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: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/flyingcheap/etc/script.html
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.