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November 28th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check 'Em Out

Worse Science
November 22nd, 2008 (Permalink)

Bad Medicine

Poor Ben Goldacre! He has a cold. Without treatment, it will hang on for a whole week, but with Dr. Curtis' 100% NATURAL homeopathic Regression Fallacy remedy, that nasty cold will be gone in only seven days!

Speaking of colds and bad medicine, I saw a recent segment of "Forecast for Health" with Dr. Anna Marie on the Weather Channel. These are short reports―either a minute or ninety seconds―which appear between forecasts, and give medical advice about problems that are loosely related to the weather. For instance, other segments have dealt with seasonal allergies, and using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer.

Who is "Dr. Anna Marie"? She's not an M.D., but she plays one on TV. Her full name is Anna Marie Chwastiak, D.P.M.―that is, Doctor of Podiatric Medicine. Now, I've nothing against podiatrists―some of my best friends are podiatrists, literally!―but the short reports that she does deal with general medical matters, not just foot problems. This wouldn't be so bad if there was some indication on the show that she's venturing outside of her area of expertise, but she's simply referred to as "Dr. Anna Marie". I assumed that she was an M.D. until I read otherwise, and I suspect that I'm not alone. If all you need is a "Dr." in front of your name, I could do the program myself.

Even worse, the Weather Channel segments appear to be reports but are little better than commercials. They sometimes contain obvious product placements, and then are followed by an actual commercial for the product shown.

Worst of all, however, was a recent one that I saw dealing with colds. The product placement and subsequent ad were for a homeopathic cold remedy! Of course, a homeopathic remedy will cure your cold as well as anything else, but it's disturbing that a physician of any sort would be promoting worthless medicine. Probably no one will be hurt by taking such a remedy, but some people will waste money on it because the pretty doctor on TV promoted it.


Acknowledgment: The illustration is the altered cover of an old Weird Science comic book.

November 19th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check it Out

The latest issue of Scientific American has a fascinating article on how magicians use cognitive illusions to fool us:

Neuroscientists recently borrowed a technique from magic that made volunteer subjects incorrectly link two events as cause and effect while images of the subjects’ brains were recorded. When event A precedes event B, we often conclude, rightly or wrongly, that A causes B. The skilled magician takes advantage of that predisposition by making sure that event A (say, pouring water on a ball) always precedes event B (the ball disappearing). In fact, A does not cause B, but its prior appearance helps the magician make it seem so. Cognitive psychologists call this kind of effect illusory correlation.

What do logicians call it?


Source: Susana Martinez-Conde & Stephen L. Macknik, "Magic and the Brain: How Magicians 'Trick' the Mind", Scientific American, 11/24/2008

November 16th, 2008 (Permalink)

What's New?

Since with the end of election we're no longer obsessed with polls, I've added a new Fallacy Watch feature: Familiar Contextomies. I expect to be adding to this page in the future, so if you know of a candidate contextomy, please send it to me.

Source: Familiar Contextomies, Fallacy Watch

November 14th, 2008 (Permalink)

Check it Out

Popular media coverage of infectious diseases greatly influences how people perceive those diseases, making them seem more dangerous, according to a new study from McMaster University. The research…suggests diseases that show up frequently in the print media―like bird flu―are considered more serious than similar diseases that do not receive the same kind of coverage, such as yellow fever. "The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events," says Meredith Young, one of the study's lead authors….

This is experimental confirmation of a type of anecdotal fallacy, that is, the tendency of people to think that events which receive media attention are more common―or, in this case, more dangerous―than they are. The study also has some heartening information for fallacy-busters:

"Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn't nearly as strong," says Karin Humphreys, one of the study's authors…. "This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical."

It would be nice if reporters took this to heart, instead of listening to and repeating the constant refrain that, since it's impossible, you don't need to bother trying to be objective.

Source: "Media Coverage Affects How People Perceive Threat Of Disease", Science Daily, 11/3/2008

November 6th, 2008 (Permalink)

Fallacy Files Book Club: Nudge,
Chapter 17: Objections

Now that the election is over, we can return to our regularly scheduled programming. Since Thaler and Sunstein (T&S), the authors of Nudge, have been called "occasional and informal advisers" to President-Elect Obama, we may expect to get some "nudges" in the next four years, though the platform that Obama ran on did not seem a particularly "libertarian paternalistic" one―paternalistic maybe, but not very libertarian.

I am going to skip over chapters 5-16, which discuss various applications of nudging, such as to encourage savings and organ donations. Since chapter 18 is a short "tell 'em what you told 'em" final chapter, this will be the final installment of the Book Club for Nudge.

Chapter 17 answers a number of objections to libertarian paternalism. One that is interesting to us is the objection that libertarian paternalism will create a causal slippery slope down which we will slide into some not-so-libertarian paternalism. This kind of argument is usually very weak if not downright fallacious, and T&S give an excellent general response to such arguments:

…[R]eliance on a slippery-slope argument ducks the question of whether our proposals have merit in and of themselves. … If our policies are unwise, then it would be constructive to criticize them directly rather than to rely only on the fear of a hypothetical slippery slope. And if our proposals are worthwhile, then let's make progress on those, and do whatever it takes to pour sand on the slope (assuming that we really are worried about how slippery it is). (P. 237)

In the previous installments of the Book Club, in addition to describing T&S's approach, I have raised one primary question about it: Why do T&S advocate using government to exploit people's cognitive biases, even if it is supposedly in their interest, rather than educating them to be less biased―that is, debiasing? The latter would seem to be the more libertarian approach, and if the government does the debiasing then it might even be the more paternalistic one. The closest that T&S come to addressing this question is in the following passage:

…[Some critics] prefer required choosing to nudges. …[T]hey would like to provide people with the information necessary to make an informed choice, and then tell people to choose for themselves: no nudges! … Although nudges are often unavoidable, we enthusiastically agree that required (or strongly encouraged) active choosing is sometimes the right route, and we have no problem with providing information and educational campaigns (we are professors, after all). But forced choosing is not always best. When the choices are hard and the options are numerous, requiring people to choose for themselves…might not lead to the best decisions. Given that people would often choose not to choose, it is hard to see why freedom lovers should compel choice even though people (freely and voluntarily) resist it. (P. 243)

This passage doesn't quite answer the question that I was raising, since it is not just a matter of giving people information and then turning them loose to make decisions, but of educating people to be better decision-makers, including educating them on how to be less nudgeable. Moreover, it's surely a straw man to suggest that any critic wants to force people to make a difficult decision against their will and without help. "When the choices are hard and the options are numerous", people often turn to advisers―such as doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, and other specialists―to help them decide.

So, I don't think that T&S have answered the questions that I raised in previous installments of the Club. The fact―if it is a fact―that it's impossible to avoid nudging people doesn't mean that it's also impossible for people to learn to be less swayed by nudges. If the government begins nudging people, it will have a strong incentive not to educate its citizens to resist, and perhaps even to suppress private efforts to do so, especially if they show evidence of effectiveness. As long as the government is acting in loco parentis, this might not be a problem, but there are likely to be private groups―such as businesses, non-profit groups, and politicians running for office―who will use nudges for their own non-paternalistic purposes. Nothing short of a government monopoly on nudging could prevent them, and such a monopoly would not be libertarian in the least. It's probably impossible to have a public educated to resist private nudging, but susceptible to the paternalistic nudges of government.

Moreover, T&S never address the moral question raised by paternalism in general, namely, whether it is right to treat adults as if they are children, even if so treating them is in their interest. Some people may prefer to make their own mistakes rather than to have Big Brother constantly elbowing them in the ribs.

The first step in becoming less susceptible to nudging is to become aware of it, and one service the book provides is to help raise that awareness. So, whether they intended to or were even aware of it themselves, T&S have helped people take the first step to become less Nudgeable.

Source: George F. Will, "Nudge Against the Fudge", Newsweek, 6/30/2008

Previous Installments:

November 4th, 2008 (Permalink)

Exit Poll Watch

Some media outlets are threatening to call the election today before voting is finished in all states. Such projections are usually made partly on the basis of exit polls. Nate Silver, of polling aggregation site Five Thirty Eight, explains why you should not take exit polls, or projections partly based on them, too seriously. So, if your candidate appears to be the winner, don't get overconfident and not vote; if your candidate seems to be losing, don't despair and give up. In either case, vote!


November 1st, 2008 (Permalink)

Save the Sea Kitties!

One thing that you can say for PETA's new "Save the Sea Kittens!" campaign is that no one will make fun of it, since it's beyond parody. The idea is to stop calling fish "fish" and start calling them "sea kittens". Here's their explanation of the campaign:

…[F]ish need to fire their PR guy―stat. Whoever was in charge of creating a positive image for fish needs to go right back to working on the Britney Spears account and leave our scaly little friends alone. You've done enough damage, buddy. We've got it from here. And we're going to start by retiring the old name for good. When your name can also be used as a verb that means driving a hook through your head, it's time for a serious image makeover. And who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?

I guess that appealing to people's reason wasn't going to work, so that PETA figured they would have to try to trick them with loaded language. Associating a product in some way with something positive is a common advertising technique, and often this is done through the product's name. PETA is trying to use the same technique to "rebrand" fish as "sea kittens" so that people will start finding them as cute and cuddly as kittens, and they won't want to eat them. Fish actually don't have most of the qualities that make kittens adorable, but by changing their "image" PETA is trying to transfer the feelings that people have for kittens to fish.

This campaign makes me wonder why such an association should always work in the intended direction, or only in one direction. Since people like to eat fish, maybe the association of fish with kittens will not cause them to stop eating fish, but to start eating kittens. If we started calling kittens "land fish", would people want to eat them? If there are any reports of people eating kittens, I'm blaming PETA!

This campaign is certainly better than some of PETA's previous ones, such as those comparing farming to the Holocaust, drawing an analogy between circuses and human slavery, and portraying a murder victim as an animal being slaughtered. It isn't any more logical, but at least it isn't offensive.

Source: "Fishing Hurts", PETA


Via: Ben Goldacre, "Bad Science"

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