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Aggregation aggravation

Aug 7th, 2004 | By

A 70-year study of 500 juvenile offenders born in the Twenties — the longest-running crime study in the world — has found that those who married were far more likely to go straight later in life than those who remained single.
Melanie Phillips, The Daily Mail, 16 January 2004

Melanie Phillips is one of the best-known socially conservative commentators in Britain. Like many or her ilk, she sees the evidence that “marriage works” as incontrovertible. But although there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the statistics she cites, her case is flawed because it fails to take into account the effects of what statisticians call disaggregation: the breaking down of statistics into their component parts.

Statistics do … Read the rest



Begging the question

Jul 13th, 2004 | By

[Dudley Poplak] gave Charles a copy of the book A Time to Heal: My Triumph over Cancer – Beata Bishop’s story of how she beat malignant melanoma 23 years ago by following the strict dietary regime.
Jo Revill (Health Editor), the Observer , 27 June 2004

The strict dietary regime in question is the Gerson Therapy, which eschews drugs in favour of coffee enemas and fruit juices. It has the support of well-known medical experts such as Prince Charles, interior designer Dudley Poplak and Lord Baldwin of Bewdley. Their opinions, of course, carry more weight than those of the American Cancer Society, which warns that the treatment could be dangerous.

To say that Gerson is controversial is therefore something of … Read the rest



Confirmation bias

Jun 22nd, 2004 | By

[Jonathan Cainer] met a psychic poet called Charles John Quatro, who told him he would some day write an astrology column read by millions.
David Smith, the Observer , 20 June 2004

And would you believe it, many years later, Jonathan Cainer does write an astrology column read by millions! Incidentally, Cainer’s predictions grace the pages of “a newspaper dedicated to the subtle propagation of bigotry.” That description of the Daily Mail is by, ahem, Jonathan Cainer.

Are you impressed by the uncanny accuracy of Quatro’s prediction? Let me make my own predictions: if you already believe in astrology, your answer will be yes. If you don’t, your answer will be no. If you’re agnostic, you will probably find it … Read the rest



The straw man fallacy

Jun 1st, 2004 | By

Free-market capitalism is founded on one value: the maximization of profit. Other values, like human dignity and solidarity, or environmental sustainability, are disregarded as soon as they limit potential profit.
Naomi Klein, nologo.org FAQ

Nasty, greedy folk, these free market capitalists. If, as I suspect, you hold values other than the maximization of profit, you can’t possibly be on their side. Better to join the anti-capitalists, for whom human dignity, solidarity and environmental sustainability count for something.

If Klein’s moral victory over capitalism seems too easy, that’s because it is. The problem becomes evident when you ask yourself what this demonic free-market capitalism actually is.

It certainly isn’t capitalism as instantiated in European liberal democracies. There, all sorts of mechanisms … Read the rest



No hypotheticals

May 14th, 2004 | By

Sir Victor [Blank] and the Trinity Mirror chief executive, Sly Bailey, both refused to answer "hypothetical questions" about Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s future if the images proved to be fake.
Chris Tryhorn, the Guardian , 6 May 2004

Unfortunately, there is no doubt that the vast majority of the images of coalition troops subjecting Iraqi prisoners to degrading treatment revealed recently are all too genuine. But at the time of writing, the authenticity of one of the first batch to appear remains in doubt. Experts have provided many reasons for thinking that the images of British troops mistreating prisoners published in the Mirror may be fakes.

If they are not genuine, this would be no small blunder. The perception … Read the rest



Lies, damned lies and statistics

Apr 20th, 2004 | By

Most people would regard publishing as lacking cultural diversity – and they would be right, according to a survey into ethnicity in the industry. […] Only 13% of respondents to the survey belonged to Asian, black, Chinese or other minority ethnic groups…
Guardian Review , 13 March 2004

Accurate statistics are just facts, and as such, they don’t lie. Nevertheless, the bad reputation they have as being the source of the darkest deceptions is not entirely unfounded. For the very indisputability of a statistic can transfix us, leaving us blind to the unproven fact it is supposed to demonstrate.

This little statistic about cultural diversity in publishing is a wonderful example of how a statistic by itself rarely tells you … Read the rest



Correlation/cause confusion

Apr 1st, 2004 | By

"The arts have their value in society. You look at the Royal Albert Hall on Proms night. How many of those people are going to mug old ladies on the way home? Not many – they’ve got more important things to worry about."
Prunella Scales, Big Issue in the North , 1996

It is indeed highly unlikely that anyone returning from a classical music concert is going to mug someone along the way. But such a person is also probably more likely than the average member of the population to embezzle funds from their company the day after. Are we then to conclude that listening to Mozart will make you less likely to mug someone but more likely to fiddle … Read the rest



Fallacy of the complex question

Mar 15th, 2004 | By

"Why are we so obsessed with what other people think of us? Why are
we so concerned to fit in? Why do we submit so readily to the tyranny of the
‘they’?"
Giles Fraser,
the
Guardian
20 Dec 2003

The most common example given to illustrate the fallacy of the complex question
is "When did you stop beating your wife?" Such a question asks one
thing while assuming a second, when it is just this assumption which needs to
be established. First we need to know whether you did beat your wife. Only if
it turns out that you did should we concern ourselves with when you stopped
doing so.

The great trick of a complex question is that any … Read the rest



Concealed caveats and qualifications

Feb 24th, 2004 | By

"Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us."

Headline
in the Observer
, 22 February 2004

In Britain at least, we expect newspaper headlines to overstate their case
a little. What seems dramatic when printed in 72 point bold across the page
often turns out to be much more mundane once the actual article is read.

But in this particular example, the story is just as dramatic as the headline
suggests. Apparently, a Pentagon report "warns that major European cities
will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate
by 2020."

In a box accompanying the article in the print edition, headed "The key
findings", we also discover that "by 2007 violent storms … Read the rest



Low redefinition

Feb 9th, 2004 | By

"Why do wars begin? The simple answer is that they never end."

Tom Palaima, Times Higher Education Supplement, December 12 2003

One of the most commented upon headlines in the world’s press the day after
9/11 appeared in the liberal French newspaper Le Monde: "We are all Americans".
It was a powerful expression of the solidarity of democrats everywhere in the
face of an apparently new and terrifying threat.

No-one who read it, however, would have been foolish enough to take it literally.
Had the article then gone on to claim that, since we were all Americans, French
citizens should be able to vote for US presidents and have the other rights
of US citizens, the absurdity would have been … Read the rest



False analogies

Jan 9th, 2004 | By

"…some of the same lawyers who spent years battling tobacco companies
on behalf of sick smokers […] are arguing that the fast food industry
is a similar risk to public health."
CNN.com, August 19 2002

Several lawsuits have already been filed against fast-food restaurants, claiming
that they are responsible for the ill health of the obese who have fed for years
on their products. None have so far been successful, and many people regard them as
some kind of joke. But advocates point out that the first people to sue "big
tobacco" were ridiculed. Yet in 1998, the Master
Settlement Agreement
saw the major US tobacco companies agree to pay $246bn
over 25 years to settle lawsuits filed by US … Read the rest



Immunisation against error

Dec 11th, 2003 | By

"People who tell you they’re not superstitious are lying."
Frankie Dettori, Jockey, Observer Magazine, 5 January 2002.

Since its birth in Ancient Greece, philosophy has sought the holy grail of
certain knowledge. In this respect, philosophy reflects a common human desire
to have things clear-cut. This desire can be satisfied – psychologically, if
not logically – through the adoption of beliefs which are immunised against
the very possibility of error.

Dettori’s assertion about superstition is a striking example. He believes that
everyone is superstitious. The problem is, of course, that some people claim
not to be. If, however, he adopts the maxim "People who tell you they’re
not superstitious are lying," then no such avowals count as evidence against… Read the rest



Half truths

Nov 25th, 2003 | By

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
Bill Clinton, January 26, 2003.

If you think Bill Clinton’s statement at a White House conference about his
relationship with Monica Lewinsky was just a bare-faced lie, consider this.
In some circumstances, it is desirable for young people to maintain that they
are still virgins. In others, it would be a complete embarrassment.

Take a seventeen-year-old boy from a conservative family who has experience
of oral sex, mutual masturbation and so on, but not penetrative sex. "Are
you a virgin?" asks his parents. "Yes," the boy replies. "Are
you a virgin?" ask his friends, "Dur, no!" comes the reply. Wouldn’t
you say that in both cases the boy is … Read the rest



You can’t prove it

Oct 26th, 2003 | By

"Cigarette smoking has not been scientifically established as a cause
of lung cancer. The cause or causes of lung cancer are unknown."
Imperial Tobacco legal documents, as
reported in the Observer
, 5 October 2003.

"Prove it" looks like a fair challenge to issue to anyone making
a claim you suspect to be false. And properly understood, that’s just what it
is. The problem is that an adequate "proof" almost always leaves a
space for the shadow of unreasonable doubt.

If proof demands absolute certainty, then arguably nothing can ever be proven.
Descartes,
for example, whittled down his beliefs until he was left only with those he
thought to be absolutely certain. All that remained was the fact that … Read the rest



Taking credit

Oct 3rd, 2003 | By

"I could recite you the statistics: The lowest inflation, mortgage rates,
and unemployment for decades. The best ever school results, with over 60,000
more 11 year olds every year now reaching required standards in English and
Maths. Cardiac deaths down 19 per cent since 1997, cancer deaths 9 per cent.
Burglaries down 39 per cent."
Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference speech, 30 September 2003

What do you want from your government? Many would say, chiefly: security, the
efficient management of the economy and the delivery of public services. What
then can a government do to defend its record other than list the ways it has
delivered? This is what Tony Blair did in his speech
to this year’s Labour Party
Read the rest



Playing the rights card

Sep 14th, 2003 | By

"What right do we have to touch and smell an animal that has rested
beneath the surface for 10,000 years?"
David G. Anderson, Times Higher Education Supplement, 8 August 2003

Rights often seem fundamental to our sense of what is morally acceptable. The
UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a quasi-sacred document, the benchmark
against which the decency of a country is measured. Human Rights NGOs like Amnesty
International are virtually beyond criticism, for what they are defending is so
obviously just. And democratic governments pass laws at their peril that are perceived
to infringe on the "inalienable" rights of their citizens.

But while the discourse of rights is extremely powerful in the public domain,
intellectually speaking, they … Read the rest



Non sequiturs?

Aug 25th, 2003 | By

"As yet another (British) panel concluded this week, there is no evidence
that GM crops now in commercial cultivation are more dangerous to human health
than conventional foods. So there is no reason why Europeans should not eat
the GM food that Americans already consume by the siloful."
Economist leader, 26 July 2003

For the critical thinker, no error is more basic than the non sequitur: the
conclusion that doesn’t follow. Non sequiturs are extremely common. People seem
to like to scatter their texts with words like "therefore" and "so"
whether or not the various points they are making in some way follow from each
other.

Saddam Hussain showed himself to be a brilliant exponent of the non sequitur
in … Read the rest



Getting it out of proportion

Aug 4th, 2003 | By

"Drinking around three litres of pure still filtered water a day makes
a vital contribution to health."
Emma Mitchell, the Guardian, 7 September 2002

Emma Mitchell is a "natural health therapist" who, in her column
for the Guardian, "Ask Emma", gives advice on how to live a healthier
life. Emma is usually pretty sensible, and her advice to drink more water is
in line with recommendations from most health experts.

Emma, however, has a thing about the need for water to be filtered. No mention
of H2O is complete without the qualifying word "filtered" attached.
So, in her 5 July column, she advises someone who suffers from acne that it
is likely she does "not drink enough filtered water". … Read the rest



Fallacies of democracy

Jul 8th, 2003 | By

"I don’t think we have been consulted as a democracy. It is the wrong
war. We need a bit more imagination. All we are saying is the country is mature
enough to sit down and have some kind of referendum."
Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur (Source: the Guardian, 21
January 2003)

Readers of last week’s column will not be surprised to find a rock singer once
again cited as an authority on matters unconnected with music. The concern here,
however, is not with Albarn’s expertise but with the climate of opinion he reflected.
For during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, his view was one which was
held by a great many of the British public. Since … Read the rest



Bogus authorities

Jun 26th, 2003 | By

"After reading Captive State, I will never be able to take the Labour
government seriously again."
Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead (Quoted on cover of George Monbiot’s
Captive State)

In my opinion – which has never been humble – and in the opinion of many others,
Radiohead are the best rock band on the planet right now. They are one
of only two groups whose latest album I buy as soon as it comes out, without
listening to it or reading reviews first.

But although I am prepared to acknowledge the genius of Thom Yorke et al in
the realm of music, I was not aware that Yorke was also a political commentator
worth paying serious attention to. … Read the rest