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September 28th, 2007 (Permalink)

Check Out What's New

I've substantially revised the entry for argumentum ad baculum―the appeal to force―and added an example.

September 27th, 2007 (Permalink)

Debate Doublespeak

Annenberg Political Fact Check reports on the recent Democratic Presidential debate:

At the Sept. 26 debate among Democratic presidential candidates at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois once again used the term "phased redeployment," which many Democrats use to describe what they favor for U.S. troops in Iraq. The term was popularized in Democratic circles in 2005 shortly after the release of a paper titled "Strategic Redeployment," written by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the liberal Center for American Progress. But it's not an official military term, and its precise meaning is unclear. Republicans should know that: In 1984, the National Council of Teachers of English bestowed third place in its annual Doublespeak Award to Ronald Reaganís Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for claiming that the removal of American soldiers from Lebanon was a redeployment and not a withdrawal. Nevertheless, Republicans have been quick to characterize the phrase as a euphemism for "retreat."

Of course, it is a euphemism, though not for "retreat" but for "withdrawal". The Republicans are right about that much, and the fact that Weinberger used the term may explain why they know it! William Lutz, in his book Doublespeak, cites "tactical redeployment" as meaning "retreat". A retreat needn't involve leaving the battlefield entirely, so presumably a "strategic redeployment" is the doublespeak term for a complete withdrawal, whereas a "phased redeployment" is a withdrawal in stages.

The word "redeployment" may sound better to those voters who support the war than "withdrawal", and "phased" may sound better to other voters who think that the withdrawal should be immediate and complete, and who might be worried about a piecemeal withdrawal. How many "phases" will there be? How long between phases? Obama refused to promise that all troops would be withdrawn by 2013, so it's consistent with what he said in the debate that the "phased redeployment" take several years. As the Fact Checkers put it:

When making promises, candidates tend to use murky terms that sound good but could mean anything, letting the listener believe what they will.

That's what doublespeak is for!


September 24th, 2007 (Permalink)

Check it Out, Too

Continuing our recent unintentional theme of "things that people are insufficiently skeptical about", science journalist Gary Taubes has an article taking a long and fascinating look at the difficulties of epidemiology. The article is primarily concerned with the limitations of observational studies, and discusses various biases that affect them. Here's a sample:

…[H]ow should we respond the next time weíre asked to believe that an association implies a cause and effect, that some medication or some facet of our diet or lifestyle is either killing us or making us healthier? We can fall back on several guiding principles, these skeptical epidemiologists say. One is to assume that the first report of an association is incorrect or meaningless, no matter how big that association might be. After all, itís the first claim in any scientific endeavor that is most likely to be wrong. Only after that report is made public will the authors have the opportunity to be informed by their peers of all the many ways that they might have simply misinterpreted what they saw. The regrettable reality, of course, is that itís this first report that is most newsworthy. So be skeptical.

Source: Gary Taubes, "Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?", The New York Times Magazine, 9/16/2007

Dragon Wars
September 21st, 2007 (Permalink)

A Blurb Watch Double Feature:
Dragon Wars: D-War and
the Critics Strike Back!

September 19th, 2007 (Permalink)

Was Greenspan quoted out of context?

Critics of the Iraq war have jumped on a quote from Alan Greenspan's new book The Age of Turbulence that "the Iraq war is largely about oil." However, according to Jonah Goldberg, Greenspan claims that he was quoted out of context. Here's the relevant context from the book:

What do governments whose economies and citizens have become heavily dependent on imports of oil do when the flow becomes unreliable? The intense attention of the developed world to Middle Eastern political affairs has always been critically tied to oil security. [Two examples omitted.] …[W]hatever their publicized angst over Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction," American and British authorities were also concerned about violence in an area that harbors a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy.

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil. Thus, projections of world oil supply and demand that do not note the highly precarious environment of the Middle East are avoiding the eight-hundred-pound gorilla that could bring world economic growth to a halt. I do not pretend to know how or whether the turmoil in the Middle East will be resolved. I do know that the future of the Middle East is a most important consideration in any long-term energy forecast. Even though oil-use intensity has been significantly reduced, the role of oil is still such that an oil crisis can wreak heavy damage on the world economy. Until industrial economies disengage themselves from, as President George W. Bush put it, "our addiction to oil," the stability of the industrial economies and hence the global economy will remain at risk.

Goldberg refers to an interview that Greenspan did with Bob Woodward in which Greenspan does a lot of backpedaling, but he never says that he was quoted out of context. Perhaps Greenspan expressed himself poorly in what he wrote, but what he wrote clearly says that protecting the flow of oil was a major concern of "American and British authorities". Whether he's right about this, of course, is another matter.


September 16th, 2007 (Permalink)

New Book Review

Since book reviews tend to be rather long, I've restored the Fallacy Files Book Shelf and will post future reviews there rather than here. I'll use this weblog merely to notify you when a new review is posted. Consider yourself notified.

Update (5/6/2017): I guess this plan only lasted for one review. Since then I have gone back to posting all book reviews here, except of course for those published in journals. Consider yourself de-notified.

September 11th, 2007 (Permalink)

Check 'Em Out

Reply Hazy, Try Again
September 9th, 2007 (Permalink)

Behind the Magic Eight Ball

A neglected aspect of appeals to expert opinion is the lack of expertise in some areas where people claim it. Carl "The Numbers Guy" Bialik has another column on the failure of supposed experts to predict political and economic outcomes better than chance. As with other recent articles I've pointed to, this one also has a suggestion that experts' abilities to predict might be improved by some kind of systematic aid, perhaps supplied by a computer program.

Source: Carl Bialik, "Grading the Forecasts of ĎExpertsí", The Numbers Guy, 9/5/2007

Resource: The Limits of Expertise, 12/28/2005

Die Myth Die!
September 8th, 2007 (Permalink)

Myths that Wouldn't Die

Shankar Vedantam, author of the Washington Post's "Department of Human Behavior" column, has a fascinating if discouraging article about the psychological problems of mythbusting. Here's a representative passage:

The experiments do not show that denials [of myths] are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind's bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts. The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

While depressing, these results do help explain the otherwise inexplicable resilience of many ideas that have been refuted. They're like those movie monsters that, no matter how many times they're killed, keep on attacking.

As with the case of how doctors think, these results suggest that artificial intelligence might do a better job than people at some tasks, or at least be useful for helping people to overcome the psychological biases that cause errors. In particular, the article talks about the fact that people have a hard time keeping track of the sources of information, which makes it impossible to evaluate it based on the reliability of the source. People who believe something but can't remember where they acquired the information attribute it to a mysterious "they"―"they say that…."

In contrast, a computer program could easily keep track of the source of information, making it possible to discount repetition, or to trace back numerous citations to a single source. Repetition is listed as a fallacy by both David Hackett Fischer and Madsen Pirie, under the amusing name "argumentum ad nauseum". A famous example comes from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark:

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried
As he landed his crew with care;…
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."

I don't think that this counts as a logical fallacy because sheer repetition is not an argument, and therefore not an argumentum. However, repetition does appear to incline people to believe what is repeated, and advertisers have long exploited it. It may be necessary for mythbusters to repeat their debunkings ad nauseum in order to have the intended effect.


Acknowledgment: The illustration is adapted from a poster for the movie "Die, Monster, Die!" starring Boris Karloff.

September 5th, 2007 (Permalink)

So, What Else is New?

I've made an addition to the Weblogs section of the Sources and Resources page. It's an excellent weblog called "Notes on Logic" by Lee Archie, who is a philosopher at Lander University. Check it out!

Source: Lee Archie, Notes on Logic

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Vance Ricks for asking about informal logic weblogs.

Update (9/15/2016): Unfortunately, this weblog appears to be defunct.

September 4th, 2007 (Permalink)

Artificial Intelligence is no match for real stupidity!

There's an interesting and scathing review of Jerome Groopman's new book How Doctors Think in a recent edition of eSkeptic. Here's a relevant passage:

Groopman tells us that many diagnoses are wrong, and that most medical errors are the result of cognitive biases resulting from quick and dirty rule-of-thumb heuristics we all use to make decisions when pressed for time, operating under uncertainty, or when we simply do not know a better decision rule. He tells us that doctors are often unaware of the impact such heuristics―and their accompanying biases―have on their diagnostic accuracy. This is an excellent point….

According to the reviewer, Charles Lambdin, diagnostic expert systems based upon statistics rather than heuristics might well outperform human diagnosticians, yet doctors and patients both would refuse to use them. In other words, artificial intelligence won't be accepted unless it's as dumb as human intelligence!

I haven't read the book, so I don't know how accurate Lambdin's criticisms of it are. Also, I know next to nothing about this topic, though the review makes me want to learn more (someone send me a review copy, please!). One minor nit to pick in the review: Lambdin misuses the phrase "begs the question" right after the passage quoted. Argh!

Source: Charles Lambdin, "How Doctors Think They Think", eSkeptic, 8/22/2007

Update (10/1/2007): Charles Lambdin, the author of the review discussed above, writes:

I was just reading your blog and saw your comments regarding my recent article reviewing the book How Doctors Think. You state that you have a minor nit to pick, which is that I misuse the phrase "begs the question." I would just like to point out (as others have also accused me of "misusing" this phrase) that though "begs the question" is indeed a phrase sometimes used to describe the fallacy also known as petitio principii, that colloquially all the phrase actually means is "raises the question." This is, I know, yet another nitpicky point, but I also felt the urge to pick a nit.

You're certainly right, Charles, that the "raises the question" meaning of "begs the question" is quite common, and is probably the predominant meaning of the phrase. However, my position on the phrase is frankly prescriptive. If you want to say that something raises a question, you can say "raises the question", or "suggests the question", instead of "begs the question".

Using the phrase in two different ways introduces an unnecessary ambiguity into the language, and obscures the less common reference to a type of logical fallacy. This "misuse" of the phrase contributes to illogicality―logical illiteracy―because people mistakenly think that they understand the phrase―used in its logical sense―when they are interpreting it in the nonlogical way.

I'm simply suggesting that when you're tempted to say or write "begs the question" you ask yourself what you mean. If you mean the logical fallacy, go ahead and use "begs the question"; if you mean "raises the question", why not use that phrase? If for some reason some other phrase won't work, and you just have to use "begs the question" in this way, then go ahead. However, I think that you'll find that it's not hard to get out of this bad habit.

Resource: Gary Curtis, "Please Stop Begging That Question You're Raising", The Editorial Eye, 2/2007

September 3rd, 2007 (Permalink)

What's New?

If you've visited the Fallacy Files previously you'll notice that I've given the site a makeover. There are some purely cosmetic changes but, more importantly, I've changed the way in which the alphabetical index is used to navigate. Formerly, the entire index from A to Z was listed in the lefthand frame, which meant that you had to scroll down to get to most of the fallacies, though there was also an alphabar at the top which made it possible to jump down to a specific letter. Now, the letter links in the alphabar will take you to separate pages for each letter, which cuts down on the scrolling, though you'll have to do more clicking on links to "drill down" to a specific fallacy file. Hopefully, this will make it easier to navigate the site.

The main reason for this change is that there are technical problems with the scrollbars on inline frames, which is the type of frame used for the navigation frame. Specifically, the scrollbars don't work independently, and it is possible to lose a scrollbar out of frame while scrolling with a different scrollbar. For instance, sometimes it is necessary to go back and forth between two scrollbars in order to scroll to the bottom of a long page. The redesign shortens the length of the index pages and also the main page, thus making for less scrolling.

If you have an opinion about the site redesign, pro or con, I would like to hear it. If enough readers find the new design harder to use than the old one, it will be fairly easy to change back. I made this change partly because of reader complaints about the difficulty of scrolling, but I don't know whether the complainers were a representative sample of readers or a small group of scroll-haters, so please let me know your opinion!

Also, there are bound to be some bugs in any major overhaul such as this―broken links, for instance. So, please forgive any such problems that you encounter, and I would be thankful if you would report them to me so that they can be fixed.

For those interested in technical issues, this site originally used old-fashioned frames before I switched to inline frames. The old-style frames had their own technical problems―which is why I made the changeover―but scrolling was not one of them. I don't know why the scrollbars on inline frames misbehave the way they do, but I wish someone would fix them. This seems to me to be a bug, since the original version of frames did not exhibit this bad behavior. Ideally, it would not be necessary to make this change, which is therefore a workaround. If the scrolling bug in inline frames is ever fixed, I will probably switch back to the original, simpler design.

Update (9/10/2007): I've made one additional change to the site redesign: there is now a link in the navigation frame that says "Complete Alphabetical List of Fallacies". Clicking on this will give you the original navigation frame containing the long alphabetical list, if you don't mind scrolling or prefer the old navigational design. Now everyone should be happy! Thanks to Paul Farrington for recommending this change. I'm kicking myself for not having thought of it!

Update (10/18/2013): All of the above is now, of course, outdated. The alphabetical list of fallacies is currently available in a drop-down menu in the panel to your left and up. The site no longer uses frames of any sort, to the relief of the virulent frame-haters, I assume.

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