I love fallacies and recently they seem to be cropping up a lot around me. Fallacies come in many types, and each can be fun in its own way. I think the pleasure comes from creating a conclusion that is so intensely convincing and yet, at the same time, is completely illogical. Your brain tosses back and forth between agreeing and disagreeing until some meta-process comes in and stops that loop from continuing.
(as an aside, there is a great story called “The Riddle Of The Universe, And It’s Solution” in Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s anthology ‘The Mind’s I” about what might happen if you could come up with a fallacy so dense that you could not eject)
The simple logical loop is created by a statement such as “This sentance has threee errors”. There are only two obvious errors (the two typos) which means that the sentence is wrong, but the fact that the sentence has miscounted means that there are actually three errors and thus the sentence is correct, however that means that the third error no longer exists and once again the sentence is incorrect. And so on, and so on. Another good example is the statement “I cannot assert this sentence.” If you agree that you cannot assert the sentence then really the sentence is wrong since you can assert it, but that means the sentence is right that you cannot assert it, and so on, and so on.
More fun, is when the concrete field of math comes into play. I remember when Mort Anderson, my AP calculus teacher in high school was frustrated with our class one day. We were distracted and not paying attention. He put the following on the board and then just sat at his desk while we tried to figure out what he had just done. Follow this factorization if you will (you’ll need to recall some algebra for this one):
X = X (take two numbers)
X2 = X2 (square them both)
X2 – X2 = X2 – X2 (subtract the square from both sides)
(X + X) * (X / X) = X * (X / X) (factor each side)
(X + X) = X (divide both sides by (X – X))
now, replace X with 1 and you just proved that 1 + 1 = 1.
Every step in that equation appears to be legal algebraic maneuvers but the result is impossible. The reason is simple. When you divide both sides by (X – X) you’re forgetting that X – X is actually 0 and you cannot divide by 0. Now you know why you can’t divide by 0 – addition ceases to function and the universe will begin to cave in on itself.
Probability is a great area for logical traps. I love the old statistics joke “How do you ensure that a terrorist doesn’t bring a bomb onto your plane? Bring your own bomb! The probability that your plane has two bombs on it is so remote it could never happen!”
That joke relies on an inversion of the base rate fallacy. It assumes that the probabilities are linked when, in fact, they’re not. For example: if you flip a coin, the likelihood of getting heads is 1/2. If you flip a coin twice, the likelihood of getting heads on both flips is 1/2 * 1/2 or 1/4. You can figure out the probability of getting X number of heads in a row by calculating 1/2^X (e.g. X = 4, 2^4 = 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 = 16, therefore getting heads 4 times in a row has a 1/16 likelihood). So getting heads 100 times in a row is astronomically unlikely. However the likelihood that you get heads on the hundredth flip is still 1/2 because that flip doesn’t know that there have been 99 before it. So too does the terrorist not know that there is already a bomb on that plane so the likelihood of his act taking place is not affected by yours.
According to this, our galaxy has 100,000,000,000 planets. And there are at least 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe.
Which averages out to over 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in total (all things being equal).
Which means that even if there’s just a .00000000000000000000001% chance of life on any given planet (about 3 quadrillion times less likely than you being eaten by a shark this year), then there’s life on at least one more out there. = )
I realized there was an implication with that probability that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with:
Since I’m 99.9% certain that there is other life in the universe, and it’s 3 quadrillion times more likely that I’ll be eaten by a shark this year then, by the transitive property, I am absolutely certain to be eaten by a shark this year.
The likelihood is so high, in fact, that if I sat in a hut in the middle of the sahara, a shark would spontaneously appear from thin air and eat me. An event that would be deeply unfortunate for me and incomprehensibly surreal for any by-standers.
This is an example of an appeal to probability. In fact, just because something could happen, does not mean it will. If I were living in a hut in the sahara, the likelihood of being eat by a shark would approach 0 (there is still some chance, just not much…).
What are your favorite fallacies?
I’ll leave you with a recent XKCD cartoon that shows the unsustainability of using the word sustainable at current rates. Enjoy:
History is written by the winners.
Or so it used to be. Now it seems that history is written by whomever wants to lay claim to it. The past few years have seen the Right become apoplectic over the “Mosque At Ground Zero”™ (which was neither at Ground Zero nor solely a mosque) and decry Obama for bowing to Muslim leaders or, *gasp*, even being a Sekrit Moslem himself. Now, the Right has decided that labor unions are evil and should be dismantled.
And yet they waive the Reagan flag whenever they can. Sarah Palin was announcing this month that Americans need to reconnect with Reagan’s values. And even Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Governor who is trying to ban public employees from collective bargaining invoked Reagan in his defense.
Are these people too stupid to read?
Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild for 7-1/2 years. He wasn’t just a union member. He wasn’t just a union president. He was president of the most liberal bunch of people in the country short of the UC Berkeley Faculty. Now, it should also be noted that he was not the most moral of fellows as he was one of the classless folks that volunteered to name names in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. So that should keep Pamela Geller happy and able to forgive the fact that Reagan believed in and supported unions. And it wasn’t just that he supported them while he was in Hollywood. This is Reagan as President describing labor organizing as a natural right:
(That popping sound you hear is the heads of people trying to figure out how to twist that statement into proof that he really was against unions.)
“Ok, but Reagan at least was on ‘our’ side about Muslims, right?” asks the Wing Nut.
Alas no, he wasn’t. He secretly sold US weapons to the Mullah’s in Iran after all.
“Yeah, but that was to fight the Communists. Nobody said he liked or trusted Muslims,” responds the Wing Nut.
Well, you’re kind of off base there too my unread friend. After all, when Reagan went to Geneva in 1986 where did he stay? At the home of the Aga Khan – a Muslim Imam and direct descendent of Muhammad – who loaned it to him as a favor for the trip. Why? Because they were friends.
History is so much more complex than simpletons want it to be.
If you’re interested in reading more about Reagan I strongly recommend John Patrick Diggins tremendous biography Ronald Reagan. Jack Diggins was a titan of American Intellectual history and, up until his passing two years ago, was my mother’s companion for 15 years.
This week President Obama decided to have a nice dinner in California with a number of America’s tech leaders. These the heads and founders of some of America’s most successful companies of the last ten years. We’re talking Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Eric Schmidt (Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Reed Hastings (Netflix), to name a few. For a little whose who, check out this nice pic from the White House and marked up by SearchEngineLand:
The San Francisco Chronicle accompanied their story about the dinner with a chart of the political giving of these masters of the tech universe. Take a look:
What do you see? Aside from the fact that we have to overlook Zuckerberg not giving during the last ten years because ten years ago he wasn’t old enough to vote…
I see that these drivers of the modern economy gave to Democrats 5-1/2 to 1 over Republicans. And it wasn’t swayed by one big donor. There wasn’t a single person at the table who had given to either party who hadn’t given more to Democrats than to Republicans.
With the Republican party selling out its soul to the anti-intellectual beating drum of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann they still want to say they are the party of the future. But the future is here and the future doesn’t want to support them. They say we need to keep the top 1% of earners’ taxes from going up to help American industry. Well these people are the drivers of American industry, they are the top 1% (probably 1/100th of 1% for most of them), and they are not supporting the Republicans. I consider these people the smartest minds in America and it appears that they’ve spoken.
I also want to briefly say something about my thoughts on Wikileaks. This ‘organization’ is deeply troubling not just because of their irresponsibility, but because of who they have associated themselves with. In particular, Wikileaks employs the repugnant Israel Shamir – the man who publicly said “it’s every Muslim’s and Christian’s duty to deny the holocaust”. He didn’t say that a long time ago either. This was in an interview in 2009 that he still has posted on his own website. I do not trust any group that claims to be for “freedom” and “truth” and employs holocaust deniers.
But it’s worse, Shamir is also a fraudster who apparently was caught faking information in his work for a Russian newspaper to support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As if one anti-semitic liar weren’t enough, Wikileaks representative in Sweden is none-other than Mr. Shamir’s son, Johannes Wahlström. Mr. Wahlström is Wikileaks is also a known fraud of a journalist who was caught faking quotes in his work in order to support his thesis that the Jews control the media in Sweden.
For more about Mr. Shamir, his son, and Wikileaks read this article from Reason.
Wikileaks jumped in notoriety with the release of the so-called “Collateral Murder” video. This video showed a US military helicopter killing a number of people, including what was later learned was a journalist. Wikileaks released an edited 17-minute version of the video and what was described (by them) as the “Full Version”. However that full version had a time cut with a full thirty minutes missing from the middle of it. It appears that the missing footage contains sections that contextualize the footage released in a different light but Wikileaks (or whoever leaked to Wikileaks) had an agenda and thus didn’t want the full version to be seen.
When taken together, this paints a deeply problematic picture. Wikileaks is a clearly partisan entity and an unreliable narrator. I suppose there are some questions I would love to ask Mr. Assange if given the opportunity. Most notable among them would be:
“If you had a document that could identify the location of Osama Bin Laden, would you release it?”
I doubt his answer would be yes, but yet he has had no problem with releasing information whose only value is to provide a guide to targets for terrorists.
I was having a conversation with a friend about the completely absurd new round of security theater being rolled out by the TSA. Let us be very clear, this is security theater as it makes traveling by air virtually no more safe than it was two weeks ago. Here are some key points from that conversation:
A quick web search suggests a consensus view that there are, on average, about 30,000 commercial flights in the US per day (the total number of flights per day is considerably higher since it includes a significant amount of general aviation usage, but the TSA policy is only affecting commercial travelers, if you want to board a Boeing Business Jet you can basically walk right on). How much successful terrorism could there be if we did a reasonable, but not complete, step down in security? If there were one successful attack every week, which sounds insanely high to us, then your odds of dying in such an attack, if you are contemplating one single plane flight, would be about one in 210,000. If there were one successful attack per month, your odds, for one single plane flight, would be about one in 900,000. If there were one successful attack per year, your odds, for one single plane flight, would be about one in 11,000,000. (We’re assuming, of course, that every attack would result in the death of everyone on the plane, which may not be true at all, as a number of the attacks might be attempted hijackings rather than bombings. We realize, as well, that the “one year” odds of dying would have to be increased to reflect the number of times per year you travel.)
How does this compare to the one year odds of dying in a number of more familiar manners? My friend found some data allegedly from the National Safety Council (whatever that is) from 1999:
Transport accidents (all types): one in 5,877
Occupant of a car: one in 18,752
Accidental fall: one in 20,728
Drowning: one in 77,308
Exposure to smoke, fire and flames: one in 81, 487
Exposure to forces of nature: one in 183,347
Accidental poisoning: one in 22,388
Suicide: one in 9,343
Homicide: one in 16,154
Perhaps our favorite:
Air and space transport incidents (e.g. A “normal” plane crash): one in 381,566
This last one is especially interesting. If we read this right, terrorists would have to blow up about a full plane every two weeks, all year, to get the odds of dying in a terrorist attack on a plane up to the odds of dying in an ordinary plane crash. (We have a feeling that this statistic includes general aviation and that the odds for dying in a small, private plane are MUCH higher. We’ve seen other estimates on the web that the odds of dying in a commercial plane crash on a one year basis are about one in a million.) Now, we realize that terrorism is especially frightening, but has anyone recently suggested that being in a “normal” plane crash isn’t one of the scariest things you can possibly imagine? So what does it say about our rationality that we think it’s rational to put ourselves to enormous inconvenience, stress and violation of privacy to try to deter a risk which is about equal to the risk we ALREADY HAVE in flying anyway – and no one is suggested radical changes to the maintenance, training and air traffic control procedures which presumably are our means of cutting back on “normal” plane crashes.
It should also be noted that if a terrorist’s goal is to terrorize Americans about air travel then they don’t even have to go through security. As has been pointed out by numerous security experts, committing a terrorist attack on the security line itself would be easily as effective in crippling our air traffic as attacking a plane.
One final note. My wife and I were in Fiji on our honeymoon earlier this year. We were preparing to board a flight back to the US and went through security. When we arrived at our gate area of the relatively small Nadi International Airport, there was a secondary screening for US-bound passengers. I’ve seen this before and, despite how silly it seemed, I watched as my wife was led into one half of a plywood box and I was led into the other and our stuff was searched a second time. In searching my carryon a local TSA contractor pulled out a small, one-ounch clear container of hand lotion. He turned to me and said: “Sir, this needs to be in a plastic bag.” I asked him why and he said that all toiletries need to be in a clear plastic bag. I tried to explain to him that the purpose of that rule is so that he can easily examine toiletries (plural) but since this was a single container, already clear, that the clear plastic bag served no purpose. He replied, “But Sir, this has to be in a clear plastic bag.” I went on: “You do realize that the clear plastic bag doesn’t provide any magical form of security, don’t you? You are aware that the whole point of the plastic bag is to see, clearly, the object that you are currently holding in your hand? That if this object were nefarious, a glad sandwich bag would not have any ability to protect us.”
His response: “Sir, I’m not worried about that. The rule is that this has to be in a clear plastic bag.”
In an effort to help security for all Americans he then said: “If you need a clear plastic bag, you can buy one from that shop over there,” and pointed across the departure area to a small pharmacy shop. I shook my head sadly. I pointed to two gentlemen sitting in the “secure” area of US departures, and said to my TSA person: “But what about those two guys? They both have 12-ounce glass bottles of Snapple iced tea. How did those get in? Were they in clear plastic bags?”
His response was fantastic and without irony: “No, they bought those bottles at the shop.” I handed him the lotion and told him he could keep it.
Let me be clear in all this. I don’t want to see any terrorist attacks. I don’t want to see anyone hurt. However, if we’re going to be serious about security touching people’s junk, humiliating breast cancer and urinary tract cancer survivors, groping screaming 3-year-olds, feeling up half-naked children, putting clear plastic bottles in clear plastic bags, and other absurd exercises in theatricality are not the place to start.
Hate-monger Pamela Geller conducted her disgusting rally against the Park 51 Islamic Center in Tribeca (it’s not at Ground Zero, so let’s be clear here, ok?).
The following occurred:
A man walks through the crowd at the Ground Zero protest and is mistaken as a Muslim. The crowd turns on him and confronts him. The man in the blue hard hat calls him a coward and tries to fight him. The tall man who I think was one of the organizers tried to get between the two men. Later I caught up with the man who’s name is Kenny. He is a Union carpenter who works at Ground Zero. We discussed what a scary moment that was for him. I told him that I hoped it did not ruin his day.
It’s hard to watch that scene and not think that it is not a far distance from that type of moment to Kristallnacht. This is not what America stands for. If Imam Rauf is forced to move Park 51 it will be a tragic day for the American experiment in freedom and tolerance. Listen to this story of Kristallnacht and, most importantly, listen to 7:30 in the video:
And here’s one more angle on that worker incident at the hate rally today:
Fuck you Pamela Geller for doing this. Fuck you Rupert Murdoch for supporting this. Fuck you Abe Foxman for supporting this. Fuck you Howard Dean for supporting this. Fuck you Charles Krauthammer for supporting this. Fuck you Newt Gingrich for supporting this. Fuck you Harry Reid for supporting this.
So this administration has decided it will be the latest to try and forge a Middle East peace. And by Middle East, I mean Israeli-Palestinian. September 2nd, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian authority are coming to the US to negotiate. Let me say from the outset that talking is better than not talking. Let me also say that Benjamin Netanyahu is the right leader to make peace, if he decides to. Only the hawks can truly make a lasting peace. Only Ariel Sharon could have pulled Israel out of Gaza.
That all being said, I’m going to make a few predictions:
- Sometime between now and September 9th there will be either a set of rocket attacks or a suicide bombing inside Israel. If it’s rockets it will be from Gaza. If it’s a suicide bombing, it will be from the West Bank.
- Israel will feel compelled to respond and will launch a searing set of airstrikes on Gaza.
- The Palestinians will respond – most likely through the voice of Saeb Erekat – by saying that Israel is clearly not interested in peace.
- The Israelis will respond – most likely through the voice of Daniel Ayalon – by saying that they can only have peace when they have security.
The attacks will not be explicitly from Hamas, however Hamas will say that they are legitimate and, in the case of rockets, they will be launched from Hamas controlled territory.
Lastly, and most importantly, neither side will say that this is the course of events that will happen. But they should. Hilary Clinton or Barak Obama should come right out today and say that they fully expect that this will happen. They should say that they expect both sides will fall into their traditional roles and that these talks will likely collapse as that violent circle escalates. Tell both sides that they will follow this pattern exactly. Then tell both sides that this is a moment to change. They can treat this time around differently – but only if they choose to. The PA and the Israelis have an interest in progressing. Hamas does not. Don’t let them guide the news cycle. Don’t let them guide the events on the ground.
This is an exercise in psychology. Give voice to the worst possible scenario, then you won’t be taken by surprise. You’ll say: “oh, I know this cycle, I expect this to happen.” That way, people can only live up to expectations and any improvement beyond that will be seen as a victory for everyone. By stating that this set of meetings is a breakthrough, you are only inviting the traditional roles to be replayed in the most expectable manner.
I could not be more proud of being a New Yorker today and more proud of our Mayor. Congratulations to him for giving a beautiful speech on tolerance and freedom. Also, it is wonderful that the JCC, NJC and UJA were all present and supporting the Mayor, unlike the shameful JDC under Abe Foxman.
Mayor Bloomberg’s speech:
“We’ve come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor. And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That’s what makes New York special and different and strong.
“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it’s sustained by immigrants — by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.
“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.
“On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here — in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance — was hard-won over many years.
“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.
“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.
“This morning, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to extend — not to extend — landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.
“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.
“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.
“For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.
“On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ (Bloomberg’s voice cracks here a little as he gets choked up.) ‘What beliefs do you hold?’
“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.
“Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. But doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam.
“Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.
“Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.”
There is a stunning article today in the School Library Journal about a couple members of the Burlington County Library System (BCLS) removing a book from their system without following procedures simply because a member of Glen Beck’s 9.12 Project told them to. This is cowardly and disgusting. The book, Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology (Alyson, 2000), was a recommended book by SLJ, an enormously respected institution supporting and advising school libraries. The director of the BCLS is now refusing to talk about the situation and things only came to light when the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Ms. Sweet should be ashamed of her actions. If you’d like to call her, her office number is: (609) 267-9660, ext. 3021 or send an email through their online webmail system.
Here is a very concerning section of the story:
Although no formal complaint was filed, BCLS Library Commissioners supported Sweet’s recommendation to “remove “Revolutionary Voices” from” library shelves, Sweet wrote in an April 27 email to Beverly Marinelli, a grandmother and member of the 9.12 project, who told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the book is “pervasively vulgar, obscene, and inappropriate.”
“As the copies that are checked out return, we will take them out of circulation,” explained Sweet in the email to Marinelli.
Then in a May 3 email, Sweet told staffers that they needed to “pull”Revolutionary Voices from library shelves. “How can we grab the books so they never, ever get back into ccirculation (sic),” Sweet wrote to BCLS staffers. “Copies need to totally disappear (as in not a good idea to send copies to the book sale).”
But when Andy Woodworth, a librarian at the Bordentown branch of BCLS, asked Sweet whether a formal challenge had been lodged, she said no. “It was recommended both by Marge and by me that the book be removed,” she wrote Woodworth in an email dated May 24, referring to assistant director, Margaret Delaney. “The commissioners supported our decision. There was no official challenge, no actual vote by the commissioners.” When Woodworth pressed to find out on what grounds the book was removed, Sweet responded on May 25 with two words: “Child pornography.”
The decision to remove the book was made entirely by two individuals, avoiding proper procedure, and they are now not only removing the book from their circulation but she seems to be advocating destroying the books (as opposed to giving them away or selling them). This is disgusting behavior.