Friday, August 14, 2015

'Where your tax dollars go', word image critique

The above image has been floating around Facebook, often coming from Bernie Sanders supporters, as an attempt to persuade people that very little of their tax dollars go to welfare and the vast majority goes to corporate subsidies. Before I get too into my back of the napkin level analysis, I want to state that I am critical of corporate subsidies and feel they are a real and growing problem. Having said that I think it's also important to point out what looks to be deceitful propaganda and this word image certainly appears to be just that.

The amount "you pay" making $50,000 comes to $4597.98 in the above breakdown. Of course what you actually pay is not just based on how much you make but on marital status, number of dependents and a slew of deductions, but regardless, the number is close to what your federal withholding would be if you made $50,000 a year. This does not include the amount you'd pay in social security withholding and medicare withholding which will be relevant in the calculation below.

The word image implies that the breakdown it provides is your portion of federal expenditures. If true, it would mean that 87% of all federal spending went to corporations in the form of subsidies. This of course is absolutely absurd.

A quick google search took me to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where I found information on federal spending. For 2014, the federal government spent $3.5 trillion dollars. The breakdown of those dollars is $840 billion (24%) social security, $840 billion (24%) medicare/medicaid/CHIP/market subsidies, $630 billion (18%) defense/international security, $385 billion (11%) safety net programs, $245 billion (7%) interest on debt, $560 billion (16%) on everything else including benefits for federal workers, transportation infrastructure, education, science and medical research, etc.

I couldn't find info on how much was actually spent in corporate subsidies in 2014 but did find a 2012 CATO report that estimated it at about $100 billion a year.

So, just for the fun of it, lets see if we can do a rework of the word image using the information above. We are trying to just look at how your federal withholding is allocated which makes this a bit difficult. As social security is mostly paid from social security tax, we will eliminate that from the federal spending breakdown. The medicare/medicaid/CHIP/market subsides are harder to figure as part of it is paid by your medicare withholding and part from federal withholding. It looks like about $200 billion in federal receipts came from medicare withholding in 2014 so well eliminate that amount from the medicare/medicaid/CHIP/market subsidies category in the federal spending breakdown.

After making these adjustments, here are the final results:

If you make $50,000 per year, you pay:

$1177.08 a year for defense
$1195.47 a year for medicare/medicaid/CHIP/market subsidies
$721.88 a year for safety net programs
$459.80 a year for interest on federal debt
$859.82 a year for infrastructure, education, research, etc.
183.68 a year in corporate subsidies

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'All is Vanity' by Charles Allen Gilbert

Charles Allan Gilbert (September 3, 1873 - April 20, 1929) was an American artist and illustrator. He is most remembered for the widely published illustration above titled 'All is Vanity' (1892). The illustration employs a double image where a woman sitting at a vanity admiring herself in a mirror also appears as a human skull when viewed from a distance or when blurring the eyes by squinting.

Interestingly, Gilbert created the image in 1892 when he was 18 years old but it did not receive recognition until 1902 when he sold the original to LIFE publishing. The image became wildly popular and is the most reproduced optical illusion in history. All is Vanity
Wikipedia: Charles Allan Gilbert

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Poisoning the Well

Poisoning the well is the use of a preemptive abusive or circumstantial ad hominem attack against an opponent with the purpose of discrediting or ridiculing everything they are about to say. It generally has the following form:

1. Unfavorable information (true or false) about person A is presented.
2. Therefore, (explicitly or implicitly) any claims about to be made by person A should be dismissed. 


"Don't listen to anything Steve may tell you, he's a socialist."


"Before you listen to my opponent, may I remind you that he has been to prison."

Practically speaking, poisoning the well is a form of ad hominem, and as such, one should follow the guidelines of analyzing an ad hominem to determine if it is being used in a fallacious manner. This essentially means questioning the relevancy of the attack on the claims presented by the person for whom the attack was directed against. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Abductive Arguments (Inference to the Best Explanation)

An abductive argument (also known as an inference to the best explanation) is an argument in which a hypothesis is inferred from some data on the grounds that it offers the best available explanation of that data.1 Though it may appear as a special type of induction, many philosophers view it as a separate type of inference.

The following example is useful in drawing the distinction between deduction, induction and abduction:

Deductive Reasoning: Suppose a bag contains only red marbles, and you take one out. You may infer by deductive reasoning that the marble is red.

Inductive Reasoning: Suppose you do not know the color of the marbles in the bag, and you take out a handful and they are all red. You may infer by inductive reasoning that all the marbles in the bag are red.

Abductive Reasoning: Suppose you find a red marble in the vicinity of a bag of red marbles. You may infer by abductive reasoning that the marble is from the bag.

Hence we can say that with a deductively valid inference, it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. With an inductively strong inference, it is improbable for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. In an abductively weighty inference, it is implausible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

Abduction is essentially a kind of guessing by forming the most plausible explanation for a given set of facts or data. It's inference comprises of three steps. First, it begins with the observation of the data, evidence, facts, etc. Second, it forms various explanations that can be given to explain the observations in the first step. Third, it selects the best explanation and draws the conclusion that the selected explanation is acceptable as a hypothesis. Here is the process in standard form:

P1. D exists.
P2. H1 would explain D. 
P3. H1 would offer the best (available) explanation of D. 
C. Therefore, probably, 4. H1

Abductive arguments are commonly used in many areas including law, archaeology, history, science and medical diagnosis. A medical example would include when a doctor examines a patient with certain symptoms and tries to reason from those symptoms to a disease or condition that would explain them. A legal example would be when a police detective gathers evidence then forms a hypothesis as to who committed a crime.

Evaluating Abductive Arguments
The strength of an abductive argument depends of several factors.
1. how decisively H surpasses the alternatives.
2. how good H is by itself, independently of considering the alternatives (we should be cautious about accepting a hypothesis, even if it is clearly the best one we have, if it is not sufficiently plausible in itself)
3. judgments of the reliability of the data
4. how much confidence there is that all plausible explanations have been considered (how thorough was the search for alternative explanations)

Additional factors to consider are:
1. pragmatic considerations, including the costs of being wrong, and the benefits of being right 
2. how strong the need is to come to a conclusion at all, especially considering the possibility of seeking further evidence before deciding.

1. A Practical Study of Argument

2. Abductive, presumptive and plausible arguments

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bradford Hill Criteria for Causation (epidemiology)

The Bradford Hill criteria for causation are a group of criteria or guidelines used to help determine if an observed association is potentially causal. They were established in 1965 by the English epidemiologist Sir Austin Bradford Hill.

Research to determine the cause of disease is a principal aim of epidemiology. As most epidemiological studies are observational rather than experimental, a number of possible explanations for an observed association must be considered before a cause-effect relationship can be inferred. In his 1965 paper The environment and disease: association or causation, Hill proposed the following nine guidelines to help assess if a causal relationship exists:

1. Strength: (effect size): A small association does not mean that there is not a causal effect, though the larger the association, the more likely that it is causal.

2. Consistency: (reproducibility): Consistent findings observed by different persons in different places with different samples strengthens the likelihood of an effect.
3. Specificity: Causation is likely if a very specific population at a specific site and disease with no other likely explanation. The more specific an association between a factor and an effect is, the bigger the probability of a causal relationship.

4. Temporality: The effect has to occur after the cause (and if there is an expected delay between the cause and expected effect, then the effect must occur after that delay).

5. Biological gradient: Greater exposure should generally lead to greater incidence of the effect. However, in some cases, the mere presence of the factor can trigger the effect. In other cases, an inverse proportion is observed: greater exposure leads to lower incidence.

6. Plausibility: A plausible mechanism between cause and effect is helpful (but Hill noted that knowledge of the mechanism is limited by current knowledge).

7. Coherence: Coherence between epidemiological and laboratory findings increases the likelihood of an effect. However, Hill noted that "... lack of such [laboratory] evidence cannot nullify the epidemiological effect on associations".

8. Experiment: "Occasionally it is possible to appeal to experimental evidence".

9. Analogy: The effect of similar factors may be considered.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Mill's Methods

Mill's Methods
The nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill devised five methods for reasoning about cause and effect. Though they have serious limitations, they are still useful and widely taught today.

1. The Method of Agreement - Mill wrote "If two or more instances of the phenomenon under investigation have only one circumstance in common, the circumstance in which alone all the instances agree, is the cause (or the effect) of the given phenomenon." In other words, if there is a single circumstance that is present in all positive instances, then we can conclude that this circumstance was the cause of the phenomenon. Note that in textbooks this is often referred to as the direct the method of agreement and only looks at positive instances of the effect in question.

For example, lets say four students dined together at the cafeteria and two of them became ill with food poisoning. The students were questioned about what they ate which resulted in the following list:

Carla            No             Yes          Yes           Yes            Yes
John             Yes            No           No            Yes             Yes
Tom             Yes            Yes          No            No              No
Mary            No             Yes          Yes           No              No

Based on the above information, we can conclude that it was the beans that gave Carla and John food poisoning as this was the only potential cause that was present in both instances.

Though not listed by Mill, some textbooks also refer to what is called the Inverse Method of Agreement (or Negative Method of Agreement). The Inverse Method of Agreement allows one to conclude that a certain circumstance is the cause of the phenomenon under investigation if this circumstance is the only circumstance (of those considered) that is absent in all negative instances.

Using the above example, the inverse method of agreement would lead us to look at the negative instances of Tom and Mary not getting food poisoning. Here we find the beans to be only potential cause which were absent in both cases and can thus conclude them to be the cause.

2. The Method of Difference - "If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance in common save one, that one occurring only in the former, the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon." In other words, if there is a positive and a negative instance where the presence or absence of all possible causes are the same except one cause which is present in the positive instance and absent in the negative instance, then it can be concluded to be the cause of the phenomenon. Note that the method of difference looks at both  positive and negative instances of the effect in question.

Using the food poisoning example above there are two relevant instances where the method of difference can be applied:

Carla            No             Yes          Yes           Yes            Yes
Mary            No             Yes          Yes           No              No

Since the only potential cause in which they differ is present in the positive instance and absent in the negative instance, we can conclude it was the beans that caused the food poisoning.

3. The Joint Method of Agreement & Difference - "if two or more instances in which the phenomenon occurs have only one circumstance in common, while two or more instances in which it does not occur have nothing in common save the absence of that circumstance; the circumstance in which alone the two sets of instances differ, is the effect, or cause, or a necessary part of the cause, of the phenomenon."  There seems to be a fair amount of controversy over this method among those scholars that examine such things. The biggest criticisms seem to be that The joint method/indirect method is not really a combination of the method of agreement and method of difference. Also, the definition above as provided by Mill is restrictive in that it does not allow full achievement of the intended purpose of the joint method. A more usable amended joint method of agreement & difference is provided by Skorupski:

"If two or more instances in which the phenomenon occurs have a circumstance in common, while in two or more instances in which the phenomenon does not occur that circumstance is absent, and if there is no other circumstance or combination of circumstances which is present in all the instances in which the phenomenon occurs, and absent in all the instances in which it does not occur, then the given circumstance is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon."

This can be summarized as the circumstance which alone is present in all the positive instances and absent in all the negative instances.

Here is a modified version of the food poisoning example which demonstrates the amended joint method:

Carla            No             Yes          Yes           Yes            Yes
Ann              Yes            Yes          No            Yes            Yes
Doug            Yes            No           No            No              No
Byron           No             Yes          No            No              No

With this example, the method of agreement does not give a unique answer since there are two positive circumstances (fries and beans) present in both positive instances. The method of difference also does not provide an answer since there is not a positive and negative instance where all causes are the same except a single cause which is positive in one instance and negative in the other. However, using the amended joint method we find that the beans are the cause as they are the only circumstance which is present in all positive instances and absent in all negative instances.

4. The Method of Residue - "Subduct from any phenomenon such part as is known by previous inductions to be the effect of certain antecedents, and the residue of the phenomenon is the effect of the remaining antecedents."

5. The Method of Concomitant Variation - "Whatever phenomenon varies in any manner whenever another phenomenon varies in some particular manner, is either a cause or an effect of that phenomenon, or is connected with it through some fact of causation."