Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Through the looking glass

It is with some reluctance that I write this post as I have generally been avoiding news reports concerning the massacare in Aurora, Colorado. As is often the case with tragedies that get a great deal of traction in the media, people come out of the woodwork exploiting that tragedy as a way to garner support for their particular political cause. There has obviously been a great deal of discussion about gun control (though apparently no one's opinion is changing), but I want to focus on a slightly different angle, promoted most recently by Jon Rappoport.

In an article published today on NaturalNews, and reprinted from his blog Rappoport suggests that the accused Aurora, Colorado shooter, James Holmes, was either (a) the patsy for some large conspiracy designed to change public opinion on gun control or (b) driven crazy by psychiatric drugs or (c) driven crazy by psychiatric drugs so that he could be used as the patsy or perpetrator of a mass killing designed to change people's opinions on gun control. The article itself is poorly written and reads more like a rant than any kind of thoughtful analysis, but I will do my best to unpack some of the fallacies lurking in it.

The first and most obvious is the post hoc fallacy. Rappoport doesn't quite come out and say that Holmes was driven violently insane by pharmaceuticals (though he does make that claim in his blog), but that does appear to be the major point of the article.  After making a number of unsubstantiated claims about the pressure being exerted by pharmaceutical manufacturers on law enforcement and the judicial system to suppress the medical records of Holmes in order to prevent tarnishing the reputation of the drugs Holmes was taking thereby causing people to refuse to take them thus hurting the profits of Big Pharma, Rappoport then launches into a lengthy (but more substantiated, at least there are references though almost all of them are over 20 years old) discussion of the potential psychotic side effects of Prozac. The clear inference here is supposed to be that Holmes took Prozac (even though there is no evidence that this was a drug he was taking, we will probably know more when his medical records are released during the court proceedings), this made him psychotic, and this psychosis led him to commit the crimes for which he is accused. This is a clear example of a post hoc fallacy in that the author is assuming a causal relation when all we have evidence for is a correlation (a correlation Rappoport invented for the sake of his article). Assuming that Holmes was taking some sort of psychiatric medicine, it seems far more likely that his underlying mental condition caused him to commit his crimes, rather than the medication he was taking to treat that crime. As a quick note, I have no evidence concerning Holmes' psychiatric condition or medication he may have been taking, I am merely trying to unpack and evaluate the argument Rappoport makes. For all I know, Holmes may have been perfectly sane and was not prescribed nor taking any medication.

Moving on, Rappoport then commits a rather large Hasty Generalization when he suggests that because there is some evidence of people becoming psychotic when they take certain classes of anti-depressants that therefore everybody who takes them will become psychotic. Again, there is no direct quote which shows a clear example, but the article as a whole is clearly trying to make the case that this generalization is true.

Lastly, Rappoport's article is filled with what can best be described as Bullshit. Bullshit occurs when one has no concern for the truth and just makes up whatever facts or stories will support one's position. For example:
So right now, in Aurora, there are pharmaceutical people on the scene. Not just low-level goofballs, but competent investigators. They want to know what drugs James Holmes was prescribed. They need to know. And behind the scenes, people with clout are making phone calls. These pharma types are talking to government agents and it's crazy time and damage-control time, and nobody is laughing. This is a high-stakes game. WHAT DRUGS WAS HOLMES TAKING?
Rappoport provides no evidence whatsoever that any of the things he describes in this paragraph are actually taking place. Similiarly, he writes:
[If] they could get to Holmes in his cell, they'd erase him. They'd make it look like a suicide. Today. What do you think "lone shooter" is all about? Yes, the covert op that very well may have used Holmes as the patsy, to push the government into banning guns, is a major piece here. But that work is done. Now it's "lone shooter" because getting rid of Holmes by killing him or warehousing him for the rest of his life in a mental prison, with brain-hammer drugs making him into a vegetable, means that the names of the psychiatric drugs he was taking before the massacre will be lost to history, and no one will take the criminal investigation any further.
Again this appears to have no basis in reality, and no evidence beyond Rappoport's wild speculations. This is, quite simply, bullshit.

Monday, July 30, 2012

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

In Rob Reiner's masterpiece, The Princess Bride, the character of Vizzini keeps using the word 'inconceivable' to describe things that have already happened. In the clip above, Inigo Montoya calls him out on it, suggesting that Vizzini isn't quite as smart as he thinks he is. This raises an important point about definitions and about being careful in one's choice of words, seeking to pick the best word for the situation, something Vizzini clearly fails at.

An important fallacy that revolves around the misuse of words and their definitions is Equivocation. This is a fallacy arising from the misuse of words that have more than one meaning or denotation (the dictionary meaning of a word; the objects to which the word refers). This fallacy generally arises when a word is used with one meaning in one part of the argument and then a different meaning in another part of the argument.

I found several nice examples of this fallacy in an article published on Answers in Genesis, a creationist, anti-evolution website. In an article published today, Bodie Hodge takes issue with an editorial in the NewScientist discussing secular approaches to morality (oddly enough, Answers in Genesis does not link to the article in question though they do provide a reference for it). There are many fallacies in this short article, but I want to focus on the Equivocations. The first example can be found when Hodges writes:
Next they say, “Altruism for example can benefit your genes and disgust can protect you from disease.” What do they mean by “benefit”? Did you catch that? They are appealing to some overarching “good” in the universe by which to judge something as a “benefit.” Secularists are borrowing from the biblical worldview when they propose that something such as a “benefit” or “good” exists. By so doing, they undercut the very argument they are trying to propose.
The equivocation here is with the word "benefit." In the context of the NewScientist article, the word is clearly meant to be understood in an evolutionary context in the sense that altruism can confer a survival advantage on entities that possess that trait. That is, entities that are altruistic are more likely to survive and reproduce and pass this trait onto their offspring. This is really a non-moral use of the word 'benefit', but Hodges misinterprets this word as making a moral claim with respect to some transcendent moral standard. Interestingly enough, the author of the editorial explicitly avoids moral terms like "good" in favor of a non-moral term like "benefit" yet Hodges still equivocates.

We can see a similar Equivocation in the next paragraph when Hodges argues:
Furthermore, who are these people to say that “disgust” is a good thing or that being disease-free is a good thing? Such ideas are a reflection of Leviticus and the cleanliness laws from the Bible, which teaches to resist effects of a sin-cursed and broken world. But how can an evolutionist say that preventing disease is a good thing? Perhaps catching a disease and dying is what is needed for the next step of evolution.
I must first note that the NewScientist editorial never says that disgust or being disease-free are good things. All the author is saying is that disgust can be a useful attitude because it can help organisms avoid substances which can be potential vectors for disease. From the standpoint of the organism in question this is useful as avoiding disease increases the chance of survival and reproduction, but again, these are clearly non-moral concepts. Hodges, however, equivocates and tries to give this word a moral sense.

Hodges continues his deliberate equivocations in the next paragraph:
Next, they comment that “this picture is progress, but it can also lead to a kind of fatalism, a belief that our moral values evolved for a good reason and so we should stick with them.” So, now they are appealing to an overarching concept of “good” by which to judge these things? For people who claim that they no longer believe in morality being “handed down from on high,” they have twice appealed to something higher that determines what is good and bad and governs everything. This is self-refuting!
In this case, the author of the editorial does actually use the word "good" but it is again being used in a non-moral sense. The "good reason" referred to is clearly intended to be interpreted in evolutionary terms, but Hodges again equivocates and assumes that it is being used to refer to some transcendent moral standard, leading him to accuse the NewScientist of begging the question or being inconsistent.

In summary, the editorial in the NewScientist uses a number of terms that are clearly intended to be non-moral concepts that should be understood in evolutionary terms, but Hodges deliberately misinterprets them to be referring to moral concepts. This is a clear case of Equivocation in that the word is being used with one meaning by the NewScientist but then is being given a completely different meaning by Hodges in order to draw a conclusion critical of the NewScientist. Hodges keeps using that word. But, in this context I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Friday, July 27, 2012

More on why the media sucks.

I wrote recently about how eduction is being used to distort the political message of Barack Obama. In the Washington Post on Thursday, Aaron Blake also writes about this example of eduction and discusses a new one being used in political ads by the Romney campaign. While I certainly applaud Blake for informing his readership about these deceptive tactics, I must say that his general conclusion about this is fairly disturbing, and explains much about what is wrong with the Media in the US:
But the fact is that these two comments further clarify a picture (or caricature, depending on where you stand) of Obama that’s already out there. And plenty of — nay, almost all — people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.
Essentially, Blake is arguing that these uses of eduction will be successful because they are used to merely reinforce already existing political opinions. That is, if one thinks that Obama is hostile to business, the eduction I discussed won't raise many eyebrows because it will simply reinforce one's already existing opinion of Barack Obama. This is certainly true (and the comments to Blake's piece certainly reinforce exactly that conclusion), but Blake seems to miss the fact that this mistaken impression of Obama is partly the fault of people in the Media who do nothing to correct these fallacies or provide the context that would show how deceptive these uses of eduction are.

There are certainly many people in the US who will hate Obama no matter what he says or does (because he is black or because he is a Democrat or for some other reason), and there are many people in America who will love Obama no matter what he says or does (because he is black or because he is a Democrat or for some other reason). Political ads and news stories will obviously have no effect on these people, but there is also a range of people who look to the Media to help them sort out these issues. When people in the Media abdicate this responsibility and fail to call out lies and fallacies when they occur, they instead amplify and propagate them and make matters worse. It is very disturbing to read an article in which a member of the media basically "gives up" and essentially admits that his work is pointless.

h/t to Atrios

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thomas Friedman is very inconsistent

As many have already noted, Thomas Friedman's latest column in the New York Times is idiotic. Friedman has a long history of making idiotic comments, but for the purpose of this blog I want to highlight a specific example of Inconsistency he commits. He begins by addressing the current situation in Syria and comparing it to Iraq:
And, for me, the lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.
The conclusion then is that the problems of Syria can only be resolved via some sort of large scale military intervention. A military intervention that, in Friedman's opinion, is the only way to prevent Syria from reverting to a Hobbesian state of nature. This is all fine and good, but a few paragraphs later in the same editorial he writes:
Because of both U.S. incompetence and the nature of Iraq, this U.S. intervention triggered a civil war in which all the parties in Iraq — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — tested the new balance of power, inflicting enormous casualties on each other and leading, tragically, to ethnic cleansing that rearranged the country into more homogeneous blocks of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
So, rather than the "well-armed external midwife" of the US preventing civil war, Friedman now argues that the US was one of the causal factors for that civil war. This is a serious inconsistency. Either the US can prevent civil war through military action or it can't.One can't argue that it can do both at the same time. Then, in the very next sentence he writes:
But the U.S. presence in Iraq contained that civil war and ethnic cleansing from spreading to neighboring states.
So, to follow Friedman's argument, the US is necessary to prevent civil war, but the US caused civil war, but it prevented the civil war it caused from spilling into neighboring countries. Given this kind of reasoning, one might legitimately ask why it was necessary for the US to go and start a civil war in the first place. Given these kind of radically contradictory and inconsistent claims, all made in the same editorial sometimes one immediately after the other, I have to seriously question whether or not Friedman actually reads the stuff he writes. And I must further ask why his editors let him get away with this nonsense.

h/t to Glenn Greenwald

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Once you see it, you can't unsee it.

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomena in which vague or random stimuli perceived as significant or meaningful. The classic example is when one sees shapes or images in the clouds. Some fantastic examples, both astronomical and mundane can be found here. Pareidolia is generally visual, but there are also interesting examples of audio pareidolia. The example I want to visit today comes from the official logo for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games being held in London. Here are the four official versions of the logo plus the official logo for the Paralympics (far left):
Official logos for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games being held in London
Ignoring for now the ugliness of the logo, it does present some excellent examples of pareidolia. First, Iran has claimed that the logo is racist, incorporating the word Zion, a biblical term for Israel. If one looks carefully at the logo one can see this. The shape in the upper left is a Z, just below it is the I, the upper right shape can be seen as an O, and the bottom left shape is a sort of sideways N.

A far more disturbing example of pareidolia in this logo can be found by following the links here. WARNING! Once you go down this rabbit hole, you can never come back and you will always see the logo in the way described there. I saw it, and now I can't unsee it. You have been warned.

As critical thinkers, it is important to be sensitive to the possibility of pareidolia because often charlatans and quacks will make a big deal out of some supposed image they have seen (the face on Mars is an excellent example of this), when really it is just their own perspective or psychological issue being brought to bear on the image. Just because we see something doesn't mean it is really there.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bain or Bane Part Deux: Plausible Deniability

In an earlier post, I noted how Rush Limbaugh was using a Loaded Question to imply a conspiracy between the Obama Administration and Hollywood to link Mitt Romney and his private equity firm Bain Capital with the villain of the new Batman film, Bane. Rush Limbaugh has since walked back this claim saying:
I never said that the villain was created by the comic book character creator to be part of the 2012 campaign. I never said that at all. Everybody's out there running around saying I got this giant conspiracy theory that the Batman people, the creators, the comic book creators, created this thing to campaign against Romney. I never said that. I didn't say there was a conspiracy. I said the Democrats were going to use it, which they are. Jon Stewart's harping on it.
Aside from a bit of straw manning, Limbaugh is technically correct. He never directly asserted that there was a conspiracy, he merely implied it via the questions he was asking. And this brings up an important point about the effectiveness of loaded questions. One can ask as many loaded questions as one wants, but as soon as one is challenged on the assumptions underlying those questions, one can merely respond by saying that he never assumed anything, he was merely asking questions. This is why loaded questions are such an effective rhetorical strategy, they give the questioner plausible deniability if he or she is ever challenged on the assertions underlying those questions.

As is often the case, South Park provides a perfect encapsulation of this point:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fox News Eduction

Fox and Friends, a morning news show on Fox News, has recently provided an excellent example of Eduction. As a quick reminder, eduction is quoting something out of context, generally to change or obscure its original meaning. Lets begin by taking a look at what Fox and Friends showed:

So, the folks at Fox & Friends are claiming that Obama said that small business owners did not create their businesses, and that someone else was responsible. In general, whenever one sees that blurring or dissolving between two clips, one should be very suspicious. Now let's take a look at what Obama actually said:

When we see the full context of Obama's remarks, it is clear that he is not claiming that small business were not the result of hard work by entrepreneurs, he is merely saying that government, through the building of roads and infrastructure, creates an environment in which entrepreneurs can then invest their energy in creating new businesses. He is not saying that small business owners don't build their business, he is saying that they don't build the roads and bridges that small business (and all businesses) depend on. So, by selectively quoting him out of context, Fox & Friends created the impression that Obama said exactly the opposite of what he was saying.

What is particularly disturbing about this is that other networks have picked up this distortion and repeated it. As MediaMatters has noted, Erick Erickson repeated this same falsehood on Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN, going so far as to argue:
For [Obama] to say somehow that if you've built something, you didn't really build it, other people do -- no one denies that other people contributed to your success in life, but, I mean -- this is just grade school Marxism that he's uttering.
In fact, all Obama was arguing was just the point that Erickson said no one denies! I certainly expect these kinds of distortions from Fox News, but it is really disturbing to see CNN repeat the same nonsense without even bothering to check and see if the criticism is accurate. The take away from all this is the obvious point that Mainstream Media in the US is worthless.

h/t to Atrios

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bain or Bane

Dark Knight Rises Advertisement featuring the villain Bane

When I first started writing this blog, I knew eventually I would be talking about Rush Limbaugh. I don't listen to his show, but he is such an influential political personality that it he is impossible to avoid. I am fine with this as I know Limbaugh is a great source for fallacies and rhetorical errors. 

Well, the time has finally come as Rush Limbaugh has been discussing the latest manufactroversy (manufactured or made-up controversy) concerning the similarities between the name of the villain in the latest Batman film, Bane, and Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney's former private equity firm Bain Capital:
Have you heard this new movie, the Batman movie, what is it, The Dark Knight Lights Up or whatever the name is. That's right, Dark Knight Rises, Lights Up, same thing. Do you know the name of the villain in this movie? Bane. The villain in The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, B-a-n-e. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran and around which there's now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time. The release date's been known, summer 2012 for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing four-eyed whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bain?
Let's unpack the fallacies. First, there is a very nice Loaded Question in the last sentence, with Limbaugh at least hinting at the possibility of some conspiracy or collusion between the Obama campaign and the makers of the film. As many have noted the possibility of any kind of collusion here is nonsensical. The character of Bane was created in 1993, and the film began principle photography over a year ago working from a script that had been in development from at least 2008. The idea that there was some grand conspiracy or collusion among the Obama campaign and Hollywood simply boggles the mind. At best, it seems we have a coincidence: the film happens to be coming out at the same time that the Obama campaign is going after Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital.

And this brings me to the next fallacy we can identify here, the False Analogy. To be fair to Limbaugh, he isn't really making a false analogy himself, merely discussing a false analogy made by other commentators, primarily the Democratic strategist Christopher Lehane, who appears to be the first to link Bane with Bain. That this connection is a false analogy should be obvious.

h/t to the Sean O'Neil

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why aromatherapists are not (and shouldn't be) doctors.

In a guest editorial in the MansfieldNewsJournal, George Cox, an aromatherapist, attacks the status of current health legislation in the US. In particular, he objects to those provisions of US law that prohibit unaccredited individuals (people who aren't MD's) from making unverified health claims (making claims about products when there is insufficient evidence of efficacy). In laying out his argument Cox commits several fallacies: a version of the Ad Hominem and several Hasty Generalizations.

I will begin by looking at the ad hominem. In his article Cox uses a particular version of the ad hominem known as poisoning the well. This is when one introduces negative claims about a person or group as a way to discredit anything that this individual or group might claim in the future. In a sense it is a sort of preemptive ad hominem. We can see this at work when Cox writes:
Traditional doctors and the AMA are not infallible, despite what TV shows have shown us over the years. All you have to do is think of a couple of instances to prove that. Remember, butter is the worst thing you can eat, eat only margarine. Then a few years later, margarine is bad for you, eat only butter. Huh?
Eggs were the worst thing you could eat for a while, or so they told us. Your cholesterol would go sky high and you would die. After a bunch of poor chicken farmers lost everything, they came back and said eggs aren't so bad after all.
Basically, Cox is arguing that because the medical community has made mistakes in the past, we can't trust anything they say in the future. This is a classic rhetorical technique of turning an opponent's greatest strength against hm and treating it as a problem.  One of the greatest benefits of medical science (and science generally) is that it is evidence based. When a doctor makes a medical recommendation, that recommendation is generally based on the best evidence available at the time. However, because the recommendation is evidence based, when new evidence comes in this sometimes forces a revision in the current understanding, leading to new recommendations. If science thinks something is going to work and then it doesn't, the scientist doesn't stick his head in the sand, he bites the bullet and revises his opinion. This is exactly what we would hope for from any medical practitioner: a recommendation based on the best evidence currently available. This is in sharp contrast to many alternative medical modalities in which the recommendation stays the same regardless of evidence. To try to suggest that this responsiveness to evidence is a defect rather than an advantage is simply poisoning the well.

Cox then goes on to commit a hasty generalization when he writes:
To the people who say that aromatherapy -- my business -- is just a bunch of hooey, I would point out that dentists still use clove bud essential oil for dry socket and root canal pain. They have access to all of the narcotics that MDs do, but they still use clove bud oil because it works. It stops the pain.
So if it stops the pain in a tooth, wouldn't it, shouldn't it be helpful for arthritis pain? Both are technically bone pain.
First, it is worth noting that Cox has greatly over-simplified the dental uses of clove oil. Orac has a great deal more to say on this topic, but suffice to say that the picture is significantly more complex than Cox makes it out to be.  Furthermore, dentists use clove oil because there is strong evidence that it serves the purposes for which the dentist uses it. Despite what many alternative medicine practitioners claim, doctor are not opposed to natural or nature derived-remedies so long as there is adequate evidence of efficacy. Regarding the hasty generalization, Cox's argument seems to run like this:
  1. Clove bud oil treats dry socket and root canal pain.
  2. Dry socket and root canal pain are forms of tooth pain.
  3. Teeth are bones.
  4. Therefore, clove bud oil can treat bone pain.
  5. Arthritis is a form of bone pain.
  6. Therefore, clove bud oil can treat arthritis.
Again, ignoring the factual errors discussed by Orac in the above link, this is clearly a hasty generalization. Assuming that clove oil does work as an analgesic, it is being applied directly to the bone (or in the case of a root canal, directly to the nerve). This is very different from a topical application to the skin. To assume that because it works in one very specific situation involving teeth that it will apply to all situations involving bone is a clear hasty generalization.

Cox, however, does not stop there and goes one further, writing:
I need to watch my language and say things like, "it's been shown to" or "historically, it has been used to." Even though there are small clinical studies that prove it and we have tons of anecdotal evidence, it doesn't matter.
In effect, Cox is arguing that because there are small, preliminary clinical studies and anecdotal evidence, he should be able to make the same claims of efficacy for his products that doctors are only allowed to make for products for which there have been large-scale, double-blind, placebo controlled studies. This is a very common hasty generalization that alternative medicine practitioners make when they assume that anecdotes have value. The simple truth is that, for a variety of reasons that I can't go into here, anecdotes are worthless. To draw any conclusion about efficacy for a product based on anecdotes is as clear cut an example of a hasty generalization as one can possibly find.

h/t to Orac

Monday, July 16, 2012

David Brooks and the Least Helpful Advice Ever

One of the best sources of fallacies is political op-eds, and no one is better at generating fallacy ridden nonsense than David Brooks of the New York Times. As a case in point, see this recent editorial on growing income inequality in America.

To be fair, much of Brook's analysis in the beginning of the column concerning widening income inequality in the US and its impact on children is fairly spot-on. It is just a fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and this is a trend that began in the 80's and has basically continued unabated to the present. Furthermore, growing income inequality is clearly damaging to lower income children. But what is the source of this problem? According to Brooks, the source of this growing inequality is:
A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children. 
That is, income inequality is a product of single-parent families and the loss of decent working class jobs.  Now we can debate the accuracy of this diagnosis, but that is not what I want to focus on here. In general I prefer to stay away from questions of fact, and instead focus on argumentative errors.

The problem with Brook's editorial arises in his recommendation of how to deal with this problem:
Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.
According to Brooks, income inequality is caused in part by a loss of decent working-class jobs, but his solution makes no mention of providing more decent working-class jobs (say by raising the minimum wage, or requiring employers to hire a certain percentage of full-time employees instead of allowing them to hire all part-timers.). Instead, he argues that income inequality can be solved by more people getting married and by spending more money on programs that benefit the working poor. This is a good example of Inconsistency. Inconsistency is a fallacy that arises when there is a mismatch between the premises and the conclusion or when one premise contradicts another. In the case of Brooks' analysis, we see a conflict between his diagnosis of the problem and his solution to it. That is, even if we were to pursue the solution Brooks recommends, this still wouldn't solve what he earlier argued is one of the major sources of the problem in the first place!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tinkerbell Science and the Higgs boson.

Sometimes an argument is so bad that it can be difficult to identify a specific fallacy. One reads the argument and knows it is nonsense, but it can be difficult to articulate exactly why. This is where the Non Sequitur and Missing the Point Fallacy come in handy. These are both essentially catch-all labels for fallacies in which the conclusion clearly doesn't follow from the premises, but where one can't be more specific (in some sense all fallacies are non sequiturs, but specificity is always to be preferred to vagueness whenever possible). As a case in point, see this article, again from Mike Adams on the Higgs boson.

To summarize, Adams essentially suggest that the Higgs boson was discovered because a bunch of scientists wished hard enough. That is, because they concentrated so hard on wanting the Higgs boson to be discovered, those conscious intentions brought it into being. Lest one think I am straw manning Adams, read the article for yourself, but here is one particularly representative quote:
CERN may not have discovered a new particle, it turns out, but may have inadvertently proven the power of mind-matter interaction.
Adams uses a great deal of weasel words like "may" but the general point should be pretty clear, the Higgs boson exists because scientists wished hard enough (Why I am calling this Tinkerbell science should be clear, if not this should explain it).

So, this is the claim, what is the argument? Adam's writes:
In other words, was the Higgs discovery actually the greatest intention experiment ever conducted? This is not a casual question. It reaches into the very nature of science itself and begs the question: Can human-run science ever truly be conducted independent from an observer? The answer, of course, is no. The subsequent question then becomes critical: Do observers alter the outcomes of scientific experiments even without any intention of doing so?
There are a great number of fallacies packed into this passage. First, the final sentence and the other rhetorical questions are clearly examples of Loaded Questions since they all assume the conclusion Adams is trying to make.  In addition, this is a good example of a Non Sequitur because the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, and in effect reflects a significant misunderstanding of the scientific process (Missing the Point of science). The argument seems to be:
  1. Science is done by human beings. 
  2. Human beings are incapable of being completely objective. 
  3. Therefore everything they do is radically subjective. 
  4. Therefore there is no objective reality.
Now there is a kernel of truth in what Adams writes. Science is conducted by scientists, scientists are human, and thus subject to all the errors and biases normal human beings commit. However, to then go on and argue that there is no objective reality and because of this wishing really hard brings something into existence simply goes too far. There just isn't enough evidence to draw such a radical conclusion from what we are presented. In addition, things like the scientific method and peer review exist exactly to avoid the subjectivity of scientific conclusions. We certainly can't trust what CERN says just because they say it, and this is why all their research is made publicly available so that other scientists (many of whom do not care whether or not CERN is correct and who may in fact strongly wish that it is incorrect) can evaluate the evidence and conclusions. It is not a perfect method, but it is really the best method we have, and is far preferable to the Tinkerbell science Adams seems to be supporting.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's that time of the month: Hasty Generalizations and Post Hoc reasoning.

A recent press release from Concordia University in Montreal has announced the publication of a paper by lead author Gad Saad linking shopping habits among women to their menstrual cycle. In particular, the study seemed to indicate that women were more likely to buy clothing and beauty related products and spend more time on appearance related activities (manicures, tanning salons, sun-bathing etc.) during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, and more likely to consume high-caloric foods during the infertile phase of the menstrual cycle. Of particular interest for me is the linking of these behaviors to evolution, with Saad essentially arguing that women are biologically determined to engage in these sorts of behaviors.
"In ancestral times,” he explains, “women had to focus more time on mating-related activities during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle, when the likelihood of conception was highest. Those same psychological and physiological mechanisms now lead women to engage in greater consumption of products relevant to reproductive drives during the fertile phase of their cycle."
Now I don't want to get into too much detail about the science behind this article since I want to focus on the press-release, but I do want to highlight one element of the research conducted:
Working with his doctoral student and co-author Eric Stenstrom, Saad recruited hundreds of participants by canvassing classes at Concordia university. Through a careful selection process, 59 female participants were chosen. Over a period of 35 days, the women kept detailed diaries that chronicled beautification behaviours, clothing choices, calorie consumption, and purchases.
So what we have here is a very limited sample size. The study is only looking at 59 women over a period of 35 days. All these women are college students, and given that Concordia is a public university they are all likely Canadian citizens. In addition, Montreal is about 75% Caucasian, so it is likely that a majority of the participants in this study are college-age white women (Let me be clear that I am just making estimates based on the press release and some quick Google searches). Given this small, limited sample size, it is clear that the conclusions drawn about the research by the author of the press release is a good example of a Hasty Generalization. A Hasty Generalization occurs when one draws a general or universal conclusion from a small or limited set of data, and this is exactly what we see here in drawing a conclusion about the evolutionary origins of female behavior from a sample size of 59. There are roughly 7 billion people on earth and about half of them are women. That amounts to about 3.5 billion women in the world, so a sample size of 59 would equal about .00000000842% of the population (please check my math and leave a comment if I got ti wrong!). This is really too small a percentage to draw a general conclusion about the evolutionary origins of this behavior.

Beyond this, the authors also appear to be guilty of a Post Hoc fallacy. Here I am less confident about whether or not a fallacy has been committed. Having not read the original paper, perhaps the authors of the study do correct for this, but given the limited information in the press release, I think we can reasonably question whether or not there is a causal link between the behaviors identified and the menstrual cycle. First, the study had a very short duration, just 35 days. The average menstrual cycle is about 28 days, but there is enormous variation among women, and even the same woman can have significant differences between the lengths of her menstrual cycles. Given this, a 35 day study is far too short to draw a causal inference between the cycle and the behavior. Furthermore, given that all of these women were in essentially the same environment (college students at a public university) it seems that there could be numerous other factors causing or contributing to the behavior of the women. Given a study performed under these constraints, the authors have at best identified a correlation, but one can't assume this correlation to be equivalent to causation. This is a Post
Hoc fallacy.

Finally, even if the authors have discovered a causal connection between menstruation and consumption behaviors, it doesn't seem that one can assume that the latter causes the former. For example, it might well be the case that cultural factors play a much larger role in determining behavior than genetic or biological factors. It might be that women are told by their cultures to engage in certain behaviors at certain times of their menstrual cycle. If this were true, then it wouldn't be biology causing behavior, but rather culture causing behavior during certain times of a woman's menstrual cycle. Given that all the participants in the study were members of a similar culture group (women at a large, Canadian public university), this hypothesis seems as reasonable as the conclusion drawn by the authors. I am not claiming that this hypothesis is correct, but merely noting that it is another possible explanation that appears to be neglected, and when one assumes a particular causal relation beyond the available evidence, one is is committing a Post Hoc or False Cause fallacy.

For more on the relation between genetics, culture and behavior generally, I recommend this podcast.

h/t to Pharyngula

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Discovery Institute Straw Mans Peter Singer

One of the major challenges in identifying and recognizing many fallacies is that they often depend on a degree of ignorance in the reader. That is, the fallacy works because the reader is ignorant of the truth. This is often the case in false dilemmas where one may not be aware of other options, and it is particularly problematic in the case of Straw Men. A Straw Man is a deliberate misrepresentation of an opponent's view, and this misrepresentation can be difficult to recognize unless one is familiar with the view being distorted. A good example of this comes from a recent article by Wesley J. Smith posted on the Discovery Institute website. This article is critical of a recent award given to the philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer by the Australian government. In developing this criticism of the award Smith attacks the views of Peter Singer, enumerating the many flaws he sees with the ethical positions Singer adopts. One such criticism is the following:
• Singer supports using the disabled in medical experiments: In 2006, Singer enraged animal rights activists over the use of monkeys in researching cures for Parkinson’s disease. But he would have said the same thing about using human “non-persons.” In fact, he often has. For example, when asked by Psychology Today about the benefits that chimps provided in developing the hepatitis vaccine, Singer said that disabled humans should be used in such research instead.
Now I happen to be fairly familiar with Singer's work having first encountered it when I was a TA in graduate school (h/t to Lara Denis), so I immediately recognized this as a Straw Man of Singer's actual position. Fortunately, Smith provides a source for his claim, so we can look at what Singer actually said:
PT: Let's take a specific case. Research on chimpanzees led to the hepatitis B vaccine, which has saved many human lives. Let's pretend it's the moment before that research is to begin. Would you stop it?
PS: I'm not comfortable with any invasive research on chimps. I would ask, Is there no other way? And I think there are other ways. I would say, What about getting the consent of relatives of people in vegetative states?
PT: That would cause a riot!
PS: Well, if you could really confidently determine that this person will never recover consciousness, it's a lot better to use them than a chimp. I agree, it doesn't go over well, and people throw up their hands in shock and horror. But I'd like them to explain why it's better to lock a fully-conscious, self-aware chimp in a seven-foot cage in solitary confinement than to experiment with someone lying unconscious in a hospital ward.
Now Singer's views are certainly provocative, but in this passage he doesn't actually advocate the use of disabled humans for scientific research. Firstly, his claim is limited to people in a persistent vegetative state, not disabled people generally, such as someone with MS or who uses a wheelchair. Secondly, he only suggests that these individuals be used under certain very limited conditions (no chance of recovery, full consent of the family). Lastly, he is not actually advocating this position, but merely posing it as a challenge to those who advocate the use of animal research. If we think research on a chimpanzee is moral, then why do we not also think it is more moral to use humans in a persistent vegetative state? It is certainly a provocative and challenging argument, but it is an argument, and the proper way to respond is to evaluate the premises and the inferences to the conclusion. The tactic of Smith, by contrast, is to simply Straw Man the position so that it looks completely ridiculous.

The take away from all this is that when one is reading or listening to comments critical of someone else's viewpoint it is always a good idea to take a look at the position being criticized to ensure that the reconstruction and criticism of it is accurate.

Monday, July 9, 2012

More nonsense about the Higgs Boson

Continuing my discussion of Mike Adams' lengthy post on the implications of the discovery of the Higgs boson, today I want to talk about Loaded Questions (sometimes called Complex Questions). A Loaded Question is a question that is asked in a way that presupposes the truth of some proposition buried in the question. The classic example is, "When did you stop beating your wife?" There is no way to answer this question without implicitly acknowledging that one has a history of spousal abuse. In effect, the only suitable response to this (assuming that one is not, in fact, a spousal abuser) is to reject or reformulate the original question.

Adams provides a very nice example of a loaded question in the last section of his article when he writes:
Then there is the question of the Architect of this reality. Even if humankind manages to decode the fundamental laws which govern the physical universe, there's not only the question of "Who or what created the universe in the first place" but the even more difficult question, "Who or what created the laws of physics that govern the universe?"
The loaded question occurs in the assumption that someone or something was responsible for the creation of the universe or for the creation of the laws of physics that govern it. Now it is certainly a possibility that someone or something created the universe, but there are other legitimate possibilities as well, possibilities that are dismissed by the very formulation of the question. Perhaps the universe came into existence ex nihilo (from nothing), or perhaps the universe has always existed and always will exist such that it was never created. Adams dismisses these other possibilities writing, "This is a strange argument of "effect without a cause," and it simply doesn't add up," but he never spells out why it doesn't add up or what is problematic about these claims. This is, perhaps, a version of the argument from ignorance, "I can't understand it so it must be false." However, by formulating his question in the way he does, Adams is definitely guilty of presenting a loaded question because the question assumes the correctness of his preferred answer at the expense of other possible cosmological accounts. We can't really answer Adams question without implicitly endorsing the reality of some divine creator (or 'Architect' in Adam's preferred terminology).

I would like to conclude this post by quickly discussing Adam's argument for the existence of some transcendent creator or architect of the universe:
The reason there is something rather than nothing is because someone (or something) had to put it there, and that means there is an intelligence -- a consciousness -- that exists above and beyond our known universe. Something with the power to create our known universe, in other words.
This is a version of the cosmological argument for God's existence, one of the three major arguments for the existence of God, the classic version of which was first formulated by Aristotle in his Physics. This argument was decisively refuted by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The basic thrust of Hume's response is that one is guilty of employing a loaded question when one makes this sort of argument. That is, as I noted above, to ask who or what created the universe is to assume that there had to be such a creator, when in fact it is equally reasonable to believe that there isn't one. Hume is a much better writer and philosopher than I am, so take a look at the links above for more details and analysis.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Nonsense about the Higgs boson

In the wake of the recent announcement concerning the discovery of what appears to be the elusive Higgs boson, some have taken this as an opportunity to speculate wildly about the nature of the cosmos. A great deal of this is due to the unfortunate labeling of the Higgs boson as the "God Particle." One author who has taken this approach is Mike Adams, the self-labeled Health Ranger who has written a long post on this topic at his website. Adams is very taken with what he describes as "Consciousness Cosmology," and sees this as a correction of a major defect in the scientific community. In discussing this defect he creates a number of straw men, and it is these I want to focus on. For starters:
Yet, as I hinted above, there's still something missing from all this: Consciousness. Without consciousness, the universe cannot be fully explained, as consciousness is increasingly emerging as a fundamental force impacting the very fabric of reality. This is really, really frustrating for many scientists because, for starters, the majority of them don't even believe in the existence of consciousness. Stephen Hawking is famous for his rather short-sighted remarks that people are mindless, soulless beings -- "biological robots" -- and that religion / spirituality is a realm for "people who are afraid of the dark." [Emphasis added]
Setting aside the merits of Hawking's view of human nature, it seems clear that he nowhere describes humans as "mindless." In fact, Hawking is one of our greatest illustrations of the power of the human mind; demonstrating that mere physical limitations are no barrier to studying and contemplating the cosmos. Though I am not familiar with Hawking's view, I take it that he is merely claiming that all the properties of the mind and consciousness can be reduced to neurophysiological properties of the brain, a philosophical view sometimes referred to as reductive materialism. Again, this is not the same as claiming that consciousness doesn't exist.

Furthermore, it seems clearly false to say that the majority of scientists don't believe in consciousness. In fact, to say that one doesn't believe in consciousness is itself a self-refuting statement. To borrow a little Descartes, if one has beliefs, then by definition one is conscious. Thus, it is clearly a straw man to say that a majority of scientists don't believe in consciousness. All scientists believe in consciousness, it is just that the particle physicists don't see any use in referencing consciousness to do particle physics.

Continuing, Adams again misrepresents the state of modern physics when he writes:

Gaining a deep understanding of this may be exceedingly difficult for human beings to achieve. It may, in fact, be beyond the capabilities of biological beings with limited neurological capacity. Nevertheless, I believe that the more modern science understands about the Higgs boson, quantum theory, particle physics and cosmology, the closer science will be to initiating a scientific study of consciousness.
The Straw Man here is in the claim that scientists are not actively engaged in studying consciousness. If this were true, then it is unclear what neurologists and psychologists are doing. They may not be studying consciousness in the way Adam's thinks they should, but to claim that they are not studying it is a gross misrepresentation.

One final (in the sense of what I will discuss here) misrepresentation/straw man occurs when Adam's writes:

Where there is life, there appears to be consciousness, and if there's one thing most physicists and cosmologists agree on, it's that life is ridiculously abundant across the cosmos.
First, life and consciousness are not equivalent concepts. Bacteria and archaea, for example, are certainly alive, but it seems quite a stretch to suggest that they have consciousness. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that life exists anywhere but here on earth. We haven't even discovered life on other planets or moons in our solar system, let alone in other star systems. We have certainly made some promising discoveries that increase the liklehood of extra-solar life, but we certainly haven't discovered any to date.

So, these are just the straw men in an article ridiculed with logical fallacies. I will continue discussing some of the other fallacies in this article in later posts.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Journalists shouldn't be nosy? Then what are they for?

In a recent editorial for CNN LZ Granderson has argued that US citizens should be less nosy about what their government is doing:
Times have changed. Yet, not everything is our business. And in the political arena, there are things that should be and need to be kept quiet.
I know that's hard to digest in a society where pregnancies and marriages of D-list celebrities make the cover of People magazine, but there comes a point where the public's right to know needs to take a back seat to matters like national security and diplomacy.

Putting aside the clear false analogy between celebrity gossip and governmental policies, Granderson never makes a clear argument for why this kind of willful ignorance is valuable and important. The general tone of his editorial suggests that he would rather be spared the messy details of some of the uglier aspects of US foreign and domestic policy because then he would feel bad about his country, but I am merely speculating here. Personally, I am quite amazed that someone who calls himself a journalist would argue that investigative journalism is a bad idea, but I guess if Granderson doesn't think his job is worthwhile, he should probably quit. I must also disagree with the idea that things need to be kept quite in the political realm. As we have seen time and time again, when people don't pay attention to politicians and politics awful, horrible, disgusting things happen. Lastly, the claim that what goes on in the political arena is none of my business is unbelievably wrong-headed. I pay for it through my taxes, the people who do it are my representatives, and if they screw up I personally may be the one to suffer. How could this not be my business?

As moronic as this editorial is, perhaps the most moronic part is a non sequitur Granderson commits towards the end of the piece. A non sequitur is a fallacy in which the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Granderson commits his non sequitur when he writes:
Much in the same way, Project Wide Receiver and Project Road Runner -- the earlier versions of Fast and Furious under President Bush -- were executed with the hope that they will do more good than harm. Hardly anyone in the public knows the finer points of these programs.
Were they legal?
Hell no.
Were they effective?
Who knows?
Were they done as a way to keep America safe?
The non sequitur lies in the claim that these programs kept America safe. However, if we have no idea of the effectiveness of these programs we can't conclude anything about them. For all we know, the may have made America less safe, or perhaps had no impact on the safety of America whatsoever. Without knowledge of their effectiveness, we can't draw any conclusion whatsoever. Yet, for some unstated reason, Granderson thinks they made America safe. 

And this brings me back to the inanity and absurdity of Granderson's editorial. He seems to have absolutely no understanding of the purpose of journalism in a democracy. Though this is somewhat surprising, it is actually a fairly common view among main stream journalists in the US. Democracy requires a free and aggressive press in order to inform voters about politicians and their policies so that voters can make informed decisions when they go to the polls. To instead argue that we should all just stick our heads in the sand is deeply disturbing, and really calls into question the integrity and legitimacy of these "journalists" and the media outlets they work for.

h/t to Glenn Greenwald

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

An Introduction

Though I have made a number of posts defining and discussing various fallacies, I haven't actually provided anything like a mission statement or goal for the blog. I think it is about time. This blog grew out of my increasing interest in the topic of Critical Thinking; an interest that has increased over the years as I have been asked by various schools to teach more and more logic and critical thinking classes. Ethics used to be the class I taught the most, but nowadays it is critical thinking by a wide margin, and I think this is a good thing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that critical thinking is the most important class we teach in philosophy because this is the class that gives students the tools and resources to succeed in other classes and in life. We live in a world that is awash in information and, unfortunately, misinformation. Critical thinking is the best tool we have to distinguish these two, but, as with any tool, it is one that people need to learn how to use and practice using in order to become proficient at wielding it.

I started this blog because I was having trouble keeping track of all the examples of fallacies and errors in reasoning that I was coming across in my daily surfing of the web. Many of these were examples that I wanted to use in my classes, but when it would come time to teach I would lose track of them or forget where I saw them. In addition, when presenting examples in class, I would just show the example and move on, but my students didn't really have a good way to review and study them. I used to keep a list of links, but that amounted to a long list of urls that didn't have very good information about where those links led. Also, these links would often become outdated. It was really the last time I taught this class, when I realized that the bulk of my fallacy examples were campaign ads from 2008 that I realized something must be done. Finally, it dawned on me that a blog was the perfect solution to my problem. In addition to keeping track of all my old examples, I can easily update it when I come across new examples. The blog would always be available to students with access to the web who can study and review it at their leisure. This seemed to capture exactly what I was looking for.

Having decided to start a blog, the name seemed pretty obvious as it was Aristotle who was the first philosopher to attempt to articulate standards of reasonable discourse. Since I see myself as engaged in the same project he was, I see no problem borrowing the name that has been given to Aristotle's logical and critical thinking works: Organon.

With that being said, let me try and articulate something like a mission statement:
  1. This blog will provide up-to-date and well-researched examples of fallacies and other errors in reasoning drawn from current events and pop culture.
  2. This blog will be freely available to anyone who wishes to learn about critical thinking.
  3. This blog will be ad-free. I make enough money and I don't feel the need to exploit my students to increase my income.
  4. The comments of this blog will serve as an open forum for discussion of the issues raised in the posts. I welcome and encourage all comments, but demand a respectful tone and a commitment to increasing knowledge from all participants.
This website is, and will always be, a work in progress, so please leave me any suggestions or recommendations in the comments below. You can also always email me.