Saturday, September 02, 2006

Shooting Oneself In The Foot

Posted by on September 2nd, 2006 by DreadPirateYarr under Useless Reading, Blogging, General, Citizen Journalism at

Another of our bloggers recently wrote an article about her father shooting himself in the foot. I just had to know the whole story about this—and she was kind enough to oblige. Seems that this gentleman foolishly chose to use a loaded gun to learn gunslinger quickdraw methods, with one in the chamber. Not the best plan!

But how many of us go around like this? That’s where the term “half-cocked” came from. It means acting precipitously, without being certain of the facts, and referred to a practice by inexperienced or careless hunters who would half-cock their muskets, making them prone to going off easily.

I did this a few days ago, when I didn’t adequately check every single fact. Fortunately, the hole that resulted was only in my ego. How often do we all do this, and what impact does it have on the world around us? All the time, and sometimes a serious one. This can damage your most valuable online asset—your reputation. Or, in real life, it can make you look like a fool.

I do have a point, and I’m getting to it. I’m irked because not many people learn to question arguments—and it’s getting worse. I don’t know what’s going on in schools today, but I do know people are starting to listen to more emotional arguments instead of the facts. They’re also being inexcusably lazy; we have a vast repository of knowledge at our fingertips, and can look up just about anything with just a quick, well-constructed Google. But we don’t. If someone prints a claimed “fact,” we believe it.

This has recently blown up in our faces. We’ve seen faked photographs make it into Reuters and AP —fake photographs that may have affected worldwide perception of the Lebanon-Israel conflict. But it’s worse than that. You know those “factual” percentages and numbers from nonprofit organizations? A frighteningly large number of them are just made up. Plucked from the air.

For example FAIR —Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, a self-proclaimed media watchdog—disseminated a statistic in 1993 that wife beating increases by 40% on Super Bowl Sunday. Not so, say any experts not quoting from FAIR’s own press release. FAiR’s primary source? Not a study—an unsourced caption in a book of photoessays.

Or NOW, the National Organization of Women, put forth a widely-quoted statistic that there are 150,000 deaths from anorexia nervosa per year. That statistic, tracked down, comes from the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. They say it’s a misquote, and that they estimate that many people, mostly women and girls, suffer from the disease. The real number—less than a hundred deaths from these eating disorders per year. But the larger number has been disseminated in magazines and newspapers, by authors Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem (who was probably the origin of the misquote), and even, repeatedly, by Anne Landers.

Even if your facts are straight, your argument may not be. Argumentum ad hominem—attacking the man making an argument instead of the argument—is growing more common today, possibly because students aren’t learning proper logic. All arguments are becoming more emotional, and less logical. This is a very bad thing for intelligent debate.

Question everything. Learn how to pick apart logic. And don’t trust any secondary source for accuracy in statistics. As Mark Twain said,
"There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Oops, not quite! Twain attributed this to Benjamin Disraeli, but most researchers think it was coined by Leonard H. Courtney, president of the Royal Statistical Society in 1895. No source, apparently, is safe.

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