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June 30th, 2023 (Permalink)

To Debate Or Not to Debate, That is the Question

Next year is a presidential election year, so there are bound to be political "debates" soon, perhaps as early as later this year. I've been writing about such events for the last twenty years and I'm getting rather tired of it. The quality of argument in that time has never been high, and it may even have gotten worse. In addition, as many people have complained, it's doubtful whether the official "debates" are really debates. Instead, they are either joint press conferences where journalists question the candidates, or town halls in which a few selected citizens do the questioning. Neither format encourages, or even allows, interesting argumentation. In any case, I'm considering sitting out this election unless something unusually logically interesting happens during any of the so-called debates.

This month's first recommendation is a short video essay on the history of presidential debates:

Our reading this month concerns the effect of "social" media on modern debate:

Jeremy Littau, "Social Media Has Collapsed Good Debate", The Atlantic, 6/24/2023

Last weekend, the vaccine scientist Peter Hotez criticized the influential podcaster Joe Rogan for hosting Robert F. Kennedy Jr., lamenting the fact that a podcast with millions of listeners lent its megaphone to a notorious spreader of vaccine misinformation. In response, Rogan challenged Hotez to come on his show and debate RFK Jr. with no time limit, offering to donate $100,000 to charity as an incentive. Although Hotez declined, RFK Jr. graciously accepted, leading Elon Musk to muse that Hotez was scared of debate. Given the audiences that Rogan and Musk command and the following that RFK Jr. has cultivated, the tweets sparked a kind of pressure campaign that ratcheted up quickly. Within hours, their Twitter acolytes were hard at work trying to shame Hotez into saying yes. As often happens on social media, the argument went nowhere and both sides stood their ground. Still, it’s worth addressing the claim that someone ought to debate when challenged, because it invokes the heart of the democratic ideal.

Littau is off on the wrong foot already. While debate in a broad sense is, indeed, part of the democratic ideal, and it's hard to see how democracy could function as advertised without debate, this doesn't mean that any individual person is required to do so. Hotez has every right to refuse to debate, and he owes us no explanation of his refusal. Perhaps he just isn't a good debater; there's no reason why he should be. RFK Jr., in contrast, is a politician from a political family, and may be expected to excel in debate. In any case, if Hotez won't debate, someone else surely would.

Democracy depends on citizens charting society’s course via their elected leaders, and by extension, an informed electorate is better able to choose those leaders wisely. Debate is part of this process: Humans are not all-knowing, and effective discourse can sharpen our views. But not all debates are created equal, and thus not all are worth indulging. The Rogan incident is an example of how we’ve preserved the rhetoric about the value of debate even as our discourse has moved to digital platforms that undermine that value.

…I think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, seven events that unfolded over the course of nearly two months as part of the 1858 campaign to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. They were centered on the issue of slavery in America’s westward expansion; the candidates agreed to begin with one participant making a speech for about an hour, followed by a rebuttal of about 90 minutes, and then another, half-hour response. The format demanded a lot from participants and spectators alike. By contrast, in the first of the 2020 U.S. presidential debates—there were only two—the ground rules called for a 90-minute session, during which six complex topics were given a mere 15 minutes each. Candidates had just two minutes to answer an initial question on multifaceted issues, including health care and terrorism, followed by rapid rebuttals.

This is one of the formats used by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has been running the events involving the major presidential candidates since 19881. There's no reason why the CPD couldn't use the Lincoln-Douglas format, except that there would be few viewers.

It's worth mentioning, though, that if the Rogan debate had taken place, it would presumably have just been RFK Jr. and Hotez moderated by Rogan rather than any CPD format. With no fixed time limit, it could have been a substantive debate if RFK Jr. and Hotez had been adequate debaters and Rogan had done a good job of moderating. Now we'll never know.

As debates shifted from in-person events to ones delivered primarily through electronic media, they evolved to serve specific formats. Television is an action medium, and so production is focused on constant dance-and-pivot camera and dialogue work that doesn’t linger on anything too long. Audiences have been conditioned to crave brevity and visual excitement, and good debaters understand the nuances of the medium in ways that have permanently altered audience expectations and debate prep, the kinds of changes that have altered how audiences receive information in new channels such as streaming video or podcasts. … One can win a debate on substance but lose it in the public consciousness if the message is incongruent with the audience’s medium-specific expectations.

The Rogan challenge highlights another medium-specific layer, and that is the effect of the social internet. For example, U.S. presidential debates happen simultaneously on TV and online. They are second-screen viewing for many who monitor conversation around these events on Twitter, Facebook, Discord, or elsewhere. In this case, candidate speech is being decoded and amplified in an instant social context. “Binders full of women.” The fly on Mike Pence’s head. “Such a nasty woman.” We sometimes remember these things more than the specifics of the debate because they were moments when social stickiness potentially supersedes the information.

The main reason for this effect is that most people simply don't watch entire debates; instead, they later see short clips of the "gotcha" moments and snappy comebacks. Many past presidential debates from before social media are remembered almost entirely for one such moment; for instance, Reagan's humorous comeback to the "age question" (1984), Dukakis' deadpan response to a hypothetical question about his wife being raped (1988)2, and George H. W. Bush checking his watch (1992)3. Littau supplies a more recent example:

In 2012, Mitt Romney named Russia as our chief global adversary, a statement the press perceived as a gaffe, given the war against al-Qaeda that was ongoing. In a presidential debate that year, Barack Obama responded with a zinger: “And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” From a tactics standpoint, Obama did what he had to do. He bent to a format that asked exactly this of him. The rightness or wrongness of Romney’s assertion and Obama’s reply matter less than the takeaway: How Romney’s statement landed was ultimately the result of a cultural interpretation and context more than it was about evidence or reason, even as debates are ostensibly supposed to be about the latter.

But it’s not just that we’re chattering about the debate as we are half-listening; it’s that we’re doing it in tribal contexts, given how social media splinters us into networks and platforms that align with our beliefs, either by how we build them or by how algorithms learn to show us what we have told it we want. Debate now happens in the context of polarized fandoms for many; political scientists say that the pool of truly persuadable voters has shrunk. We have already decided and sorted before the debate even happens, so if persuasion is out of reach, whom is a debate serving and what is it for?

I'm no fan of "social" media, as anyone who reads this weblog would know, but this was all happening long before such media, though perhaps they have made it worse. By invoking the Lincoln-Douglas (L-D) debates, this article is likely to give the false impression that past political debates were sedate intellectual affairs over tea and crumpets in the faculty lounge. In fact, there was plenty of partisanship at the L-D debates, with groups showing up to support each side. Far from being like collegiate debates, there was laughter, applause, cheering, and shouted interjections from the audience―all of which is against the rules of CPD debates. The debaters were occasionally interrupted by audience members, and even engaged in back-and-forth dialogues with them, and sometimes even interrupted each other. All in all, the L-D debates were rather rowdy affairs4, but then nobody ever said that democracy isn't rowdy; or if somebody did, they were wrong.

Rogan, Musk, and everyone else who called on Hotez to challenge RFK Jr. might idealize the value of debate, but even a long-form podcast can favor conjectural broadsides and wild claims. This is an urgent problem given the scale and speed at which debate assertions spread in the electronic age compared with when debates were attended by small groups and information spread slowly. Rogan’s proposal might at first glance resemble Lincoln-Douglas, considering the lack of time limit and singular topic, but the latter happened with some constraints and the participants were readily seen as having equivalent expertise that qualified them for the stage. Conversation, even a lengthy one, can’t get us to a shared truth without prior agreement on basic facts, standards, and methodologies.

There are purposes other than getting to a "shared truth" that debates serve. Presidential debates allow voters to see the candidates side-by-side and hear how they differ on issues, that is, they can serve an informative function rather than a persuasive one. If fewer people today can be persuaded, that's unfortunate, but presidential elections are usually so close that the only voters who matter are the ones who haven't already made up their minds.

While Hotez is presumably not running for president, RFK Jr. is already an announced candidate5, so a debate could serve the useful purpose of informing people about him. Despite his family connection, RFK Jr. is largely unknown to most Americans, and at least some of his support is probably based on that ignorance6. At this point, he is the main "anybody but Biden" candidate for disgruntled Democrats.

Modern debates, then, are usually less a competition to change minds and more like a sporting event, with fans lined up on each side and cheering for a predetermined view. When Rogan challenged Hotez to debate RFK Jr., he was indirectly invoking the Lincoln-Douglas ideal. When Hotez declined, he was acknowledging the reality that debates of this nature are more bloodsport than serious or good-faith inquiry. Rogan’s format has no mechanism for advancing understanding. It treats persuasion outcomes as a black box.

Say what? It's not clear what Rogan's format was going to be, except that most of the burden would have been on Rogan as moderator to control the debate by keeping the debaters on the issue rather than engaging in personalities. Could Rogan have done this? I don't know, but it might've been worth a try.

In the sporting context, you see Rogan’s gambit. Debates are entertainment, just as sports are entertainment. Debates bring big ratings to the networks airing them, and so serve media interests (clout and advertising dollars) more than they do the public. Rogan’s challenge was brilliant in its self-service, allowing him to win regardless of whether the challenge was accepted. He got the attention and could say he tried. And if Hotez had agreed, it’d have boosted Rogan’s business by merely happening. Neither scenario prioritizes quality.

What would prioritize quality? It's okay to complain about the low quality of modern debate―I do it all the time―but what's the alternative? For instance, if the CPD did adopt a modified L-D format, which I would love to see, it would probably have even lower viewership than the current formats. There's a trade-off between quality―that is, quality of argument―and quantity―that is, quantity of audience―but in a democracy we've got to try to maximize both.

“Debate me, you coward!” is a fine bit of rhetorical shame that grafts you to the ideal of debate in a free democracy, but it begs us to look past what debates have become and whom they serve. (At least it’s better than a cage match.)

So, should we just give up and admit that debate no longer works? Should we throw in the towel on democracy? A debate doesn't have to take place in the face-to-face fashion that Rogan seems to have had in mind, which may degenerate into a verbal cage match unless the moderator prevents it. An alternative to the face-to-face debate would be for Rogan to have Hotez and RFK Jr. on his show separately, allowing each to present his arguments while Rogan questions him and raises objections.

Political debates in a democracy have never been the pure intellectual exercises that logicians―myself included―and other scholars would prefer, not even the L-D debates. Debate is the worst way to make a decision, except for all those other ways that have been tried.


  1. Diana B. Carlin, "Commission on Presidential Debates", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 4/27/2023.
  2. For these and others, see: "Top 10 Memorable Debate Moments", Time Magazine, accessed: 6/30/2023.
  3. "1992: George H.W. Bush checks the time", CNN, accessed: 6/30/2023.
  4. "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858", National Park Service, 2/16/2017.
  5. Will McDuffie & Isabella Murray, "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. launches unlikely presidential bid as a Democrat", ABC News, 4/20/2023.
  6. I haven't written in any depth about RFK Jr., but I have referred to him a couple of times in passing:

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in this video and article, but I think the video is worth watching and the article worth reading as a whole. In abridging the article, I may have changed the paragraphing.

June 28th, 2023 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've noticed a lot of misquoting and misattributing of quotes to George Orwell in recent years, and decided to put together a page of them. Check it out:

Misquoting George Orwell

June 24th, 2023 (Permalink)


An anonymous reader writes:

Q: I oppose the war in Ukraine and have said in social media that Zelensky could put an end to it immediately. This has over and over again given rise to attacks on me for siding with the Russians, which is not what I do. I hate Putin for his "leadership" but simply point out what must be preferable to continuing the ongoing slaughter. The fallacy here is to assume that my enemy's enemy always is my friend, which it clearly isn't.

Another fallacy I've come across the last years is when you assume that because someone is against the mRNA vaccine they automatically are against all vaccines, which clearly isn't the case. Is there a name for that?

A: Both of these are examples of the same mistake, namely, black-or-white thinking. Black-or-white thinking treats an issue as if it were all-or-nothing, pro-or-con, and us-versus-them when it is really more complicated, with shades of gray in between the extremes. Black-or-white thinking negatively affects every political, social, or moral issue we face. As a result, we are pushed to take extreme positions, and society is polarized into two adverse factions. As individuals take extreme positions, democratic societies as a whole adopt extreme policies.

Take the recent pandemic as an example. Many of us who were skeptical about some of the measures advocated, such as the closure of schools and forcing people to wear masks, were attacked as "deniers" as if we denied the existence of the coronavirus. We were told to "follow the science", when there was little or no science supporting such policies. There was strong social pressure to uncritically accept every measure promoted by government bureaucrats or risk being denounced and shunned as an unscientific heretic.

Of course, reality was more complicated, as it usually is. The threat of Covid-19 is almost entirely to the elderly infirm, and children are scarcely in danger1. It's now widely conceded that closing schools was both unnecessary2 and harmful to children3, and that masks probably made little or no difference to the outcome4.

None of this is news. It was known early in 2020 that those who were hospitalized or died from Covid-19 were elderly and suffered from other diseases, and that most children were at little or no risk of serious illness5. It was also known that the policies adopted were not without cost to children in terms of social and intellectual development6. Those who warned of the dangers of such policies were either shouted down, ignored, or even censored for spreading "misinformation". The damage could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, if there had been an open debate about these policies, but how is debate possible when you view those who disagree with you as enemies?

This is just an example, though a timely one, which is why I chose it. I could easily make the same case about any other issue facing us: abortion, climate change, or who should be the next president. However, the general situation is nothing new, as we can see from the following account by Thucydides of the effects of black-or-white thinking during the Peloponnesian war:

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. …. In fine, …even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. …

The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. The leaders in the cities…sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish, and, recoiling from no means in their struggles for ascendancy engaged in the direst excesses; in their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict or the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour. … Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.

Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honour so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow.7


  1. Mary Kekatos, "More than 90% of COVID deaths occurring among elderly adults: CDC", ABC News, 11/30/2022.
  2. Joseph G. Allen, "We Learned Our Lesson Last Year: Do Not Close Schools", The New York Times, 12/20/2021.
  3. "American Kids' Math Ability Has Gone Backward by Decades", Agence France-Presse, 6/23/2023.
  4. Tom Jefferson, et al., "Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses", Cochrane Library, 1/30/2023.
  5. For instance, see: Vivien Williams, "Kids and COVID-19: Why they are not getting as sick", Mayo Clinic, 3/17/2020.
  6. For instance, see: "Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children", World Health Organization, 4/15/2020.
  7. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Richard Crawley, chapter 10. Paragraphing altered.

June 20th, 2023 (Permalink)

Solving a Problem by Elimination1

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?2

As usual in these entries on problem solving, let's start with a puzzle. Give the following one a go, but don't worry too much if you get stuck as I'll show you how to do it later:

Puzzle: Hu's on first?

Mr. Hu is the owner of a local business that sponsors his small town's softball team, and he also plays on the team. Hu, Watt, and Ware play first base, second base, and third base on the team, but not necessarily in that order. The second base player is a better hitter than Ware. The player on third base, who is the Mayor's sister, is the best hitter on the team. Can you determine who plays what base?

This is an example of a type of puzzle, usually called a "logic puzzle", which does not require any specialized knowledge to solve―not even about softball―but can be solved purely by reasoning. However, you can't reason directly to which bases the players are playing. Rather, to solve the puzzle you must reason by a process of elimination. It takes multiple steps of reasoning to solve this type of puzzle, which is what makes it difficult. Let's go through those steps for this example.

First of all, the puzzle tells you that the second base player is a better hitter than Ware. This means that you can eliminate Ware as the player on second, leaving either Hu or Watt in that position. You're also told that the third base player is the best hitter on the team; since the second base player is a better hitter than Ware, this means that Ware does not play third base, either. Therefore, Ware is on first base. Moreover, the third base player is the Mayor's sister, which means that she is not Mr. Hu. So, Ms. Watt is the only one left to play third base. Finally, by a process of elimination, you can conclude that Mr. Hu is the second baseman.

As you can see, the way to solve this puzzle―the only way to solve it―is by eliminating possibilities until the truth is all that remains. This was a relatively easy puzzle of this type, as such puzzles can be more complex and, hence, more difficult; for instance, suppose that instead of three players there were four, or five, or even more. There's no upward limit on how complicated such a puzzle could be, except of course that no one would bother trying to solve it if it were too complex.

However, no matter how complex such a puzzle is, the method for solving it is the same: use the clues given in order to eliminate possibilities until there is only one left. Also, be patient: the more complicated it is, the longer it will take to solve.

As such puzzles get more complicated, it will often help and may even be necessary to use some form of table or graph to tabulate the possibilities; otherwise, you are likely to lose track of those that you've eliminated. For example, in "Hu's on first?" there are three bases and three players to fill them, for a total of six different ways the bases could be filled. Here's a table of all six possibilities:

Hu's on first?
First Base Second Base Third Base
Hu Watt Ware
Hu Ware Watt
Watt Hu Ware
Watt Ware Hu
Ware Hu Watt
Ware Watt Hu

Then, as you proceed to work through the puzzle, you cross out possibilities until only one is left. For instance, the first real clue in the puzzle is that the second base player is a better hitter than Ware, which means that Ware is not on second base. This allows you to cross out two possibilities, like so:

Hu's on first?
First Base Second Base Third Base
Hu Watt Ware
Watt Hu Ware
Ware Hu Watt
Ware Watt Hu

The next clue is that the third base player is the best hitter on the team, which means that Ware, who is not the best hitter, cannot be on third base. This allows you to cross out two more possibilities:

Hu's on first?
First Base Second Base Third Base
Ware Hu Watt
Ware Watt Hu

As you can see, this leaves only two possibilities. One final possibility can be eliminated, since the puzzle tells you that the player on third base is a woman, but Hu is a man:

Hu's on first?
First Base Second Base Third Base
Ware Hu Watt
Ware Watt Hu

Now you're finished since only one possibility is left. So, with another tool in your problem-solving chest, you can practice on the following problem, which is more challenging than "Hu's on first?":

Puzzle: The Mercenary Six

In the old West, a poor farming village's crop was being stolen by a gang of bandits. The elders of the village decided that the only thing to do was to hire mercenaries to protect the village, so they scraped together as much money as they could, but it was only enough to hire six mercenaries. Each of the mercenaries came from a different town, and each had a favored weapon. Using the following clues, determine what town each mercenary―including Duke―was from and what weapon each prefers:

  1. Alf and the man who came from Yuma, who was not named Bart, both carried six-shooters.
  2. The mercenary from Laramie, known as "the Laramie Kid", was too young to have served in the Civil War.
  3. Alf had never been to Dodge City in his life.
  4. Chuck, who was not from Abilene, favored knives as weapons.
  5. Erik carried a rifle as did the man from Tombstone.
  6. Both Bart and Freddy were Civil War veterans.
  7. The mercenary from Deadwood, who was not named Chuck, favored a rifle.


  1. For previous entries in this series, see:
    1. Contraction, 4/6/2023
    2. Think Backwards, 5/5/2023
  2. Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four (1890), chapter 6. Emphasis in the original.

June 11th, 2023 (Permalink)

Mistranslating Nostradamus

Nostradamus lived and died in 16th-century France and, thus, wrote his famous prophecies in the language of his time and place. The relationship between the French of his day and modern French is similar to that between Shakespeare's English and ours. A modern English speaker can read and understand Shakespeare, but it's difficult without education and experience. Similarly, if you can read modern French, you can make some sense out of Nostradamus, but much remains obscure.

Another difficulty is that both men wrote poetry, though Shakespeare was a great poet and Nostradamus was not: if not for his reputation as a prophet, I doubt that anyone would read Nostradamus today. Another difference from Shakespeare is that Nostradamus intentionally wrote in obscure figurative language to encourage people to read into his poetry whatever they wanted. As a result, native English-speakers who can't read French are dependent on translations, and it's difficult to check them for accuracy, which opens up an opportunity for translators to translate in such a way as to support their interpretations.

Let's examine an example taken from Mario Reading, the translator of Nostradamus whom I discussed last month1. As I mentioned then, the chapters of Reading's book are chronological starting in 2001 and continuing to today and thousands of years into the future. Each chapter gives one or more quatrains of Nostradamus, together with Reading's translation and interpretation. The first chapter includes two quatrains that Reading contends predicted the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center; here's the original of the first, quatrain I-87, as given in Reading's book, together with his translation2:

Original Translation
Ennosigée, feu du centre de terre,
Fera trembler au tour de Cité Neufve;
Deux grands rochers long temps feront la guerre,
Puis Arethusa rougira nouveau Fleuve.
Earthshaking, a fire from the centre of the earth
Will shake the towers of the New City
As a result, two great rocks will fight a long war
Until Arethusan springs bloody the river afresh.

Only the second line, with its reference in the translation to "the towers of the New City", seems to connect it with the attacks of September 11th, 2001. However, in all but one edition of Nostradamus that I've consulted3, the second line reads: "autour de", rather than "au tour de", that is, "autour" is one word, not two. The familiar French phrase "autour de", which is still in common use, means "around"4. Thus, the second line means literally: "Will make to tremble around the new city". So, there's no reference to a tower―"tour"―in the original quatrain let alone to towers―"tours".

What's more, "tour" has many meanings in modern French, but when it means "tower" it is feminine in gender5. Thus, it should be "à la tour de" rather than "au tour de" if "tour" means "tower", since "au" is used with masculine nouns6. "Tour" also has masculine meanings, such as "trip" and "turn", but those meanings don't fit Reading's interpretation.

Thus, the only link in the poem to the Twin Towers was introduced by Reading's tendentious editing and translation. To the extent that the quatrain predicts anything, it appears to predict a volcanic eruption―"fire from the center of the earth"―and a resulting earthquake around the "new city". Is New York the new city? Well, New York does have "new" in its name, but there are no volcanos in its vicinity.

A better guess is that Nostradamus was predicting an eruption of Mount Vesuvius7, which is near Naples, whose name derives from the Latin "Neapolis", literally, "new city"8. Vesuvius was and still is an active volcano, and it famously erupted in the first century of our era, destroying the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Nostradamus would surely have known of this and it would have taken no psychic powers to guess that the volcano would erupt again, and it has. So, this prediction was both a sure thing and open-ended, since there's no indication of a date attached to it9.

It is, of course, much easier to "predict" an event after it's already happened. Reading's interpretation of this quatrain is not a prediction, but a "postdiction", since he waited until after the event to interpret it. In comparison, let's look at how others interpreted it before 2001. The interpretation given in the previous paragraph is, in fact, that of Edgar Leoni, who wrote: "It is fairly certain that Nostradamus is here predicting an eruption of Vesuvius, and earthquake around Naples.10" When it comes to Nostradamus, nothing is "fairly certain", but it is a better guess than Reading's. Maurice LaCasse claimed that this quatrain predicted the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s11, which was also a postdiction since his book was published in 1992.

Henry Roberts was apparently of two minds about this prophecy, depending on which edition of his book you consult. In the "new revised edition", he wrote:

This is a truly shattering prediction. The two great rocks at war can only mean the East and West (the United States and the Soviet Union) and the earthquake and fire in the New City refers to a nuclear holocaust in New York (?) etc. The "cold war" shall become a hot one.12

Whoops! By the time of the later "millennium edition" of the book, the Soviet Union no longer existed, so the interpretation had to be updated to:

The two great rocks at war refer to the global conflicts between Western powers and Third World rogue nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea and their consummation in earthquake and fire in events such as the World Trade Center bombing. Earthquake and fire also refer to the possibility of black market nuclear materials being assembled and detonated by terrorist groups or extremist governments.13

This edition is from 1994, so the reference to "the World Trade Center bombing" is to the terrorist attack of the previous year14, not to the later attacks of 2001. This sounds very similar to Reading's later interpretation of the quatrain, so it's possible that Reading simply changed the bombing attack into the later one.

In any case, these examples show how Nostradamus interpretations change with the changing times: they tell you more about the time when they were made than about the future.


  1. Psychic Reading?, 5/28/2023.
  2. Mario Reading, Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies for The Future (2015), under "2001: Twin Towers Disaster I".
  3. The exception is Erika Cheetham, The Prophecies of Nostradamus (1981), p. 63. She gives the French original as "au tour de"―perhaps this is where Reading got his version―but still translates the line as "will cause tremors around the New City."
  4. "Autour", Collins Dictionary, accessed: 6/10/2023.
  5. "Tour", Collins Dictionary, accessed: 6/10/2023.
  6. "French Preposition: au, à la, à l’, aux", Think in French, accessed: 6/10/2023.
  7. "Vesuvius", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 5/16/2023.
  8. "Naples", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 5/2/2023.
  9. See rules 1 and 10 in How to Be a Prophet for Fun and Profit, 6/26/2022.
  10. Edgar Leoni, Nostradamus and His Prophecies (1982), p. 583.
  11. Maurice A. LaCasse, Nostradamus: The Voice that Echoes Through Time (1992), p. 64.
  12. Henry C. Roberts, The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus (New revised edition, 1982), p. 38. Roberts was dead by the time of this edition, which was re-edited by his daughter and her husband, so Roberts himself may not have written this.
  13. Henry C. Roberts, The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus (The Millennium edition, 1994). This edition was updated by Robert Lawrence, so the change in the interpretation is presumably his.
  14. Laura Lambert, "World Trade Center bombing of 1993", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 5/1/2023.

June 5th, 2023 (Permalink)

More Junk Statistics

Former president Donald Trump is, of course, running for president, as is current governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Since DeSantis is popular with Republican voters, he's likely to be Trump's strongest opponent in the primary elections for the GOP's nomination. So, Trump has launched a series of attacks on DeSantis, including the following:

Surprise, Ron…was Third Worst in the Nation for COVID-19 Deaths (losing 86,294 People), Third Worst for Total Number of Cases, at 7,516,906. … For COVID Death Rates Per State, Ron, as Governor of Florida, did worse than New York.1

If you know anything at all about what happened in 2020-2022 in New York and Florida, then Trump's claim should strike you as implausible. In New York in 2020, thousands of patients infected with the coronavirus were moved from hospitals into nursing homes, the worst possible places for them since the elderly infirm are at much greater risk of serious illness and death than the general population2. Then, when the number of deaths in nursing homes predictably spiked, the state covered it up3. Thankfully, nothing like this happened in Florida, so there's every reason to think that its record in COVID-19 deaths should be superior to New York's, not worse.

So, where did Trump get these statistics? His statement lists no source for the numbers he gives, and I haven't been able to find one for them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) current data, Florida has had a total of 78,707 deaths attributed to Covid-19 since the beginning of 2020, which is less than what Trump claimed. In addition, New York state had a total of 80,611, which is over 2K more than Florida. Ranked by total deaths, Florida is not the "Third Worst"; New York is, with Florida just behind it as fourth worst.4

The CDC stopped tracking "cases" on the eleventh of last month when the so-called emergency officially ended5, so if Trump got the number of cases from the CDC it must have been before then. While it's possible that Florida's number of deaths actually declined in a month as a result of adjustment for over-counting, it's not likely, especially by over 7,500 deaths.

Even if Trump's numbers were correct, comparing the absolute numbers of deaths between states is an apples-to-oranges comparison, because different states have different-sized populations. In 2020, New York had a population just under 20 million, while Florida's was almost 22 million6, so the latter state should have a slightly larger number of deaths, every thing else being equal. Of course, everything else was not equal, and New York had a greater number of deaths despite a smaller population.

Population is also why both states ranked so high in terms of absolute numbers of deaths. In 2020, Florida was the third largest state in population, while New York was fourth. Thus, the numbers that Trump gave would make perfect sense simply based on population size, but we've seen that they're no longer accurate if they ever were.

Geographical entities that differ in population―such as states, cities, or countries―should not be compared in terms of absolute numbers. Instead, the proper basis for comparison is the rate―in this case, the death rate―since the rate takes the population into consideration.

Given the numbers of deaths and population given above, the death rate for Florida was 78,700/22,000,000 for a raw rate of .0358; these rates are usually given as deaths per 100K, which in this case is 358. New York's rate, in contrast, was 403 per 100K.

There's yet another problem with Trump's comparison: in addition to differences in size of population, New York and Florida differ in the age-distribution of their populations. Florida is a famous retirement destination so that its population tends to be older than that of other states, and Covid-19 is more likely to be fatal the older the patient is. So, the death rate should be adjusted to take age into account. Thankfully, the CDC has done this for us and the age-adjusted death rate for New York is 312 per 100K, making it the 18th worst state, whereas that for Florida is only 245 per 100K, which makes Florida the 17th best.4

The statistics given by Trump are junk because, even if they were right, they're useless for comparing how well the two states did with respect to Covid-19. And they're not right.


  1. Donald Trump, "Statement by Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of America", Truth Social, 3/22/2023.
  2. Holmes Lybrand, "Fact checking Gov. Cuomo’s false claim about Covid-positive patients and nursing homes", CNN, 10/2/2020.
  3. See:
  4. "COVID Data Tracker", Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data through: May 27, 2023. Posted: June 1, 2023.
  5. Brenda Goodman, "The way the US government tracks Covid-19 is about to change", CNN, 5/5/2023. This change was a good thing since it was never clear what a "case" was. Simply testing positive for the coronavirus was often counted as a "case", even if the person never had any symptoms. Moreover, every test has false positives, so that some unknown percentage of those testing positive did not even have the virus.
  6. Ellen Kershner, "The 50 US States Ranked By Population", World Atlas, 6/12/2020.

June 2nd, 2023 (Permalink)

Soldier or Solider?

Look closely at the following recent headlines:

Colorado solider among 3 killed in collision of U.S. Army helicopters in Alaska1

Michigan solider killed in Colorado shooting returning home with special procession2

What is a solider? I think whoever typed these headlines meant "soldier". I've seen this misspelling several times over the years, and it only took a few minutes of searching for "solider" on the web to find the first headline above, so this is a frequent error.

Misspelling "soldier" as "solider" is due to overly-rapid typing resulting in the transposing of adjacent letters. Or, at least I assume that's the reason; I hope nobody thinks that "soldier" is actually spelled this way. Since "solider" is a genuine if uncommon English word, many spell-checking programs will not catch the switch. In addition, the two words look alike at a quick glance, so that it's easy for a human writer or editor not to notice the transposition.

While similar to the eye, "soldier" and "solider" could scarcely be more different in meaning. "Soldier" is, of course, a noun referring to a member of the army, whereas "solider" is the rather rare comparative form of the adjective "solid", meaning "more solid". Given this grammatical difference, grammar checking programs may be able to detect the mistake of typing one word for the other.

Despite its frequency, none of the reference books I usually consult includes this error. The most recent of these books is from a dozen years ago, and most are twenty years old or more, which made me wonder whether this mistake has become more common with the invention of spell-checking programs. Google's Ngram Viewer, which allows you to chart the prevalence of a word or phrase in Google's book corpus, shows a slow rise in the occurrences of "solider" from 1800 to 1900, then a plateau until the late 1990s, at which point the number starts sharply rising until it peaks in 20173. I checked a few of these occurrences and all were clearly misspellings of "soldier", even in the titles of books! I can imagine no reason for this state of affairs other than the rise of automated spell-checkers, and a resulting decline in careful copyediting. So, this is exactly the kind of misspelling you should watch out for since the spell-checker in your computer is not likely to catch it.


  1. The Associated Press, "Colorado solider among 3 killed in collision of U.S. Army helicopters in Alaska", The Denver Post, 5/1/2023. In case this headline is edited, you can view it at: Archived version of above page, Internet Archive Wayback Machine, 5/1/2023.
  2. Caitlyn French, "Michigan soldier killed in Colorado shooting returning home with special procession", M Live, 4/7/2023. The headline has since been corrected, but the misspelling lives on in its URL.
  3. "Solider", Google Books Ngram Viewer, accessed: 6/2/2023.

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