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Avoiding Failure: Fallacy Finding

10 Post author: Patrick 03 July 2009 05:59PM

When I was in high school, one of the exercises we did was to take a newspaper column, and find all of the fallacies it employed. It was a fun thing to do, and is good awareness raising for critical thinking, but it probably wouldn't be enough to stave off being deceived by an artful propagandist unless I did it until it was reflexive. To catch the fallacy being, I usually have to read a sentence three or four times to see the underlying logic behind it and remember why the logic is invalid, when I'm confronted by something as fallacy ridden as an ad for the Love Calculator, I just give up in exhaustion. Worse, when I'm watching television, I can't even rewind to see what they said (I suspect the fallacy count is higher too).

To counter this, (and to further hone my fallacy finding skills), I've extended the fallacy finding exercise to work on video. Take a video from a genre that generally has a high fallacy per minute ratio (e.g. Campaign ads, political debates, speeches, regular ads, Oprah) and edit the video to play a klaxon sound whenever someone commits a logical fallacy or gets a fact wrong, followed by the name of the fallacy they committed flashing on screen.

EDIT: I've made one of these and uploaded it to Youtube. Thank you Eliezer and CannibalSmith for the encouragement. You can find other debates at CNN, and youtube lets you do annotations so no editing software is technically required. I'll be posting further videos to this post as I make/find them.

Comments (18)

Comment author: Dustin 08 July 2009 02:27:06PM *  3 points [-]

I like this idea. I have a hard time listening to political speakers because of all the obvious (to me...a student of such things) fallacies and methods of the Dark Arts.

A couple of suggestions:

  1. Who are the target of these sorts of videos? If it's "fallacy noobs", I suggest shorter videos. You could cut the one up, present the question at hand as text, and then present just enough of the video clip to get the speakers context. Personally, I almost stopped watching before we got to your first noted example nearly 2 minutes in to the video.
  2. If the target is "fallacy noobs", and you're going to use political sources, I'd probably mix up examples from different political parties. Too many people will just shut down if they think you're attacking their political party.
Comment author: colinmarshall 09 July 2009 08:16:13PM 0 points [-]

Seconded and extended: it's going to need to be made very, very clear that there's no political slant at work. I'd even recommend going completely sans political subject matter for a little while; poke a few holes in some pundit's argument and you'll be assumed to have an ironclad agenda to promote the opposite (and probably also bad) position.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 July 2009 02:35:36AM 2 points [-]

Have you done one of these yet? A project like this is much more effective if you take the first step yourself. Otherwise: Announcing your intentions makes you less likely to carry it out.

Comment author: Patrick 08 July 2009 01:56:07AM 2 points [-]

Ok, I've done one now, the link has been added to the post. I really appreciate you making me overcome my akrasia.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 July 2009 06:47:04AM 1 point [-]

...not overwhelmingly well-spelled, but okay, post promoted.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 06 July 2009 04:19:29PM *  0 points [-]

Please promote the article to the front page to increase the probability of someone with free time seeing it. A good idea should not suffer because of its originator.

Comment author: shaesays 16 July 2009 01:56:49AM 1 point [-]

Sorry to comment on this so late, but I was very interested in the topic and have been tied up working late all week where I'm not able to stream videos.

It would be cool if lots of people made videos like these, maybe giving them a common prefix (Fallacy Finding - The South Carolina Democratic Primary Debate - Part 1), so that a search could be done to find all videos of a similar nature. I think a little community could build up around the idea. I'd certainly be interested in making and/or watching them.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 06 July 2009 04:22:54PM *  1 point [-]

I will upvote your article now. After a month, if you will not have made a YouTube video, I will downvote it.

Comment author: AndrewKemendo 08 July 2009 10:16:19AM *  0 points [-]

Take a video from a genre that generally has a high fallacy per minute ratio, and edit the video to play a klaxon sound whenever someone commits a logical fallacy or gets a fact wrong, followed by the name of the fallacy they committed flashing on screen.

How fortuitous! I have been thinking that this would be a great substitute for the current lineup of political television programs on the air now. A series of clips from the day or week that expose the fallacies and logical errors that politicians and blowhards make on a day to day basis. I know Politifact and Factcheck do a great job at calling these people to the carpet.

I wonder however, if the median viewer has a deep enough understanding of fallacies for a program like this to be effective or if it would take a host to explain each one in detail for the viewer not to get lost.

Comment author: MineCanary 06 July 2009 05:54:33PM -1 points [-]

I don't think I know enough to do one of these, but I was googling around searching for a suitable video and came across the statement (it turned out to be in a comment thread, but still):

"Global warming is a libtard fairy tale like evolution, solar power and gay marriage."

Off-topic, yes, but I felt the need to share.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 08 July 2009 07:17:49AM 0 points [-]

You do realize that is a parody, right?

Comment author: MineCanary 08 July 2009 10:11:15PM 0 points [-]

Ah, no. I grew up listening to arguments like, "Racism, sexism, and ableism. You know what I think of all that? Marxist bullshit, invented to turn people against each other. Divide and conquer."

That was my father, a few weeks ago, expressing his belief that the world (and especially the US, but even more so Europe) is ruled by Marxist who invented racism and sexism. This is someone who went to first grade in southern Georgia, the US, the first year of racial desegregation in schools.

I have heard it argued, and not just by him, that all the things listed are retarded liberal fantasies: That evolution is a way of denying God and thereby justifying hedonism, a lot about how solar panels take more energy to manufacture than they'll produce in their lifetime, and about how a society that tolerates homosexuality cannot survive (and that it can't truly be a marriage if it's between two people of the same sex).

Yes, it's possible to tell parodies from people honestly stating their views if you study the context, but it's not often possible to do so just from the context of what they're saying. I thought the above person was just stating their views succinctly in a way they thought was clever.

Comment author: asciilifeform 09 July 2009 01:57:59PM 2 points [-]

solar panels take more energy to manufacture than they'll produce in their lifetime

Do you mean to say that this is false?

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 July 2009 02:01:50PM *  -1 points [-]

It is false for all panels on the market today. There may in the past have been solar panels that cost a lot more energy to manufacture and produced a lot less energy, but no one would be a panel like that anymore.

Comment author: asciilifeform 09 July 2009 03:38:29PM 2 points [-]

Would you be willing to show a reference or back-of-the-envelope calculation for this?

The last time I checked, the manufacture of large photovoltaic panels was energy-intensive and low-yield (their current price suggests that these problem persist.) They were also rated for a useful life of around two decades.

I do not believe that these problems have been corrected in any panel currently on the market. There is no shortage of vaporware.

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 July 2009 04:37:17PM 2 points [-]

Manufacturers hold the details of their processes close to the chest, but you can use their sale price for a back-of-the-envelope upper bound. Searching Google for "photovoltaics", the first price I found was $2.38/W (in one of the ads). Assuming the manufacturer only breaks even, and that entire price was spent on energy used for manufacturing the panels and the materials used to make the panels, then at 5 cents/kWh (which according to http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/115.htm is a good price), making the panel couldn't have used more than 47kWh/W. If that much energy was used, and the solar panel operated at rated capacity for 8 hours/day, then it would take 16 years to produce the energy used to make it. By comparison, the warranty on the same panel guarantees at least 80% capacity for 25 years.

However, this is a very loose upper bound, in that I assumed that the entire purchase price was spent on electricity. This is probably off by an order of magnitude, since the cost of solar cells is dominated by labor, R&D, factory equipment, and profit, not by energy use.

Comment author: Joe 19 July 2009 05:57:04PM 0 points [-]

I appreciated this calculation. Although as you show it's unlikely that solar panels represent a net loss in energy, it's still kind of off-putting that, given my local power rate of 5 cents/kWh, I'd have to wait 16 years to make back my money if I buy solar panels to reduce the power I take from the grid. Of course, this results mainly from the government subsidy of residential power, a bizarre policy completely at odds with the same government's exhortations to be "power smart".

Comment author: MineCanary 10 July 2009 07:04:45PM -2 points [-]

I haven't done the necessary investigation to tell whether or not it's false, although I'm inclined to believe that recent technological advances support jimrandomh's position, but that was aside from the point. I was merely saying that I have heard people argue that every one of the points is a fantasy, and solar energy was one of them. I'm not the one who connected it to gay marriage and evolution, so its inclusion among two things I believe I have enough knowledge to say are not fantasies is not meant to imply an endorsement of solar energy.