Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Won't Someone Think of the Children? (Fallacies, Part 7)

Red herrings are responses to arguments that ignore the argument and focus on something else. Many, but not all, have Latin names beginning with argumentum ad. Not all argumentum ad fallacies are red herrings, of course.

Nor are they all formal fallacies. Some, such as the argumentum ad Hitlerian, the claim that what you say is false because Hitler once did or said something similar, are more in the line of cute observations rather than official fallacies. For the record, it’s merely a subset of ad hominem with a little “poisoning the well” thrown in for good measure.

Argumentum ad consequentiam

In 1975, the Birmingham (UK) Six were sentenced to life imprisonment for the Birmingham pub bombings, an attack attributed to the Provisional IRA that killed 21 people. The six men claimed to have been brutalized in police custody. Fourteen prison officers were subsequently charged with assault, but were acquitted. The Birmingham Six continued to appeal, but their case was thrown out by Lord Denning of the Court of Appeal, who wrote these amazing words.
“If [the six men] won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean that the Home Secretary would have either to recommend that they be pardoned or to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’”
This is an example of argumentum ad consequentiam, the “argument to the consequences.” The truth of the premise is determined by whether it leads to desirable or undesirable consequences. The legendary attempt by a Tennessee legislator to pass a bill making π = 3.0 was based on the premise that it would make math so much easier for high school students, who wouldn’t have to wrestle with all those decimal places.

This is not to say that consequences don’t matter, or that they shouldn’t affect decision-making. It’s only that consequences, no matter what they are, don’t determine the truth of an argument.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

50 Million Elvis Fans *Can* Be Wrong! (Fallacies, Part 6)

In our ongoing survey of red herrings, responses to arguments that don’t address the original issue, they’ve mostly taken Latin names starting with argumentum ad, translated as “argument from” or “argument to.” In practice, the argumentum is omitted: argumentum ad hominem, “argument from the person,” is usually just cited as ad hominem.

Argumentum ad populum

Elvis Presley’s ninth album is titled 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, but of course that’s a logical fallacy, with no disrespect intended to the King. The fallacy is known popularly as the “argument from common consent,” and more formally as argumentum ad populum. If the majority believes that proposition X is true, then it’s presumptively true.

On February 6-7, 2009, a few days before the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, (February 12, 1809), the Gallup organization conducted a national survey on the question, “Do you personally believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?” The disappointing answer is hardly surprising to anyone who grew up in the American south. Approximately 39% of Americans believe; 25% do not believe—and 36% have no opinion either way. (The percentage of believers goes up with education—and down with church attendance or Republican party membership.)

Americans who believe in evolution are a minority, but what does that have to do with whether Darwinian evolution is a fact? Polls for or against a given factual proposition are common, but they’re logically meaningless. That is, of course, when the factual proposition under discussion is something other than opinion.

If the factual question is “Do most Americans believe in Darwinian evolution?” then, the factual answer can be determined by a poll. Otherwise, not.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel

Michael & Spacesuit, Noreascon 4, 2004

 "You see, I had this space suit.

How it happened was this way."

Science fiction readers will instantly recognize the opening lines from Robert Heinlein’s 1958 Scribner juvenile novel, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.  The narrator, small-town teenager Kip Russell, wins a used spacesuit as fourth prize in a soap jingle contest, setting off a chain of events that takes him as far as the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.

I never went that far. But, you see, I do have this space suit.

Aside from the joy any Heinlein fan would find in owning a spacesuit, it’s really not that big a deal. Unlike Kip’s suit, mine never went into space. Nor is my spacesuit suitable for extra-vehicular activity; it’s strictly for inside use. Besides, it doesn’t even have a helmet. Cosmonaut suits from the former Soviet Union in far better shape (not to mention helmets) sell for less than you’d think. The rubber is rotten, the fabric is torn, and there are razor blade slashes all over it. But I’m pretty sure this is the only Apollo suit in private hands.

The pencil marks on the faded tag hanging from the suit read: “Apollo #7 Prototype, SPD-143-3 011, Med Reg.”

Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, was an 11-day Earth orbital, notable as the first manned launch of the Saturn 1B, and mostly served as a test for the redesigned command service module. It was the only spaceflight for two of the astronauts, and the final flight for Wally Schirra, the only man to fly in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. So, this could be Wally Schirra’s spacesuit, but it could also belong to Donn Eisele or Walter Cunningham, the other crewmembers. It could also have belonged to one of the backup crew of Thomas Stafford, John Young, or Eugene Cernan, who ended up flying the Apollo 10 mission.

Because an Apollo mission required years of preparation, each astronaut received six spacesuits, enough to take care of accidents, modifications, and wear and tear. One of the six would go on the mission; the rest ended up in a big warehouse pile somewhere in Florida. And one day, someone at NASA decided it was time to clean up the warehouse. And if you’re looking to get rid of a few hundred used spacesuits, there aren’t a lot of places you can send them.

In late 1973, I moved from North Carolina to Washington, DC, for a job as a research assistant in the Division of Aeronautics of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. The famous building on the mall was just starting construction; the museum (such as it was) occupied its old quarters in the Arts and Industries Building, the red brick structure next door to the Smithsonian Castle. (It’s under renovation after having been essentially condemned as unfit for human habitation; a sentiment shared by many of the building’s residents — one of whom who used to refer to it as the “National Roach and Rat Museum.”) We also had a tin shed out back, a Quonset hut that had once housed the engineering group that designed the Liberty engine.

I did research jobs for the curators, catalogued archival materials (unrolling hundreds of aircraft blueprints and piling stuff on them to keep them flat), straightened files, and supervised student interns. And, of course, I worked the warehouses.

There was a rule that mandated no artifact could be moved without the presence of a “member of the curatorial staff.” As I was the most junior person who could be called that, I spent a fair amount of time at our network of warehouses. We were in the old Torpedo Factory in Alexandria (now a collection of artists’ studios), in a warehouse on Lamont Street in a moderately bad part of town, and in our Suitland facility, then known as Silver Hill and now as the Garber Facility.

After the Torpedo Factory collection had been consolidated and moved, Lamont Street was next. While as a “member of the curatorial staff,” my official job was to supervise, but in a practical world, I got a quick course in driving a truck and a forklift, and along with a couple of our laborers, started packing up and moving stuff out to Silver Hill. I complained about it after a few weeks, so my boss got someone in another department to take over. However, that guy pulled the wrong lever on the forklift and crushed a pile of valuable model aircraft against the roof of the truck, so I got the job back a week later.

One afternoon, I pulled up at the loading dock to find another truck pulling out, and there were several pallet loads of spacesuits. Two museum technicians were pulling out the ones in best shape, and hanging them on a rolling coat rack. Because these suits had never been in space, they were going to be a research collection rather than a display one—source material for someone’s future Ph.D. dissertation on the evolution of spacesuit design. Those suits (40 or 50) ended up in a meat locker at Silver Hill. As far as the rest were concerned, that’s where the razor blades came in. The suits not selected for the research collection were slashed (selling them was a no-no for a variety of technical reasons) so they could be marked as "destroyed and disposed of," and then thrown into the dumpster.

Once it was in the dumpster, it was fair game. “Mind if one of those suits follows me home?” I asked the chief tech of the warehouse.

He laughed and said sure. "Don't sell it," he added — as if I would.

Unlike Kip, who named his suit “Oscar,” I never named mine, nor have I ever worn it; I'm too tall. I worked for one astronaut, Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins, who directed the National Air and Space Museum, and during my years there met several others — they were all surprisingly short — I rather expected them to be giants in size as well as in spirit.

My Office
The suit has followed me around for many years, and as a part of restoring my house, I asked my sister-in-law and decorator Elisa Dobson to figure out some way to display the suit. She found a case and figured out a way to support the suit, and now at long last it’s in my office.

I've picked up a few interesting souvenirs in my life, but this one is my very favorite. After all, how many people can claim a Heinlein title for their very own?

I also liked the TV series, Have Gun—Will Travel, and I'm thinking about changing my business cards to match.

Have Spacesuit—Will Travel. 
Email Dobson

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Watergate and Me

“As President Nixon says, presidents can do almost anything, and President Nixon has done many things that nobody would have thought of doing.”
- Golda Meir

Forty years ago last Friday, July 1, 1971, White House staffers David Young and Egil Krogh wrote a memo suggesting the establishment of a secret White House investigations unit in response to Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers. This organization was first named ODESSA, for “Organization Directed to Eliminate the Subversion of the Secrets of the Administration,” by G. Gordon Liddy, but it eventually became better known as the White House Plumbers, from their office location in the basement.

The great obsession of my adult life has been figuring out how people and organizations work. I write business books and military novels because nothing fascinates me more than people struggling with impossible situations, especially when of their own making. Believe me, I know what it's like to screw up, and so when I look at the Watergate cast of characters, I don't see the politics, I see the people, and I feel their pain.

July 1 begins the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, and from time to time I’ll be offering a little commentary along the timeline. I’m a big fan. I followed every minute of the Watergate hearings, and devoured every book by a Watergate player, no matter how obscure. No, I didn't figure out who Deep Throat really was, but I wasn't interested in the detective story that much.

Oh, I admire Woodward and Bernstein and all that, but my heart goes out to John Dean, looking down on the waters of the Potomac with his trunk packed with boxes of potentially incriminating evidence, realizing in his heart that he had become a criminal.

I marvel at G. Gordon Liddy, the closest thing to a real-life James Bond imaginable, presenting, in those pre-PowerPoint days, a complete project management plan on poster board for schemes worthy of Dr. Evil himself. His plan would cost -- finger on pursed lip and a drumroll – two million dollars! (They bargained him down to a mere half-million – as long as Jeb McGruder could check out the houseboat full of hookers personally.)

And, of course, I am enthralled by the man himself -- Richard Milhouse Nixon, forever typecast as King John to JFK's Richard Lionheart, the dark heart of the American soul.

In the movie You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks memorably observed to Meg Ryan that all the lessons of life for contained in the Godfather movies. I had been using a similar line for years, and with no disrespect intended to the great saga, for me the touchstone remains the richly and densely textured the Watergate scandal. In it you can find echoes of any life lesson you choose, for Watergate is the very stuff of life.

I was so into Watergate that when I auditioned for a job as a comic book writer at Marvel in the late 1970s, I submitted a Spider-Man story titled "J. Jonah Jameson goes to Washington," a very thinly disguised story of the scandal with an even more thinly disguised G. Gordon Liddy as a first-rate super villain, if I do say so myself.

Marvel rejected it, saying, “It doesn’t seem aimed at our target demographic.”

More to come...