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July 26th, 2011 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Charles Seife, author of Proofiness (see the Resource, below), has a short article in the latest Scientific American about p-values in the statistical analysis of scientific research and their problems. By the way, the same issue has an article on the multiverse that I may have some comments on soon.

Source: Charles Seife, "The Mind-Reading Salmon", Scientific American, 7/27/11

Resource: New Book: Proofiness, 8/26/10. If you're interested in the way that misleading numbers make the news this is a good book to read, though I would recommend that you first read any of Joel Best's books.

Fallacy: The Multiple Comparisons Fallacy

July 23rd, 2011 (Permalink)

In the Mail: The Pocket Guide to Critical Thinking

I'm not sure why it's called a "pocket guide" since the copy I received is a bit too large for a pocket.


Cops: McDonald's boss punches mom with service dog

Maybe the dog's service is as a boxing glove.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to "Dog Scratcher" for the headline and wisecrack.

July 15th, 2011 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Zookeeper

The following blurb comes from an ad for the new movie Zookeeper:


Of all time? Of the year? We've seen dangling comparatives before, but this is a sort of dangling superlative. What is the reference class in which Zookeeper is "the most thoroughly enjoyable movie for the entire family"? Could it possibly be the class of all family movies?

No. It couldn't. Here's what Steve Persall actually wrote:

Sure, it's silly without shame, and predictably sentimental. But Zookeeper is the most thoroughly enjoyable movie for the entire family in theaters right now. I can't believe I just typed that about a Kevin James flick with talking animals. We could blame air-conditioning, but there's more in play here. It isn't just the heat; it's the film's amiable stupidity. [Emphasis added.]

So, how many family movies are in theaters right now? Two or three? A half-dozen? That's certainly less impressive than the impression given by the contextomized quote. Worse still, the blurb lacks an ellipsis at the end to indicate that something has been left off.


July 14th, 2011 (Permalink)

New Edition: The Pocket Guide to Critical Thinking

This book by Richard L. Epstein is now in its fourth edition. You can find out more about the book by visiting the website of the Advanced Reasoning Forum (see the Resource, below), where you can read sample chapters or visit the Critical Thinking Web Exchange, which is sort of a weblog. If you keep up with the trends, they've even got a Facebook page!

Resource: The Advanced Reasoning Forum

July 12th, 2011 (Permalink)

Logical Literacy: "Refute" ≠ "Deny"

Kenneth Anderson of The Volokh Conspiracy points to this example of logical illiteracy, or "illogicality" as I call it, in a news article:

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday appeared to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq as part of the war against al-Qaeda, an argument controversially made by the Bush administration but refuted by President Obama and many Democrats.

He also explains well what's wrong with it:

It is unlikely that the reporter, Craig Whitlock, actually meant "refuted by"―if he did, I suppose we’d have to have a discussion instead about editorializing in a news story. But he almost certainly meant "denied." This is not mere pedantry―if usage is evolving this way, there is a loss of important meaning. Refute has a specific meaning that implies far more as a logical or evidentiary proposition than deny, and it would be unfortunate if the two terms gradually became conflated.

Of course, we've seen this before (see the Resource, below), and we'll no doubt see it again, unfortunately.

Source: Kenneth Anderson, "Language Alert: ‘Refute’ Does Not Mean ‘Deny’", The Volokh Conspiracy, 7/11/11.

Resource: Illogical Headline, 8/14/2010. This entry was also elicited by the Volokh Conspiracy, though by the chief conspirator himself.

July 9th, 2011 (Permalink)

The Lottery Fallacy

I recently discovered that philosopher Stephen Law, author of the new book Believing B.S. (see Resources 1 & 4, below), discusses the fine-tuning argument for God's existence (see Resources 2 & 3, below) in his earlier book The Philosophy Gym. Law makes much the same objection to the argument as I did independently in the Resources. However, Law labels the mistake made in that argument "The Lottery Fallacy", a name that I did not use and have never heard before. The name comes from a story that Law tells similar to the one I told about Lucky Jim and Lucky Pete:

Suppose you buy one of a thousand lottery tickets. You win. That your ticket should be the winning ticket is highly unlikely, of course. But that doesn't give you any reason to believe that someone rigged the lottery in your favour. After all, one of the tickets had to win, and whichever ticket won would have been no less unlikely to win. So there's no reason to believe that your win must be explained by someone or something intervening on your behalf―there's no reason to suppose that you have been the beneficiary of anything other than spectacular good fortune. (P. 71)

Just before this passage, Law writes that "[p]roponents of the [fine-tuning] argument are often accused of committing the lottery fallacy." I'm not sure whether Law means that the same substantive accusation is often made―as I did in the Resources―or whether the accusation is actually made under the name of "the lottery fallacy"―something that I did not do. I wonder about this because I've found no evidence of the term "lottery fallacy" outside of Law's writings, except in cases that appear to trace back to those writings.

Moreover, I'm doubtful about whether "the lottery fallacy" is a genuine logical fallacy. Of course, it is a logical mistake―or at least a mathematical one based in a misunderstanding of probability. Rather, my worry is that it is not a common type of logical error, since I take seriously the notion that fallacies are common types of error. If the only instance of the "fallacy" is in the fine-tuning argument, then it's not a common type of error. Law does give what he takes to be another example of the fallacy in the context of a supposed miracle (p. 254), but I'm not sure that it's really an instance of the same mistake, and even if it is that only makes two cases.

Whether it's strictly speaking a "fallacy" or not, the lottery "fallacy" is certainly an important type of error, because the fine-tuning argument is an important argument.

Source: Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (2003), Chapter 7: "Does God Exist?"


  1. New Book: Believing B.S., 6/17/2011
  2. New Book: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, 6/19/2011
  3. Fine-Tuning the Fine-Tuning Argument, 6/27/2011
  4. In the Mail: Believing B.S., 6/30/2011

July 7th, 2011 (Permalink)

Aspiring to Reason

One of the dangers of studying logical fallacies, or cognitive errors in general, is that it may lead to cynicism about reasoning. Of course, it is itself a logical mistake to argue from the fact that some arguments are fallacious to the conclusion that all are, or even that most are. Yet, a steady diet of sophistry and cognitive biases can lead to confusing "the impediments to reason with the fate of reason", as Leon Wieseltier puts it in the latest New Republic:

It is not reason, but unreason, that shuts things down. You cannot argue against an emotion, but you can argue against an argument. … A reasoned discussion is always open and a reasoned intervention is always timely. Unreason is more arrogant, more impatient, more cruel, than reason. Since reason is general, it is inclusive. Reason, I said, is strict but fragile, forever hounded, forever distracted, the minority cause, provisional, fair, curious, fallible, public―not tyrannical but heroic, in its lonely insurrection against the happy and popular hegemony of passions and interests.

There certainly are a lot of impediments that we have to overcome in order to reason successfully. However, in social life we either have to reason with one another or resort to force and coercion. "Reason may be, as we like to say, aspirational; so aspire."

Source: Leon Wieseltier, "The Fear of Reason: In defense of rational argument", The New Republic, 6/23/11. Unfortunately, this is only the first half of the article; you have to be a subscriber to read the rest.
Update (12/2/2016): The full article appears to be now online.

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