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September 29th, 2014 (Permalink)

Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge

Steven Poole, author of Unspeak, has an excellent article―I almost wish I'd written it!―about cognitive biases and the idea of "nudging" people using them. Read the whole thing: it's rather long but worth it. I have a few reservations, together with some supplementary points that I think are worth making.

One reservation I have is that I'm not at all sure how widespread or intense is the kind of skepticism Poole is arguing against. Certainly, one of the dangers of studying cognitive biases and fallacies is that it may lead to despair, to a feeling that we just can't figure things out so we might as well stop trying. However, Poole gives no evidence that such despair is a common thing. Now, I myself have seen signs of people over-reacting in this way to the findings of cognitive science, but I don't know how common it is.

Poole refers to a supposed "present climate of distrust" of human reason, but all he does is cite a few specific examples of such distrust. I could give a few similar examples myself, but are they representative of the "present climate"? There have always been philosophers who are skeptical about reason in one way or another, for one reason or another. It may be that the only thing that's changed is that cognitive psychology has now become a source of such skepticism. However, it wasn't that long ago that Freudian psychology was considered by some to have shown that people are essentially irrational. Now that Freud is out of favor, skeptics about human reason can cite Kahneman and Tversky.

Of course, such skepticism is unwarranted, and I'm completely on Poole's side in rejecting it. We've known about optical illusions for centuries, but nobody claims that such illusions show that we cannot see. Similarly, the fact that there are cognitive illusions doesn't mean that people cannot reason. Also, while the work by psychologists on cognitive biases is a product of the last few decades, philosophers and logicians have been aware of logical fallacies since the beginnings of philosophy.

Furthermore, skepticism about human reason based on the discoveries of cognitive science―like all forms of extreme skepticism―is in danger of sawing through the limb that supports it. It's through human reason itself that we've discovered the limitations of reason, but if reason doesn't work at least some of the time then we've no basis for belief in those results.

While I'm doubtful that skepticism about reason is as widespread as Poole suggests, I still think that it's worth arguing against―though anyone who is sincerely skeptical ought not to be convinced!

I have some further thoughts provoked by Poole's thought-provoking article, but they'll have to wait until I find time to write an update.

Source: Steven Poole, "Not So Foolish", Aeon Magazine, 9/22/2014


September 21st, 2014 (Permalink)

The Bushisms Strike Back!

With the end of the Bush administration, I was hoping for the end of the "Bushism"―those short quotes of President Bush mangling the English language. Slate made a cottage industry out of them, issuing little books and day-to-day calendars, and there was obviously greater demand than the president could supply. When the magazine couldn't find a real one, it would simply invent one by quoting him out of context. In addition, it seldom linked to the source of the quote, making it difficult for the reader to check the context―and this from an online magazine! Moreover, while repeatedly caught manufacturing Bushisms, it rarely issued corrections.

The current example, however, does not come from Slate, but from the astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson. In at least one speech that Tyson has given, he made the following claim:

After the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush, in a speech aimed at distinguishing the U.S. from the Muslim fundamentalists, said, “Our God is the God who named the stars.” The problem is two-thirds of all the stars that have names, have Arabic names. I don't think he knew this. This would confound the point that he was making.

This quote is not taken word-for-word from the speech, but from a page on Tyson's own website―see Source 5, below―but you can watch a video clip from the speech containing the disputed quote―see Source 1, below.

One problem with this quote is that Tyson provides no specific source for it other than a Bush speech after 9/11, which makes it difficult to verify and even harder to refute. In the video clip mentioned previously, he claims that the quote comes from a speech given within a week of 9/11, which narrows things down quite a bit. However, no one seems to have been able to find a source for it in a Bush speech within the time frame Tyson mentions. I've looked for such a speech myself, but haven't found anything even remotely resembling the quote.

However, there is a Bush speech with similar words in it, but it's from about a year-and-a-half after 9/11, and the context was not 9/11 or terrorism but the Columbia space shuttle tragedy in which seven astronauts died:

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. (Source 2, pp. 165-166)

In addition to the fact that no one has been able to find a Bush speech with Tyson's version of the quote, it doesn't sound like a plausible thing that Bush would have said, especially in a speech. Anyone who paid attention to Bush's rhetoric at the time would know that he was careful not to describe the "war on terrorism" as a religious war between Christianity and Islam. Here, for instance, is a section from Bush's first major speech after 9/11, his address before Congress:

The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics―a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. … I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. (Source 2, pp. 66-68)

Now, the fact that no one has so far produced a speech with the challenged quote, and that it sounds implausible, do not prove that Bush did not say it. Perhaps Tyson made a mistake about the time frame of the quote and a later speech will be found with those exact words. However, the evidence is strong enough to shift the onus to Tyson to either point out a source other than the Columbia eulogy, or to admit a mistake. Anyone can make a mistake, and this is a relatively minor one, but refusing to correct the error once it's pointed out would be a major mistake.


  1. "Neil deGrasse Tyson: George Bush and Star Names", YouTube, 3/11/2009
  2. George W. Bush, "Selected Speeches of President George W. Bush: 2001-2008", White House Archives
  3. Sean Davis, "Another Day, Another Quote Fabricated By Neil deGrasse Tyson", The Federalist, 9/16/2014
  4. Hemant Mehta, "If We Can’t Trust Neil deGrasse Tyson, Who Can We Trust?", The Friendly Atheist, 9/17/2014
  5. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, "Politics Quotes", Neil DeGrasse Tyson


Fallacy: Quoting Out of Context

Update (9/23/2014): Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Tyson has yet to address this issue. Jonathan Adler of The Volokh Conspiracy also has called upon Tyson to deal with the Bush quote as well as some other recent criticisms:

They are the sorts of claims someone of Tyson’s stature should not be making in public lectures unless they are, in fact, true. Politicians are routinely flayed for less―and we know Tyson is much smarter than the average politician. He should not be held to a lower standard. It is possible that all of the claims Tyson has made are accurate…. The various quotes, including that by Bush, may well exist. If so, I would think Tyson can provide citations. If not, Tyson should acknowledge his errors.

Adler also has done a fruitless search for a Bush speech with the quote at issue, but he did find another good example of the type of rhetoric that Bush actually used after 9/11―see Source 1, below, it's quite short.

Sean Davis, who appears to be the original complainant about the quote, has also interviewed some of Bush's speechwriters from the time―see Source 3, below. According to Davis, the speechwriters do not recall any such quote used in a speech from that period, and they pointed out that it was not characteristic of Bush's rhetoric. Davis quotes Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary under Bush:

“I never heard him say anything like that and I know that’s not how he thinks,”…. “He would not make a reference to God for the purpose of dividing people. … He often referred to God for the purpose of uniting people from various faiths….”

This is further evidence that the quote is implausible, and the fact that Tyson hasn't cited a legitimate provenance for it suggests that it has none, since he could put a stop to the current criticisms by doing so. Of course, it's in the nature of things that it can't be proven decisively that Bush never uttered those words, or something close to them, in the week or so after 9/11. But the evidence that he didn't is getting stronger every day that Tyson remains silent.


  1. "'Islam is Peace' Says President", The White House Archives, 9/17/2001. This short speech was within Tyson's time frame but my own search failed to find it.
  2. Jonathan H. Adler, "The Volokh Conspiracy: Does Neil deGrasse Tyson make up stories?", The Washington Post, 9/22/2014
  3. Sean Davis, "George W. Bush’s Top Aides: We Don’t Remember That Neil Tyson 9/11 Quote At All", The Federalist, 9/22/2014

Update (9/27/2014): Tyson has now admitted that the Bush quote was taken from the Columbia speech, which makes Tyson's use of it a definite contextomy. Unfortunately, Tyson's admission wasn't quite the "Whoops, I blew it! Sorry, folks!" that I hoped for. A comment on his Facebook page quoted from the Columbia speech: "The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today" and Tyson replied:

Good to see that the Bush quote was found. Thanks to all who did the searching. I transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote. Perhaps that's a measure of how upset I was in both cases. The mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed.

Jonathan Adler of The Volokh Conspiracy critiqued Tyson's comment:

What is really so “mysterious” is why Tyson finds it so difficult to confess error and pretends that Bush’s 2003 remarks were only just-now discovered. As noted in my prior post on this controversy, Sean Davis had pointed to this quote as a potential source from the beginning. Yet if this is the source of the quote, then nearly everything else Tyson claimed about it and its significance is false (as is the account of the quote’s provenance he gave last night). Tyson claims to be a man of science who follows the evidence where it leads. The evidence here clearly shows Tyson screwed up. Whether knowingly or not, he regularly repeated a false account in order to cast aspersions on another public figure. The only proper thing to do is recant and apologize. That is what a person of integrity does.

I don't think it's "mysterious" that Tyson finds it difficult to 'fess up and apologize, but it is disappointing. Like Watergate, the cover-up is worse than the crime.


Update (9/28/2014): Tyson had a Twitter exchange today with psychologist Christopher Chabris, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, which I mentioned a few years ago―see the Resources, below. Chabris asked Tyson:

Why not say "My apologies to George W. Bush for repeatedly & completely misstating what he meant in that quote about 'our God.'"

Tyson replied:

Thanks. Sure, I plan to say something like that soon. I’m looking for a good medium & occasion.

I'm looking forward to that. I think Tyson ought to apologize just as much to his audience for misleading and disappointing us. None of this, in my view, needs to be a big deal. Correcting errors is like removing a bandage: yank it off in one motion! So far, Tyson has been picking at the thing.

Chabris had a good reply to Tyson:

That's great to hear. Human nature makes admitting one's own mistakes a very hard standard to adhere to, so kudos to you.

Chabris is right about human nature, which is why I was unsurprised by though disappointed in Tyson's behavior. To err is human and to deny one has erred is also human, unfortunately.

By the way, just by coincidence I've been reading Chabris' book The Invisible Gorilla. I started to read it four years ago when it came out, but somehow was distracted away, and I'm just now getting back to it. I've only just started reading it, but so far it's very interesting and I may have some things to say about it in the near future.

Source: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Twitter Exchange with Christopher Chabris, Twitter, 9/28/2014


September 18th, 2014 (Permalink)

Letter to the Editor

Letters to the editors of magazines and newspapers often provide brief arguments that are good for exercising your skill in understanding reasoning, and even occasionally spotting a fallacy. So, brush up on your logical skills if you need to―see the Lessons, below―and let's get started. The following letter is taken from the Sunday book review section of The New York Times. First, read through the entire letter―see Source 1, below, it's short―or read the following excerpt, which is most of it:

William Deresiewicz argues in his new book, “Excellent Sheep”…that Ivy League schools graduate narrow, dissatisfied and purposeless students. But his anecdotal accounts do not jibe with my 20 years of experience on the faculty of Stanford University, where the majority of undergrads are happy, passionate and thriving. These amazingly talented and diverse students are working side by side with our faculty to reinvent the world. … Based on his unduly negative outlook, I would guess that Deresiewicz feels he was unfairly denied tenure at Yale. But it is time for him to stop whingeing and get back to the teaching and mentoring that he excels at and loves.―Ben Barres

Just what is Barres trying to argue? As I mentioned, this is a letter to the editor of the book review section of The N. Y. Times, and Barres is responding to a review of the book Excellent Sheep. However, unlike many such letters to the book review, he is not writing to defend the author of the book from criticism. Rather, he is criticizing what he takes to be the author's thesis which, according to the letter's first sentence, is: "Ivy League schools graduate narrow, dissatisfied and purposeless students."

Now, I haven't read Excellent Sheep, so I don't know whether this is an accurate characterization of the book's claims. I also don't know whether Barres has read it or is relying on the review's characterization of it. In any case, there is a possibility that the letter is criticizing an inaccurate version of the book's thesis, in which case it's attacking a straw man.

After stating what he takes to be the book's portrayal of Ivy League students, Barres proceeds in the next two sentences to testify against it based on his own experience as a faculty member of Stanford University. Stanford is not, strictly speaking, a member of the Ivy League, though it is the sort of elite university that Deresiewicz appears to be dealing with in his book. The problem with Barres' testimony is that he is just one person at one elite institution: his testimony is some evidence against the book's claims, but quite weak evidence. Barres' experiences may well be based on an unrepresentative sample of students at elite institutions.

Besides, Barres is just one guy. One person at one school is the smallest sample you can have, so it would be quite a hasty generalization to conclude that the book is wrong based on such a small, possibly biased sample. Barres refers to Deresiewicz' "anecdotal accounts", so perhaps he intends to place his own anecdotal account against Deresiewicz. Given my ignorance of the book, this is another possibility I can't verify or dismiss.

Finally, in the last two sentences of the letter, Barres turns to an ad hominem attack on the author of the book. He engages in some amateur psychoanalysis, suggesting that Deresiewicz is complaining bitterly―"whingeing"―just because he was denied tenure at Yale. This, of course, is also a sneaky way to put Deresiewicz down by alluding to the tenure denial. If turnabout were fair play, one might suggest that Barres is bitter because Yale really is an Ivy League school and he's just envious of Deresiewicz. Given that it seems possible that an untenured professor at Yale, or even at Stanford, could write a good book about Ivy League education, this is a fallacious personal attack.

To sum up, there is one glaring fallacy committed by the letter, namely, the ad hominem at the end. More importantly, the letter's argument is a very weak, anecdotal one at best.


  1. Ben Barres, "Poor Little Lambs", The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 9/5/2014
  2. Dwight Garner, "The Lower Ambitions of Higher Education", The New York Times, 8/12/2014. Another review from The Times, which also claims that Deresiewicz was denied tenure.
  3. Anthony Grafton, "The Enclosure of the American Mind", The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 8/22/2014

10 Brief Lessons in Logic: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


September 12th, 2014 (Permalink)

The Puzzle of the Four Conspirators

A little over a year ago the police consulted with you about a bank-robbing gang, and thanks to your help the gangsters are doing hard time. Now, a police informant has revealed that another gang is planning a heist. Each robber will have one of four specific jobs: the Brains, the Muscle, the Safecracker, and the Wheelman. Having managed to plant bugs in the room where the four criminals are planning the heist, the police overheard the gang discussing the upcoming job:

  1. Artie was heard saying that Danny was the smartest and so ought to be the Brains.
  2. Benjy argued at length that they ought to hit an armored car instead of a bank.
  3. Charlie loudly insisted that Artie was not strong enough to be the Muscle.
  4. Danny claimed that Benjy was not skilled enough to be the Safecracker.

Later, after the decisions were made, the police heard all but one of the crooks complaining that their recommendations had not been followed. Fittingly, the only member of the gang whose advice had been taken was the man who became the Brains. Also, the conspirators had definitely decided to hit either a bank or an armored car, but the police couldn't tell which.

Can you help the police by determining what job each conspirator has been assigned in the heist, and whether they have decided to rob a bank or an armored car?


September 9th, 2014 (Permalink)

New Book: The Organized Mind

Psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, author of a couple of books on music, has a new book: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Of course, it's the "thinking straight" part that is most relevant for us. Levitin was a student of the late Amos Tversky (p. xxii), so he should know a lot about how cognitive biases and illusions interfere with straight thinking.

September 5th, 2014 (Permalink)

One "myth" that's not quite dead yet

A few years ago I wrote about a shocking statistical claim: "Up to 300,000 girls between 11 and 17 are lured into the U.S. sex industry annually…." At the time, I searched but failed to discover where this claim originated, or what evidence supported it. Instead, I did a "back-of-the-envelope calculation" (BOTEC) to test its plausibility, since I found the number intuitively implausible―see the Resource, below, for the results. According to an article in The Village Voice―see Source 1, below―that appeared a few months after my original entry but which I just recently discovered:

The "100,000 to 300,000"…―the same number that's found its way into dozens of reputable newspapers―came from two University of Pennsylvania professors, Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner.

Presumably, the "300,000" in the claim that I wrote about is the high end of this estimated range. Unfortunately, the Voice article doesn't explain exactly where the estimate is supposed to come from, though they do quote from a 2001 report authored by Estes and Weiner (E&W)―see Source 2, below. However, though I haven't read the entire report―it's over 200 pages―I don't see any indication that the 100k-300k estimate is due to E&W or the report's own estimate. Instead, the report gives low, medium, and high estimates of 244,181, 286,506, and 325,575, respectively―for those of you playing along at home, these numbers are over-precise. However, if you were to state them as a range from low to high, you'd probably come up with 250k-350k, rather than 100k-300k. For this reason, it seems unlikely that they are the source for the latter estimate.

The Voice article makes a big deal about the fact that E&W's estimate was of children "at risk" for commercial sexual exploitation rather than those actually being so exploited, which is true but beside the point. If the 100k-300k estimate did not come from E&W, then a clearer example of ignoratio elenchi would be hard to find.

So, where did the 100k-300k estimate come from? Of course, I can't be certain, but the 2001 report says the following:

…[T]he first World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children …confirmed that large numbers of prostituted children are to be found in rich countries, including in the U.S. for which the "End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Exploitation"…estimated their numbers to be between 100,000 and 300,000…. (P. 4)

The passage cites a 1996 report (p. 215) which I have not been able to find online or elsewhere―if you should happen to know where I can find a copy of this report I would be obliged if you let me know. As a result, it's impossible to check the report's methodology for arriving at this estimate, though the wording indicates that this is not supposed to be an estimate of "at risk" children, but of those actually exploited. If so, and if this is the actual source of the original estimate, then the Voice criticism misses the mark. However, the same report quoted above goes on to say:

One of the principal objectives of the present study was to place some reasonable though tentative parameters around the magnitude of the contemporary CSEC [Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children] phenomenon in the United States. Previous estimates of the number of such cases ranged from a low of 300,000…to a high of as many as 1,000,000 cases…. Neither estimate, though, was based on empirically-derived evidence, and both assertions have been widely criticized as lacking scientific merit. Thus, the present investigation was initiated in the absence of reliable baseline data against which our own findings could even be compared…. (P. 143)

It's odd that this passage claims that 300k is a "low" estimate given that the previous passage gives a range starting at 100k, and both passages cite the same 1996 report. However, the authors indicate that the earlier estimate was not "empirically-derived" nor such that they were willing to rely on it for baseline data.

Also, it should be noted that none of this affects my earlier critique of the claim that "up to 300,000 girls between 11 and 17 are lured into the U.S. sex industry annually". This claim picks the upper end of the estimated range in order to use the larger, more shocking, number. Moreover, the 1996 estimate, as described by E&W, does not say that this number is added "annually", so presumably it is supposed to be the absolute number of exploited children. This is still an implausible claim, but less so.


  1. Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin & Kristen Hinman, "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight", The Village Voice, 6/29/2011
  2. Richard J. Estes & Neil Alan Weiner, "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico", 2001

Resource: BOTEC, 2/6/2011

Via: Christina Hoff Sommers, "5 Feminist Myths That Will Not Die", Time, 9/2/2014, Myth 2. Sommers seems to have made the mistake of taking this "myth" uncritically from The Village Voice. Update (7/18/2017): I see that it is now up to six, but it was only five when I added this link.

Solution to the Puzzle of the Four Conspirators: According to the police, only one of the four conspirators had his recommendations followed, which means that there are four cases to consider:

  1. Suppose that Artie's recommendations were followed. Then Artie must be the Brains, since only the Brains' advice was taken. However, Artie's advice was that Danny should be the Brains, so Artie's advice was not taken after all.
  2. Suppose that Benjy's advice was followed. Then he must be the Brains. However, since Danny's advice was not taken, Benjy would be the Safecracker. Since each crook can only have one job, the assumption that Benjy's advice was taken must be wrong. This means that the gang is not going to rob an armored car.
  3. Suppose that Charlie's recommendations were followed. Then he is the Brains. Since Danny advised that Benjy should not be the Safecracker―advice that was not followed―Benjy is the Safecracker. Since Charlie recommended against Artie being the Muscle, it follows that Artie must be the Wheelman. This leaves Danny as the Muscle.
  4. Suppose that Danny's advice was taken. Then he is the Brains, which means that Artie's recommendations were not followed. However, Artie advised that Danny should be the Brains, which means that his advice was followed. So, Danny is not the Brains, after all.

The complete solution is that the gang has decided to rob a bank using the following job assignment:

  1. Artie: The Wheelman
  2. Benjy: The Safecracker
  3. Charlie: The Brains
  4. Danny: The Muscle

Source: E. R. Emmet, Puzzles for Pleasure (1972). The puzzle is based on one on p. 3.

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