## Wednesday, December 19, 2012

### Eyewitness to Murder, Part 5

 Mark Felsher

On April 13, 1975, an unemployed Silver Spring carpenter named Michael Edward Pearch dressed in his Army fatigues, strapped a machete to his chest, shrugged on a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and loaded his .45 automatic pistol. He drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall and began killing. Within the next half hour, he shot seven people, all African-American. Two of them died. I don’t want to mention Pearch’s name without also listing his victims, so here they are.
• John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died.
• Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded.
• Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed.
• Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17: wounded.
• Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed.
• Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded.
• Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded.
Pearch died at the hands of the police: “suicide by cop.”

Two years ago, I told that story on my blog, and last month I summarized some of my encounters with others touched by the same experience. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School led to my revisiting the story, and in particular telling about my encounter with Mark Felsher, one of the last people to talk to the killer. Yesterday, I told the story about how Felsher first met Pearch. Today I'll share the final chapter of that part of the story.

Mowing the Lawn

As Mark entered his teenage years, he spent less time camping in the Greenbelt woods and more time working for spending money. Each Saturday he mowed lawns for a landscape service run by a family friend, going as far afield as Silver Spring, a few towns west of Greenbelt in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland. The owner, Howie, would pick Mark up (he was still too young to drive), and the two would work together. Mark was fifteen years old.

This particular day, Howie told Mark he had a new customer on Dennis Avenue in Silver Spring. As the two got to work, Howie began working around the right side of the house while Mark started in the front, near the sidewalk. The owner, a woman, arrived at the same time and took in some brown paper bags of groceries. Howie and she exchanged a few words.

The house was old and somewhat neglected. The windows were unpainted and dark, with blinds pulled down. Shortly after the owner went inside, the door opened again and a man walked out.
Mark initially didn’t recognize the man, and assumed he was going to talk to Howie about the work, but instead the man walked confidently and deliberately up to Mark. “You’re Mark Felsher,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

It had been two years since the incident in the woods, and it took Mark a few seconds to place the man. “Mike Phipps?” he asked tentatively.

Mike shook his head. “Sorry, that’s not really my name. It’s Pearch. Mike Pearch. I was just toying with you guys. I said my name was ‘Mike Phipps’ after the quarterback, but my real name is Mike Pearch.” Mike Phipps was an NFL quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, though Mark didn’t know that at the time.

The whole conversation, Felsher said, was uncomfortable. Pearch was intense and focused, not at relaxed as he’d been during their time camping. “I just could not catch up to where he was,” Mark said of the conversation. “It was as though he had seen me yesterday and I had not seen him for two years.”
Pearch had recently come back from Germany, but according to Mark sounded like he was visiting relatives there rather than having been deployed. He told Mark he’d been engaged to be married, but Mark got the sense that the engagement was over.

The real focus of the conversation, however, was about falconry. Pearch had gotten into the sport, and was very passionate about it. But Mark had grass to cut and his boss was watching, so he ended the conversation, fully expecting to see Mike again when they came back to cut the grass.

Mark didn’t think much of the conversation at the time. It was odd, he thought, that Mike had recognized him so readily after two years, but that was all. People change a lot between the ages of 13 and 15, and if you don’t know somebody well, it’s altogether possible that you wouldn’t recognize them after two years of adolescent growth. But Mike Pearch had recognized him with only a glimpse through a window.

It was Saturday, April 12, 1975, in the late afternoon.

Those Who Watch

As an ostensible witness to the situation, as I’ve mentioned previously, I failed to grasp what was going on around me, and I still feel bad about my failure. Mark Felsher told me that one of the reasons he’d gotten in touch is that he also felt bad about his failure to read Pearch’s character correctly, and wonders if there is anything he could have said or done that would have changed the events of April 13, 1975.

In both our cases, I suspect the answer is that even armed with 20-20 hindsight, there was little if anything either of us could have done. But that doesn’t change the feeling of responsibility. I imagine that even the heroes of Sandy Hook Elementary will carry the same feeling — although they did more than either Mark or me, they will always wonder if there was more they could have done, if there were additional steps they could have taken.

The feeling of helplessness and stupidity in the face of terrible events stays with you, and perhaps it’s right that it should. Regardless of what might or might not have been possible, the human need to try should always be paramount in our minds.

More of the Story

Thanks to Mark, I've been able to learn something of the story of two more of the victims: Rosalyn Stanley and Harold Navy. (Navy was the victim I saw.) In addition, I've just received another comment from someone who also knew Navy.

It's usually the killer who gets most of the focus in stories like this, not merely because of the sensationalism but also because of our human need to make sense from horror. But without the stories of the victims, it doesn't mean a thing. Stay tuned.

More to come…

## Tuesday, December 18, 2012

### Eyewitness to Murder, Part 4

On April 13, 1975, an unemployed Silver Spring carpenter named Michael Edward Pearch dressed in his Army fatigues, strapped a machete to his chest, shrugged on a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and loaded his .45 automatic pistol. He drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall and began killing. Within the next half hour, he shot seven people, all African-American. Two of them died. I don’t want to mention Pearch’s name without also listing his victims, so here they are.

• John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died.
• Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded.
• Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed.
• Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17: wounded.
• Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed.
• Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded.
• Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded.
Pearch died at the hands of the police: “suicide by cop.”

Two years ago, I told that story on my blog, and last month I summarized some of my encounters with others touched by the same experience. In October of this year, I heard from Mark Felsher, who had known the killer, Michael Edward Pearch. He wrote:
 Mark Felsher
“My connection to this event is before the fact. I had met Mike Pearch a couple of years before the shooting and spent a lot of time with him camping over three days. With only one exception, our paths did not cross again for about two years, until I happened to randomly wind up doing yard work at his mother's house about 24 hours before the shooting began.
“Mike recognized me and came out of the house to talk. The conversation lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes and mostly covered the past two years. I know that there was much more behind his actions, but I have always been haunted by the question of whether something about that conversation may have been the final trigger for him to snap. I strongly suspect that the whole time he was speaking with me that he already had at least some idea about what he was going to do and perhaps he had already planned every detail.
“Not that I think it would have made much of a difference but I was never interviewed by the police. I don't think they ever knew much of anything about me or that I had just spoken to Mike. I was only fifteen at the time and could not figure out what to do with what I knew. My parents were even afraid to talk to me about it beyond being the ones to inform me about the shooting.
This whole episode is to me like a manila file folder that has no place in the file cabinet. I try to put it somewhere; maybe in the wrong drawer, maybe in the trash, maybe I try to bury it under other things but sooner or later it keeps reappearing on top of the file cabinet. I suspect you and others, connected to this event, feel the same way. And always the question, ‘Is there anything I could have done?’
Obviously, there is not a thing I can do to change the past but if there is any way that sharing what I know can bring some relief to someone else affected by this tragedy then perhaps I could finally put this in the file cabinet under, ‘Something good finally came out of that part of my life.’”
I began corresponding with Mark, and on October 21 of this year met him in person. Mark’s a few years younger than I. (He was fifteen at the time of the incident, and I was 22.) He’s a home improvement contractor by trade, with a background in leading youth camps. Highly religious, he’s involved with his church and family. He’s been married for 29 years and has four children with ages ranging from 20 to 23. He currently lives in North Carolina.

Mark had a job to do in the DC suburbs, so we agreed to get together on the Sunday after his work was finished. I drove to Greenbelt, where we met at Generous Joe’s Deli — Mark had gone to school with the owner. Over fried shrimp baskets, we talked about our lives and about our involvement with the Wheaton murders.

Mark — like Pearch — grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland, a planned suburban community located in Prince Georges County, which borders the District of Columbia. Like the two other “green” towns built by the United States Resettlement Administration in the 1930s, the town was designed as a self-sufficient cooperative community, surrounded by (as the name implies) a belt of forest. Eleanor Roosevelt was actively involved in the layout of the town, and appeared at its official inauguration. Greenbelt’s downtown is a lovely (if a bit run-down) example of Art Deco architecture. At the time of its founding, it was officially a segregated community (a proposed annex that would welcome black residents was scuttled in the face of local opposition), and even by the 1970s, black residents in Greenbelt were highly unusual.

The Mysterious Camper

For Mark Felsher, the undeveloped “green belt” that surrounded the town was a boy’s paradise. Along with his boyhood friend, Mike King, he explored the woods on an almost daily basis, building secret forts and camping out. Although they were only a short distance from the townhouse row where they both lived, it was easy to believe that all the civilization around them had disappeared. Both were members of the local Boy Scout troop; both loved camping and the outdoors. He was thirteen at the time.

It was on one of their hiking trips, not too far off one of the winding paths through the forest, that Mike King suddenly stopped and told Mark that someone was nearby. Mark looked around, but saw no one, until Mike King pointed to a small patch of trees where an older man, perhaps in his early twenties, nearly camouflaged in the dense underbrush, stood watching them.

The boys introduced themselves, and the man told them his name was Mike Phipps. (It would be some years before Mark learned his real name.) "Phipps" was also camping in the woods, but on more of a semi-permanent basis. He had built a semi-log cabin, with three straight sides and an angled top, which served as a base over which he’d stretched a tent. The whole camp was artfully concealed in the woods, effectively invisible to any casual observer.

Mike Phipps was friendly, if a bit guarded, and the two boys decided to set up their own camp near him. For three days they lived near each other in the woods. Their conversation was limited. Mike had been a member of the same Boy Scout troop some years previously, and as a lifelong resident of Greenbelt, they knew various other people in common. He had been in the Army, he told them. The conversation didn’t go into a lot of depth.

After a couple of days, Mike took Mark aside and pointed out that he was camping out for solitude, and politely suggested that the boys might want to find a different location.

About six months later, Mark saw Mike Phipps again. He was walking briskly along the trail beside a thin and winding creek, not too far from the old campsite. He was clearly in a hurry. He waved at Mark when he saw him, but didn’t slow down. Where he had come from and where he was going were both a mystery.

Two more years would pass before the third and final encounter.

More to come...

## Monday, December 17, 2012

### Eyewitness to Murder, Part 3

 Sandy Hook Elementary School Students

Mass Shootings in the US in 2012

In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, I did a little research on some of the other mass shooting incidents in the United States this year.

1. December 15: Birmingham, Alabama triple killing, four dead including the shooter.
2. December 15: St. Vincent’s Hospital (also Birmingham, Alabama), three wounded, shooter killed.
3. December 14: Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 26 dead at the scene, including 20 children; one offsite death; shooter dead.
4. December 11: Happy Valley shopping mall shooting, two killed including the shooter, one injured.
5. October 21: Brookfield, Wisconsin, spa killing, three killed, four injured; shooter killed himself.
6. September 27: Accent Signage Systems shooting, eight injured and dead including the killer.
7. August 13: College Station, Texas, three killed including the shooter, four injured.
8. August 5: Sikh Temple shooting, ten injured and killed including the shooter.
9. July 20: Aurora Theater shooting, seventy injured and killed; shooter arrested.
10. May 30: Seattle café shooting, seven injured and killed including the shooter.
11. April 6: Tulsa spree killing, three killed, two injured, shooters arrested.
12. April 2: Oikos University killings, ten injured and killed; shooter arrested.
13. March 8: Duquesne University shooting, two killed including the shooter, seven injured.
14. February 27: Chardon High School shooting, three killed, two injured, shooter arrested.
15. February 21: Su Jung Health Sauna shooting, five injured and killed including the shooter.

At least that’s what turned up in a few minutes of Google searching. There may well be more. In fact, in the last thirty years, there have been at least 62 such incidents. That doesn’t include my own encounter with mass murder, which took place more than thirty years ago.

On April 13, 1975, Michael Edward Pearch dressed in his Army fatigues, strapped a machete to his chest, shrugged on a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and loaded his .45 automatic pistol. He drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall and began killing. Within the next half hour, he shot seven people, all African-American. Two of them died. I don’t want to mention Pearch’s name without also listing his victims, so here they are.

• John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died.
• Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded.
• Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed.
• Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17: wounded.
• Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed.
• Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded.
• Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded.

Pearch died at the hands of the police; “suicide by cop.”

Two years ago, I told that story on my blog, and last month I summarized some of my encounters with others touched by the same experience. In October of this year, I heard from Mark Felsher, who had known the killer, Michael Edward Pearch. That story will appear over the next two days.

More to come...

## Monday, November 19, 2012

### By Hook or by Crook (Watergate Part 10)

 Nixon says, "I am not a crook," 11/17/1973

For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, Richard Nixon says, “I am not a crook.”

Immediately after Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of Richard Nixon’s White House taping system, the tapes themselves became the central issue of the unfolding Watergate scandal.

While certain key facts (the burglary itself, the link to the Committee to Re-Elect the President) were not in dispute, the critical question was the one being asked by Watergate Select Committee chairman Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Now that tapes were available, that question could be settled definitely once and for all.

Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox filed a subpoena for eight of the tapes almost immediately, and for his trouble was fired in the Saturday Night Massacre. The backlash forced Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who continued to press for the tapes.

The Saturday Night Massacre took place on October 19, 1973. Just about a month later, on November 17, 1973, Richard Nixon traveled to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for a question and answer session before the 400 members of Associated Press Managing Editor’s Association.

As expected, the first questions involved the Watergate scandal and its consequences for the nation. The president of the Managing Editor’s Association wondered if Watergate was serious enough to take down the country.

“Mr. President,” he asked, “This morning, Governor Askew of Florida addressed this group and recalled the words of Benjamin Franklin. When leaving the Constitutional Convention he was asked, ‘What have you given us, sir, a monarch or a republic?’ Franklin answered, ‘A republic, sir, if you can keep it.’   Mr. President, in the prevailing pessimism of the lingering matter we call Watergate, can we keep that republic, sir, and how?” Nixon assured him that the Republic would continue.

The Louisville-Courier asked about two of the subpoenaed tapes that had gone missing. Nixon replied that he had other information — Dictaphone belts, diary notes, and telephone call recordings — that would substantiate his claims of innocence. The Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle followed up, but gained no more information.

The Rochester Times-Union asked about the connection to the Ellsberg case, and Nixon replied that it was not part of Watergate, and should be considered a national security matter. The Detroit News followed with a softball question that allowed Nixon to once again reassure the public that everything was under control. The St. Petersburg Times asked about Nixon’s praise of Ehrlichman and Haldeman. Nixon replied, “First, I hold that both men and others who have been charged are guilty until I have evidence that they are not guilty.” (The president of the association later corrected Nixon, who agreed that he had misspoken.) The Des Moines Register and Tribune asked another question about the Ellsberg case, and Nixon reiterated his claim of national security.

Next, the subject of Nixon’s income tax returns came up. Nixon, according to the Providence Evening Bulletin, had paid only $792 in Federal income tax in 1970, and$878 in 1971. Nixon replied that he’d paid $79,000 in income tax in 1969, and the dramatic reduction in tax resulted from Nixon’s donation of his vice-presidential papers to the U.S. government, for which he’d taken a$500,000 deduction. (This practice was outlawed in 1969, so Nixon had gotten in just under the wire.)

The Tennessee Oak Ridger threw in another softball, asking Nixon if the demands of the Presidency were such that he just hadn’t had time to manage the re-election campaign directly. Nixon replied that yes, he’d taken a hands-off approach, but added “I say if mistakes are made, however, I am not blaming the people down below. The man at the top has got to take the heat for all of them.”

Before he took another question, however, Richard Nixon decided to go back to the question of his income tax payments. His government service had not been particularly lucrative, he said. “When I left office…you know what my net worth was? $47,000 total. Now, I have no complaints. In the next 8 years, I made a lot of money [from his book and law partnership]. And so, that is where the money came from.” Even though the focus of the questions was on Watergate, it was the suspicion of financial irregularities in his personal life that seemed to concern Nixon most of all. Whatever anyone believed of him, his personal finances, he wanted to make clear, were completely aboveboard. It was in defending those finances that Richard Nixon made one of the most famous quotes of his lifetime: “Let me just say this, and I want to say this to the television audience: I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service--I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.” [Emphasis added.] That seemed to stop the questions about Watergate. Reporters asked about the wiretapping of Richard Nixon’s brother Donald, additional matters of national security, the desirability of shield laws for reporters, executive privilege, the energy crisis, possible gas rationing, milk price supports, and what Nixon planned to do in retirement. (Hint: work for campaign finance reform.) The event, televised live, went a few moments over the scheduled time, but that was okay in Nixon’s book. “It is a lousy movie anyway tonight.” And when it was over, Richard Nixon said, “Well, thank you very much, gentlemen. I guess that is the end.” But the end was still nine months away. ## Tuesday, November 13, 2012 ### Eyewitness to Murder, Part Two On April 13, 2010, I wrote a blog piece entitled “Eyewitness to Murder,” in which I recounted my involvement with a 1975 shooting spree in Wheaton, Maryland. Seven people (all African-American) were shot; two of them died. The killer also died, shot by police. He was white. Although I drove within feet of the killer and his fourth victim, I completely misread the situation. It was so inconceivable to me that a killing spree was taking place on a sunny Sunday afternoon in downtown Wheaton that I failed to process anything going on around me. I couldn’t have picked out the killer from a police lineup even though I saw him clearly. There was just enough askew about the situation that I decided for safety’s sake to drop by the police station on my way home — and it was there I learned that I had been an eyewitness to murder. The incident itself quickly dropped off the front pages and has largely been lost to history. With the killer dead, there was no trial, and the number of victims was too small to register with the national media. The incident — and my failure — have stuck with me for many years, and armed with Google, I decided to find out what I could learn, and uploaded my blog piece on the 35th anniversary of the shootings. For the record, and because it can’t be stated often enough, the victims were: • John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died. • Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded in both legs, survived. • Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed. • Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17, a freshman at the University of Maryland: wounded in the abdomen, but survived. Navy was the victim I saw. • Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed. • Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded. • Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded. The killer was Michael Edward Pearch, an unemployed carpenter living with his mother in Silver Spring, Maryland. Since I first published the piece, I’ve heard from several other people connected to the incident. About six months after “Eyewitness to Murder” appeared on my blog, I got an email from the daughter of John and Laureen Sligh. We exchanged emails and a few telephone calls, and finally arranged to have lunch on April 13, 2011, the 36th anniversary of the shooting. She told me her story. Her parents normally went to the movies on Sunday afternoon, and were just leaving the Wheaton Plaza theaters in separate cars when they encountered the shooter. The daughter herself was watching television when a special bulletin interrupted her show — and that’s how she learned her father was dead and her mother in the hospital. No one had bothered to sequester the news until the next of kin could be informed. Both John and Laureen Sligh were scientists working for the Department of Defense. John Sligh was also a businessman and had purchased several small businesses. After his death, Laureen Sligh moved back to her home in Mississippi, and the businesses were left to the care of a relative who unfortunately was unable to keep them going, leaving the daughter without much in the way of means. We’ve kept in touch, and I’ve been pleased to hear that her daughters in turn are doing well; the youngest has ambitions to go to medical school. I next heard from a man who was investigating the disappearance of the Lyon sisters, an unsolved case of two young girls who vanished in Wheaton in 1975. Although there’s no known direct connection between Pearch and the disappearance of the Lyon girls, Pearch’s killing spree makes him an obvious potential suspect. An anonymous comment in June 2012 gave me some more information about Harold Navy, Jr. He wrote, “I'd just like to add a correction, if I may? I remember Harold Navy Jr, being shot in the upper leg and it affected his basketball playing as he had a long recouperation. I remember him returning to High School basketball after the shooting, so I don't think he was yet a freshman in college.” In August, I heard from another eyewitness, who wrote, “I was in early elementary school at the time of this horrific crime. My family was in the Wheaton Pharmacy (now long gone, but it was in the shopping center with Planters Peanuts,etc.on Georgia Ave.). My memories are vague, but I do remember hearing the gun fire, hiding in the small bathroom with the wife of the owner, my mother and my brother while my father and the pharmacist grabbed heavy objects, ducked behind the counter and waited (seems silly in hindsight, but it was all they could do). I had supressed my memories until the sniper shootings several years ago. I was surprised that this crime never re surfaced in the media. We also found out after the attacks that as a white family, we most likely were safe, but there was no way to know that at the time.” And finally, a little over a month ago, I heard from one more person — someone who had known the killer. “My connection to this event is before the fact. I had met Mike Pearch a couple of years before the shooting and spent a lot of time with him camping over three days. With only one exception, our paths did not cross again for about two years, until I happened to randomly wind up doing yard work at his mother's house about 24 hours before the shooting began. “Mike recognized me and came out of the house to talk. The conversation lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes and mostly covered the past two years. I know that there was much more behind his actions, but I have always been haunted by the question of whether something about that conversation may have been the final trigger for him to snap. I strongly suspect that the whole time he was speaking with me that he already had at least some idea about what he was going to do and perhaps he had already planned every detail. “Not that I think it would have made much of a difference but I was never interviewed by the police. I don't think they ever knew much of anything about me or that I had just spoken to Mike. I was only fifteen at the time and could not figure out what to do with what I knew. My parents were even afraid to talk to me about it beyond being the ones to inform me about the shooting. This whole episode is to me like a manila file folder that has no place in the file cabinet. I try to put it somewhere; maybe in the wrong drawer, maybe in the trash, maybe I try to bury it under other things but sooner or later it keeps reappearing on top of the file cabinet. I suspect you and others, connected to this event, feel the same way. And always the question, ‘Is there anything I could have done?’ Obviously, there is not a thing I can do to change the past but if there is any way that sharing what I know can bring some relief to someone else affected by this tragedy then perhaps I could finally put this in the file cabinet under, ‘Something good finally came out of that part of my life.’” For the story of how we met, and what I’ve learned since then, stay tuned. ## Friday, November 2, 2012 ### Predictions are Hard (Especially About the Future) While famous malapropist Yogi Berra is most often cited for the quote, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,” it appears that the source was actually Danish physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Niels Bohr. Bohr, whose pioneering work in quantum physics would naturally equip him with a keen sense of the limits of knowledge, also had a sense of humor. (He also said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”) Bias and Accuracy In my long study of cognitive biases on this blog and in my compilation Random Jottings 6: The Cognitive Biases Issue, I was struck again and again by how many of the biases had to do with perceptions of probability. From ambiguity aversion to the base rate fallacy to the twin problems of the gambler’s fallacy and the ludic fallacy, we have repeatedly shown ourselves to be incapable of judging probabilities with any degree of precision or understanding. When people rate their own decisions as "95% certain," research shows they're wrong approximately 40% of the time. With the 2012 presidential election only four days away as I write this, the issue of prediction and forecasting is uppermost in the minds of every partisan and pundit. Who will win, and by how much? Checking the polls as I write, the RealClearPolitics average gives President Obama a 0.1% lead over Governor Romney (47.4% to 47.3%). Rasmussen has Romney up by 2 (49% to 47%), Gallup by 5 (51% to 46%), and NPR by 1 (48% to 47%). On the other hand, ABC/Wash Post and CBS/NY Times both have Obama leading by 1 (49% - 48% for ABC, 48% - 47% for CBS), and the National Journal has Obama up by 5 (50% - 45%). No matter what your politics, you can find polls to encourage you and polls to discourage you about the fate of your preferred candidate. Some polls normally come with qualifications. Rasmussen traditionally leans Republican; PPP often skews Democratic. That doesn't means either poll is irrelevant or useless. Accuracy and bias are two different things. Bias is the degree to which a poll or sample leans in a certain direction. If a study comparing Rasmussen or PPP polls to the actual election results shows that Rasmussen's results tend to be 2% more toward the Republican candidate (or vice versa for PPP), both polls are quite useful — you just have to adjust for the historical bias. If on the other hand a poll overestimates the Democratic vote by 10% in one election and then overestimates the Republican vote by 10% in another election, there's no consistent bias, but the poll's accuracy is quite low. In other words, a biased poll can be a lot more valuable than an inaccurate one. Selection Bias Of course, political polls (or polls of any sort) are subject to all sorts of error. My cognitive biases entry on selection bias summarizes common concerns. For instance, there’s a growing argument that land-line telephone polls, once the gold standard of scientific opinion surveys, are becoming less reliable. Cell phone users are more common and skew toward a different demographic. There's also a sense that people are over-polled. More and more people are refusing to participate, meaning that the actual sample becomes to some extent self-selected: a random sample of people who like to take polls. People who don’t like to take polls are underrepresented in the results, and there’s no guarantee that class feels the same as the class answering. (I myself usually hang up on pollsters, and I've often thought it might help our political process if we agreed to lie to pollsters at every opportunity.) Selection bias can happen in any scientific study requiring a statistical sample that is representative of some larger population: if the selection is flawed, and if other statistical analysis does not correct for the skew, the conclusions are not reliable. There are several types of selection bias: • Sampling bias. Systemic error resulting from a non-random population sample. Examples include self-selection, pre-screening, and discounting test subjects that don’t finish. • Time interval bias. Error resulting from a flawed selection of the time interval. Examples include starting on an unusually low year and ending on an unusually high one, terminating a trial early when its results support your desired conclusion or favoring larger or shorter intervals in measuring change. • Exposure bias. Error resulting from amplifying trends. When one disease predisposes someone for a second disease, the treatment for the first disease can appear correlated with the appearance of the second disease. An effective but not perfect treatment given to people at high risk of getting a particular disease could potentially result in the appearance of the treatment causing the disease, since the high-risk population would naturally include a higher number of people who got the treatment and the disease. • Data bias. Rejection of “bad” data on arbitrary grounds, ignoring or discounting outliers, partitioning data with knowledge of the partitions, then analyzing them with tests designed for blindly chosen ones. • Studies bias. Earlier, we looked at publication bias, the tendency to publish studies with positive results and ignore ones with negative results. If you put together a meta-analysis without correcting for publication bias, you’ve got a studies bias. Or you can perform repeated experiments and report only the favorable results, classifying the others as calibration tests or preliminary studies. • Attrition bias. A selection bias resulting from people dropping out of a study over time. If you study the effectiveness of a weight loss program only by measuring outcomes for people who complete the whole program, it’ll often look very effective indeed — but it ignores the potentially vast number of people who tried and gave up. Unskewing the Polls In general, you can’t overcome a selection biases with statistical analysis of existing data alone. Informal workarounds examine correlations between background variables and a treatment indicator, but what’s missing is the correlation between unobserved determinants of the outcome and unobserved determinants of selection into the sample that create the bias. What you don’t see doesn’t have to be identical to what you do see. That doesn't stop people from trying, however. With that in mind, the website unskewedpolls.com, developed by Dean Chambers, a Virginia Republican, attempts to correct what he sees as a systematic bias as to the proportion of Republicans and Democrats in the electorate. By adjusting poll results that in Chambers’ view are oversampling Democrats, he concludes (as of today) that Romney leads Obama nationally by 52% - 47%, a five point lead, and that Romney also leads in enough swing states that Chambers projects a Romney landslide in the electoral college of 359 to 179, with 270 needed for victory. Chambers argues that other pollsters and analysts who show an edge for Obama are living in a “fantasy world.” In particular, he trains his disgust on Nate Silver, who writes the blog FiveThirtyEight on the New York Times website, describing him as “… a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the ‘Mr. New Castrati’ voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he's made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.” (You may notice a little bit of ad hominem here. Clearly a short person with an effeminate voice can’t be trusted.) A quick review of the types of selection bias above will identify several problems with the unskewed poll method. Indeed, it's hard to find anyone not wedded to the extreme right who's willing to endorse Chambers' methodology. The approach is bad statistics, and would be equally bad if done on behalf of the Democratic candidate. Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight Other views of Nate Silver are a bit more positive. Silver first came to prominence as a baseball analyst, developing the PECOTA system for forecasting performance and career development of Major League Baseball players, then won some$400,000 using his statistical insights to play online poker. Starting in 2007, he turned his analytical approach to the upcoming 2008 election, and predicted the winner of 49 out of 50 states. This resulted in his being named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, and his blog was picked up by the New York Times. (He's also got a new book out, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don't. I recommend it.)

As of today, Nate Silver’s predictions on FiveThirtyEight differ dramatically from the UnSkewedPolls average. Silver predicts that Obama will take the national popular vote 50.5% to 48.4%, and the electoral college by 303 to 235. One big difference between Dean Chambers and Nate Silver is that Chambers is certain, and Silver is not. He currently gives Obama an 80.9% chance of winning, which means that Silver gives Romney a 19.1% chance of victory using the same data.

This 80% - 20% split is known to statisticians as a confidence interval, a measure of the reliability of an estimate. In other words, Silver knows that the future is best described as a range of probabilities. Neither he, nor Chambers, nor you, nor I “know” the outcome of the election that will take place next Tuesday, and we will not “know” until the votes have been counted and certified (and any legal challenges resolved).

Predictions vs. Knowledge

In other words, when we predict, we do not know.

Keeping the distinction straight is vital for anyone whose job includes the need to forecast what will happen. Lawyers don’t “know” the outcome of a case until the jury or judge renders a verdict and the appeals have all been resolved. Risk managers don’t “know” whether a given risk will occur until we’re past the point at which it could possibly happen. Actuaries don’t “know” how many car accidents will take place next year until next year is over and the accidents have been counted. But lawyers, risk managers, actuaries — and pollsters — all predict nonetheless.

A statistical prediction, by its very nature, contains uncertainty and should therefore be expressed in terms of the degree of confidence that the forecaster has determined. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow,” sings Annie in the eponymous musical, and she’s almost certainly right. But that’s a prediction, not a fact. While the chance of the Sun going nova are vanishingly small, they aren’t exactly zero.

Confidence Level and Margin of Error

Poll results usually report both a confidence level and a range of error, such as “95% confidence with an error of ±3%.” The error rate is the uncertainty of the measurement itself. If we flip a coin 100 times, the theoretical probability is 50 heads and 50 tails, but if it came out 53 heads and 47 tails (or vice versa), no one would be surprised. That’s equivalent to an error of ±3%. In other words, a small wobble in the final number should come as a shock to no one.

The confidence level, on the other hand, is the degree of confidence you have that your final number will stay within the error range. The probability that an honest coin flipped 100 times would produce 70 heads and 30 tails is low, but it’s within the realm of possibility. In other words, the “95% confidence” measurement tells us that 95% of the time, the actual result should be within the margin of error — but that 5% of the time, it will fall outside the range. (There’s a bit of math that goes into measuring this, but it's outside the scope of this piece.)

Winning at Monte Carlo

Nate Silver’s 80% confidence number comes from using a modeling technique known as a Monte Carlo simulation, which is also used in project management as a modern and superior alternative to the old PERT calculation, a weighted average of optimistic, pessimistic, and most likely outcomes. In a Monte Carlo simulation, a computer model runs a problem over and over again in thousands of iterations, choosing random numbers from within the specified ranges, and then calculates the result. If the polls are right 95% of the time within a ±3% margin of error, the program chooses a random number within the error range 95% of the time, and 5% of the time chooses a number outside the range, representing the probability that the polls could be all wet. In running five or ten thousand simulations, the results gave the victory to Obama 80.9% of the time, and to Romney 19.1% of the time.

Tomorrow, the answer may be different. Silver will enter new data, and the computer will run five or ten thousand more simulations. Each day, the probability of winning or losing will change slightly, until the final results are in and the answer is no longer a matter of probability but a matter of fact.

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

Astute readers may notice the parallels here to Schrödinger's Cat, which is mathematically both alive and dead until the box is opened. Personally, I put a lot of credence into Silver’s analysis; his approach is in line with my understanding of statistics. That means I think Obama is very likely to win next Tuesday — but only within a range of probability.

I will also note that Nate Silver seems to feel the same way. He's just been chided by the public editor of the New York Times for making a $2,000 bet with "Morning Joe" Scarborough that Obama will win. Given his estimate of an 80% - 20% chance of an Obama victory, that sounds like a pretty good bet to me. But we won't know until Tuesday night at the earliest. So be sure to vote. ## Saturday, October 20, 2012 ### Saturday Night's Alright (for Firing) — Watergate, Part 9  Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, the Saturday Night Massacre, October 20, 1973. The Watergate burglary itself took place on June 20, 1972, but following Richard Nixon's overwhelming re-election in November of that year, it looked as if the worst of the scandal had been contained. As long as the burglary could be put down to overzealous underlings at the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, but often abbreviated CREEP) and kept away from the White House itself, all was in order. There were loose ends. One of the burglars had checks from E. Howard Hunt, a member of the White House "plumbers" who was connected to Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson, known as Nixon's hatchet man. As part of the cover up, White House Counsel John Dean went to acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray to keep the situation under control. As Dean later wrote, "[We] could count on Pat Gray to keep the Hunt material from becoming public, and he did not disappoint us." Gray went so far as to burn what were billed as "national security documents [that] should never see the light of day" from Hunt's personal safe at the request of Dean and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman. These documents weren't officially about Watergate, Gray later said. "The first set of papers in there were false top-secret cables indicating that the Kennedy administration had much to do with the assassination of the Vietnamese president (Diem). The second set of papers in there were letters purportedly written by Senator Kennedy involving some of his peccadilloes, if you will." Unfortunately, Gray wasn't the only person who knew about the Hunt material. His deputy, FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, who actually ran the FBI's day-to-day operations, was also "Deep Throat," the confidential informant providing Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with information. As the material began to leak, Gray became shaky. In February 1973, Nixon nominated Gray to be permanent director of the FBI, handing the Senate its first opportunity to interrogate a high-ranking Administration official about Watergate. Gray went into full self-defense mode. He volunteered that he'd provided investigation files to John Dean, saying FBI lawyers had told him it was legal, confirmed the dirty tricks activities of CREEP — and worst of all, testified that Dean himself had "probably lied" to the FBI. Enraged by the betrayal, Ehrlichman told Dean that Gray should "twist slowly, slowly in the wind." (Ehrlichman was evidently a fan of Huxley's Brave New World.) Gray withdrew his nomination, and after he learned that Dean had rolled over, Gray resigned from the FBI altogether. Although he was later indicted, he was never convicted. In March 1973, Watergate burglar and CREEP security specialist James McCord wrote Watergate Judge John Sirica that his testimony was perjured under pressure. One month after that, seeing the handwriting on the wall, John Dean rolled over and began cooperating with Federal prosecutors. Desperate to distance himself from the scandal, Nixon responded by firing Ehrlichman, White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. (Kleindienst had taken over from John Mitchell when Mitchell was tasked with leading the re-election effort. His involvement with the scandal was peripheral, and he ended up with a misdemeanor conviction for perjury and paid a$100 fine.)

With the Justice Department compromised, Nixon had little choice but to allow the appointment of a nominally independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. After the revelation of the White House tapes and Nixon's refusal to release them, Cox pursued a subpoena to get the tapes for his investigation. When Cox refused a Nixon compromise that would give him transcripts but no access to the actual recordings, Nixon had had enough.

On Saturday evening, October 20, 1973, Nixon called Attorney General Elliot Richardson, Kleindienst's successor, and ordered him to fire Cox. Richardson, citing his promise to the Congressional oversight committee not to interfere with the Special Prosecutor, refused.  When Nixon continued to press him, he resigned. Nixon then called the Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, who had made the same pledge, and ordered him to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also resigned.

The third in command of the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork (later a notorious failed Supreme Court nominee), who had not been part of the process and who had therefore not made the same pledge. Although Bork claimed to believe that Nixon had the right to fire Cox, he says he also considered resigning so he wouldn't be "perceived as a man who did the President's bidding to save my job." Elliot Richardson says he persuaded Bork not to resign, on the grounds that the Justice Department needed some continuity of leadership.

Nixon had Bork brought to the White House by limousine, swore him in as Acting Attorney General, and had Bork write the letter on the spot firing Cox.

This incident became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," and it was a major tipping point in the scandal. Congress was infuriated, the public outraged. After the Massacre, a plurality of Americans for the first time supported impeachment: 44% for, 43% against, 13% undecided. Several resolutions of impeachment were introduced in the House. Nixon was forced to allow Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. There was some concern Jaworski, as the President's approved choice, would limit the investigation to the burglary alone, but as it turned out, Jaworski also looked at the broader implications of the growing scandal.

In November 1973, a Federal district judge ruled that Cox's firing was illegal under the regulation establishing the special prosecutors office, which required a finding of "extraordinary impropriety." However, the situation had moved far too quickly to allow Cox to resume his position. The battle of the tapes would continue well into the following year.

## Tuesday, October 2, 2012

### Fifty Thousand!

I was pleased to discover yesterday that my Sidewise Thinking blog has now hit the 50,000 pageview mark. Last month, there were over 4,300 views, or well over 150 per day.

My first post, "What's SideWise Thinking?", appeared on April 11, 2009. It was an excerpt from the book I was currently working on, Creative Project Management (with Ted Leemann). I've generally put a new post up every Tuesday (with a big gap between July and November 2010), with topics ranging from project and risk management to my two big series on cognitive biases and decision-making disorders.

The most popular piece so far has been "You're Not Being Reasonable," on the rules of reasonable arguing. First published on March 2, 2010, it's gotten over 3,400 page views, helped primarily by a plug from the blog "LessWrong" and a StumbleUpon link.

I don't quite understand why the second most popular post is the 23rd part of my Red Herrings series, "Hume's Guillotine." First published January 24, 2012, it's gotten over 2,200 hits, but I can't find any specific factor driving traffic to that article and that one alone. Next comes "Triage for Project Managers (Part Two)" (February 8, 2011, over 1,700 hits), and "Eyewitness to Murder" (April 13, 2010, with over 1,300). Red herrings strike again with "A Cute Angle (Part 19)" (December 27, 2011, over 1,000 hits).

By comparison, my new blog, Dobson's Improbable History, which has only a little more than a month under its belt, is already exceeding 100 hits per day, with over 3,200 pageviews last month — a much better start.

This is the 149th post I've made to the blog. I made 29 entries in 2009, 31 in 2010, 52 in 2011, and 43 so far this year.

Thanks very much for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy it.

## Tuesday, September 25, 2012

### Goldfinger Takes Fort Knox! (Propositional Fallacies, Part 2)

 Bond villain Auric Goldfinger
In propositional calculus, we can describe certain arguments in mathematical terms. Some arguments are true if the component statements are true. The statement “It is raining here now, and it is raining where you are now as well” can be written as P⋀Q. It is true if both its component statements are true. On the other hand, “It is raining here now OR it is raining where you are now” (written as P⋁Q) is true as long as at least one of the statements is true.

Propositional fallacies involve fallacies of mathematical reasoning. They are fallacious regardless of the truth value of the component statements. Last time, we discussed affirming a disjunct, the fallacy of turning an inclusive OR into an exclusive one. The two remaining propositional fallacies are known as affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent.

Affirming the Consequent

If Auric Goldfinger owned Fort Knox, then he would be rich. Auric Goldfinger is rich. Therefore, Auric Goldfinger owns Fort Knox. Even if the first two statements are true, the conclusion is invalid because there are other ways to be rich besides owning Fort Knox.

Here's how to cast the argument in propositional calculus:

P→Q
∴ P

(If P, then Q. Q is true. Therefore, P.)

This is different from the argument "if and only if." If Auric Goldfinger is rich if and only if he owns Fort Knox, then the statement "Auric Goldfinger is rich" makes "Auric Goldfinger owns Fort Knox" necessarily true. But that's the case only if the first statement is true — which it isn't. In propositional calculus, we'd write that:

P⟷Q
Q
∴ P

Affirming the consequent is sometimes called converse error.

Denying the Antecedent

The opposite fallacy, denying the antecedent, is also known as inverse error.

If Auric Goldfinger owned Fort Knox, then he would be rich. Auric Goldfinger does not own Fort Knox. Therefore, Auric Goldfinger is not rich. This is wrong for the same reason as the previous argument was wrong: there are other ways to be rich.

In propositional calculus, this takes the form:

P→Q
¬P
∴ ¬Q

If P, then Q. P is false (not-P). Therefore, Q is false (not-Q). As in the previous case, the rules for if and only if are different from if alone.

## Monday, September 17, 2012

### The Seven Deadly Sins — and Where To Find Them

Researchers at Kansas State University decided to create a series of county-by-county maps of the United States showing the relative distribution of the Seven Deadly Sins (Envy, Greed, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, and Pride). For each sin, they identified a measurable criterion that could serve as a stand-in, and mapped the results showing the deviation from the norm expressed in terms of the standard deviation (σ). Measures from -1.65σ to + 1.65σ are normal; lower levels shade toward the blue and higher levels toward the red.

It's very easy to critique the criteria used for each sin, or to suggest alternative metrics, but I thought it was quite interesting nonetheless. You can learn more about the project and the researchers here, starting on page 8 of the PDF.

Envy

Metric: Total thefts (robbery, burglary, larceny, grand theft auto) per capita.

Gluttony

Metric: Number of fast food restaurants per capita.

Greed

Metric: Average income compared with the number of people living below the poverty line.

Lust

Metric: Number of STD cases reported per capita.

Sloth

Metric: Expenditures on art, entertainment, and recreation compared with employment.

Wrath

Metric: Number of violent crimes (murder, assault, rape) per capita.

Pride

Metric: Aggregate of the other six offenses — because pride, as they say, is the root of all sin.

## Tuesday, September 11, 2012

### Propositional Fallacies, Part 1

There’s a branch of math known as propositional calculus that treats arguments like mathematical propositions. Using propositional calculus, you can demonstrate the truth or falsity of certain arguments.

Take the statement “It is raining here now.” Depending on when you make the statement, it can be either true or false. In propositional calculus, you’d represent the statement as “P,” and the opposite, “It is not raining here now” as “¬P.” If P is true, then ¬P has to be false; if ¬P is true, then P has to be false.

You can link together statements with connectors. Common connectors are AND, OR NOT, ONLY IF, and IF AND ONLY IF. If we say “It is raining here now, and it is raining where you are now as well,” we can label the second statement as Q. Represent AND with the symbol ⋀, and we can write “It is raining here now, and it is raining where you are now as well” as P⋀Q.

Of course, maybe it is raining here or it isn’t; maybe it’s raining at your house and maybe it isn’t. Because the individual statements can be true or false, we can prepare a truth table.

P                    Q                    P⋀Q
True         True            True
True         False              False
False             True            False
False             False           False

With and as a connector, the proposition P⋀Q is only true if both statements are true.

The connector OR (represented as “⋁”), on the other hand, makes the proposition true as long as at least one of the statements are true. “It is raining here now OR it is raining where you are now” results in the following truth table.

P                    Q                    P⋁Q
True         True           True
True         False          True
False          True              True
False           False             False

Notice that OR is used here inclusively rather than exclusively. That is, P doesn’t exclude Q from being true. If it’s raining at my house, that doesn’t mean it’s not raining at yours.

Given the idea of propositional logic, it's easy to conclude that there are fallacies to go with it. The first of these is known as affirming a disjunct.

Affirming a Disjunct

Also known as the fallacy of the alternative disjunct, or the false exclusionary disjunct, this particular fallacy occurs when you change an inclusive OR into an exclusive one. “It is raining here now or it is raining where you are now” gets interpreted as “If it is raining here now, then it isn’t raining where you are now.”

In our symbolic structure, that gets represented as the following argument (with “therefore” represented by ∴).

P⋁Q
P
∴¬Q

That’s a fallacy because it could be raining both places. One doesn’t preclude the other.

While OR in logic always means an inclusive “or,” that doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes want to be more concrete. The logical operator XOR is an exclusive or. When you use it, you’re saying “one or the other, but not both.” The symbol for that is ⊻.

More next week.

## Tuesday, September 4, 2012

### Who Was That Masked Man? (Formal Fallacies Part 3)

Formal fallacies are arguments that are always wrong, regardless whether the argument's premises (statements claimed as fact) are true or false. For example, in the appeal to probability, someone makes a claim that because something could happen, therefore it will happen. That’s false even if it's true that the something in question could indeed happen.

I know who Bruce Wayne is.

I do not know who Batman is.

Therefore, Bruce Wayne is not Batman.

In the masked man fallacy, a substitution of identical designators in a true statement can lead to a false one. The statement "I do not know who Batman is" gets treated as if it excludes Bruce Wayne simply because I do know who he is. Of course, as long as I don’t know that Bruce is actually Batman, both statements can be absolutely true, and yet the conclusion does not follow logically.

The general form of the argument is:
X is known.
Y is unknown.
Therefore, X is not Y.
A similar argument, however, is valid.

Clark Kent is Superman (X is Z).

Batman is not Superman (Y is not Z).

Therefore, Clark Kent is not Batman (therefore, X is not Y).

That’s because being something is different from knowing something. Lack of proof of one proposition doesn’t serve as proof of the counter proposition.

## Tuesday, August 28, 2012

### Fallacy Fallacy (Formal Fallacies Part 2)

Formal fallacies are arguments that are always wrong, regardless whether the argument's premises (statements claimed as fact) are true or false. In the previous installment, the appeal to probability, a claim that because something could happen, therefore it will happen is false even if it's true that the something in question could indeed happen.

Argument from Fallacy

If an argument contains a fallacy, what does that say about the conclusion? Actually, it doesn’t say very much. Excessively pointing to fallacies can itself trigger a fallacy of its own: the argument from fallacy, or the fallacy fallacy.

The argument from fallacy is the error of concluding that if an argument can be shown to be fallacious, that means its conclusion necessarily must be false. The form of the argument is:
If P, then Q
P is a fallacious argument.
Therefore, Q is false.
Take, for example, the following claim: “I speak English, therefore I am an American citizen.” That’s a fallacious argument, because many people who speak English are not American citizens. To conclude, however, that because the argument is fallacious, you must not be an American citizen, is taking the claim a step too far. A conclusion can be right even if the argument supporting it happens to be wrong.

If you can show that a particular argument is fallacious, the only thing that means is that the particular argument can’t be used to prove the proposition. The opposite argument, that the fallacious argument itself disproves the proposition, is also a fallacy.

The argument from fallacy is also known as the argument to logic (argumentum ad logicam) and the fallacist’s fallacy. It’s part of a group of fallacies known as fallacies of relevance.

Base Rate Fallacy
Conjunction Fallacy

The base rate fallacy and the conjunction fallacy also fall into the category of cognitive bias, and were both treated earlier in this blog and in my compilation of cognitive biases, published separately.

## Tuesday, August 21, 2012

### How to Accomplish an Impossible Project

In my upcoming book Project: Impossible, part of Multi-Media's Lessons from History series, I lay out a methodology for dealing with a project that appears to be operationally impossible (that is, it can’t be accomplished within the initial boundaries of time, cost, and performance).

Other questions matter, too:

1. What are the consequences of failure to meet the original requirements?
2. Are there unacceptable negative consequences if we succeed?
3. Could trying make things worse?
4. How much risk should we be willing to take in achieving our goals?
5. What are all the things that have to happen to allow us to call it success?
6. How can we prepare our organization or team to be ready when the impossible project appears?

Except for number 6, the other questions can’t effectively be asked until you have the project (or hot potato as the case may be). And as we’ve seen time and time again on our historical journey, it’s what you do beforehand that often spells the difference between success and failure.

To do the impossible, it helps to be prepared. Preparation starts long before the impossible project swims into your field of view. Whether you and your organization will be able to rise to the challenge often depends on the strength and quality of your preparation.

In the television (and movie) series Mission: Impossible, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF, not to be confused with the International Monetary Fund) takes on challenges far beyond the capability of lesser organizations. How does it do that? First, it selects highly skilled people and provides training in the specifics of espionage. Second, it promotes a high degree of morale and esprit de corps. Members of the IMF see themselves as the best of the best.

Third, and possibly most important, the IMF enjoys a high degree of political support and cover for its operations — at least in the television series. In the case of the movies, it’s more often the case that the problem lies in their own management, and as a result, the movie plots normally involve the IMF team acting without the support of its covering organization. This makes the situation far more perilous, and if it weren’t for the magic of the motion picture experience, those projects more likely would turn out to be actually impossible.

Sometimes a project is impossible for a good reason. In other cases, the project isn’t what it seems. Practice looking at the situation through someone else’s eyes. Play the “what if” game. Look around you. Question the constraints.

And always accept that you don’t know everything.

## Thursday, August 16, 2012

### The Father of Science Fiction (Science Fiction Birthdays)

Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback (August 16, 1884 - August 19, 1967) was born in Luxembourg and emigrated to the United States in 1905. A television and radio pioneer, Gernsback founded radio station WRNY, participated in the first television broadcasts, and helped facilitate the development of amateur radio.

It was in the field of magazine publishing, however, that Gernsback would make his mark. His magazine The Electrical Experimenter, founded in 1913, primarily published nonfiction, but he also started publishing "scientific fiction" stories along with science journalism.

The reaction to these stories led Gernsback to found the first magazine dedicated to what he termed "scientifiction" (abbreviated "stf;" the term only survives as a joke among the science fiction cognoscenti): Amazing Stories, which began publication in 1926 and lasted (so far) until March 2005. (As a side note, I've been peripherally involved with Amazing twice, first because my good friend Ted White edited the magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and again when my old employer TSR acquired the magazine in 1983.)

Amazing's letter column, which published the addresses of correspondents, triggered the beginning of organized science fiction fandom. Letter writers began to contact one another, form clubs, organize conventions, and start amateur magazines (fanzines) of their own. Although early fanzines tended to imitate their professional counterparts, fanzines quickly outgrew their "fan" origins to become an art form in themselves. (My own Random Jottings is a small part of that tradition.)

Gernsback himself was a controversial figure, accused of shady business practices and poor treatment of authors. (H. P. Lovecraft called him "Hugo the Rat.") He lost ownership of his magazines, including Amazing, in 1929, and founded two new magazines, Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories, which quickly merged into a single Wonder Stories, which he sold in 1936, returning once again in 1952 with Science-Fiction Plus, which lasted only a year. As an author, Gernsback is best known for the virtually unreadable (but seminal) novel Ralph 124C41+ ("One to foresee for one").

In spite of this, Hugo Gernsback is still credited for creating science fiction as a separate genre. To recognize this, the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society (aka the membership of the current Worldcon), are named the Hugo Awards. Gernsback himself received a special Hugo in 1960 as "the father of magazine science fiction."

Otto Messmer

Otto Messmer (August 16, 1892 - October 28, 1983) was an American animator best known for his work on Felix the Cat.

During his lifetime, the creative credit for Felix belonged to Pat Sullivan, whose studio produced the cartoons. After his death, Messmer claimed to have created the character. Sullivan Studio veterans and most comics historians support Messmer's claim.

Other SF Related Birthdays

August 16 is also the birthday of Regency novelist Georgette Heyer. Her books became popular among science fiction fans in the 1970s, to the extent that Regency-themed events were frequently held during science fiction conventions.

Julie Newmar is best known in science fiction and comics circles for her portrayal of Catwoman in the 1960s Batman television series. Her major science fiction credit, however, is her portrayal of Rhoda the Robot in the CBS sitcom My Living Doll, which ran for a single season in 1964-5. Bob Cummings played a psychologist responsible for teaching Android AF 709 how to be a "perfect" woman.

Director James Cameron produced numerous genre films, including the first two Terminator movies and most recently Avatar.

Other Significant Birthdays

August 16 is also the birthday of coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, Lawrence of Arabia, Menachem Begin, poet Charles Bukowski, Davy Crockett player Fess Parker, Eydie Gormé, Robert (I Spy) Culp, and Madonna.

## Tuesday, August 14, 2012

### The Drake Equation (Formal Fallacies, Part 1)

 Frank Drake
In February, I completed a 25-part series on red herrings, a category of argumentative fallacies that are intended to distract from the argument, rather than address it directly. That's only one category of argumentative fallacy. In this series, we'll look at formal fallacies. Formal fallacies are errors in basic logic. You don't even need to understand the argument to know that it is fallacious. Let's start with the appeal to probability.

Appeal to Probability

If I play the lottery long enough, I'm bound to win, and I can live on the prize comfortably for the rest of my life! Yes, it's possible that if you play the lottery, you'll win. Somebody has to. The logical fallacy here is to confuse the possibility of winning with the inevitability of winning. Of course, that doesn't follow.

In our study of cognitive bias (also available in compiled form here), we learned that numerous biases result from the misapplication or misunderstanding of probability in a given situation. Examples include the base rate effect, the gambler's fallacy, the hindsight bias, the ludic fallacy, and overall neglect of probability. Use the tag cloud to the right to learn more about each. We are, as a species, generally bad at estimating probability, especially when it affects us personally.

Various arguments about the Drake equation can fall into this trap. The Drake equation, developed by astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1961, provides a set of guidelines for estimating the number of potential alien civilizations that might exist in the Milky Way galaxy. Here's the formula:

$N = R^{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L$

in which:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
There are various arguments about the Drake equation. Some argue for additional terms in the equation, others point out that the value of many of the equation's terms are fundamentally unknown. There's a reasonable argument to be made that "N" has to be a fairly low number, on the simple grounds that we have not yet detected any extraterrestrial civilizations. Depending on the assumed values of the terms in the equation, you can derive conclusions that range from the idea that we're alone in the galaxy (see the Fermi Paradox) to an estimate that there may be as many as 182 million alien civilizations awaiting our discovery (or their discovery of us).

From a fallacies basis, however, the problem comes when people argue that the vast number of stars makes it certain that alien civilizations exist. As much as I'd personally prefer to believe this, the logic here is fallacious. Probable — even highly probable — doesn't translate to certainty.

That's not an argument against the Drake equation per se, but merely a problem with an extreme conclusion drawn from it. The Drake equation was never intended to be science, but rather a way to stimulate dialogue on the question of alien civilizations.

### Science Fiction Birthdays

 Asterix and Obelix
René Goscinny

Today is the birthday of René Goscinny (August 14, 1926 - November 5, 1977), author of the comic book series Astérix, following a village of indomitable Gauls as they resist Roman occupation. Goscinny was born in Paris but grew up in Buenos Aires. After the death of his father, he and his mother moved live with his uncle to New York. To avoid US military service, Goscinny returned to France and joined the French army in 1946, becoming an army illustrator. His first illustrated book, Returning to the US, he became friends with future MAD staffers Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Harvey Kurzman, and became art director for Kunen Publishers, writing children's books on the side.

He met the cartoonist Morris during this period, and starting in 1955, began a collaboration as writer of the series Lucky Luke, which he would continue until his death. Returning once again to Paris in 1951, he met his future Astérix partner Albert Uderzo and co-founded the Edipress/Edifrance syndicate. He worked on numerous projects, including Signor Spaghetti with Dino Attanasio, Monsieur Tric with Bob de Moor, and Prudence Petitpas with Maurice Maréchal. His first collaboration with Uderzo, Oumpah-pah, ran from 1958 to 1962.

Astérix first appeared in 1959, and 34 volumes have appeared since, with total sales in excess of 325 million copies. One of the most popular and beloved Franco-Belgian comics in the world, it has been translated into over 100 languages, adapted into 14 films, turned into numerous games, and even a theme park, Parc Astérix, near Paris.

Lee Hoffman

 SFFY cover by Steve Stiles
Lee Hoffman (August 14, 1932 - February 6, 2007), is perhaps best known as an author of Westerns, wining the Spur Award for her 1967 novel The Valdez Horses, which became a movie starring Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland. But she is also a beloved figure in science fiction circles, from her early days as a fanzine editor (Quandry, which ran from 1950 to 1953), where she was initially thought to be male — an understandable mistake given the overwhelming ratio of males to females in the science fiction community of the time. (Legendary Irish fan Walt Willis, upon learning the truth, immediately called Bob Shaw and shouted, "Lee Hoffman is a girl!")

She was married briefly to science fiction editor Larry Shaw, becoming assistant editor of his magazines Infinity Science Fiction and Science Fiction Adventures while also publishing her folk music fanzines Caravan and Gardyloo.

In addition to her seventeen Western novels, she wrote four science fiction novels: Telepower (1967), The Caves of Karst (1969), Always the Black Knight (1970) and Change Song (1972), and numerous short stories.

Brannon Braga

 Star Trek:Enterprise
Television producer and screenwriter Brannon Braga co-created Star Trek: Enterprise and worked on numerous other properties in the Star Trek franchise. His other science fiction work includes Terra Nova, Threshold, and FlashForward. He also worked on the series 24 in its later seasons.

Miscellaneous Birthdays

It's also the birthday of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Doc Holliday, Lina Wertmüller, David Crosby, Steve Martin, Danielle Steel, Gary Larson, Halle Berry, Magic Johnson, and Tim Tebow.