In Which Math Meets Fallacies

9 March 2004

There's a fallacy I've encountered several times lately, and I'm not sure what it's called. Perhaps one of you can help me out. I'm provisionally calling it the Uproar Fallacy: that is, that if a specified event had really happened, people would be outraged, up in arms; there would be an overwhelming uproar; people would cry for blood; etc. And I think, really? Well, you're part of people, aren't you? And instead of getting outraged or, more reasonably, asking for proof, you're coming up with ways that it must not be true.

This fallacy is particularly common in election years, because instead of "people" or even "the media," one can rely on "his/her opponent." "His/her opponent would make a huge deal of it if that was true! The other party couldn't let that pass!" But they could. They would. Sometimes the media helps them along. Sometimes they have similar "issues" in their own past. There are all kinds of ways horrible things get swept under the rug.

Or take the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church. I think that there's a group of people who will believe any person who claims a priest behaved inappropriately with them, period. I could claim that I'd been repeatedly raped and nearly murdered by an RC priest, and the people who know me repeating, "But you've never been alone with an RC priest ever in your life" would not deter some people from believing me. But! That doesn't mean that everyone believes every accusation, especially in situations that are usually one person's word against another. What I'm saying is that in a situation like this, the rate of true positives may go up, and the rate of false positives may go up, too. But that doesn't mean the rate of false negatives, the number of people not accused who are guilty, will be zero.

Does that make sense? Say the abuse rate is the RC church's self-reported 4%. Say, then, that the accusation rate gets to be 4%. Does it follow that all cases of abuse are caught? Of course not -- you've got the falsely accused included in there. Fine, say the accusation rate gets to be 5%, or 6%, or 8%. Even an accusation rate of 50% would not guarantee that all cases of abuse were subsumed in that number. Higher accusation rates may end up meaning more of the guilty being accused (may!), but they also may mean that the guilty are more careful to cover their tracks. That goes for politicians, too: the more aware they are of scandals in the media, the more ways they will have seen that they could get caught. And a smart person will adjust for that and try to avoid those ways of getting caught, and as much as we like to think that bad people are not as smart as good people, the correlation is just not there as much as we'd like it to be.

I often want to throw numbers at people to make them behave. I ran into a blog a few weeks back, don't remember where, wherein a guy was claiming there were two scenarios possible: either the U.S. was safer than we were on September 12, 2001, and thus the Democratic candidates' claims that the Bush administration was making us less safe were false; or that the U.S. was less safe than we were then, and thus the Democratic candidates' claims that the Bush administration was fear-mongering were false. This blogger, whoever, was conflating fear and safety as though human beings were entirely rational in their fears. I wanted to stick numerical ratings on fear and safety and demonstrate mathematically that you could have a high threat level (75 out of 100, say), and still be playing into fear-mongering if your fear level was higher yet (95 out of 100). Is this an ex-physicist thing? "Look, you've got it wrong, I'll show you numbers. Numbers! Numbers will make everything better!" Do people who never did diff equs have this urge? Or is it just me and a quantitative background?

But back to the fallacy: people are very, very good at postponing outrage or avoiding it entirely. People are also very good at flying into rages on trumped-up topics, but the two are not at all mutually exclusive. A lot of it depends on what's convenient, what fits in with their view of how the world should work. Making assumptions on what must not be true based on how a group did not react is as bad an idea as deciding that something must be true because people were outraged.

Ah well. Mer has a link to a page on Michigan accents, and in fact confesses to her own. And in case you were wondering: mostly I have a slight Minnesota accent. Occasionally I get hung up on an o or two, and then it's all "Fargo" from there. Or r. Or s. Yah, o's and r's and s's are the dangerous ones. Dangerous. What a great Minnesota word. Say it with me, kids: "flOOOat your bOOOat with your gOOOat!"

I finished reading The Wild Machines yesterday, looked at my library pile, and decided I wasn't even going to try. So I picked up Lost Burgundy, which is the last volume in this Mary Gentle series. No pretense that I'm going to read something else this time. I'm going straight through and cannot wait to see what happens with Ash and Floria. (Karina: the effect you noted seems to be only partial; there is a section of Not The Moose for which I may have to do a search on one particular word and replace it with others.) I love this series so much. It's so wondermous. So very very good.

I got really good work on the Not The Moose Book done. I felt gleeful. I felt like I knew what I was doing and it was good and interesting and going where I wanted it to go, and I just sailed. And I have a good pick-up spot for this morning. Yay. I know some people have a clear rule about how they always/never stop in the middle of a scene, but I don't have that kind of clear rule. I stop when I hurt. Or I stop when it's time to make a meal. When the laundry needs changing over. When I promised I would go somewhere or call someone. When someone wanders into the office needing something. All that sounds a bit distracted, but I start up again when I don't hurt, when I'm done eating, when the laundry is in the dryer, when I get home, when the needed task is taken care of. I am not at the point where I have to trick myself into starting in again. And when I'm at that point, a particular stopping place doesn't work.

The new chair is most excellent. I am not curling my legs up under me in it at all. Also, I always have lumbar support, and sometimes I remember to sit far enough back that I have whole-back support. I need to raise the monitor, and I need to have some other setup with the keyboard, but we're getting there. Inch by inch and row by row.

That's not the song in my head, though. The song in my head is BNL's "Crazy." Fabulous.

Oh, here's a question some of you have already answered: I have a livejournal. (No, I know that's not a question.) So far I've just been using it to comment on other people's livejournals. I don't want to switch this over there (not at all at all), but I've been thinking of doing something additional with it, like posting story sales or other news of that nature. Is there anything you'd like to see on a livejournal from me? Or would you just ignore it entirely? Or would you prefer that I keep from filling up people's friends pages with stuff I could easily put here?

So. I have to get passport pictures taken and head to the post office today. I should stop by the bank and the pharmacy while I'm out, maybe pick up a few quick things at the grocery store, because we are grocery-impaired. I went to the grocery store Thursday. We went to Whole Foods Saturday. I sent Mark to the grocery store again on Sunday. And yet do we have enough milk and broccoli? We do not. Craziness.

I'm a little afraid of what I did yesterday. Not in the book -- the book is fine. But in the kitchen. You know how you make banana bread and you stir the bananas in last (well, except for the nuts)? Well, I had looked at the bananas and sniffed at the bananas and decided it was time, so I mixed everything else together. Then I picked up the bananas. Oooooooops. One of them had slimed clean through on the bottom and was not usable. Leaving me with banana bread batter and no bananas to put in it. Well, I'm not one to waste batter, but on the other hand, nothing transfers in very obviously for bananas. When the tinned blueberries had gone south, I just chopped up some fresh strawberries and had strawberry muffins instead. This was different. (First in that I had no strawberries, and second in that strawberries and bananas didn't really seem like the same stuff to me.) So I ended up putting in some chopped plums we had left from Timprov's plum dumplings of Saturday night, and I put in pecans instead of the walnuts I had planned to put in with the bananas. And now I'm kind of scared. I don't know if I like plum bread. It's worth finding out, but...still fairly scary. Yah. So. Stay tuned. I may have something new and fabulous, or I may have just taken more time and effort to waste batter. We won't know until we try it.

And I will only read a very small bit of Lost Burgundy while I eat lunch. Really. Very small.

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