Friday, August 31, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Blue Moons, and Common Fallacies of Logic and Rhetoric

Billie Holiday "Blue Moon"

"Yf they saye the mone is belewe,
We must beleve that it is true." -William Barlow, 1528

      If you saw the Moon in the sky (like, where else would it be?) last night you were looking at a Blue Moon... sort of (you were actually looking at the precursor to a Blue Moon).
   "What!" you exclaim, "it'd didn't look blue to me. Is this some kind of sick, nefarious trick Joyce?!"
   Not at all. Let me explain.
   References to the moon being blue are quite old comparatively, as the above quote from Mr. Barlow demonstrates. Still only after several centuries did the phrase "once in a blue moon" come to mean something that didn't happen very often. The earliest example of it this is in Pierce Egan's Real Life in London, 1821:
   "How’s Harry and Ben? - haven’t seen you this blue moon." (thanks to Gary Martin of Phrase Finder for the info)
   Sometimes it really does appear blue, like after a particularly nasty volcanic eruption which shoots a lot of dirt into the atmosphere, and we look at the Moon through all of that dirt, which absorbs  or scatters other wavelengths or colors except blue (sometimes green, which may be the origen of belief that the Moon is composed of cheese... which is true, it is composed of cheese... Sage Derby cheese to be precise. But don't take my word for it... check for yourself).
   The year is divided into four equal seasons, each 91 or 92 days long. Because there are 29.5 days between full moons, four full moons occasionally get squooshed into a single season.  
   In 1946, "Sky and Telescope" magazine traced the term "Blue Moon" to the "Maine Farmer's Almanac," where it referred to the third full moon in a season that contains four full moons instead of the usual three.
   But whoever wrote that article made a slight technical error and referred to a Blue Moon as the second full moon in a month with two full moons.
   In 1980 a radio program used the incorrect definition, then, in 1981, the designers of the board game Trivial Pursuit came across the 1946 magazine article. They put the definition into the game, and suddenly this incorrect explanation of an unscientific term became "general knowledge."
   Such is the overwhelming power of board games.
   As we have learned, the modern phrase "once in a blue moon..." is supposed to refer to an event that occurs very rarely, however on the average, Blue Moons come along once every 2.7 years. The next one will be in July of 2015. I can't wait!
   In Los Angeles the moon rose at 7:13PM yesterday, about five hours ago. As I post this, the Moon's still up there, but I won't go out and look at it until around 5:30 or so, when I walk over the 6th Street Bridge. The moon will set at 6:34AM. But at 6:58AM, 24 minutes after I won't be able to see it here in L.A., the Moon will reach it's maximum fullness, making it the second full Moon in this month of August (the first being on August 1st), which of course makes it a Blue Moon.
   Isn't it wonderful!
   Accordingly, the private funeral service for Neil Armstrong is being held today, the first man to walk on that Moon, blue, green, or otherwise. Mr. Armstrong died last Saturday in Ohio at age 82.
   Again, goodbye Neil.

   Now back to the business at hand.
   Dr. Sagan made the following list of common fallacies of logic and rhetoric as a companion to the Baloney Detection Kit. Let's take a look:
   1. Argumentum ad hominem (which is Latin for attacking the arguer and not the argument).
   This happens to me all of time when I point out specific facts regarding the differences between the Democratic and Republican history and agenda, with various friends and distant relatives of a conservative bent on Facebook. Rather than take the time to research any particular point I make and actually present a coherent argument themselves they tend to attack me, at which point I respond: "Attacking me does not further your argument." That really pisses them off.
   2. Argument from "authority."
   Mitt (Mitt) Romney, the Republican nominee for President of the United States, tells us that we should vote for him because he has spent many years as a successful business person who will be able to effectively deal with the country's economic problems, much better than President Obama has.
   Mitt is using his position of authority (nominee for President and successful business person) to persuade citizens to vote for him. His argument may or may not be true. Running a country is not the same as running a business. And other considerations should always be taken into account, for instance he has not laid out any specific plans as to how he will actually govern for fear of being attacked by the Obama campaign, in essence saying we just have to trust him that he will be able to do what he says he will do, and considering his estranged relationship with the truth in the past, quite frankly his word doesn't mean a great deal.
   3. Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavorable" decision).
   During the general election of 2004 Vice President Dick (Dick) Cheney argued that if the voters did not reelect President Bush the country would be attacked again like it was on 9/11. Well, how could he possibly know that unless he had plans to attack the country himself? This is also a fortune telling argument. Dick must have had the ability to see the future in order to make such a statement.
   This argument was also used to justify going to war with Iraq, and is currently being used to further the argument that the United States must attack Iran, because if Iran gets nuclear weapon capabilities something horrible will happen, which again, may or may not be true. North Korea has had nuclear weapon capabilities for years without dire consequences so far. Using this argument, wouldn't it make more sense to attack North Korea (I'm not promoting that idea. I don't believe we should be attacking anyone at all)?
   4. Argumentum ad ignorantiam or Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
   There is no evidence that God exists which does not prove that God does not exist. There is no evidence for UFO's (in this instance, UFO's meaning extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting the Earth) which does not prove they don't exist. As of yet there is no evidence that life exists on planets other than the Earth, yet this does not prove that extraterrestrial life does not exist.
   There is no evidence for Leprechauns, yet I happen to know the cagy little buggers do exist!
   But you shouldn't take my word for it.
   5. Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
   How could God allow us to kill each other in wars if he indeed loves each and every one of us? This question infers that God does not exist, the most frequent rebuttal being: Well, we just don't understand how God does things, or his will for us. Or how could God allow such extreme poverty and disease for the majority of the worlds population... same response, we just don't understand God, and what's more we never will. God's will is beyond our capability to comprehend.
     6.  Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
      We must continue to use standardized tests in our schools to make them more efficient. Is this indeed true? Evidence suggests otherwise, and the statement says nothing to the quality of education a student receives. Dr Sagan uses the example of the death penalty, that if we did not utilize it, more capital crimes would transpire.
   There is no evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders.
   7. Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
      Mitt Romney proclaims how successful he was running Bain Capital and the number of jobs he created there. What he often omits is the number of workers who lost their jobs after their companies had been acquired by Bain, and that the jobs created by Bain that Romney boasts of were largely in other countries.
   Just saying.
   8. Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
   Current polls of registered voters indicate that Mitt Romney and President Obama are about tied as to who would be elected president if the election were held today. Considering many other polls have indicated over a long period of time that the President is ahead of Romney with young voters, blacks, Hispanics, women, Eskimos, and seniors who don't watch Fox so-called News, one has to wonder at who these pollsters are polling, and in what numbers... 15 disgruntled ex-confederate soldiers?
   Also, if you happen to live in a rather homogenized community as far as political persuasion is concerned, like the south, or California, not knowing many people who would vote for a Republican or Democrat does not translate to there being little support for that candidate nationally.
   9. Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!).
   The word here to emphasize is "average." As a statistic 50% will average on  one side and 50% on the other.
   10.  Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
   Or as Dr. Sagan points out: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States to the failures of capitalism (the United States has the highest rate of infant mortality of any industrial nation).
   11. Confusion of correlation and causation. Sometimes known as Fallacy of False Cause. Essentially, it's any argument that asserts that one thing is definitely the cause of another, simply because the two things in question are close in either space or time.
   Our lovely friend Ms. Jenny McCarthy has been guilty of using this type of argument (third picture above) and claims that vaccines cause autism. I'm sure all of us sympathize with any illness her son suffers from, however these claims are not supported by any medical evidence. Yet all of us here at Joyce's Take (me and my invisible cat, Herkimer) love her anyway.
   Really love her.
   I wish she were here right now as a matter of ...
   Stop it Joyce.

We shall conclude in the next installment

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