Friday, February 09, 2007

Logic marches on

even when life prevents us from posting, and the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance is doing us proud. This certainly isn't the first instance of activism via reductio ad absurdum (see, for instance, God Hates Shrimp and of course the Flying Spaghetti Monster), but it may be the most subtle. I actually had to read through their mission statement a couple of times before I understood its brilliance:
If passed by Washington voters, the Defense of Marriage Initiative would:
  • add the phrase, “who are capable of having children with one another” to the legal definition of marriage;
  • require that couples married in Washington file proof of procreation within three years of the date of marriage or have their marriage automatically annulled;
  • require that couples married out of state file proof of procreation within three years of the date of marriage or have their marriage classed as “unrecognized;”
  • establish a process for filing proof of procreation; and
  • make it a criminal act for people in an unrecognized marriage to receive marriage benefits.
Well played, Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance. In logic is strength.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Sometimes "post hoc ergo propter hoc" does some good work

My dad pointed me to this article in the New York Times, on the new National Academies report on women in science. (Unfortunately the article is blocked to most users at this point -- I went through LexisNexis. The report can be read online for free.) Dad's a great guy, so presumably he pointed it out because I might think it was interesting (full disclosure: I work for the National Academies) or because it might lead to a lot of people asking for this book (full disclosure: I run the bookstore there), not because it's a poorly-argued penis-waving screed that would be guaranteed to piss me off. But it is, and it did.

See, I have this new theory about Republicans: their primary problem is their inability to deconstruct. This is not to say that they're stupid, or necessarily ignorant in any but a very specific way. Rather, they are self-centered (not necessarily egotistical, but cognitively constricted to their own perspective) enough that they have a hard time understanding how "the way things are" often reduces to "the way things have been" -- not to mention that they have no inclination to think this way. This is how you can have perfectly intelligent individuals saying ignorant shit like "we shouldn't have affirmative action, because blacks aren't as smart or don't perform as well as whites, so we're bringing down the overall level of the institution if we require a leveled playing field." They think they're being logical, but they have a huge blind spot when it comes to considering how background, socialization, privilege, and history might affect a situation. And that blind spot, as far as I'm concerned, all but nullifies the argument.

So now we have this John Tierney fellow saying, with a perfectly straight face, things like:
One well-documented difference is the disproportionately large number of boys scoring in the top percentile of the SAT math test. And when you compare boy math whizzes with girl math whizzes, more differences appear. The boys score much higher on the math portion of the SAT than on the verbal, whereas the girls are more balanced -- high on the verbal as well as the math.

The girls have more career options, and they have different priorities than the boys, as the psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow have demonstrated by tracking students with the exceptional mathematical ability to become top-flight researchers in science and engineering.

As adolescents, the boys are especially interested in abstract theoretical pursuits and "inorganic" disciplines involving things, whereas the girls are more interested in "social values," "people contact" and "organic" disciplines. Plenty of these girls end up going to graduate school, and some become superb physicists and engineers, but many choose law, medicine, education and so-called soft sciences like biology or psychology.

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it's insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests. As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don't go into engineering: they don't want to.
Period, end of story, all of women's innate inferiority explained! Except that this is all descriptive -- none of it, literally zero, is explanatory. Tierney doesn't even attempt to argue a biological basis for these differences, as many bigots do; he merely describes them, with the implication that their very existence implies the explanation he finds most easy and comforting. (Incidentally, I do not mean to imply that only bigots argue biological differences between male and female aptitudes -- there is some interesting research here, but see this post on why I think it should be used carefully.)

In fact, it doesn't work this way. Whether or not Tierney likes it, the phenomena he describes could be, and almost certainly are, not just causes but results. That is, certainly fewer women go into science because fewer women are interested in science -- but why are fewer women interested in science? Tierney's not interested in exploring that, but I am, and so are the conscientious scientists here at the Academies. In refusing to deconstruct what he sees, in taking at face value evidence that supports his preferences, Tierney is most certainly engaging in the "favoritism" of which he accuses the report committee.

When I say that "post hoc ergo propter hoc" is my favorite fallacy, I mean two things: first, I am a nerd, and second, I love that this simple phrase diagnoses so many logical and scientific missteps. I do not mean that I recommend that anyone assume that "after this" means "because of this." That said, there is some utility -- especially when discussing social science! -- to recognizing the impact of the past. Our present-day society does not exist in a vacuum, no matter how comfortable that idea is to the people at the top. It is irresponsible, ignorant, and logically and theoretically repugnant to assume any different.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Plan B and sex cults

I've gotten a little behind on the latest outrages surrounding Plan B, the for-some-reason-disputed anti-conception (NOT anti-implantation) pill. So until my officemate told me, I was not aware that a deputy FDA administrator, Dr. Janet Woodcock, had expressed concern that the pill would take on "'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults." SEX-BASED CULTS. Because a) that's what adolescents do and b) that's what happens when you deal with urban legends. Watch out, Mythbusters.

Now, a lot of people have pointed out that for a right-winger to oppose a pill that can actually prevent abortion, he or she would have to either be a total hypocrite or an anti-sex pervert. This quote lends credence to the latter, though it hardly rules out the former. But let's leave that aside for now. Here's the problem I have with Woodcock's statement, beyond its immediate absurdity: Since when do cults spring up around things because of their availability?

I mean, I suppose it's one thing when you're talking about a "cult film," for instance. A film does have to be available in order to achieve cult status. But think about a cult like Heaven's Gate or Jonestown -- they thrived on promising their followers the unattainable, and if you look at the risk factors for cult recruitment, it's clear that they victimized people who felt they had nothing except that promise. For an even better example, think of the classic South Pacific cargo cult. A cargo cult is not started by people with plenty of food, smokes, and various exciting loot. A cargo cult comes from the availability and subsequent, sudden unavailability of cargo. Even if adolescents were as prone to the random creation of naughty sex cults as they are in Woodcock's dark fantasy world, it seems obvious that removing or restricting access to contraception is the best way to make those cults a reality.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cognitive bias, and how it affects your plane ride

This isn't precisely a fallacy, but I wanted to point out the cognitive bias inherent in the current ridiculous scramble at the airports. What we have here is an example of an availability heuristic, in which people tend to rate events more likely when they're memorable or emotionally charged. The possibility of explosive liquid on a plane is not any higher than it was yesterday, nor is the possibility of other easily concealed explosive material any lower. Because people reacted emotionally to the bust in England, though, the availability heuristic kicks in and makes everyone paranoid about liquids and gels -- just like they were paranoid about white powder after the anthrax letters, or white box trucks during the DC sniper nonsense.

You're always more aware of risks when you feel strongly about the possible outcomes -- maybe you've experienced them, or someone else has. For instance, I'm very careful about not leaving water on the stove unattended, because I once let it boil right through the bottom of the pot. For a long time I was scared of ticks, so I was unnecessarily careful about covering up when I went into the woods. On the more extreme side, everyone knows at least one person who's obsessed with spreading their own cognitive biases -- like maybe one time they found a bug in a Subway sandwich and now they proselytize against eating at Subway, or their sister had a rare mineral deficiency so they're insistent about the importance of taking vitamins, or they once got a hernia so now they nag everyone to do constant crotch stretches. Now imagine that person had armed representatives, big guys packing we-don't-fuck-around automatic weaponry, who were authorized to force you to take vitamins or stretch your crotch. That's pretty much the situation we have here.

If you're as irritated as I am that you have to be dramatically inconvenienced (and possibly threatened with weapons) because of unchecked cognitive bias at the higher levels, or if you're actually nervous that your seatmate's chapstick might explode next time you're on a plane, I recommend the comforting dose of reality that is John Mueller's excellent article "A False Sense of Insecurity?" (via Boing Boing):
The shock and tragedy of September 11 does demand a focused and dedicated program to confront international terrorism and to attempt to prevent a repeat. But it seems sensible to suggest that part of this reaction should include an effort by politicians, officials, and the media to inform the public reasonably and realistically about the terrorist context instead of playing into the hands of terrorists by frightening the public. What is needed, as one statistician suggests, is some sort of convincing, coherent, informed, and nuanced answer to a central question: "How worried should I be?" Instead, the message the nation has received so far is, as a Homeland Security official put (or caricatured) it, "Be scared; be very, very scared -- but go on with your lives." Such messages have led many people to develop what Leif Wenar of the University of Sheffield has aptly labeled "a false sense of insecurity."
Here you will learn useful facts (for instance, did you know that you're four times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist Israel?), plus you'll get a much-needed dose of rational thought. Read it, take a deep breath, and tell yourself that reason will win in the end. Meanwhile, if you're leaving on a jet plane, don't expect to be hydrated or moisturized during the flight, and pack an extra suitcase if you want clean hair or teeth during your trip.

Warning: Your mileage may vary, but personally, I won't be reading this article anytime close to an air-travel trip. The frustrated scene I would undoubtedly cause at the airport would get me on the no-fly list for life.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

are you still being awesome?

Though I am so busy trying to figure out how to get myself, my guy, my cats, and my books halfway across the country that I don't have much logic left in me, T-Rex has got my back.

Motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking graph

Via the inimitable Francis Heaney: Snakes on a Logic Puzzle!
Pacific Air Flight 121 is in trouble! Some motherfucker has released snakes on the motherfucking plane! Needless to say, the passengers are terrified, but there's good news! Samuel L. Jackson, that badass motherfucker, is on the flight! Six of the passengers--Barbara, Cindy, George, Mike, Ralph, and Tina--had particularly harrowing encounters with venomous snakes (a black mamba, a boomslang, an taipan, a gaboon viper, a king cobra, and a rattlesnake), but Samuel saved them all from certain death (he strangled one snake with his bare hands). Can you figure out what type of snake each person encountered and how Samuel took it out?
When you're finished with that one, you can consider the logic behind animal action films from another perspective:
Five separate movies were made soon after Snakes on a Plane appeared in theaters, each with a different actor, animal (one featured lemurs), and mode of transportation (in one instance, animals terrorized a small town on a Segway). All 5 movies signed a different major Hollywood actor...
I haven't done either of these yet (gimme a break, I'm at work), but they're at least high in entertainment value.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Do you have a weed-eater?

Via A Blog Around The Clock: David Neiwert at Orcinus provides a humorous example of right-wing logic. Unlike most right-wing logic, this one's supposed to be a joke... but as David points out, life imitates satire. (So much for The State's "it's funny because it's not true" tenet.)

I should point out, because this is as good a place as any, that by adopting David's phrase "right-wing logic," I do not mean to imply that all Republicans think this way. I personally know at least one very logical right-winger, who -- surprise! -- also doesn't agree with many of the current leadership's positions. Rather, this is a type of logic that is rampant among current conservatives, though it's not universal nor entirely confined to the red states.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Collections of fallacies that aren't internet forums

From the most recent Skeptics' Circle: Bronze Dog at Rockstar Ramblings is working on a list of meaningless words and phrases used to derail arguments. He's focusing mostly on discussions about new-agey things like alternative medicine, but these tactics crop up in any argument where one side wants to draw attention away from the inadequacy of their proof. The list includes grievously misused words like "quantum" and smokescreen arguments like "people have believed this for thousands of years." My personal favorite is the writeup on "science doesn't know everything," which as you may know is one of my all-time least favorite "arguments." Of course science doesn't know everything, it's a method for finding things out (mostly by assuming that you are wrong). But it's a really good method, folks.

From Bronze Dog's list, I also found some links to Skeptico's version of the same project. Skeptico has been collecting and repudiating fallacies for a while, and his descriptions and debunkings are thorough and excellent. There are fewer of them, but each one really explodes the fallacy it addresses. Thanks, guys, for doing your part for honest argumentation.
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