Friday, June 23, 2006

Jon Stewart, Public Enemy #1

Researchers have found that, after an intermediate-level class in literature, students were more likely to be skeptical of one-sided textual interpretations!

No, sorry, sorry. Researchers have found that an adequate grounding in nutrition makes people more likely to read food labels thoroughly before purchasing!

Sorry, sorry again. No, what they found is that watching "The Daily Show" made people more cynical about politics. You can see why I got confused. After all, the basic principles are the same: making people aware of the various facets of a complex topic will usually cause them to be more discerning. That's why people with something to hide tend to simplify.

This is only a problem when people parlay such results into headlines like "Jon Stewart: Enemy of Democracy?" The implication is that, by making people aware of the complexity -- and often the ugliness -- of politics, Stewart will induce a sense of apathy among the youth, and prevent them from voting. There are a few mistakes here. First, there's an unstated assumption that "The Daily Show" presents an inaccurate view of political events. Since this isn't so, despite TDS's status as a humor program, we must entertain the possibility that it's the events themselves -- not Stewart's reports -- that are causing cynicism. As Nick argues, it's democracy, not reporting on democracy, that's harming democracy. There is also, to my mind, a serious misunderstanding of the significance of cynicism. The unstated assumption is that cynicism leads to apathy, but I find that a slightly jaundiced view of politics is necessary to avoid hopeless idealism and promote a down-to-brass-tacks sort of activism. Plus, if Stewart makes people cynical, he makes them even more righteously angry. I don't have study data on that, of course, but I'd like to see it done.

It's obvious at this point that we here at Truth Tables like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. We consider them to be ambassadors of logic and reason. And this sort of overblown well-poisoning is really unnecessary. Must we really leap from "people express more political cynicism after watching 'The Daily Show'" to "'The Daily Show' will keep people from voting"? The argument, besides being oversimplified, relies on covert premises and disingenuous assumptions about causation. If you were actually watching Jon Stewart, Richard Morin, you'd have better reasoning than that.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Making the internet a more logical place to be

Once again, I shirk my blogging duties, choosing instead to recognize the achievements of someone else. What can I say, there's just too much sublime logic on the internets for you to spend all your time listening to me. Or even Laura.

Today's Logic Award honoree comes via Coturnix. I hadn't read Pandagon before, but it's going in the blogroll forthwith. Check out "Pandagon Goes Undercover the Lazy Way on a Catholic Anti-Contraception Seminar," Part One and Part 2, and don't forget to read the comments for additional decimation of flawed statistics, semantic imprecision, and straight-up lies. Fun to read and downright cheer-inducing. If I had some friends over and some clothes on, I would do the Wave.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Enjoy your cancer, slut!

Another good read on the HPV vaccine that you and I may be denied, disgraceful tramps that we are. In Virginity or Death!, Katha Pollitt points out that the underlying logic of the war on reproductive rights boils down to a simple choice: virginity or death. In so doing, she nicely exposes some of the false rhetoric of the right (which is of course our bread and butter):
Raise your hand if you think that what is keeping girls virgins now is the threat of getting cervical cancer when they are 60 from a disease they've probably never heard of.

Check it out, and make sure to watch for the zingers:
I remember when people rolled their eyeballs if you suggested that opposition to abortion was less about "life" than about sex, especially sex for women. You have to admit that thesis is looking pretty solid these days. No matter what the consequences of sex--pregnancy, disease, death--abstinence for singles is the only answer. Just as it's better for gays to get AIDS than use condoms, it's better for a woman to get cancer than have sex before marriage. It's honor killing on the installment plan.

You don't get much more pithy than that!

Sliding the slippery slope in both directions

This is why I'm wearing a shirt that says The Fake News Is All I Need.

Watch below as Jon Stewart eviscerates Bill Bennett with the cold diamond-edged blade of rational thinking.

Anyone who's against gay marriage clearly has not thought of the awesomeness that would be a Stewart-Colbert marriage.

NB: Not sure why the video's a little jumpy, but it's the longest one I found on YouTube.

That's enough, San Diego

I spent most of yesterday rocking a practice LSAT (I'm hoping to teach test prep as a stopgap job -- it's just about the only way you can teach logic without a philosophy degree, so that's pretty appealing). It's not too surprising, then, that I spent most of last night having an irritating perseverative dream wherein I was trying to solve a logic puzzle about Jeeves and Wooster -- something about which days of the week Jeeves could rescue Bertie from various situations.

Imagine my delight, then, at waking up to the following bit of crystalline thinking on NPR. With their usual polite incomprehension of right-wingers, NPR was asking a San Diego resident why he voted to instate another Republican in the wake of the Cunningham fiasco:
Guy: Whull...I just... believe in the Republicans. I don't think the Democrats have... what I want in a party.
I know this sounds like an exaggeration, and I'm having trouble finding the audio (the report I found is a different Bilbray report), but I assure you that this is an accurate a quote as I can manage. The mushmouthed voice of the Right, offering you a super-pithy example of begging the question. Unless the NPR correspondant's prompt was actually "please show us how to beg the question in as few words as possible," instead of something more like "sir, did you not notice that the last Republican you guys elected was ludicrously corrupt or what," then I think I was justified in yelling a lot and putting my pillow over my head.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Cancer Good, Condoms Bad

Glamour, of all places, has a new piece called The new lies about women's health. Of course, as some point out, the new lies are the same as the old lies. In other words, none of this is surprising to anyone who's been following this administration's disgusting repudiation of all things scientific. The upshot is: ladies, we need to get rid of this administration as soon as possible, and meanwhile, make sure you know your doctor's policies on emergency contraception. Gentlemen, this is your battle, too, unless you'd like a whole lot more kids a whole lot sooner than you'd planned.

Apart from the Bush administration's generalized Evil, the reason this particular instance of it is worthy of our keen logical minds is that the rhetoric employed--besides clearly having nothing to do with the real reasons behind the policies described--uses a fallacy that gets thrown around a lot in politics: the perfect solution fallacy. This type of bad reasoning says that if your solution to a problem can't fix it completely, then it shouldn't be implemented (also, incidentally, begging the question of whether a perfect solution exists).

The Glamour article details many instances of this fallacious thinking, the most impressively irrational of which is about HPV. First, the background:
A few years ago, several conservative congressional legislators asked King K. Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., how well condoms protected against STDs. "They asked whether condoms were effective against everything," says Dr. Holmes, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and one of the world's leading experts on STDs. He told them yes, condoms were especially effective against HIV, and worked well against all STDs with one exception: human papillomavirus, or HPV, a few strains of which can cause cervical cancer. At that time, he said, researchers suspected that condoms did offer some HPV protection, but the data were incomplete.
So the reseachers told legislators that condoms protect against HIV and all STDs, except for HPV, which they did not have enough data on. Sounds pretty good, right? Certainly a lot better than unprotected sex, which protects from none of these things. Clearly you are not a right-wing activist:
Through lobbying and testimony before Congress, the religious right attacked government sex-education programs that included information on condom use. The Family Research Council argued that such programs expose "our youth to incurable disease on a daily basis. Most notable among these diseases is human papilloma virus, HPV."
Let's take a moment to appreciate how absurd this is.

Scientists say condoms are "especially effective" at protecting you from STDs. They're not so sure about HPV (though it looks promising).

The Family Research Council says that teaching about condom use exposes people to disease.

Deliciously irrational!

In effect, the FRC and others are trying to exploit a perceived failure in an otherwise effective solution to argue that the solution shouldn't be implemented at all. They ignore all incremental gains that condoms provide--such as protection against that inconsequential little virus, HIV--so that they can peddle their fantastically useless abstinence-based "education."

When we keep following the HPV example, we find that the fallacies get deeper and the rhetoric gets emptier:
Soon, there will be another weapon even more effective against HPV than condoms. The drug company Merck has found that its new vaccine Gardasil is nearly 100 percent effective against the HPV strains that most often cause cervical cancer. Another vaccine, Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmithKline, appears to be just as effective.

...But conservative groups began voicing objections as soon as the drugs started making headlines. Sen. Coburn, for one, testified before the House of Representatives that "going after one or two types [of HPV] is halfway," a charge health experts find illogical since the HPV strains prevented by the vaccine account for most cases of cervical cancer.
Wow. Because the vaccine only works against one form of HPV, instead of two, we should not allow it. Even though it's a goddamn cancer vaccine. Well, gee, why bother trying to cure cancer if we can't do it already? Why treat cancer patients if they're going to die or lose an organ or a breast anyway? Why should any of us do anything but lie down and wait for death?

Illogical thinking has a breaking point, a thought past by the whole line of reasoning should crumble. If the anti-sex forces in America didn't have enough of these already, the fact that they are actively opposing a cancer vaccine should be it. But of course it won't be. And, as the Glamour article's section headings neatly illustrate, that makes these nutjobs' irrational thinking our problem:







The article tries to end optimistically, with "SCIENTISTS FIGHT BACK" as the last section, but I for one feel too sick by the end to feel much hope. Those all-caps statements above are what happens when illogical misanthropic dogma subverts science.

This might be a good time to find out where your local Planned Parenthood is.


The article in Glamour also talks about the denial of access to Plan B. The logical extension of this idiocy is, of course, more abortions.

Faulty generalization in uno, faulty generalization in omnibus

I know I just gave one of these, but listen, it's warranted (and besides, it's my photoshop and I can do what I want). Check out Respectful Insolence for an incisive unmasking of the fallacious reasoning behind a popular gambit: the inappropriate application of the legal concept "falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus." This is such an over-the-top crackpottish move, and yet it actually makes use of a pretty deft shift in scope. Orac, the brains behind Respectful Insolence, gives it the treatment it deserves.

Steel your stomach, because here's an example of the tactic that Orac so handily demolishes:
For half a century now historians have told us that during World War II the Nazis had a policy to exterminate the Jews of Europe, along with homosexuals and Gypsies. We are told that millions were "gassed" at German camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

We have been told that the ghastly process of mass murder was also carried out in Belzec, Buchenwald and Sobibor. And aren't there thousands of survivors who "escaped the gas ovens" and swear that all this is true?

And didn't the Nazis make lamp shades from human skin, and manufacture soap from the fat of exterminated Jews? Of course, you may answer, everyone knows it. After all, aren't such bars of "Jewish soap" on display in museums in Israel and other countries? How can there be any doubt?

"Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus," or "false in one thing, false in everything," was a Roman legal principle. If a witness may not be believed in one thing, he should not be believed in anything. This principle is as valid today as it was two thousand years ago.
Well, of course it is, my horrible little friend. But did you catch the switcheroo here? It's an almost admirable feat of sleight-of-logic -- a little Latin amphibology, and "false in one thing, false in everything" becomes "false in one part, false in all." A rule used to cast doubt on a single witness (if she has lied once, all her statements should be under suspicion) is suddenly and absurdly expanded to apply to historical accounts or scientific theories (if any part has ever been shown to be false, the whole thing must therefore be false). Simultaneously, inaccuracy in fact or scope becomes equivalent to lying. Here's a sample syllogism: Perjury invalidates a testimony. Scientists once thought that heat was a fluid. Ergo, thermodynamics is a lie. But of course, the sleight-of-hand involved makes it hard, at least for the credulous, to perceive the stark absurdity of the argument.

Orac offers examples of this fallacy at work in our mutual bete noir, "intelligent design" theory. Here's his take on why the tactic, inappropriate when discussing history, is even more ridiculous when attacking science:
The problem is, this principle doesn't work in science. Why? The scientific literature literature is littered with papers whose results were later shown to be either incorrect or only partially correct. In most cases, being incorrect doesn't mean the scientists were lying, and it is the totality of the evidence that must be weighed. Moreover, it is not valid to treat all of science as a single source. Science is not a single witness that can be interrogated. Well-accepted scientific theories (like evolution, for example) are supported by many interweaving lines of evidence from many different sources. If you impeach one minor source or piece of data, that does not invalidate the rest of the supporting data.
Couldn't have said it better myself. Orac, sir, a logic award to you.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

beg your pardon (and your question)

Since my wrists and hands have been all tingly lately from too much typing, I didn't finish a post on correlation and causation I was working on this week. But never fear! Since I can't logic up the internets today, I'll let T. Rex do it for me.

Make sure to mouse over the comic for an excellent slogan for logicians.

Logic Award! (No money attached)

I figured we needed the ability to reward people who are increasing the net logical worth of the web. Man cannot live by identifying fallacies alone. On that note, meet the first recipient of the Truth Tables Logic Award: Ed at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, for Answering an Anti-Gay Marriage Argument. Ed had pointed out in a previous post that "no one has ever made a coherent, much less compelling, argument for why allowing gays to get married will do anything whatsoever to damage heterosexual marriages," and someone saw this as a call to outline an incoherent, non-compelling argument, and then to point at it proudly like a kid who's just gone in the potty for the first time. Ed's refutation is can't-miss reading, and a beautiful illustration of how informal argumentation should go -- he thoroughly demolishes the other argument without being snarky or rude. If I were still teaching rhetoric and composition, I'd make it required reading for our refutation unit.
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