Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fallacies in the World: An Ideal Example

In November I wrote a post about how someone could use numbers, especially averages, in a fallacious way: Some Words about Numbers.

I'd liked to revisit this particular fallacy. When it comes to even the most basic laws of logic and good reasoning, the world is a hostile place. People use fallacies in order to manipulate you, to trick you into believing something that, as it is presented, you shouldn't believe.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but I love PBS. Since PBS uploads a lot of their shows online, I can view them at my own leisure. One of my favorite shows on PBS is a news/investigative journalism program called FRONTLINE.

Unlike many other news/investigative journalism programs that push an agenda or sacrifice thoroughness for advertisement sales, FRONTLINE provides a detailed, disinterested analysis of a topic that is usually politically and emotionally charged.

A few years ago, after the crash of Continental flight 3407 in Buffalo, FRONTLINE produced a documentary that explored America's increased reliance on regional airlines. It's an excellent documentary although it is horrifying.

The part that is important to my post this week is an exchange that happens around the 21:00 mark between FRONTLINE correspondent Miles O'Brien and Roger Cohen who, at the time of the interview, was President of the Regional Airline Association.

Here's the transcript of the entire documentary:

By using this address, you can see a button at the top of the page that allows you to watch the full episode online.

The part that I am interested in begins with Miles O'Brien pointing out the following to Mr. Cohen:

Mr. O'Brien: "Commuting has always been a part of aviation, but if you're making $16,000 to $18,000 a year and you're commuting, you're sleeping on the Barcalounger in the pilots' lounge. And that's not good is it?"

Mr. Cohen: "Let's get the facts out on-on the table on this, Miles. The average salary for a regional airline captain is $73,000. The average salary for a first officer at a regional airline is about $32,000, $33,000 a year."

Let's take a second and look at Mr. Cohen's response. Notice the prelude before he answers?

He's not just going to answer the question; he's going to correct Mr. O'Brien's ignorance. "Let's get the facts out..."

But what are the "facts?"

For all we know, Mr. Cohen is telling the truth. It may be true that the mean average salary of a first officer at a regional airline is a figure somewhere near $32,000, $33,000.

How does Miles O'Brien respond to Mr. Cohen's generous distribution of "facts?" Let's take a look.

Mr. O'Brien: "I'm not talking about average. There are some people, as you well know, who make $18,000 to $20,000 a year. We're not talking about average. We're talking about human beings who are flying my grandmother to Buffalo, right? OK, so there are people there living this life, and it seems as if they're in an untenable position economically."

It's an impressive piece of argumentation, isn't it?

Perhaps, for the sake of logical consistency, Mr. O'Brien could have stuck with the same salary range he used initially, but I think his error, if it is an error at all, is superficial.

There is something satisfying to me about witnessing a harmful and fallacious piece of reasoning get exposed.

Calmly. Civilly. Rationally. Exposed.

I would humbly suggest that an important reason Mr. Cohen used his fallacious reasoning during the interview was because he did not expect to be exposed.

In fact, he probably had that mean average calculated the night before by fourteen accountants. He couldn't wait to give that statistic, but Miles O'Brien was ready for it. He knew that Mr. Cohen was obscuring the issue with an equivocation.

He didn't tolerate it. And we shouldn't either.

The tragic events that culminated in the crash of Continental Flight 3407 were the result of a lot of factors. One factor that the documentary cogently presents is that the first officer was forced by the salary she earned to endure a financial situation that made her co-piloting flight 3407 very risky. In this instance, the risk cost 50 people their lives. In this instance, no one cares about the mean average.

At least, I didn't. And I'm glad that Miles O'Brien didn't either.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Juggling Multiple Deadlines: Spreading the Love vs. Dividing and Conquering

Three papers. Five finals. So much to do, so little time.

It’s how we all feel during the last few weeks of the semester, yet we still have to manage to get it all done in the allotted amount of time.
We juggle multiple deadlines, trying to finish all of our projects and papers, hoping we don’t drop any balls.

So, how are we supposed to do that, you ask?
There are two approaches we can take. In reality, there are probably more than two, but for time’s sake I will only go through these two.
Approach #1 – Spread the Love
This approach involves working on them all a little at a time. We start by allotting ourselves a specific amount of time, say three hours (in the event there are three papers to write), and work for an hour on each paper. We can set it up like this:
                  Day 1 – Research
                  Day 2 – Reading through research and taking notes
                  Day 3 – Writing a rough draft of the papers
                  Day 4 – Revising and Turning in the papers

Do this over the span of a few days, and before we know it they will all be done!
The major problem with this approach is that not all of us are strict one to two drafters, but sometimes that is all that our schedules will allow. Also, this is not a strict schedule; there is no one way to approach this approach. In other words, make a schedule that works for you, individually, but that allows you to work on multiple projects in a day.
Approach #2: Divide and Conquer
Attack them one at a time. Work one until it is done, and then begin the next.
The problem with this strategy is that deadlines are often too close together to realistically accomplish them one at a time. But if our schedules allow for it, it can make us feel accomplished, productive, and like we’re really going somewhere instead of being stuck at the beginning of three papers with only research to show for.
These are both intense and time-consuming, but so is trying to finish all the work and studying involved in the end of the semester. It can be done. We will finish our papers. We will take our final exams. We will live through it all, and then we will celebrate the end of the semester and a job well done and enjoy the break.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Prewriting for an Essay Exam Almost Feels Like Cheating

Finals week is almost here, and that means many students will experience hand cramps as they work diligently on in-class writing exams.

In-class writing is often viewed as the hardest writing to accomplish well effectively. Add that difficulty to the pressures of finals, and what you have is a mountain of stress.
I am all too familiar with In-class essay exams. In fact, I am doing another one tomorrow. So, I thought I would share my strategy.
In most cases, professors will give the class a good idea of what to expect. The first step is to pay attention at this critical moment and take as detailed notes as possible. The objective here is to take a close look at what the professor is hinting at and try to speculate what kind of response the professor is looking for.
For example: Many professors will use a phrase such as, “I don’t want a summary.” In this case, which is often the case, it is the students’ job to discuss the details of the subject matter, but more importantly develop a discussion that speaks to the main theme of the subject.
The main theme of the subject is usually closely tied to the main theme of the class. This theme undoubtedly has been brought up in class discussion throughout the semester. It is a good idea to consider and identify this theme before going to the final.
If students are lucky, the professor has pinpointed the subject matter of which the essay question will surround.  In this case, get to work!
Being prepared for an in-class writing exam is the best feeling to have. In contrast, having nothing to say during the exam is one of the worst feelings to have.
Therefore, prewriting is essential to preparing for an in-class writing exam.
For example: Today I will refresh my memory on the topic and hints my professor had given me. Then I will write everything I know on the subject almost exactly as if I were to write a paper and turn it in for a grade. Most of the time, by doing this prewriting at home, I almost feel as though I am cheating.  
In fact, I usually don’t mind essay questions as finals because I can write the answer before class. I just cannot bring that answer with me. However, looking at it this way, an in-class writing final is more like a take home exam. All students need to do is reread their own prewritten essay in order to remember significant chunks of what they had written.
Provided that students accomplish this prewriting exercise thoroughly a day or two before the exam, remembering the highlights of the prewriting exercise will come naturally.
Once in class, the most difficult task for me is starting the writing process. I tend to experience writer’s block the moment after I read the essay question.
To combat this writer’s block, I usually try to remember the first word phrase of my prewriting exercise. If the word phrase fits into the question contextually, I use it. If not, then remembering the first word phrase I wrote at home will help me to trigger the memory of the information that comes after.
After that, I tend to experience a sort of flow of information spilling out on the essay exam.  At this point I know I have prepared well.