Archive for February, 2024

Feb 06 2024

Weaponized Pedantry and Reverse Gish Gallop

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Have you ever been in a discussion where the person with whom you disagree dismisses your position because you got some tiny detail wrong or didn’t know the tiny detail? This is a common debating technique. For example, opponents of gun safety regulations will often use the relative ignorance of proponents regarding gun culture and technical details about guns to argue that they therefore don’t know what they are talking about and their position is invalid. But, at the same time, GMO opponents will often base their arguments on a misunderstanding of the science of genetics and genetic engineering.

Dismissing an argument because of an irrelevant detail is a form of informal logical fallacy. Someone can be mistaken about a detail while still being correct about a more general conclusion. You don’t have to understand the physics of the photoelectric effect to conclude that solar power is a useful form of green energy.

There are also some details that are not irrelevant, but may not change an ultimate conclusion. If someone thinks that industrial release of CO2 is driving climate change, but does not understand the scientific literature on climate sensitivity, that doesn’t make them wrong. But understanding climate sensitivity is important to the climate change debate, it just happens to align with what proponents of anthropogenic global warming are concluding. In this case you need to understand what climate sensitivity is, and what the science says about it, in order to understand and counter some common arguments deniers use to argue against the science of climate change.

What these few examples show is a general feature of the informal logical fallacies – they are context dependent. Just because you can frame someone’s position as a logical fallacy does not make their argument wrong (thinking this is the case is the fallacy fallacy). What logical fallacy is using details to dismissing the bigger picture? I have heard this referred to as a “Reverse Gish Gallop”. I’m don’t use this term because I don’t think it captures the essence of the fallacy. I have used the term “weaponized pedantry” before and I think that is better.

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Feb 05 2024

Did They Find Amelia Earhart’s Plane

Published by under Skepticism

Is this sonar image taken at 16,000 feet below the surface about 100 miles from Howland island, that of a downed Lockheed Model 10-E Electra plane? Tony Romeo hopes it is. He spent $9 million to purchase an underwater drone, the Hugan 6000, then hired a crew and scoured 5,200 square miles in a 100 day search hoping to find exactly that. He was looking, of course, for the lost plane of Amelia Earhart. Has he found it? Let’s explore how we answer that question.

First some quick background – most people know Amelia Earhart was a famous (and much beloved) early female pilot, the first female to cross the Atlantic solo. She was engaged in a mission to be the first solo pilot (with her navigator, Fred Noonan) to circumnavigate the globe. She started off in Oakland California flying east. She made it all the way to Papua New Guinea. From there her plan was to fly to Howland Island, then Honolulu, and back to Oakland. So she had three legs of her journey left. However, she never made it to Howland Island. This is a small island in the middle of the Pacific ocean and navigating to it is an extreme challenge. The last communication from Earhart was that she was running low on fuel.

That was the last anyone heard from her. The primary assumption has always been that she never found Howland Island, her plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. This happened in 1937.  But people love mysteries and there has been endless speculation about what may have happened to her. Did she go of course and arrive at the Marshall Islands 1000 miles away? Was she captured by the Japanese (remember, this was right before WWII)? Every now and then a tidbit of suggestive evidence crops up, but always evaporates on close inspection. It’s all just wishful thinking and anomaly hunting.

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Feb 02 2024

How To Prove Prevention Works

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]


This memorable exchange from The Simpsons is one of the reasons the fictional character, Lisa Simpson, is a bit of a skeptical icon. From time to time on the show she does a descent job of defending science and reason, even toting a copy of “Jr. Skeptic” magazine (which was fictional at the time then created as a companion to Skeptic magazine).

What the exchange highlights is that it can be difficult to demonstrate (let alone “prove”) that a preventive measure has worked. This is because we cannot know for sure what the alternate history or counterfactual would have been. If I take a measure to prevent contracting COVID and then I don’t get COVID, did the measure work, or was I not going to get COVID anyway? Historically the time this happened on a big scale was Y2K – this was a computer glitch set to go off when the year changed to 2000. Most computer code only encoded the year as two digits, assuming the first two digits were 19, so 1995 was encoded as 95. So when the year changed to 2000, computers around the world would think it was 1900 and chaos would ensue. Between $300 billion and $500 billion were spent world wide to fix this bug by upgrading millions of lines of code to a four digit year stamp.

Did it work? Well, the predicted disasters did not happen, so from that perspective it did. But we can’t know for sure what would have happened if we did not fix the code. This has lead to speculation and even criticism about wasting all that time and money fixing a non-problem. There is good reason to think that the preventive measures worked, however.

At the other end of the spectrum, often doomsday cults, predicting that the world will end in some way on a specific date, have to deal with the day after. One strategy is to say that the faith of the group prevented doomsday (the tiger-rock strategy). They can now celebrate and start recruiting to prevent the next doomsday.

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Feb 01 2024

Some Future Tech Possibilities

Published by under Technology

It’s difficult to pick winners and losers in the future tech game. In reality you just have to see what happens when you try out a new technology in the real world with actual people. Many technologies that look good on paper run into logistical problems, difficulty scaling, fall victim to economics, or discover that people just don’t like using the tech. Meanwhile, surprises hits become indispensable or can transform the way we live our lives.

Here are a few technologies from recent news that may or may not be part of our future.

Recharging Roads

Imaging recharging your electric vehicle wirelessly just by driving over a road. Sounds great, but is it practical and scalable? Detroit is running an experiment to help find out. On a 400 meter stretch of downtown road they installed inducting cables under the ground and connected them to the city grid. EVs that have the $1,000 device attached to their battery can charge up while driving over this stretch of road.

The technology itself is proven, and is already common for recharging smartphones. It’s inductive charging, using a magnetic field to induce a current which recharges a battery. Is this a practical approach to range anxiety? Right now this technology costs $2 million per mile. Having any significant infrastructure of these roads would be incredibly costly, and it’s not clear the benefit is worth it. How much are they going to charge the EV? What is the efficiency? Will drivers fork out $1000 for minimal benefit?

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