Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Great Red Herring

Here is an excellent example of a Red Herring from the folks at Family Guy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?

A Loaded Question occurs when someone asks a question that contains a number of unspoken assumptions. The tricky part is that it is very difficult to respond to that question without tacitly accepting the assumptions that are buried in that question. The most famous example is, "When did you stop beating your wife?" One cannot really respond to this question without accidentally admitting that one has a history of spousal abuse. Examples like this can be quite amusing, but we should never forget that people have often exploited these fallacies for their own gain.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is an electoral tactic known as Push Polling. The way it works is that in a contested election, one side will employ people to call up likely voters in the guise of conducting an electoral poll. These "pollsters" will then ask a series of Loaded Question in the guise of collecting polling data. These questions will often imply that the candidate being asked about is guilty of some scandal with the hope that the people who are being asked these questions will assume that the scandal must be real, otherwise why would the "pollster" be asking about it?

Push Polls were a favorite electoral dirty trick of George W. Bush, and he employed them several times both when running for Governor of Texas as well as when he ran for President. The most famous and well-documented instance of this was during the 2000 Republican Primary in South Carolina. This primary came early in the season, and up to this point John McCain had been making all the headlines and winning the few primaries and caucuses that had been held up to that point. Recognizing that his campaign was in trouble, George W. Bush (or more accurately his campaign advisors) decided to use a push polling technique, and began calling likely voters in South Carolina under the guise of conducting a poll. These voters were asked a number of questions including, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"

This is a great example of a Loaded Question. The question clearly implies that McCain has fathered an illegitimate black child, but it doesn't actually accuse him of doing that. It merely suggests it. This suggestion is further bolstered by images such as the one at the top of this post, which show the McCain family with, apparently, a black member. The individual is, in fact, McCain's adopted daughter Bridget, and the story of her adoption is actually quite touching, and reflects well on McCain and his family.

However, at the time, these smears, taking the form of loaded questions delivered by push poll were strong enough to derail the McCain campaign (which says something about the values of the primary voters in South Carolina), and he went on to lose the primary to George W. Bush who was subsequently elected president. 

I do not relate this story to criticize Bush or to praise McCain, but instead to show why it is so important to study and think about these fallacies. We study these fallacies because they are out there everywhere, and these fallacies are out there everywhere because they work. If we don't work hard to recognize them and call them out when we see them, we allow them to work and we allow others to be deceived. And this isn't good for anybody.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Apparently Young Black Men Want to be Thugs (or maybe Police)

Eduction is when one takes a quotation out of its original context. The video that follows is an excellent, though disturbing example of this. This video is particularly helpful in that it shows the eduction, and then shows the original footage that was edited to make the subject appear to say something very different from what he actually said:

In case it wasn't obvious, the news station edited the comments of that young boy to make it appear as if he was intending to pursue a life of crime. In effect, the news station wanted to present this African-American male as a "thug-in-training." However, if we look at the raw video footage of the interview, we can see that this young boy wants to be the exact opposite of a "thug-in-training." Instead, he wants to join the police! So, through selective editing, this station made a young man appear to say exactly the opposite of what he did. The question of why a station would do this is an exercise left up to the reader.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Appeal to Emotion to End All Appeals to Emotion

The Appeal to Pity is a type of appeal to emotion in which one attempts to play on someone's sympathy or empathy to get that person to support a conclusion. The idea is that you make your audience feel pity for some subject, and then you can get them to support the policies that you claim will help that subject. When I teach this topic in my classes, some student invariably raises his or her own hand to offer the following commercial as an example of an Appeal to Pity. Without further ado, here it is

Now I am a sucker for dogs, so I am clearly the target of this video. It is almost impossible for me to avoid tearing up when I see dogs suffering (particularly that poor dog whose back legs don't seem to work). Thus, even though I can recognize this video for the fallacious argument that it is, it is still remarkably effective. And this is the major reason these fallacies continue to exist and proliferate. They work, even on people who know that they are being manipulated. I really need to donate to the local SPCA.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Does Nicholas Cage cause people to drown in their swimming pools?

A great new website, Spurious Correlations, has just appeared on my radar, and it fantastically illustrates the Post Hoc fallacy. The website takes data sets, and then hunts through the web to find data sets that correlate with the initial data and then presnts it in the form of a chart. The headline for the post comes from this chart:

As this chart nicely shows, there is a correlation between Nicholas Cage films and drowning deaths in swimming pools. There is clearly no causal relation that I can think of here (though Cage has certainly appeared in some dire films recently), but there is a clear and obvious correlation. This entire website does a great job of illustrating the mantra that "correlation does not equal causation." I encourage everyone to take a look at the site because many of the correlations are interesting and quite humorous.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Jingoism in the US Media

The last of the five filters that make up Chomsky and Herman's Propaganda Model of the Media is Anti-Communism, referring to the the uncritical support given to the US and a condemnation of major US adversaries Communist Russia and China. That the final filter was described this way is no surprise given that Chomsky and Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent during the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalism in China, labeling the last filter "Anti-Communism" isn't really appropriate. Chomsky and Herman now suggest that the fifth filter manifests as fear of an enemy, today this is most obviously the War on Terror, but I would suggest that Jingoism is a better label. Jingoism is a kind of unthinking hyper-patriotism in which one believes that everything one's own country and its allies do is moral and justified while any action committed by one's enemies (even if it is the exact same action as one performed by one's own country) is presumptively evil and immoral. 

We can see some excellent examples of Jingoism in the way the US Media and many government officials have responded to the Russian aggression towards Ukraine. The most obvious example, discussed by many commentators, are comments US Secretary of State John Kerry made on Face the Nation. In a conversation with host Bob Schieffer he remarked, "You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext." As almost everybody immediately noted, this is a remarkable statement coming from Sec. Kerry who, as a Senator, voted in favor of the US Invasion of Iraq and, according to Glenn Greenwald, argued in favor of the invasion because, "“Saddam Hussein [is] sitting in Baghdad with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction” and there is “little doubt that Saddam Hussein wants to retain his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.” We now know these claims to have been a "completely trumped up pretext."

Now it is one thing for the US Government to make such patently hypocritical claims, but what about the Media? As Greenwald notes, Schieffer allowed Kerry to make these comments without challenge:
The supremely sycophantic Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer – as he demanded to know how Russia would be punished – never once bothered Kerry (or his other Iraq-war-advocating guests, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) by asking about any of that unpleasantness (is it hard at all for you to sermonize against invasions of sovereign countries given, you know, how often you yourself support them?)
In addition, Greenwald provides examples of other US journalists who make similar claims to those of Sec. Kerry:
The vast bulk of the commentary issuing from American commentators about the Russian military action in Ukraine involves condemning exactly that which they routinely advocate and which the U.S. itself routinely does. So suffocating is the resulting stench that those who played leading roles in selling the public the attack on Iraq and who are still unrepentant about it, such as David “Axis of Evil/The Right Man” Frum, have actually become the leading media voices condemning Russia on the ground that it is wrong to invade sovereign countries; Frum thus has no trouble saying things like this with an apparently straight face: “If Russia acts the outlaw nation, can it be expected to be treated as anything but an outlaw?”
In each of these cases we can see clear example of the Jingoism of the US Media. If the US does it it is good and just; if someone else does it it is evil and wrong. As Eugene Robinson nicely put it:
Is it just me, or does the rhetoric about the crisis in Ukraine sound as if all of Washington is suffering from amnesia? We’re supposed to be shocked — shocked! — that a great military power would cook up a pretext to invade a smaller, weaker nation? I’m sorry, but has everyone forgotten the unfortunate events in Iraq a few years ago?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Christmas Present..or two..or ten.

The following video is a very nice compilation from the folks at the Conan O'Brian show that reveals some important truths about the way local media functions:

As one can see from the clip, it is clear that many local and national news anchors are all literally reading from the same script. As this excellent article from Jeremy Barr at Poynter shows, many local news stations are simply buying or using pre-packed content from other sources. This pre-packaged content from various wire-services or public relations firms is often just read word-for-word by the anchors, a process known in the business as "ripping and reading." This is another excellent example illustrating Chomsky and Herman's Propaganda Model of the Media. In this case, this nicely illustrates the third filter, which is the fact that media outlets rely on a limited range of sources in crafting their news content. The fact that so many news stations are relying on exactly the same source provides as clear an example of this as one could imagine.

h/t to the AV Club

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Journalist" Chuck Todd: Reporting Ain't My Job

In a previous post I talked about how the media is actively misinforming its viewer about the recent CBO report discussing the impacts of the Affordable Care Act on the labor market. On person I singled out as particularly guilty was  Chuck Todd who is NBC's Chief White House Correspondent and the host of MSNBC's The Daily Rundown. The following video clip provides a very revealing insight into Todd's understanding of his job, and it helps explain why people who watch him get stupider.

Edit: I seem to be having problems with the video embed. Here is a link to the original article with the video. Go watch the video and then read the rest of what I have to say.

I would ask Todd why he thinks Republicans have been able to "successfully message" lies about the ACA. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that "journalists" like Chuck Todd are failing to accurately report what the law says, and are instead just repeating Republican lies and distortions. It seems to me that, as a journalist, if you report on something someone says, you also have an obligation to fact check those claims to ensure that they are true. Simply reporting on what other people say isn't journalism. It's stenography, and I don't need Chuck Todd to tell me what Republicans are saying. I can just go to their webpages or C-Span to get that information for myself. The true function of journalism is to serve as a check on the power of governments. If people like Chuck Todd just report in a he-said/she-said manner without providing the proper context and correct information, they really aren't doing their jobs. More evidence that watching the Mainstream Media makes you stupider.

h/t to Tom Kludt of TPM

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Media Makes you Stupider

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has just released a report in which they predict what effect current laws and tax policies will have on the US economy over the next ten years. For those who don't know, the CBO was created by Congress in 1974 to provide objective, nonpartisan analyses of the economic effects of laws and taxes in order to help Congress determine the actual economic impacts of that legislation. As part of its report, the CBO has made some predictions about how the Affordable Care Act (ACA, informally known as Obamacare) will effect the labor market in the US. One of their main conclusions is the following:
CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor—given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.
What this means is that because of the healthcare guarantees provided by the ACA, many people who are working solely to obtain health benefits will stop working because they can now get healthcare on one of the state-run exchanges. This will have the effect of freeing up these jobs for other workers who are looking for employment. As a result, according to the CBO, the ACA will result in the equivalent of about 2-2.5 million workers leaving the labor market. As an illustration, here is ZGare commenting on an article about this in the Washington Post:
At 64, I am about to retire, but my wife who is 55 with a pre-existing condition (diverticulitus 15 years ago) would have had to keep working for health insurance to protect against catastrophic illness wiping out our life savings. But with ACA, she can retire in a couple of years instead of 10 years and travel with me.
So, because of the ACA, ZGare's wife will retire earlier than she would have without the ACA. The job she was performing will still exist, but because she isn't doing it, there will now be a vacancy for a new employee (assuming the employer doesn't decide to reduce its workforce through attrition for some other reason).

So, now that we are clear about what the CBO actually said in its report (and if you don't believe me, just go read it). Let's take a look at how many people in the Media reported on this report. A recurring theme will be that if you get your information from these media outlets you will actually be misinformed about what the CBO actually said. In effect, after watching these programs you will have less understanding about the world, and you will, in fact, be a little stupider.

First up is Fox News. Here is a headline followed by the first paragraph from their website:
ObamaCare could lead to loss of nearly 2.3 million US jobs, report says
The long-term effect of ObamaCare on the U.S. economy was rewritten Tuesday with the Congressional Budget Office issuing a revised projection that nearly 2.5 million workers could opt out of full-time jobs over the next 10 years -- allowing employers to wipe 2.3 million full-time jobs off the books.
Again, the report does not say that the jobs will be lost, but that the equivalent of 2.3 million people might choose to retire, work less, or quit their current job to start up a new business. These kind of lies and deception are par for the course at Fox News, but they weren't the only one's guilty of misrepresenting the report. Here's a tweet from Luke Russert of NBC:
And here is a tweet from Chuck Todd, also of NBC:
In both these cases, we have individuals who claim to be journalists actively misrepresenting the content of the CBO report to their followers. This is a clear example of those in the Mainstream Media who call themselves journalists actually misinforming their audience about a subject of great importance. And this is very strong evidence that getting information from the Mainstream Media actually makes you stupider.

h/t to Dylan Scott of TPM

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

GMO Fallacies

If you honestly follow the debate surrounding Genetically Modified foods you will find that it is extremely difficult to find accurate, unbiased information on the subject. For every reputable article discussing the dangers of GM foods and the destruction they will wreak on the planet you will find an equally reputable article explaining how safe these foods are and the promises they hold for the future of humanity. As I am not a scientist, I won't take stand here on this issue (I have my views), but as a philosopher, I do feel quite qualified to look at some fallacious reasoning surrounding this issue.

The following quotation comes from an article written by Anna Lappe responding to a lengthy series of articles published over 6 months by Nathanael Johnson at Grist. For what it is worth, I think Lappe's response slightly misses the mark and doesn't really engage substantively with Johnson's claims, but that is neither here nor there. Instead, I want to focus on the following paragraph:
Consider Monsanto and Dow’s chemical 2,4-D used in an herbicide concoction called Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which caused untold cancers, birth defects, and other serious illnesses among Vietnamese and veterans. (And the companies are now pushing the chemical again through corn and soybean seeds engineered to be resistant to, and therefore used with, 2,4-D.)
This paragraph is presented as evidence that Monsanto and Dow "are chemical companies with long histories of failures to protect human and ecosystem health—with tragic consequences." This is an example of the Genetic Fallacy in which one argues that an idea or concept (in this case GMO foods) is bad because the source of that idea or concept is bad or has done bad things in the past. Just because Dow and Monsanto produced chemical weapons for the US government does not mean that GMO foods are equally bad. Lots of companies are involved in a a variety of different industries. The fact that General Electric is a defense contractor does not mean that your GE coffeemaker is out to kill you.

More significantly, the above passage is also guilty of the fallacy of Division. This is a fallacy in which you erroneously derive a conclusion about the parts based on attributes of the whole. A simple example would be, "This machine is heavy. Therefore every part of this machine is heavy." The fallacious reasoning here should be obvious. Just because a machine has a certain weight does not mean that every part will have the same weight. It is easy to imagine a machine made up of a billion pieces, each of which weighs an ounce. Each piece is light, but when you add them together you get something quite heavy. In the passage above, Lappe is arguing that because Agent Orange is bad, every chemical component of Agent Orange is also bad. Now Agent Orange (WARNING: there are some gross images at the link) is certainly a nasty product, but if one reads the linked Wikipedia page, one finds that most of the concern is not with chemical 2,4-D, but with the other component of Agent Orange, chemical 2,4,5-T. Now I don't know anything about chemical 2,4-D beyond what I read at Wikipedia, but the key issue here is that one cannot legitimately argue that because a substance is bad, every component of that substance is also bad. To do so, as Lappe, does is to commit the fallacy of division. And it is because of stuff like this that it is so difficult to figure out the truth about GMO's.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Crank Up the Grumpalodean!

Bill O'Reilly says some crazy stuff, but in this video he really goes off the rails, and is resoundingly mocked by John Stewart for it. Here is the link for the segment titled "Burn Notice."

The argument in this video is so nonsensical that it is actually a bit difficult to identify which fallacies are being committed. The most obvious candidate is the Non Sequitur as it is virtually impossible to understand the connection being drawn between marijuana and text messaging. I am also inclined to identify this as a False Analogy, since some sort of comparison between them is being made as well. Don't ask me what the comparison is supposed to be because I can't figure it out, but O'Reilly seems pretty convinced that there is a problem. If I had to guess, I would hazard that this segment is targeting elderly viewers who are upset about the kids of today. By linking up a bunch of things that kids do (at least in the minds of O'Reilly's elderly conservative viewers) O'Reilly can produce a story that will resonate with these viewers and reinforce their already existing prejudices. This is speculation, but it is the only way I can make sense of this clip.