butterfield's reports to the effect that, because the crime rate is so low or reducing, the prison population should also be low or declining and, since it isn't, we should do something to lower it.

In mathematical terms, Butterfield suggests that the relationship between crime and prison should be a direct one―that is, the less crime, the less imprisonment of criminals there should be. In contrast, according to common sense, the relationship is an inverse one; that is, the more imprisonment of criminals, the less crime there will be. Butterfield seems to accept the common sense inverse relationship between crime and imprisonment, as he writes: "Of course, the huge increase in the number of inmates has helped lower the crime rate by incapacitating more criminals behind bars…."5 Still, something seems to bother him about the situation.

Now, whether common sense is right that imprisonment lowers crime is not a logical issue, but a criminological one. So, let's put aside the criminological issue, and look at an example of the same sort of reasoning used to argue against requiring childhood vaccination:

Diseases that vaccines target have essentially disappeared.
There is no reason to vaccinate against diseases that no longer occur in the United States. The CDC reported 57 cases of and nine deaths from diphtheria between 1980 and 2016 in the United States. Fewer than 64 cases and 11 deaths per year from tetanus have been reported since 1989. Polio has been declared eradicated in the United States since 1979. There have been only 32 deaths from mumps and 42 deaths from rubella since 1979.8

Notice that other than polio, none of these diseases have been eradicated from the U. S., according to the argument itself. If vaccination against such diseases stopped, the numbers of cases would rise9. Even polio is only eradicated from the U. S. and not the world as a whole, and if we were to stop vaccinating it would return. We saw last year just how easy it is in a world with jet airplane transportation for a disease to spread rapidly to and from distant countries.

The one exception to the above points is a disease such as smallpox, which has thankfully been eradicated from the wild. So long as the smallpox virus is safely confined to a few laboratories, we can stop vaccinating against it without fearing its return from the wild10. However, in light of the possible escape of the recent coronavirus that causes COVID-19 from a laboratory, perhaps we should consider resuming smallpox vaccination. In any case, none of the diseases that children are currently vaccinated against has been completely eradicated.

I dwell on these epidemiological facts only because recent events have made us more aware of their importance. As in the case of the crime and prisons argument, the anti-vaccination one involves a factual mistake about the causal relationship between vaccines and diseases.

Based on these examples, it appears that the "Butterfield Fallacy" is a causal fallacy, but it's a different sort of mistake than the usual ones―such as post hoc―that infer a causal connection based on insufficient evidence11. Instead, it appears to confuse a one-time cause that eliminates a problem with a continuing cause that simply suppresses it. Imprisonment doesn't eliminate crime, at best it suppresses it. Similarly, while vaccination can eradicate a disease from the wild, before it has done so it prevents the disease from becoming an epidemic.

It's fun to mock Fox Butterfield's obtuseness, but unfair to single him out for the dubious honor of having a fallacy named after him. He was probably not the first, nor will he be the last, person to commit his namesake fallacy.

More importantly, naming a fallacy after a particular person is not a good idea, since many people will not recognize that person and, therefore, not understand why the mistake is so named. As a result, if you want to explain why the fallacy is named as it is, you'll have to go through the whole explanation that I just did. I know of no other widely-accepted fallacy named after a person except for "the Hitler Card", but that one is so named because Hitler is usually invoked in committing it.

A better name would express the essential nature of the fallacy and, thereby, serve as a mnemonic for it. Well-named fallacies, such as "Straw Man" and "Red Herring", have names that are vivid, memorable, and evoke the nature of the mistake. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to think of a better name for the Butterfield Fallacy, so it seems that we're stuck with it for now. If anyone has a suggestion that seems to fit the bill, please let me know.

I'm not convinced that the Butterfield Fallacy is a logical fallacy, though it is at least a causal one. If common sense is right that imprisoning criminals reduces the level of crime, then arguing against imprisonment based on a low crime rate is a mistake. Similarly, if a disease has been eradicated in the U. S. because of vaccination, and would make a comeback without it, then it is a causal error to argue that we no longer need to vaccinate against it.

Post hoc is a logical fallacy as well as a causal one because it is part of the meaning of causation that event C preceding the event E is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for C causing E. In contrast, it seems that the Butterfield Effect is a mistake only when it is based on a false factual claim about causation. Specifically, the mistake is one of confusing a cause that eliminates a problem with one that only suppresses it if continuously applied. In any case, whether the Butterfield Effect is a true logical fallacy or only a causal one, it is a mistake that we should all strive to avoid.


  1. Robert Tracinski, "COVID-19 and the Butterfield Effect", The Bulwark, 5/4/2020.
  2. James Taranto, "Dr. Butterfield, I Presume", The Wall Street Journal, 1/7/2013.
  3. Sara Tabin, "Monkeys Fall For The Sunk Cost Fallacy Too, Research Suggests", Forbes, 1/31/2021.
  4. "Bio", Fox Butterfield, accessed: 6/28/2021.
  5. Fox Butterfield, "Punitive Damages; Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling", The New York Times, 9/28/1997.
  6. Fox Butterfield, "Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates", The New York Times, 11/8/2004.
  7. Fox Butterfield, "Study Finds 2.6% Increase In U.S. Prison Population", The New York Times, 7/28/2003. Paragraphing suppressed.
  8. "Should Vaccines Be Required for Children?", ProCon, 5/12/2021.
  9. "What Would Happen If We Stopped Vaccinations?", Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 6/29/2018.
  10. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Smallpox", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 6/28/2021.
  11. See the previous weblog entry for a recent example.

June 18th, 2021 (Permalink)

The Four Billion Dollar Snub

During a press conference at the beginning of the week, Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo moved two bottles of Coca-Cola from in front of him, then held up a bottle of clear liquid, saying: "Agua"―"water" in Portuguese1. Here's how this seemingly insignificant event was headlined by NBC News:

Snub from soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo wipes $4 billion off Coca-Cola's market value2

Much stock market reporting is based on the idea that there is a causal connection between the news of the day and the movement of the stock market. If there's good news, the market is expected to go up; and if it does go up, the rise is attributed to the good news. Whereas, if there's bad news, the market is expected to go down; and if it does drop, the fall is attributed to the bad news. Similarly, an event such as Ronaldo's movement of the Coca-Cola bottles is presumed to immediately affect the stock price of the Coca-Cola company. In this case, since Ronaldo seemed to "snub" Coke, the value of the company is expected to decline.

I don't follow soccer, so I'd never heard of Ronaldo prior to this incident, but I gather that he is a famous soccer player. So, it's not totally implausible that his "snub" of the drink might have affected the value of the company that makes it, as the headline claims. Nonetheless, how did the editor who wrote the headline, and the reporter who wrote the story beneath it, know that Ronaldo's snub wiped that much off Coke's market value? All that we really know is that he moved two Coca-Cola bottles from in front of him during a press conference, and around the same time the company's stock price fell, which is reflected in some other headlines reporting the same event, for instance:

Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed Coca-Cola. Then their market value sank $4 billion.1

Unlike the previous one, there's no explicit causal claim in this headline. Instead, there is only a temporal one: this happened, "then" that. However, there is an implicit causal claim: why else mention these two events in the same headline except that they are somehow connected? By doing so, the headline suggests that the snub reported in the first sentence caused the loss mentioned in the second.

Four billion dollars certainly sounds like a lot, but the Coca-Cola Company was worth $242 billion before the loss, which was only about 1.6% of its value. Using the dollar value makes the drop sound more dramatic, but the smaller-sounding percentage makes it more believable that the snub may actually have caused the loss.

How was the $4 billion loss figured? According to The Washington Post:

The [Coca-Cola] company's share price dropped from $56.10 to $55.22 quickly after Ronaldo's slight, marking a 1.6 percent fall. The market value of Coca-Cola went from $242 billion to $238 billion, according to Nasdaq index and the New York Stock Exchange.3

In fact, the news conference at which the snub took place was Monday, and the highest stock price that day was $55.71, not $56.10. Instead, the stock closed at $56.16 a share on the previous Friday, and was at $55.69 on Monday morning when the market opened before the conference even began4. $56.10 is just $56.16 with the cents dropped, and some financial journalists report the latter as "$56.1". Unless Ronaldo's snubs have the power to travel back in time―which I think would be a bigger story than Coke's stock price―the drop should not be figured from Friday's closing price.

Where did the The Post get the price to which the stock fell? $55.22 is the lowest price that the stock fell to on Monday, and $55.20 may again be due to dropping the cents. The greatest decline that conceivably could be due to the snub was from the high on Monday of $55.71 to the low of $55.22, a loss of 49¢. Moreover, by the end of the trading day, the price was back up to $55.55, leaving a snub effect of only 16¢ a share or less than a fifth of what The Post claimed.

Here are a couple of headlines from major news outlets that reported Ronaldo's well-nigh magical powers to affect stock prices:

Coca-Cola Market Value Drops by $4 Billion Following Ronaldo's Press Conference Slight5

USA Today decided to call the $4 billion and raise it to $5 billion by figuring the decline from the stock price on Thursday:

Coca-Cola shares drop $5 billion after Cristiano Ronaldo's gesture to drink water6

To its credit, NBC News later corrected its story, changing the headline to the following:

Beverage makers mocked after soccer stars Ronaldo and Pogba snub drinks7

An "Editor's Note" was added:

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ronaldo's gesture eliminated $4 billion from Coca-Cola's stock valuation. The company's stock price, however, had begun to dip even before the gesture, and there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the gesture and the stock price.

Exactly! The revised article itself continues:

Headlines and social media conversation noted that Coca-Cola's share price fell Monday and attributed it to the global soccer star's actions. But in fact, there was no real indication that the actions had affected the stock price. Coca-Cola's share price immediately fell at the stock market opening at 9:30 a.m. ET from $56.08 to $55.25 even before Ronaldo's press conference was scheduled to begin at 9:45, just 4 cents above the day's low. The stock inched up slightly during the conference following the gesture, increasing to $55.30.8

So far, this is the only news outlet that I've seen to correct or retract its reporting on this pseudo-event.

As someone who neither watches soccer nor drinks Coca-Cola, I really don't care about this story for its own sake. Rather, I chose it as an egregious example of the tabloid-style of stock market reporting which produces silly stories such as this. Whenever you see a news story claiming that an event in sports or politics has caused the market to rise or fall, grab hold of your wallet with both hands and hold on tight.


  1. You can watch a brief video of the incident here: Alexandra Larkin, "Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed Coca-Cola. Then their market value sank $4 billion.", CBS News, 6/16/2021.
  2. Adela Suliman, "Snub from soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo wipes $4 billion off Coca-Cola's market value", NBC News, 6/16/2021. This is the Internet Archive Wayback Machine's cache of the original page. As discussed later in the entry, this headline has since been changed and the article revised.
  3. Paulina Villegas, "Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed Coca-Cola. The company's market value fell $4 billion.", The Washington Post, 6/16/2021.
  4. See: "The Coca-Cola Company (KO)", Yahoo! Finance, accessed: 6/18/2021.
  5. Andrew Gastelum, "Coca-Cola Market Value Drops by $4 Billion Following Ronaldo's Press Conference Slight", Sports Illustrated, 6/17/2021.
  6. Asha C. Gilbert, "Coca-Cola shares drop $5 billion after Cristiano Ronaldo's gesture to drink water", USA Today, 6/17/2021.
  7. Ben Popken & Adela Suliman, "Beverage makers mocked after soccer stars Ronaldo and Pogba snub drinks", NBC News, 6/16/2021.
  8. Some of these numbers differ from those in the source used for this entry: see note 4, above. It's strangely difficult to find exact stock prices as each source reports slightly different ones.

June 16th, 2021 (Permalink)

A Hidden Message from Nostradamus

A great puzzle to students of Nostradamus is what happened to the missing quatrains from Century VII. In Nostradamus' Les Propheties, a "century" is not a hundred years, but a hundred quatrains―four-line poems. There are ten centuries in the book, which should make for a total of a thousand poems. However, for some unknown reason Century VII has only 42 quatrains: where are the missing 58?

Knowing of my interest, a rare book dealer contacted me with the information that he had acquired a copy of an early English edition of The Prophecies that hitherto had been presumed lost. The edition contained the following translation of the missing 43rd quatrain from the seventh century:

Nostradamus, dead ghost on weird Wednesday,
On edge columns a mnemonics fable.
Devil's Island, Viscount Phil of Galway,
Random remarks, lead sign on a table.

Unfortunately, the volume does not contain the French originals, so it's impossible to judge how accurate a translation this is, assuming that it's a translation at all. Though certainly cryptic enough for Nostradamus, there is reason to doubt that it's genuine.

Can you discover a hidden message in the quatrain? When you think you've found it, click on the "Solution" button and all will be revealed. If you're having trouble, try the "Hint" button.

June 10th, 2021 (Revised: 6/5/2024) (Permalink)

Martian Watermelons and Trump's Tear Gas

The following is the headline of an article that appeared briefly on the website of The New York Times (NYT) a couple of days ago:

Fields of Watermelons Found on Mars, Police Say1

The text of the short article beneath the headline credited to "Joe Schmoe" read:

The FBI declined to comment onreports [sic] of watermelons raining down, but confirmed that kiwis have been intercepted. This story is terribly boring.

Actually, I found the story rather interesting. Unfortunately, it appears to have been fake news in the most literal sense, as the headline was later replaced by: "This article was published in error." No kidding! A statement beneath explained: "A mock article intended for a testing system was inadvertently published on this page earlier."

As fake news goes, this was probably harmless since it wasn't online for long, and was so improbable that few if any would believe it. Compare and contrast it with the following headline from a year ago, also from the NYT, which is still available online as of this writing:

Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church2

Yesterday, the Inspector General of the Department of Interior issued a report on his investigation into the incident:

The evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP [United States Park Police] cleared the park to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing in response to destruction of Federal property and injury to officers that occurred on May 30 and May 31 [2020]. Moreover, the evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day. As such, we determined that the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park.3

That last sentence is an understatement: not only does the evidence not support such a finding, it contradicts it. So, the headline and the underlying article were false, if not fake, news.

Why did the NYT, and many other major news outlets4, claim that tear gas was used to clear the park for Trump's church visit? How did they come by this misinformation? The article beneath the headline contains no evidence that the actions of the park police in clearing the park had anything to do with Trump's church visit other than the coincidence that the one preceded the other. For instance, no representative of the park police was quoted saying that tear gas was used to clear the way for the president, nor was a White House spokesman quoted as admitting that the Trump administration had requested the park be cleared. It appears that the reporter simply assumed that the way was cleared for Trump, and either asked no questions or didn't get the answers she wanted. Perhaps this was one of those stories that was "too good to check".

It's likely that very few people saw the NYT's silly Martian watermelon story, and even fewer would have believed it. In contrast, how many people believed the tear gas for Trump story? How many still do? The NYT was quick to retract its inconsequential Martian mistake, but it has yet to retract or even correct the far more important one about Trump and tear gas. Will it do so? Will it do so in such a way as to get the truth to those who still believe a false story?


  1. You can see an archived copy of the webpage here: "Fields of Watermelons Found on Mars, Police Say", Archive Today, 6/8/2021.
  2. Katie Rogers, "Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church", The New York Times, 6/1/2020.
  3. Mark Lee Greenblatt, "Final Statement", Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, 6/9/2021. The full report is available here: "Review of U.S. Park Police Actions at Lafayette Park", Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, 6/2021.
  4. Glenn Greenwald cites several other major news outlets that made the same claim, see: "Yet Another Media Tale―Trump Tear-Gassed Protesters For a Church Photo Op―Collapses", Glenn Greenwald, 6/9/2021.

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