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Two sorts of items are found here. The first are examples of good and bad reasoning as found in our daily news. Try to "figure it out" before reading my comments. The second are my responses to new items. Enjoy!

For analyses of more recent news items, please click here.

Astronomers find second Earth (26/4/7)

Astronomers discover an Earth-like planet some 20 light years away. One astronomer claims "we can go there". A light year is the distance light travels in a year. It's a long, long way away. Even if our maximum speed is even a tenth of light speed, we'll need 200 years to get there. It's not at all practical. More importantly, why should we seek a second Earth? If the human species fails on this Earth (global warming, nuclear war etc), then so be it. We bungled. We should not be trying to go to a second Earth to mess up that planet too. Species have appeared and disappeared from an eternity ago, and will continue to do so till an eternity hence. So what if homo sapiens is one such disappeared species? So nothing.

 

Investors tipped to welcome Japan rate rise as sign of recovery (ChannelNewsAsia, 12/7/6)

TOKYO—Ryuta Otsuka, strategist at Toyo Securities, said that a rate rise would be positive for share prices but gains will be limited.

Comment: There is no such thing as unlimited gains. “Gains will be limited” is a truism, and uninformative.

 

New York beefs up transit security after India bombings (ChannelNewsAsia, 12/7/6)

WASHINGTON—In Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the blasts, which ripped through rush-hour trains in Mumbai, as "horrific." … "It simply shows that this kind of hideous incident can happen anywhere in the world against innocent people, and so we stand with India in this time of need."

Comment: New York in not just anywhere, it is a special city with global significance. This commits the Special to General Fallacy.

 

Aliens are out there (Sunday Times 28/5/6)

In 1999, while he [Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier] was repairing Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope in space, his carbon dioxide sensor started beeping, alerting him to the dangerous levels of the gas within his spacesuit. He kept his cool and continued with the delicate operation after checking that it was a fault with the sensor. He says: “You train a lot for coping with failures so I was not scared. I knew exactly what my symptoms would be if I breathe in too much carbon dioxide and I didn’t have the symptoms.” [Comment 1] … Yes, I think there are aliens in space. There is a lot of life out there. I have no evidence but it can’t be that evolved only on earth.” [Comment 2]

 

Comment 1: This is a modus tollens argument, which is valid: If (I breathe in too much carbon dioxide), then (symptoms will be such and such); I don’t have such and such symptoms; therefore I am not breathing in too much carbon dioxide. The argument is valid, and both premises are true, hence the argument is sound. It is accepted.

 

Comment 2: This is a disjunctive argument, which is valid: Either (life evolved only on earth) or (life evolved elsewhere as well); life did not evolve only on earth; therefore life evolved elsewhere as well. But he also says that he has no evidence for saying that life did not evolve only on earth, hence he cannot assert that it did not. The argument, while valid, has a false premise, and hence is unsound. It must be rejected.

 

Sony, Microsoft face off at video game show (Reuters, 8/5/6)
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — This year, Sony Corp. must prove it’s not “game over” against Microsoft Corp. … Game play on the Microsoft and Sony consoles will be virtually the same, but each machine brings a weapon to the battle that could turn the tide [Comment 1], analysts say. “There is a very different playing field this time around. One thing we’ve learned is never apply the rules of the last generation to the next one,” [Comment 2] said Peer Schneider, vice president of content publishing at IGN Entertainment, a unit of Fox Interactive Media. … “We expect Sony to come out as the winner, but they have to stick to their November schedule,” said David Mercer, principal analyst at independent research firm Strategy Analytics Inc. “Sony can’t afford to miss that this time around. [Comment 3] If they do, the Xbox 360 lead could [Comment 4] become unassailable,” Mercer said. … Pricing will be key for Sony. The premium Xbox 360 sells for $400. Sony must find a price low enough [Comment 5] to appeal to both gamers and mainstream consumers — who may choose the PS3 over significantly more expensive stand-alone Blu-ray players — without putting too much strain on its bottom line.

 

Comment 1: Does “could” mean “will” or “we don’t know”?

Comment 2: This is the problem of induction. Experience has shown that rules from one generation does not carry over to the next generation. So we form the rule “never apply the rules of the last generation to the next one”. But experience has shown us that experience is not a reliable indicator of the future. So what is the basis for the rule?

Comment 3: Meeting the deadline is a necessary condition, since “can’t afford to miss”.

Comment 4: Yet the undesirable consequence only “could” happen, meaning “we don’t know if it will”. This contradicts the necessary condition.

Comment 5: Using the word “enough” guarantees the truth of the claim — it surely will “appeal to both gamers and mainstream consumers”.. This is a fallacy called petition principii.

 

 

Google sees large revenue growth in China (Reuters, 12/4/6)

BEIJING — Web search leader Google Inc. expects substantial revenue growth in China and will eventually have thousands of software engineers working there, Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said on Wednesday. “I don’t know where (Chinese) revenue growth will be, but it will obviously be large,” Schmidt told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference.

Comment: While it is well known that China is a large country, it is not intuitively obvious that Chinese revenue growth will be large. A reason needs to be provided to support this conclusion.

 

Over a million protest across the US to demand fairer immigration laws (CNA, 12/4/6)

WASHINGTON — Across the US, more than a million protestors have taken to the streets to demand fairer immigration laws. … The overwhelmingly Hispanic crowds want the US government to expand rights for illegal aliens and make it easier to gain citizenship. [Comment 1]… John Keeley, Centre for Immigration Studies, said, “You need to have order in your immigration system, and it’s clear the United States does not. [Comment 2] The United States has 12 million illegal aliens today about whom our government knows precious little.” [Comment 3] … These protests are making politicians very nervous. Softer immigration laws might anger some Americans, [Comment 4] but tighter restrictions could alienate the country’s rapidly growing Hispanic population. [Comment 1]

 

Comment 1: Sheer numbers do not constitute a good argument. In fact, it is a fallacy known as the Argumentum ad Populum.

 

Comment 2: There’s a potential argument here, based on the lack of order in the system. However, the argument is only partial (this is known as an enthymeme). It needs to be fully elaborated.

 

Comment 3: There’s another potential argument here, based on ignorance of the 12 million illegal aliens. However, the argument is only partial (this is known as an enthymeme). It needs to be fully elaborated.

 

Comment 4: Appeal to an emotional state is also a fallacy, the Argumentum ad Misericordiam.

 

Summary: We have three fallacies and two enthymemes. There is no case.

 

US Army redraws its tattoo policy (BBC, 30/3/6)

The US Army has relaxed its policy on tattoos in a bid to boost the number of new recruits to its ranks. [Comment 1] Soldiers can now have tattoos on their hands and back of the neck as long as they are not “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist,” army officials say. Women recruits can also wear permanent eye-liner, eyebrows and lip makeup, although it must “not be trendy”. [Comment 2] An army official said it made no sense any more to bar highly-qualified people on the basis of their body art. [Comment 3] “The army is continuing to update our personnel policies. [Comment 4] We have people who are otherwise qualified who want to serve and who have answered the call to duty.” Tattoos on the head, face or throat area will continue to be banned, and any sexist, racist or gang tattoo makes potential recruits “unfit for duty”, Lt Hilferty stressed [Comment 2]. Permanent make-up “should be conservative and complement the uniform and complexion in both style and colour and will not be trendy,” the regulations read [Comment 2].

 

Comment 1: This intention alone cannot be used to justify the action. To do so ignores other means of achieving the same goal as well as other consequences of the action.

 

Comment 2: “Extremist, indecent, sexist, racist, trendy” are all words on a slippery slope, on which no logically firm line of distinction can be drawn. The only solution to such a situation is to draw an arbitrary line and stick to it. The same applies to body parts, “unfit for duty”, “conservative, complement the uniform and complexion”.

 

Comment 3: This suggests there once was a time when it did make sense to bar people on the basis of their body art. This needs to be elaborated.

 

Comment 4: Time alone never changes anything, except age. Something must have happened during that time to warrant the change. This needs to be elaborated.

 

 

EU trade chief sees no decision from WTO powers meeting (AFP, 29/3/6)

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) — EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson predicted that a weekend meeting of World Trade Organization powerhouses would fail to nudge stalled global trade talks forward. … “I don’t think it would be a decision” forthcoming from the talks, Mandelson said at a news conference in Buenos Aires. Rather, he said, the meeting “will be an opportunity to understand the differences that exist among the key players to see how we could narrow the gap between us.”

Comment: Note that Mandelson is merely asserting his opinion. He offers no argument to support this conclusion.

 

New term, new name, good luck (Straits Times, 21/2/6)

SHANGHAI—When a new school term starts, students get new uniforms, shoes, books and — for some young students in Shanghai — a new name. Parents are changing their children’s names in the hope that they will enjoy good luck, improve their grades or drop bad habits like web addiction, the Shanghai Daily said yesterday. … Teachers said it was common for primary and secondary students — especially those in their final year — to return to school with a new name at the start of a new school term.

Comment: This is an Argumentum ad Populum, an appeal to the gallery (specifically to popularity). It argues: “Because X is popular, therefore X is alright”. In this case, X is the change of name. This argument is a fallacy, a bad argument. One can easily think of many popular things eg. drugs, that are not alright.

 

Males only for Japan’s throne: Expert (Straits Times, 19/2/6)

TOKYO—An expert on Japan’s royal family and a distant relative of the emperor has said that the world’s oldest monarchy should not allow a woman to sit on the throne. … “Japan’s royal family is the oldest family in the world that has preserved its patriarchic bloodline to date … It is absolutely unacceptable to let it end now,” Mr. Takeda, who has written a book on Japan’s royalty, said last Friday.

Comment: This is also an Argumentum ad Populum, an appeal to the gallery (specifically to tradition). It argues: “Because X has always been so, therefore X is alright”. In this case, X is a male on the throne. This argument is a fallacy, a bad argument. One can easily think of many traditional things eg. corruption, that are not alright.

 

This sex education guide is just too hot (Today, 13/2/6)

LONDON—A 60-page sex education study guide for 14 to 16-year-old British students has scandalized parents. They demand its immediate removal from the school system. … All the topics in the 60-page guide, including safer sex and pregnancy, are recommended in national guidelines, but the style in which they are written is “shockingly explicit”, the newspaper reported. [Comment 1] … Other comments, including some on penis size, were too distasteful to reproduce, the newspaper reported. [Comment 2] … Ms Jacqui Davies, a mother of two teenage boys, found the guide in her son’s bag. She has written to the head teacher to ask for the book to be withdrawn. “I was absolutely horrified,” she said. [Comment 3] “The matey and flippant style sends a mixed message. [Comment 4] The majority of 14-year-olds are not having sex, so why should they be made to read this stuff?” [Comment 5] … A spokesman for the publishers defended the guide: “It discusses serious issues and gives sensible advice in an accessible style for young people.” [Comment 6][Verdict]

 

Comment 1: “Shockingly explicit” is the reporter’s opinion, and imputing this on to everyone else commits the special (reporter) to general (everyone) fallacy. This must be rejected.

 

Comment 2: The same special to general fallacy. Rejected.

 

Comment 3: The same special to general fallacy. Rejected.

 

Comment 4: This is an enthymeme (a partially presented argument). Its expanded form is a hypothetical syllogism (an if-then argument): “If the style is matey and flippant, it will send a mixed message. If the message is mixed, it should not be sent. The style is matey and flippant. Therefore the message should not be sent.” This argument form is valid (the premises imply the conclusion), so the argument passes the first test of an argument. However, it is not intuitively true that “If the style is matey and flippant, it will send a mixed message” or that “If the message is mixed, it should not be sent”. The argument does not pass the second test, that of true premises. Therefore, the argument cannot be accepted as sound.

 

Comment 5: This is also a hypothetical enthymeme. “If most people are not doing X, they should not be told about X. Most 14-year-olds are not having sex. Therefore 14-year-olds should not be made to read this stuff.” The argument form is valid, as it satisfies the Modus Ponens structure (If P, then Q; P; therefore Q). The argument passes the first test. However, the truth of the premise “If most people are not doing X, they should not be told about X” is not intuitively acceptable. Counterexamples come readily to mind: Most people are not taking drugs, yet they should be warned about the dangers of taking drugs. So the argument fails the second test, and cannot be be accepted as sound.

 

Comment 6: This is also a hypothetical enthymeme. “If a book discusses serious issues and gives sensible advice in an accessible style for young people, it should be permitted. This book discusses serious issues and gives sensible advice in an accessible style for young people. Therefore it should be permitted.” The argument form is valid, as it satisfies the Modus Ponens structure (If P, then Q; P; therefore Q). The premises are also intuitively true. Therefore the argument should be accepted as sound. However, note that the publisher’s defence makes no mention of the criterion of good taste, which form the crux of the objector’s arguments. Because of this, the arguments of the objectors and the publisher do not engage.

 

Verdict: All the objections fail. The defence succeeds. The opposing arguments do not engage.

 

 

Infertility link in iceman’s DNA (BBC, 3/2/6)

Oetzi, the prehistoric man frozen in a glacier for 5,300 years, could have been infertile, a new study suggests. Examination of his remains has already revealed the Copper Age man almost certainly died as a result of a fight. The assessment is based on the presence of an arrowhead that is lodged in his back and extensive cuts to his hands. The scientists behind the latest genetic research now speculate that Oetzi's possible sterility could have been a factor that led to this violent end. Dr Franco Rollo, from the University of Camerino, and colleagues examined stretches of DNA taken from cells in the iceman’s intestines. In particular, they looked at the genetic material contained in mitochondria, tiny structures that provide power to cells. This type of DNA is passed only down the maternal line. The team says it found areas that are linked to an increased chance of male infertility. “We screened sites [of the DNA] which have been described by other scientists as being linked to other pathologies or environmental adaptations,” Dr Rollo said. “A couple of these sites have been described as being linked to reduced sperm mobility and we found both on Oetzi’s mitochondrial DNA,” he told the BBC News website. “We cannot say for certain that he was suffering from this [reduced sperm mobility], but there is a chance.” Dr Rollo said the idea that Oetzi might have been infertile was intriguing, and while emphasising that this was purely speculation, he noted it would be interesting to pursue the idea further. “At the moment, purely as a matter of speculation, I am in touch with some cultural anthropologists, medical anthropologists and archaeologists to obtain information on what this [male infertility] could have meant in primitive society,” he added. “One would have to investigate whether there was an awareness of male infertility in this ancient society; and if so, whether the lack of a family or clan could represent a kind of social weakness.” At first it was thought Oetzi had died from exposure to the cold, but the wounds on his hands and the arrowhead would seem to indicate he died as a result of injuries he received in a fight. Given the suggestion that Oetzi may have been infertile, Dr Rollo wondered whether the social implications of this could have played a role in the chain of events that led to a confrontation.

Comment for NOUS graduates: Weak hypotheticals.

Comment for others: Do not get lost in the words. Look for the argument: “Some other scientists have found DNA sites that are linked to reduced sperm mobility, we have found similar sites, therefore Oetzi may have reduced sperm mobility.” The hypothetical “If DNA site here, then sperm mobility is weak” is not strongly established. Another argument: “If man is infertile, then socially weak, then fight. Man is infertile. Therefore socially weak, therefore killed in fight.” The anthropological link is not at all established. Even the scientists admit this is all speculation. As it stands, it should be read as just imaginative fiction.

 

Exotic crabs in waterway invasion (BBC, 8/2/6)

An exotic Chinese crab that preys on British native species is on the verge of taking over the country's major waterways, environmental experts warn. … A study by researchers at Newcastle University compared their invasion to that of grey squirrels, which pushed native reds to the verge of extinction. The study authors predict the mitten crab (so called because its claws are coated with small clumps of dark brown fur, or mittens) has the potential to establish itself in all major UK estuaries in several years’ time. Dr Matt Bentley, a member of the research team, said: “The pattern of the spread in the UK since the 1970s mirrors the spread in mainland Europe and in the Baltic region which experienced a major outbreak. This is a fairly good indication that the UK is set for a similar situation.”

Comment for NOUS graduates: Induction, but possibly special to general fallacy.

Comment for others: Induction is the process of arguing from some cases to all cases. But here just one case is used as grounds for a general case, and hence deriving the new instance. Is one case enough to justify the generalization? If not, it’s a fallacy (a bad argument).

 

‘Foolproof’ tsunami alert (Today, 6/1/6)

NEW DELHI—Noted seismologist Harsh K Gupta said some of the key elements of the Early Tsunami Warning System would include “a couple of ocean bottom sensors” to prevent false alarms. … “The Pacific warnings are given soon after an earthquake occurs. Such a system can create problems because of India’s huge coastal population. An undersea earthquake is a necessary condition but not sufficient condition for generation of tsunami,” Mr. Gupta told a science conference yesterday.

Comment for NOUS graduates: Distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions.

Comment for others: A necessary condition is one that must be met for an effect to occur. A sufficient condition is one that alone can bring about the effect. In this context, an undersea earthquake must precede a tsunami, but an undersea earthquake may be not followed by a tsunami.

 

 

Firm admits it gave false hope to miners’ families (Today, 6/1/6)

TALLMANSVILLE (West Virginia)—American firm International Coal Group … president and chief executive Ben Hatfield acknowledged that managers knew that a report that the miners had survived was wrong within 20 minutes but waited three hours to tell the families because it was seeking confirmation. “We were trying to get them good information and in the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have,” said Mr. Hatfield.

Comment for NOUS graduates: Genetic fallacy (intention to excuse).

Comment for others: The argument goes from “we did not intend this consequence” to “we are not responsible for this consequence”. This argument is a fallacy, a bad argument. Lack of intention is not equivalent to lack of blame.

 

Blood thinners cause of Sharon’s stroke? (Straits Times, 6/1/6)

JERUSALEM—According to a Time magazine report, blood thinners such as heparin and other medications are life-saving drugs, but also tricky to administer. They are given after a person has suffered a heart attack or a thrombolytic stroke, in which a clot has lodged in a blood vessel in the brain. The aim is to prevent new life-threatening clots from forming in the bloodstream. However, that benefit comes at a price: the risk of triggering a massive haemorrhagic stroke, in which there is uncontrolled bleeding into the brain.

Comment for NOUS graduates: Teleological justification.

Comment for others: A teleological justification is where an action is to be chosen or avoided (also praised or blamed) depending on the consequences that follows from it. In this case, administering a blood thinner reduces the risk of clots but increases the risk of haemorrhage; and not administering a blood thinner maintains the original respective risks. The way to decide what to do is to assess all four probabilities, and choose the lowest risk action. The difficulty is assessing the respective risks.

 

 

Mayor to toss ‘dumb’ snowball ban (Straits Times, 2/1/6)

The mayor of Topeka, capital of Kansas, plans to repeal a “dumb” law banning the throwing of snowballs — after breaking it himself. Mr. Bill Bunte found out about the rule when a high school student wrote and said the law had been ridiculed in her class as a “dumb law”. He confessed to having hurled a snowball recently and said he would ask for the law to be revised. Anyone caught throwing a snowball in public can be jailed for 179 days and fined up to US$499 as part of laws against assault.

Comment for NOUS graduates: Fallacy of Proof by Assertion. Counterargument.

Comment for others: The only ground offered for repealing the law is that someone called it “dumb”. That assertion alone does not make a law dumb. It is a fallacy (bad argument). While an argument (though fallacious) has been put forward for repealing the law, none has been offered to rebut the original reason (assault) for enacting the same law. Thus, the original reason still stands. A counterargument has no force of rebuttal.

 

High-flyers chart their worth with private planes (Straits Times, 2/1/6)

BEIJING—Mr. Tu Changzhong, chairman of the board at Wenzhou Yikai Broup, told the China Daily that he had bought a Robinson helicopter in hopes of “fostering a good company image”. Mr. Tu was quoted as saying: “It is worthwhile spending millions of yuan on a business jet to save time and energy. Also, owning a plane convinces your business partners that you are reliable.”

Comment for NOUS graduates: Enthymemes. Fallacy of Asserting the Consequent.

Comment for others: Three partial arguments (enthymemes) are offered: fostering a good company name, saving time and energy, proof of reliability. All three commit the same fallacy (bad argument), that of asserting the consequent. The fallacy ignores other ways of achieving the same ends, and possible ill effects of adopting the policy (in this case that of buying private planes).

Feedback, submissions, ideas? Email laukwongfook@yahoo.com.sg.