Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lisa, I want to buy your rock!

This is one of the best examples of the Post Hoc fallacy out there. For a long time, a clip of this was unavailable on the internet (I don't know why), but today I finally came across one, and here it is:

The key here is Homer's confusion about the rock. If we reconstruct his argument it goes like this:

  1. Lisa has a rock.
  2. There are no tigers.
  3. Therefore, the rock kept the tigers away.
It is the assumption that the rock caused the tigers to stay away which is the Post Hoc fallacy. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Bullshit of Donald Trump

Trump redlines the bullshit meter

One of the defining features of the 2016 presidential election is the degree to which the Republican party, under the leadership of their presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, has completely abandoned anything that could be characterized as "reality" or the "truth." I have discussed before how American political discourse generally has moved into a "post-truth" era in which things like facts and reality  are held in low esteem and in opposition to whatever makes someone feel good, or which reinforce existing prejudices. This phenomenon has clearly reached its apotheosis in Donald Trump, a man who has a very problematic relationship with reality and the truth. In fact, the man spreads so many lies and so much nonsense, that it is virtually impossible to keep anything resembling a comprehensive list. He generates lies and bullshit at such a rate that it is difficult even for professional fact-checkers to keep up.

Fortunately, to help us make sense of the Trump campaign and Trump's problematic relationship to the truth, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has recently penned a useful article for Time magazine. For those not in the know, Frankfurt is most famous for a short essay he wrote in the late 80's which was repackaged as a separate volume in 2005. This essay, On Bullshit, seeks to provide a theoretical definition of bullshit as well as explain how bullshit differs from lying. In his recent article for Time, Frankfurt extends that analysis to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It is reasonably short, and rather than summarize it here, I encourage folks just to read it for themselves.

Monday, May 9, 2016


John Oliver gives a fantastic takedown of some of the terrible science reporting one finds in the media, and also gives a good analysis of some of the causes.

Friday, March 25, 2016

This is an interesting optical illusion, with a really nice explanation of how it works.

You can find examples of this in the real world, particularly with some of those spinning signs like the one pictured below:

When you see these signs spinning, you can often make it appear to yourself as if the sign is spinning in both directions, much like the spinning dancer illusion above.

h/t to SGU

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Small know what that means.

The primary race for the 2016 Republican nomination is one of the most bizarre and surreal events American politics has ever seen. The event has gotten so ridiculous that Republicans have started to debate who has the biggest penis. The idea that penis size has any bearing on who should be president is mind-bogglingly stupid, but here we are. Here is a video of Marco Rubio insinuating that Trump has a small penis:

This is an excellent example of an Ad hominem, which is a fallacy in which one substitutes a personal attack for reasoned argument.

Interestingly enough, this claim that Trump has small hands has been around for decades. In fact, it appears that this claim can be traced back to Spy Magazine, a satirical weekly that started publication in the late 1980's.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

They separate us from the animals...except for the weasels.

Weasel words are words inserted into a claim that make it weaker than it initially appears. The graphic below gives a number of examples of a favorite weasel words of advertisers: the phrase
"up to." "Up to" is a brilliant weasel word because it can make it sound like there is an incredible sale and one could get a great deal. The first image promises "Mega Reductions" and prominently features "70% off" making it sound like one could save almost 3/4. However, that weaselly "up to" actually reveals that not everything will be 70% off, and that 70% is the absolute most that you could possibly save. Such a claim is compatible with one small item being 70% off and everything else being normal price. If you tried to complain that the store was guilty of false advertising, the owner could easily respond by noting that they didn't promise that everything was 70% off, merely that one could save 'up to' that amount. The same sort of issue applies to all the examples presented below.

h/t to Angust at

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why don't they want you to read the fine print?

Accent or Accentuation is when one changes the meaning of a statement by emphasizing or deemphasizing certain components of that statement. In the image below we see one of the classic uses of accent by advertisers. In each of these images from a TV commercial you can see the very fine print that flashes up at the end of the ad. The advertisers don't want you to see this information, but they are legally required to show it, so the solution is to flash it on the screen in fine print for half a second. Personally, I think advertising laws should be changed so that advertisers are required to present all information in the same font. But, given the influence advertisers and corporations have on the government, such a change seems unlikely. The takeaway: don't believe anything you see in an ad.

h/t Alexius08 at

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Really, Fox News makes you dumber.

Image result for fox news faux news

In my critical thinking courses I like to make the claim that watching or consuming Mainstream Media, particularly outlets like Fox News makes individuals dumber and more misinformed. The line usually gets a laugh or two, and-for those with a more liberal bent-the sentiment seems obviously true. However, as critical thinkers we must be careful about believing things because they fit with our own biases or preconceptions. We are interested in the truth and getting it right, regardless of how that might make us feel or hurt our feelings. So, is it true that watching Fox News makes you dumber?

Fortunately, I am by no means the first to articulate such a question, and a fair degree of research has been performed on exactly this question, looking to answer it concerning a variety of issues of great public importance. Chris Mooney at Alternet has a great roundup of the research, and much of the following discussion is taken from his article.

Mooney looks at 7 studies that support the claim that viewers of Fox News are more misinformed about the world than people who get their news from non-Fox sources. All of these studies basically took the form of interviews with with individuals, and then correlated the beliefs of those individuals with their media consumption habits. Every single one of these studies showed that people who get the majority of their information from Fox News were significantly more likely to believe things that are not true about the world.

I want to focus in one one of the studies looked at by Mooney. This study, published at the end of 2010 was conducted by PIPA, and looked at misinformation among voters during the 2010 midterm elections. Summarizing the results of the study to Mooney, one of the authors drew the following conclusion:
“With all of the other media outlets, the more exposed you were, the less likely you were to have misinformation,” explains PIPA’s director, political psychologist Steven Kull. “While with Fox, the more exposure you had, in most cases, the more misinformation you had. And that is really, in a way, the most powerful factor, because it strongly suggests they were actually getting the information from Fox.”
Similar results were born out by other studies consulted by Mooney, and collectively these make clear that consuming too much Fox News leads to a greater degree of misinformation among those viewers, and thus among the electorate generally. This is a significant problem and a real threat to democracy, but one without a clear solution.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Those "Black Americans" sure look pretty white

The above image comes from this article on the Intercept, and it illustrates the top donors to a SuperPac calling itself "Black Americans for a Better Future."  This is an excellent example of a Front Group. As the website SourceWatch defines it, "A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned." In this case, we have a group of wealthy, white, Republican donors who are trying to engage in some political outreach to African-American voters. The problem is that they present themselves as being a group of like-minded black citizens (it's right there in the title). The group does have an African-American spokesman by the name of Raynard Jackson, but he is just that, a spokesman. He is not donating to the group (or if he is,it is less than $250), he is not setting the agenda for the group, he is just being paid by these rich white guys to make it appear that large numbers of concerned black citizens support Republican policies. This is, unfortunately, all too common in American politics, but it is not so often that one sees such an egregious example.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Slippery Slope is a fallacy in which change in one direction is assumed to lead to further disastrous change in the same direction. Depending on how extreme the slope gets, some of these can be quite humorous. Case in point is a series of ads from DirectTV in which the basic narrative of the ad is a series of slippery slopes describing all the horrible consequences that will follow if one doesn't purchase DirectTV. While these are intentionally absurd, they are still a good model of the kind of flawed reasoning exhibited by this fallacy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A funny Amphiboly

Here is another great example of Amphiboly or Amphibology, which is when one produces statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways due to ambiguous grammar.

In this case, it would appear that one would need to have all four of the conditions described above in order to use the restroom. While I understand the importance of reserving special spaces for those in need, I am not sure how many elderly children are actually served by this.

Friday, January 22, 2016

George Carlin on Critical Thinking

This clip from (I think) a fairly late George Carlin special serves as an excellent introduction to the topic of critical thinking, and I largely agree with Carlin's analysis of the importance and necessity of developing critical thinking skills. without them we are at the mercy of powerful and well-connected groups and individuals who are committed to acquiring more for themselves at the expense of everyone else.

One of the best George Carlin routines ever. Miss ya, George!
Posted by Brandon Weber on Friday, March 27, 2015

Here is a link to the source of the video.