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November 30th, 2020 (Permalink)

Shame, Shame, Shame


  1. Ellipsis in the original.
  2. See:
  3. See: Angie Drobnic Holan, "Lie of the Year: 'If you like your health care plan, you can keep it'", Politifact, 12/12/2013.
  4. See: Angie Drobnic Holan, "Video shows tarmac welcome, no snipers", Politifact, 3/25/2008. See also: Debate Doublespeak, 4/19/2008.
  5. Jonathan Easley, "MSNBC cuts ties with three contributors joining Team Biden", The Hill, 11/11/2020.
  6. Erik Wemple, "MSNBC's Jon Meacham problem", The Washington Post, 11/11/2020.
  7. Yvonne Rolzhausen, "How to Fact Check The Atlantic", The Atlantic, 1/25/2018.
  8. Who Will Fact-Check the Fact-Checkers? (Part 2), 8/1/2020.
  9. Jennifer Maas, "Washington Post Writer Who Debunked Atlantic Story Says 'Fencing Injuries' Tipped Him Off", The Wrap, 10/31/2020.
  10. Marc Tracy, "The Atlantic Lays Off 68, Citing 'a Bracing Decline in Advertising'", The New York Times, 5/21/2020.

November 27th, 2020 (Permalink)

How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 1:
Four Types of Misleading Quote

Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.1

This entry in the series on amateur fact-checking2 is the first part on how to check a particular type of factual claim, namely, quotes. In order to know how to check quotes, it's useful to know what to look for. In what ways can a quote fail to be a fact?

Below are four real-life examples of quotes. You might want to practice your quote-checking skills by trying to answer the following questions before you look at the answers, below: Who is claimed to have said the quote? Who really said it? What sort of mistake does the quote illustrate?

  1. "Where you stand depends on where you sit."
  2. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
  3. "This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration. Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!"
  4. "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black."

There are four ways that quotes may go wrong and each of the four quotes above illustrates one of these ways:

  1. Misattributions: A misattributed quote puts the right words in the wrong mouth. The first quote is often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but it is also known as "Miles' Law" after Rufus Miles2. "Who the heck is Rufus Miles?" you may ask. You've probably never heard of him, which is one reason why the quote is so often attributed to Mandela, since Miles is obscure but Mandela is famous. As Ralph Keyes has written: "Famous quotes need famous mouths"3.
  2. Misquotes: A misquote puts the wrong words in the right mouth. The second quote is a misquote of the words spoken by Neil Armstrong as he became the first man to set foot on the Moon. What Armstrong actually said was: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The version quoted in the quiz and widely published makes no sense, since "man" and "mankind" mean the same thing. Armstrong's point was that the step onto the Moon's surface was a small step for him―"a man"―but a large advance for humanity―"mankind". Armstrong was apparently misheard due to radio static4.
  3. Bogus Quotes: A bogus quote puts the wrong words in the wrong mouth. Such quotes are usually invented for propaganda purposes, and their true authors are seldom known. The third quote is often falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler5 in order to attack the policy of gun registration, but its actual author is unknown.
  4. Contextomies: A contextomy is a quote that puts the right words in the right mouth, but takes them out of context in a misleading way. The final quote was spoken by George Zimmerman on the telephone to a police dispatcher shortly before he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The quote, which was broadcast by NBC News at the time, makes Zimmerman appear to have volunteered the information that Martin looked black. However, between the two quoted sentences the dispatcher asked Zimmerman: "Okay, and this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?" Zimmerman answered this question: "He looks black." So, the quoted words were the right words in the right mouth, but they were misleadingly edited6.

An accurate quote puts the right words in the right mouth, but it also provides sufficient context so that the quote can be correctly understood. So, in addition to being sure that a quote puts the right words into the right mouth, the quote-checker needs to see enough of the context to be sure that it doesn't give a false impression.


  1. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911).
  2. For earlier entries in this series, see:
  3. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), p. 20.
  4. See: "A Small, Belated Step for Grammarians", Associated Press, 10/3/2006.
  5. See: Ciara O'Rourke, "No evidence Hitler made this statement about gun control", Politifact, 8/21/2019.
  6. For the full story, see: An Audio Contextomy, 4/4/2012.

November 26th, 2020 (Permalink)

Thank You!

My thanks to everyone who has read and supported this site since I last thanked you! The Fallacy Files is disengaging from Amazon, so please do not try to support the site by making purchases through any of the remaining Amazon ads. Feel free, however, to click on any Google ads. Also, if you feel generous this holiday season and wish to support the site's mission, you can donate via the PayPal button in the navigation pane to your right. Your support is appreciated!

Poll Watch
November 11th, 2020 (Permalink)

Post Mortem

In September I wrote about this election that "it ain't over 'til it's over"1, and it still ain't over. It won't be over until about a month from now at the earliest, when the electoral college meets2, and maybe not even then. In that earlier entry, I made two main claims: First, that despite the popular impression, the public opinion polls in 2016 weren't off by much; and, second, that despite being about as accurate as could be reasonably expected, they were of no value in predicting the election results.

The second of these claims needs no re-examination, since I doubt anyone would deny it. It's true that the polls seem to have erred in the right direction this time, so that if you made a bet on who would win based on them, you would have won. However, if you had done that last time you would have lost, which is no better a track record than a flipped coin.

In contrast, some people may think that the current year's polls and election results show that my first claim was incorrect. There is a widespread impression that the polls were wildly wrong last time, and even worse this time, which has led some people to pronounce the "death" of public opinion polling3.

The results of the current election do not directly affect my previous analysis, because it's possible that the polls performed reasonably well four years ago, while those of this year flopped. As I pointed out in the previous entry, Real Clear Politics' (RCP) final average of polls in 2016 was only 1.1 percentage points off from the popular vote total. As far as I know, there's no way to figure a margin of error for such averaged poll results, but surely this is a near miss.

This time around, the RCP average showed Biden winning the popular vote by 7.2 percentage points, whereas he has so far won the vote by only 2.9 points for a 4.3 point deficit4. This is a worse prediction by 3.2 points and is, thus, almost four times as bad as that in 2016. In addition, the RCP average makes a photo finish look like an easy victory, if not a landslide, whereas Biden has so far done only 8/10ths of a percentage point better in the popular vote than Hillary Clinton did. So, there's no doubt that the polls did a much worse job this year than four years ago, despite the fact that the pollsters were supposedly adjusting their methods in order to prevent a replay. What went wrong I don't know.

Once again, the computer models failed. Nate Silver's model, the one that did best in 2016―though that's not saying much―did even worse this time, giving Biden an 89% chance of winning5. That's wrong in the right direction, but it's still wrong, since it gives the false impression of a landslide.

In their defense, however, all computer models suffer from a GIGO problem: "Garbage In, Garbage Out". Such models are based on the polling results, along with other data, so it may be that most of the failure was due to the flawed polls. Still, there should be a track record of successful predictions for more than one election―I would say at least three―before even provisionally relying on such models to project election results.

If we can't rely on polls or computer models to predict the electoral results, what can we do? Crystal balls? Tarot cards? Tea leaves? If you really must guess the result of a presidential election in advance, I suggest flipping a coin; you'll be right about half the time, which is just about as good as the polls or computer models. Otherwise, just wait until the election is over, though this year even that may not work.

I doubt that political polling is dead. There will no doubt be a decline in public trust of polls, which is entirely warranted, because people were putting too much trust in them. Perhaps this election will lead to fewer polls in future elections, which would be a welcome result. I haven't even tried to count the number of presidential polls conducted this year, but it surely must be in the hundreds. Other than a lot of manufactured news stories, what did we learn from all those polls?

After the 2016 election, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) conducted a post-mortem evaluation6, and no doubt there will be a similar review of this year's results, so perhaps then we'll get an explanation of why the polls were so much worse this time.


  1. "It ain't over till it's over.", 9/23/2020
  2. Thomas H. Neale, "The Electoral College: A 2020 Presidential Election Timeline", Congressional Research Service, 10/22/2020
  3. See, for instance: Michael Graham, "Is political polling dead?", Orlando Sentinel, 11/5/2020
  4. "General Election: Trump Vs. Biden", Real Clear Politics, accessed: 11/10/2020
  5. "National Overview", FiveThirtyEight, accessed: 11/11/2020
  6. Ad Hoc Committee on 2016 Election Polling, "An Evaluation of 2016 Election Polls in the U.S.", American Association for Public Opinion Research, accessed: 11/10/2020

November 5th, 2020 (Permalink)

A Surprise Puzzle Prize at the Logicians' Club*

While they're still counting the votes for President, here's a voting puzzle to help you pass the time. It's a difficult one so it should keep you busy for a long while. By the time you finish, maybe they'll have solved the puzzle of who is the next President of the United States of America.

There are currently five members of the Logicians' Club, one of whom is the president. As you might expect, logicians love variables, so the five members are known only by the letters V, W, X, Y and Z, ranked by seniority. V is the most senior member of the club and, therefore, its president.

The club's treasury has swollen to $100 and, according to the bylaws of the club, the sum must be distributed to the current members whenever it hits that amount. The president, V, withdrew it from the club's bank account in the form of one-hundred silver dollars. The following procedure for distributing the money among the club members was specified in the bylaws.

V would decide upon and announce a distribution of the silver dollars among the five members. Then, a vote would be held on V's plan and, if it received at least half of the members' votes, the coins would be distributed according to the plan. However, if the plan did not receive at least half of the votes, then the plan would be rejected and V would lose eligibility. Should that happen, then W as the next most senior member of the club would come up with a new plan, and the above procedure would be repeated until a plan was accepted and the money distributed.

All members of the Logicians' Club are perfect logicians who are able to reason out all of the consequences of any plan. Moreover, the only thing they care about is maximizing the amount of money they personally receive; they do not care whether a distribution is fair, nor do they get emotional about it. They don't resent another member who receives a greater amount of money than they do, so long as they get the maximum amount they can in the situation. Finally, the vote would be taken immediately after the plan was announced so that there would be no time for any of the members to negotiate agreements with each other; besides, none of the members trusted any of the others to keep an agreement since their only concern was to maximize their own winnings.

How many dollars did X receive?

* For other meetings of the club, see:

November 3rd, 2020 (Permalink)

Zombie Voters

A terrifying headline:

Records show dead people caught voting in NYC, report says*

I thought Halloween and the Day of the Dead were over. The article beneath the headline has this sentence: "The New York City Board of Elections…received mail-in absentee ballots in the name of dead voters, including a Staten Islander who died eight years ago…*." In all fairness, dead is about as absentee as you can get.

* Annalise Knudson, "Records show dead people caught voting in NYC, report says", Staten Island Live, 11/3/2020. Shouldn't that be "Staten Island Dead"?

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October 31st, 2020 (Permalink)

Vampires Vs. Vampire Hunters

Three vampire hunters have caught three vampires in Transylvania and wish to take them across the border. The captives are the three brides of Count Dracula: Mina, Lucy, and Bertha.

To leave Transylvania, they must cross the Danube river. On the bank of the river the hunters have left a small rowboat, just big enough to carry two passengers. Clearly, the group of six cannot cross the river all at once, but will have to make multiple trips back and forth. However, if the human hunters are ever outnumbered by the brides of Dracula on either bank of the river for more than the time it takes to get in or out of the boat, the vampires will attack the humans and turn them into vampires. So, the party must cross the river in such a way as to never allow there to be more vampires on either bank than humans.

Unfortunately, as pointed out by Dr. Van Helsing, the head vampire hunter, it seems impossible for the party to successfully cross the river. One of the humans will have to row the boat back and forth to ferry the other members of the party across, one by one, so that there must come a time when the vampires outnumber the humans on one of the banks. Therefore, Dr. Van Helsing argued, they would need to travel for another day along the river's bank until they reach the nearest bridge. Unfortunately, Count Dracula is close on their trail and may track them down during the night. If that should happen, there would be four of the undead against the three human hunters, who would surely be turned into vampires themselves.

Luckily, hawthorn bushes grow on both banks of the river and, as every well-educated vampire hunter knows, vampires and hawthorns don't mix. The hunters will be able to throw one or two of the brides into a hawthorn thicket for temporary keeping. However, the hawthorns will not be enough to save any hunters outnumbered by vampires.

Is Dr. Van Helsing right, or is there some way that the fearless vampire hunters can get all three of their undead captives across the river without any of the humans being turned into vampires?

Recommended Reading
October 29th, 2020 (Permalink)

Fact-Checking Pseudo-History,
News Media Self-Censorship &
Where's the Harm?

In the fact-checking department:


  1. Phillip W. Magness, "Down the 1619 Project's Memory Hole", Quillette, 9/19/2020
  2. Peter Wood, "Pulitzer Board Must Revoke Nikole Hannah-Jones' Prize", National Association of Scholars, 10/6/2020
  3. "New York Times Statement About 1932 Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Walter Duranty", The New York Times, accessed: 10/6/2020
  4. Mail Bag, 8/5/2020.
  5. Alex Berezow, "Coronavirus: COVID Deaths In U.S. By Age, Race", American Council on Science and Health, 6/23/2020

October 24th, 2020 (Permalink)

The Last Debate

The 2020 presidential debate season is now officially over so we can rest easy for another four years. It seems to have ended rather abruptly because the first debate was a waste of time1 and the second was cancelled2. So, it's as if there was only one real "debate" between the presidential candidates.

The new format, in which each candidate was given two uninterrupted minutes to address each question while the other candidate's microphone was turned off3, seems to have worked reasonably well as there were fewer of the interruptions that turned the first debate into a free-for-all. Both of the candidates had chances to speak uninterruptedly for two minutes at a time, though neither was particularly articulate.

I don't have much to say about the substance of the debate, but there is an issue that I examined back during the Democratic primaries that arose in the following short passage:

President Donald Trump: You shouldn't be bringing up Wall Street. Because you're the one that takes the money from Wall Street, not me. …

Former Vice President Joe Biden: Average contribution, $43.3

This is the same amount that Biden was touting as his average contribution in last year's Democratic debates4. According to more recent sources, his current average is $445, which isn't much of a difference.

Of course, as I explained in the previous entry on this topic, this stuff about average contributions is malarkey, to use one of Biden's favorite words. In this case, it's even more malarkey than usual since the numbers given by Biden seem inconsistent. According to a brief video of Biden from the middle of this month, his campaign raised $380 million in September from 5.5 million donors for an average contribution of $446, but the mean is actually $69.

This example highlights a problem with reporting averages, namely, that it isn't clear which one is meant: mean, median, or mode. It's possible that the campaign chose the median since, as I mentioned in the entry on the vice presidential debate earlier this month7, the median tends to be lower for distributions involving money. Unlike the mean, the median cannot be calculated simply from the amount contributed and the number of contributors―instead, the underlying data is needed―so I can't tell whether $44 is the median contribution.

In any case, whether the mean or the median, the "average" is easily gamed by the campaigns in order to make it artificially low. For instance, Biden's campaign site8 has, along with more round amounts, a button to donate exactly $32. When I scroll down the page, a banner pops up at the bottom saying that the average donation this month is $38, with a button to donate that exact amount. It's possible that the campaign is encouraging individual contributions of this amount so that it can report the mode as the average, but it's more likely that this is simply a way to keep the mean or median low.

By interjecting his "average" contribution in response to Trump's claim that Biden takes money from Wall Street, Biden was suggesting either that he doesn't do so or, more likely, that the contributions from Wall Street are dwarfed by those from "Main Street". However, the more relevant figures would be the total amount of money donated by Wall Street as opposed to the total amount from other contributors.

Another significant fact is that both National Public Radio and Newsweek9 reported these numbers with no mention of the apparent inconsistency between them. All that's necessary to see that the reported "average" cannot be the mean is to divide the total amount of contributions by the number of contributors, but that appears to have been beyond the capabilities of the reporters. As a result, both of these articles are just rewritten press releases from the Biden campaign.

Update (10/24/2020): I just realized that there's another possible interpretation of the numbers given by the Biden campaign: In the short video, Biden says that there were 5-and-a-half million donors―not donations―and the average contribution was "something like" $44. Since individual donors can donate more than once, as long as their total amount donated does not exceed campaign financing limits, it may be that the mean amount donated is $69 per donor while the mean donation is only $44. Since Biden didn't say how many donations there were, we can't determine the mean donation. This is one way that the average can be gamed, that is, by individual donors breaking up their contributions into multiple small amounts. For this reason, the mean amount donated by each donor would be a more revealing statistic than the mean donation.


  1. Debate Clinic, 10/1/2020.
  2. The Vice-Presidential Debate, 10/9/2020. See the "Updates".
  3. "Debate transcript: Trump, Biden final presidential debate moderated by Kristen Welker", USA Today, 10/23/2020.
  4. And Then There Were Seven, 12/21/2019.
  5. Amita Kelly, "Biden Announces Record $383 Million September Haul", National Public Radio, 10/14/2020.
  6. In the video, Biden says: "You know, the average contribution out there for all that money this month was something like $44 or something―it was under $50." So, he doesn't seem to be too sure of the average.
  7. The Vice-Presidential Debate, 10/9/2020.
  8. Biden/Harris, accessed: 10/24/2020.
  9. James Walker, "Joe Biden's Campaign Raised Over Twice as Much as Hillary Clinton Did at This Stage in 2016", Newsweek, 10/15/2020.

October 20th, 2020 (Permalink)

Fact-checking Vs. Nit-picking

A diversion can occur when a person makes a petty objection. You make a slight mistake and your opponent pounces upon you for that mistake, even though the mistake is a minor one and does not alter by one jot the point you have been making. … Your credibility may be weakened. People may assume that, because you were wrong on this one point, you are wrong in other areas. Such pettiness is sometimes called nit-picking.1

In the introduction to this new occasional series on fact-checking I mentioned that one difference between amateur and professional fact-checking is that the pros must spend a lot of time and energy checking trivia, whereas we amateurs are only interested in the important facts2. But how can you tell whether a supposed fact merits checking?

Nit-picking in argumentation is a red herring that can distract the audience or opponent from the point of the argument, as well as lowering an arguer's credibility. As amateur factcheckers, we should avoid nit-picking for two reasons: it's unfair to those who we are checking, and it's a waste of our time.

Unfortunately, there is no way in advance to classify a factual claim as important or trivial; instead, context determines which it is. For example, most of the time the exact spelling of a person's name would be a matter of little concern, except of course to that person, especially if the mistake were a matter of one letter. However, in the case of reporting a crime, the difference between John Smith and Jon Smith could lead to accusing an innocent man of that crime, so the letter "h" is of vital importance.

A factual claim is important if it plays an important role in the context of the argument in which it occurs, but it is trivial when it plays either no role, or a minor one, in that context. So, when considering whether to check a factual claim, ask yourself: Would the truth or falsity of this claim make a difference to the argument in which it occurs? If not, then it probably is not worth checking.

For example, in the course of writing a previous entry on errors in Michael Wolff's most recent book3, I came across a couple of trivial errors in articles pointing out Wolff's errors, which was ironic as some of the alleged errors in both of Wolff's books appeared to be insignificant ones. I declined to discuss those errors in that entry as they were too much of a digression, though I did mention one of them in a footnote4. That those who engage in picking others' nits end up making small mistakes themselves suggests that they need to take the old advice: "Medice, cura te ipsum!5"

In an article on the fact-checking of Wolff's first book, Fire and Fury, we read:

Wolff misstated the year in which John A. Boehner left his post as House speaker, for example. He mixed up lobbyist Mike Berman and Washington Post reporter Mark Berman. … Wolff wrote that communications strategist Hope Hicks was 26 when she joined Trump's campaign (correct) but also wrote that she was 26 during his transition to the White House (incorrect).6

No doubt it's annoying to Mike Berman and Mark Berman that Wolff mixed them up, but does it matter to most other readers of the book? What difference does Hope Hicks' exact age during the transition make to anyone other than perhaps Hicks herself? Nothing seems to ride on any of these errors.

In his second book, Siege, the following error is cited:

When asked about his mistake in claiming that former Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand was nominated by former President Barack Obama, when she was actually nominated by President Donald Trump, Wolff said: "Even if I was wrong, I'm not going to admit it to you." Although the error was small, the author continued to defend the contents of his book with a no-apology approach against further allegations of inaccuracies and problematic claims.7

The author of the article here admits that the error is a small one, and if it weren't for the more serious errors cited, this would look like nit-picking.

There are at least two attitudes one might adopt towards minor errors in published works:

  1. Errors are inevitable and, as long as they are minor ones, not too important. What's important is the big picture, not all the little details. For instance:
    Perhaps Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, spoke for the masses when he looked at the list of "Fire and Fury" mistakes…and said, "Gosh, those Wolff errors seem kind of flea-size, no?" "It's worth pointing out [that] errors creep into almost all nonfiction books, especially on politics and history," he said. "Some of our most meticulous and scrupulous authors will get things wrong."6

    Wolff himself has fallen back on this defense:

    "The object of this book, as with the last book…is about trying to re-create life in Trump world," [Wolff] explained. "It's trying to give readers a sense of what this experience is, of what goes on here, of the tenure8, of the language, of the emotional life of Trump world."7
  2. An alternative view is that small mistakes, especially those that would be easy to correct, show a lack of care about the facts. This view is expressed by a former professional fact-checker:
    "To me, as a former fact-checker, that's alarming when I see tiny things," [he] said. "Easy fixes, easy catches―if those get missed and if those are wrong, then it does not inspire a ton of confidence in the big details."6

I think there is truth in both of these viewpoints: a few trivial errors are probably inevitable, but the big picture is composed of a lot of little details, and if enough of those details are wrong then the big picture will be wrong, too. While a few errors are to be expected, a lot of mistakes shows a lack of due diligence on the part of the author, publisher, and their fact-checkers if any. The more small errors I find, the less I trust that there are no big ones.

For this reason, I recommend that the amateur fact-checker concentrate on important claims as opposed to trivia. However, if you happen to notice an unusually large number of trivial mistakes, such as some of the examples in this entry, that's a warning sign of an unreliable source.


  1. Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies (2002), p. 58; emphasis in the original.
  2. Why You Need to be Able to Check Facts, 9/8/2020.
  3. See: Wolff's Howlers, 6/12/2019.
  4. See footnote 2 of the entry in the first note above.
  5. Translation: "Physician, heal thyself!", Latin. See: Medice, Cura Te Ipsum, 6/1/2019.
  6. Callum Borchers, "How did Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury' get past a fact-checker? It's not clear that the book was vetted.", The Washington Post, 1/9/2018. This article itself contains a minor error in the following passage:
    Orlean added that book publishers don't feel the same level of fact-checking pressure that news outlets do because readers often don't know or care who prints books and, therefore, are unlikely to blame publishers for errors. "I guess the simple way of putting it is this: With magazines, the brand is more prominent than the individual writer, and they have a lot at stake in their contents," Orlean said. "A publisher is a little bit more of a weigh station; content flows through it to the public."

    I think Orlean meant "way station" rather than "weigh station". A way station is a train station in between main stations that a train might stop at for only a short time. Metaphorically, it came to mean any place one would stop for a break on a longer trip. So, a way station is not a destination but a temporary stop along the way. Given its connection to railroads, "way station" seems to have originated in the 19th century.

    In contrast, a "weigh station" is a place where road vehicles―usually trucks―must stop to be weighed. These stations are often placed at borders where a vehicle entering a state or country is checked for compliance with local weight regulations. So, a weigh station is a kind of way station, but not the other way around.

    Obviously, since they are pronounced the same, these two phrases are easily confused. However, unless you're talking about weighing something, the phrase should be spelled "way station" if you mean a temporary stop. In the above quote from Orlean, it's clear that she means that the publisher is a stop on the voyage of a book from its author to the reader. Moreover, since Orlean was presumably interviewed orally for this article, it was the newspaper that is responsible for misspelling what she said.

  7. Christina Zhao, "Michael Wolff Defends New Book From Allegations of Factual Inaccuracies in Heated Interview: 'This Critique is Bulls**t!'", Newsweek, 6/8/2019. There's a small error in a quote in this article which is probably not Wolff's fault; see the next note.
  8. "Tenure" makes no sense in this context. Instead, I wonder whether Wolff meant "tenor", which would sound much the same. Outside of the musical context, "tenor" is an old-fashioned word that can mean the condition or direction of something, and that seems to fit what Wolff was saying. Given their similarity in sound, and the fact that "tenor" in its non-musical sense is uncommon, I wouldn't be surprised if whoever transcribed Wolff's remarks mistook "tenor" for "tenure".

    Both this and the error discussed in the previous note were made in going from the spoken word to the written word, that is, transcription errors. Homophones―such as "way station" and "weigh station"―and near homophones―such as "tenor" and "tenure"―are traps waiting to trip up reporters transcribing what they are hearing.

  9. Michael Isikoff, "Confronted with multiple errors in his new Trump book, a testy Michael Wolff says, 'You have to trust me'", Yahoo! News, 6/8/2019.

Mr. Jones
October 15th, 2020 (Permalink)

Movie Review: Mr. Jones

…[I]f you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.―George Orwell1

Title: Mr. Jones

Writer: Andrea Chalupa

Director: Agnieszka Holland


Date: 2019

Review: The "Mr. Jones" in the title of this "based on a true story" movie refers to Gareth Jones, a nearly forgotten journalist of the early twentieth century. Jones' main claim to what little fame he has is that he was one of only a few journalists to tell the truth about the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s.

There are two important true stories told in this movie:

  1. The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933: Unlike most famines, it was not caused by a drought or other natural disaster, but by the policies of the government of the Soviet Union of which Ukraine was a part. Exactly how many people died will never be known, but a low-end estimate seems to be at least four million Ukrainians and another million in the Soviet Union outside of the Ukraine2.

    One reason why we will never know exactly how many died is that the Soviets rather successfully concealed the existence of a famine, let alone its full extent, from the rest of the world. Foreign reporters were forbidden to travel to the Ukraine, and the government censored all reports telegraphed to other countries3.

    As a result, there is an asymmetry in what Americans know about the crimes against humanity committed by Nazis and those committed by communists. Part of the reason for this is no doubt that the Nazis were our enemies in World War 2, whereas the Soviets were our allies. Also, the Nazis lost the war and all of their crimes were subsequently exposed; the Soviets won and successfully covered up theirs. Some people alive today lived through those years, yet many Americans don't even know that there was such a famine. I never even heard of it until I was well into adulthood and, as far as I can recall, it was never mentioned in any of my schooling.

  2. Gareth Jones Vs. Walter Duranty: Both Jones and Duranty were foreign reporters in the Soviet Union at the time of the famine, the latter being The New York Times' "man in Moscow". While superficially similar, the two did not live parallel lives, in Plutarch's sense, but perpendicular lives that only met at one important point in history.

    Jones appears to have been sympathetic with the Soviet Union on arrival there, but he nonetheless violated the ban on travelling to the Ukraine and then reported what he saw there. Duranty, in contrast, kept the communists' secrets, even though he appears not to have been a communist himself. Worse still, when Jones' report came out Duranty denied it. So, it ended up being the word of a young freelance journalist against that of a Pulitzer prize winner4 writing for the prestigious New York Times. No wonder we still know so little.

    Jones was killed before his thirtieth birthday under mysterious circumstances in Mongolia, whereas Duranty died at the ripe age of 73. I suppose it's a cliché to say that, in these times of fake news, we desperately need more reporters like Mr. Jones and fewer like Mr. Duranty, but some things are clichés because they're true.

Mr. Jones is, of course, a fictional movie, despite many of its characters being based on real people and its events on historical events. There really was a Gareth Jones, a George Orwell, a Walter Duranty, and millions of people were actually starved to death in the Ukraine in 1932-1933. So, I want to discuss some of the liberties the movie takes with history, though I don't mean to criticize it simply for doing so.

The movie makes a connection between Jones and a much better-known writer, George Orwell. The first scene shows Orwell writing his novel Animal Farm, and the first mention of "Mr. Jones" refers to the farmer in that book whose farm is taken over by the animals. The Orwell character narrates the first line of the novel which begins with the words "Mr. Jones", at which point the movie's title flashes upon the screen. This is about the strongest visual way to give the impression that Animal Farm's "Mr. Jones" is the namesake of the movie's hero. However, this makes little sense as the Jones of Orwell's book is its human villain―there are also animal villains. Presumably, Orwell gave the character that name because it is such a common one, and because he is a representative farmer―it could just as well have been "Mr. Smith"―and not because of any connection to the journalist with the same last name.

There are a few additional brief scenes of Orwell writing, dispersed throughout the movie, which I suspect will just confuse most viewers. Unless you're familiar enough with Animal Farm to recognize the book that he's writing, you won't realize until later, when there's a short scene of Jones meeting him for lunch, that he's even supposed to be Orwell. All of this seems to be intended to piggyback Jones' reputation on Orwell's greater fame, but if anything it tends to overshadow Jones.

Orwell was a journalist who told the truth even when it was inconvenient, as was Jones. Orwell is famous and a journalistic hero, whereas Jones is largely forgotten. There is, thus, a conceptual if not historical link between the two, which I suppose is the point of the movie's Orwell scenes. Regular readers will realize that I'm a great admirer of Orwell, but even accepting that he and Jones met, the connection between the two seems strained and distracting.

I don't mean to criticize the movie for suggesting a meeting between the two that probably never happened. After all, it is a fictionalized movie, and it's at least possible that the two may have met for lunch. Rather, the connection the movie makes is confusing to anyone familiar with Orwell, and distracting to those who aren't.

While ostensibly in color, the movie uses such a washed-out palette that it might almost be in black and white. It makes sense that the scenes in the Ukraine, with snow and leafless trees, are nearly colorless, and it fits with the bleak mood of a famine. However, there's little visual contrast with the earlier and later scenes in England and Moscow, which should have been more colorful.

Gareth Jones, as portrayed in this movie at any rate, is almost as colorless a character as most of the movie itself. The movie does a poor job of dramatizing or even explaining his actions, giving the viewer little sense of why he does anything or even what he's doing much of the time. On a first viewing, I had trouble following the plot, despite the fact that I knew a little about the history going in. On a second viewing, it became clearer, but how many viewers will bother to watch it a second time?

As a result, much of the first half of the movie is dull and confusing, with its colorless main character and dreary photography. Perhaps it's inevitable that the colorful bad guy is a more interesting character than the bland good guy, but the movie only comes alive in the first half when Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty is on the screen. While the real Duranty may have figuratively sold his soul to the devil, the movie's Duranty plays the role of the devil tempting Mr. Jones to sell his soul.

Jones is able to resist all such temptations because he doesn't drink or smoke, and his love life seems to consist of an apparently sexless friendship with Duranty's secretary, Ada Brooks. Vanessa Kirby, who plays Brooks, is particularly affecting when Duranty later tempts her to betray Jones.

While its first half is slow and hard to follow, the second half, when Jones finally makes it to the Ukraine, is harrowing. If you're looking for something scary to watch for Halloween, you might try this movie, but keep in mind that it's not about ghosties and ghoulies or even long-leggedy beasties. This is a real horror movie about real horrors, not supernatural ones but the natural horrors of starvation and what it does to the human body and mind. It's not scary-fun, but scary-sad.

Recommendation: I can't recommend Mr. Jones as entertainment, but it's an occasionally powerful tragedy with excellent performances, especially Sarsgaard and Kirby. Given its unpleasant and depressing subject, I don't blame you if you don't want to watch it. It's rated R, and shouldn't be shown to young children, who would probably be bored and wouldn't understand most of it anyway. Not recommended for highly sensitive people. In addition to scenes of famine and the consequences of starvation, there is a wild party at Duranty's apartment with naked people―including Duranty!―and heroin use. Save the popcorn and Jujubes for another night.

As an alternative or supplement to the movie―and corrective to some of its fictionalization―I recommend the two articles by Anne Applebaum linked in the following endnotes. Applebaum also won a Pulitzer prize5, but don't hold that against her.


  1. 1984, Part 3, Chapter 4.
  2. Anne Applebaum, "Holodomor", Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2020.
  3. Anne Applebaum, "How Stalin Hid Ukraine's Famine From the World", The Atlantic, 10/13/2017.
  4. Mark von Hagen, "The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won", History News Network, 7/24/2003.
  5. For Gulag: A History, see: "2004 Pulitzer Prizes", The Pulitzer Prizes, accessed: 10/14/2020.

October 9th, 2020 (Permalink)

The Vice-Presidential Debate

A debate was held between the vice-presidential candidates, incumbent Mike Pence and challenger Senator Kamala Harris, on Wednesday night. This was a better debate than the previous presidential debacle, though it could scarcely have been otherwise. There were some interruptions and exceeding of time limits, but not so many that the moderator, Susan Page, lost all control of the proceedings. However, the candidates simply ignored many of Page's questions, which means that the moderator's role is still a dubious one. If the candidates are not going to address the issues and answer the questions raised by the moderator, why not do away with the position and adopt a modified Lincoln-Douglas format?

As I mentioned in a previous entry1, this was an unusually important debate because the Vice Presidential candidates this year are more important than they usually are. Given the age and health issues of both presidential candidates, it's more than usually likely that whoever is elected this year will either die in office or become incapacitated, and if that happens then one of these two people will become president. Page actually made this issue the second one that she raised, after the inevitable coronavirus questions, but unfortunately both candidates ignored it and talked about other matters.

Let's turn from process to substance. Here's a heavily edited excerpt from the exchange on taxes:

Page: Senator Harris, the Biden-Harris campaign has proposed new programs to boost the economy and you would pay for that new spending by raising $4 trillion in taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Some economists warn that could curb entrepreneurial ventures that fuel growth and create jobs. Would raising taxes put the recovery at risk? And you have two minutes to answer, uninterrupted.

Harris: …Donald Trump…passed a tax bill benefitting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit that the American people are gonna have to pay for. On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He'll get rid of it. …

Pence: President Trump cut taxes across the board. Despite what Senator Harris says, the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings in taxes. … But America, you just heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one Joe Biden's gonna raise your taxes. It's really remarkable to think, Susan―

Harris: That's not what I said.

Pence: … Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to raise taxes. …

Page: Thank you, Vice President Pence. Senator Harris?

Harris: Well, I mean, I thought we saw enough of it in last week's debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth. And the truth of the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear. He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year―

Pence: He said he's gonna repeal the Trump tax cuts.

Harris: Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking. I'm speaking.

Pence: …[I]t'd be important if you said the truth. Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he's going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year―

Harris: That is absolutely not true―

Pence: Senator, that's the math―

Harris: ―[T]hat tax bill―

Pence: Is he only gonna repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?

Harris: … Joe Biden will not raise taxes on anyone who makes less than $400,000 a year. He has been very clear about that. …

Pence: … But look, Senator Harris, you're entitled to your own opinion but you're not entitled to your own facts.2

There are two issues here of logical interest:

  1. Did Harris contradict herself? In her first statement in this quoted passage, Harris says:
    Donald Trump…passed a tax bill benefitting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit that the American people are gonna have to pay for. On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He'll get rid of it.

    Presumably, the bill that she's referring to benefitted the wealthy and big corporations, as well as contributing to the large deficit, by cutting taxes on them. Later, Pence says: "But America, you just heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one Joe Biden's gonna raise your taxes," at which point, Harris interrupts and says: "That's not what I said."

    Is she denying what she just said? Or, is she making a hair-splitting distinction between "raising taxes" and "repealing tax cuts"3? Obviously, there is a procedural difference between a bill that raises a tax rate and one that repeals a tax cut, but the effect is the same: higher taxes. What difference would it make to taxpayers when their taxes go up that it was the result of the repeal of a tax cut rather than a tax raise? Unfortunately, neither Page nor Pence followed up on this by asking Harris exactly what she was denying she said.

  2. What is an "average American family" or "average working family"? Pence claimed that Trump's "tax cuts…gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year" and "the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings in taxes". There are three logical points to make about this claim:
    1. Mathematically, there's no such thing as an "average American family of four" or an "average working family", since "average" can only be applied to things that are quantifiable. There are American families of average income and working families of average size, but not just plain "average". Presumably, what Pence meant was that the average tax cut was $2,0004.
    2. "Average" is ambiguous between the mean and the median. The mean is calculated by adding up the total amount of tax money cut and dividing by the total number of taxpayers; the median is the middle tax cut when the individual cuts are arranged in ascending order. Which sense of "average" did Pence mean? We don't know because he didn't say and nobody asked.
    3. For a normal distribution, that is, a symmetrical bell curve―the mean and median are so close to each other that it doesn't matter which you use. However, if the distribution is asymmetrical―that is, skewed―the mean and median can be far apart. Distributions involving money, such as income, wealth, and tax cuts, tend to skew towards the higher amounts. This is because no one can have less than zero income or wealth, but there is no upper limit on them. As a result, the mean tends to be greater than the median when dealing with financial matters.

      So, which measure of central tendency a politician chooses to use will depend on whether he or she wants a larger number or a smaller one. Presumably, Pence was interested in making the tax cut for typical American working families appear as large as possible, so that he would use the mean, rather than median. However, the median is usually the better measure of central tendency for a skewed distribution5.

This was a confusing exchange between the candidates, and I doubt that any viewers came away better informed about their positions on taxes. The moderator might have been able to clarify matters by questioning the candidates but the format, with its rigid division of the time into a series of distinct issues, together with the tendency of the debaters to ignore questions, made it impossible to cross-examine them. In the end, what the casual viewer is left with is just a he said-she said series of accusations and counter-accusations and it's not even clear what they're claiming, let alone what the truth is.

Update (10/10/2020): In other debate news, the second presidential debate, originally scheduled for the 15th, apparently has been officially cancelled by the CPD6. After the president tested positive for coronavirus, the commission tried to make a last-minute change to a virtual debate, but the president refused to participate7.

The CPD, despite its name, is a private organization set up by the two main political parties8, and has no legal power to compel candidates to participate in debates. The primary reason that candidates do so is the opportunity to be heard by a large audience, and public pressure.

Trump's diagnosis was a weak reason for the change to a virtual format. The candidates, moderator, and any other participants in the debates can be protected from transmission of the virus without being in different locations. The CPD has known of this problem for months now, and has no excuse for being unable to protect the participants.

There was also a minor scandal involving the scheduled moderator of that debate, Steve Scully, who appeared to have "tweeted" a questionable "tweet"9. Now, he claims that his Nitwitter account was hacked, which seems to be the current version of "the dog ate my homework". Moreover, Scully appears to have a history of claiming that his account was hacked, having complained of it twice previously10. Quick, someone show Steve how to come up with a secure password! I don't know how much all of this nonsense entered into the decision to cancel the debate, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was the last straw.

Apparently, the final debate, scheduled for the 22nd, is still on and will not be virtual.

Update (10/16/2020): Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Steve Scully has now admitted that he lied about his Nitwitter account being hacked11. His employer C-SPAN has suspended him. This seems to be one of those Watergate-type cases where the attempted cover-up was worse than the original crime. If only Scully had just been honest and apologized about the "tweet", this whole thing would probably have blown over in a day. It's too bad as, based on my viewing of C-SPAN over the years, their hosts are excellent at maintaining a poker-faced neutrality. I'm not sure how that would translate into moderating a debate, but now we'll probably never find out.


  1. The Debate About the Debates, 8/31/2020.
  2. Susan Page, "Read the full transcript of vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris", USA Today, 10/8/2020. Ellipses mark parts that I edited out and dashes indicate interruptions.
  3. This is not a new distinction, see: Fact Check it Out, 5/30/2007. Damer, in his textbook, has an entry for the fallacy of "Distinction Without a Difference". If Harris was actually trying to claim a distinction between raising taxes and repealing a tax cut, then she would have committed this fallacy. See: T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (3rd Edition, 1994), pp. 74-76. My thanks to Phillip Veldhuis and his students for recently calling this fallacy to my attention in a different context. I might not have noticed this example if they hadn't sensitized me to it.
  4. See: Who's an "Average" American?, 2/17/2007.
  5. For more on the distinction between the mean and the median, see: "Average" Ambiguity, 11/4/2002. For an extended example of the difference a mean or median can make, see: The $604 Question, 4/17/2013.
  6. "Statement by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD): October 15 Presidential Debate Will Not Proceed", Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/9/2020.
  7. Andrew Solender, "October 15 Presidential Debate Canceled After Trump Refuses To Go Virtual", Forbes, 10/9/2020.
  8. "The Commission on Presidential Debates: An Overview", Commission on Presidential Debates, accessed: 10/8/2020.
  9. Yaron Steinbuch, "Steve Scullyís question for Anthony Scaramucci raises eyebrows ahead of debate", New York Post, 10/9/2020.
  10. Joseph A. Wulfsohn, "Steve Scully has history of blaming 'hackers' for posts made on his Twitter account", Fox News, 10/9/2020.
  11. Elahe Izadi, "C-SPAN suspends Steve Scully after he says he lied about his Twitter account being hacked", The Washington Post, 10/15/2020.

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