Generalization: The Map vs. The Real Thing

The first picture is the OKC Memorial’s own map. The second picture is the OKC Memorial as seen from above, in Google Earth. It seems remarkably accurate from the field of empty chairs and farther right. The Murrah Plaza area on the map may have been accurate once, but now it has much fewer trees than the map shows it to have. One area of trees has been replaced by a building. Other areas of trees have a smaller number in real life than the map shows. One tree in the Rescuer’s Orchard also seems to have been cut down (in the upper left part of the area).

But enough about trees. Continuing the theme of generalization (confession: I hadn’t actually read the chapter on generalization or learned much about it before my previous blog post!) we see that the map utilizes selection in not including many details of the Murrah Plaza. The rest of the area, however, uses relatively little selection as we can see from the comparison–being a large-scale map. (It is large-scale, right? Maps that show bigger areas are small-scale. Smaller areas are large-scale. Confuzzling. Maybe it will help, or not, to remember that a small area, made large, is large-scale. A large area, made small, is small-scale.) The pathways have very little smoothing or simplification. It’s pretty accurate.

More about trees. The map makes all the trees look about the same size, when in reality, some are rather “fatter” while others are rather skinnier. The Survivor Tree is shown as appropriately massive, however.

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OKC Memorial map

 

I wanted to examine the map included in the OKC Memorial’s brochure, and, not wanting to drive all the way back out there, I searched the internet for it. It did not seem to be on the OKC Memorial’s website, but I found it on a tourist’s webpage. On the site, the picture is called a diagram, but it is also a map. What is a map, but a diagram of a location?

It provides a good overview of where each main area of the memorial is. It seems the main purpose is that of most (honest) maps—to help the user find their way around. Presumably, it is meant to go with the other stuff in the brochure, which I assume would include brief descriptions of what each place is—for instance, what the field of empty chairs is and what it represents. I would guess the map is not meant to stand alone, but to supplement the other information.

The map itself provides little information on these areas. For instance, I have never been to the Murrah Plaza or the children’s area, and I still have no more knowledge than before as far as what either place looks like (aside from the layouts of their trees). Neither does the map give the viewer a good impression of how beautiful the place is, although it is elegantly designed and colored. It is no substitute for visiting the Memorial itself.

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Verizon’s advertising map

This map appeared at the end of an advertisement for Verizon. It shows that Verizon has a wider field of 3G coverage than its rival company, AT&T. What it does not show, according to this news report, is that AT&T has a 2G network that covers a great deal more ground than the map shows. Verizon’s advertisement’s map, therefore, gives the false impression that AT&T’s field of service is very small. Anyone thinking the advertisement through, of course, would likely realize that AT&T’s field of coverage was probably not that small, regardless of whether they knew the difference between 2G and 3G (as I do not)—but the important thing about an effective advertisement is that it gives a favorable impression of the thing being advertised.

The technique uses selective information to give the impression that its service is far superior to that of a business rival. It isn’t as blatant as in the hypothetical example of Helter, Skelter & Northern Railway in Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps (pages 59-61) but it still seems to be an attempt to play on unwitting viewers’ technological ignorance and lack of attention-paying to exaggerate the difference in service quality between themselves and the other company. As far as its use of selective information goes, it resembles the Monmonier’s Upward Airlines map on page 62.

Depicting itself as covering most of the country also give the impression of power—as if it had conquered most of the country. Apparently AT&T was quite upset by the way it was depicted and sued Verizon, although I do not have an interest in learning how the suit was resolved.

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A Map from the Flat Earth Society

You have to love the Flat Earth Society. Yes, they really do believe the earth is flat. After all, it looks flat from down here. “But wait,” you might say, “I always see a curved horizon when I’m in an airplane—that must mean the world is round!” The Flat Earther will respond that some kind of physics is responsible for the curvature of light when it travels over long distances; the earth is still flat. What about NASA, you’ll ask. A devious conspiracy, they’ll say. Some propose a conspiracy of dozens. One moderator proposes a conspiracy of millions. Don’t get me started on their explanation for how flat earth gravity works.

You may ask why it is that we can travel all the way around the earth, or why ships never fall off the edge. In response to the first question, the Flat Earther would ask that you consider how the hands of your analog clock travel all the way around it and yet, clearly, your clock is not a sphere. As to the second question, well…

This is one version of the Flat Earth map. Notice that the continents are distorted, rather like they would be if you flattened out a globe. Take note, also, of the fact that Antarctica is no longer just a large continent on the far south—it is now an enormous circular wall of ice traversing the rim of our entire pancake-planet. The Ice Wall—the barrier that prevents us from falling off the edge of the earth.

Actually, Flat Earthers differ on the precise nature of the Ice Wall. Some say that Antarctica’s coast is the only Ice Wall, while others say that beyond Antarctica’s coast lies a 20,000 foot-high “Greater” Ice Wall that holds in our atmosphere (sans gravity). Supposedly, after one has scaled this wall, they will find themselves on the edge of the earth.

A few particularly creative Flat Earthers have even suggested that NASA and other space agencies have placed guards to patrol the perimeter of the Greater Ice Wall and “take care” of any too-curious individuals who might take it upon themselves to travel out so far into the icy continent and expose the Round Earth hoax. I could not find the thread in which this conversation occurred, but a confused skeptic once asked a Flat Earther to clarify whether traveling to Antarctica would spell his doom because he would freeze to death, or if he would instead be killed by the Ice Wall guards.

The Flat Earther’s answer: “Yes.”

For the curious soul…

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A mapped history of where I’ve slept

I suspect that for almost any person’s life, a large number of different types of maps could be drawn to trace the various aspects of their personal history. I could, for instance, draw a map of my schooling history, or of my history of religious views, or of my history of taste in art. In class, I drew a fairly simple map—a map of the bedrooms in which I have slept. Since I have always practically lived in my bedrooms, this could be said to be a map of where I have lived.

In the earliest years of my life, until I was about 12, I slept/lived in a downstairs bedroom at my parents’ house. When my little brother Levi was about to outgrow his crib—he’s ten years younger than me—I moved to a bedroom upstairs so he could have mine.

Towards the end of my high school career—I think it was early in senior year—I could no longer tolerate the degree of noise at my house. Levi was now throwing temper tantrums regularly, often at night. My dad’s computer station was right outside my door, and I could hear his chair creaking and sometimes even his fingers typing as I tried to sleep. Very nerve-wracking. Our dog Wishbone frequently barked at people taking walks (especially if they had dogs) and my room, as it happened, was nearly the only room in the house where the dog’s barking could be heard clearly. As a result, nobody ever heard the dog or let him in when he barked. Tired of losing sleep and peace of mind, I finally moved to my grandparents’ house and slept in a room there. It was nice and quiet.

Over the summer, I think, after graduation, I realized that the bed in the bedroom next to mine—my cousin’s bed, on the rare occasion she spent the night—was a great deal comfier than mine. I moved my stuff into there and commandeered the bed. It remains to this day a very pink and girlishly decorated room, but I’ve never felt the need to renovate it.

Those two houses were both in Tulsa. Now, I sleep in Harris Hall at OCU, in a private room. Reasonably quiet, most of the time, with the exception of the obnoxious music the people next to me sometimes play (but not too late at night).

And that’s the history of where I’ve lived. The map itself doesn’t reveal all that much—it’s too crudely drawn and boring to be worth the effort to scan and upload it—but it did provide a visual representation of the aspect of my life history and a sort of jumping-off point for a bit of discussion of it.

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Forums of Argument: Text vs. Speech

I enjoy discussing moral dilemmas and arguing about ethics and philosophical issues in general. I find these kinds of topics to be very open-ended and engaging. I enjoy arguing; I don’t find it a negative thing. I think more people should argue about the big issues of life and that they could find it enjoyable. I appreciate the Socratic method—asking questions to get people to question their own underlying assumptions and unspoken premises, and posing challenges to their ideas. Asking questions can serve as an argument against a particular position by challenging it, threatening to point out its weak points or limitations.

It was, however, frustrating that we did not make sure we were all properly sorted into the right chatrooms at the start of the exercise. A few of my fellow chatroom members at the beginning disappeared shortly into the conversation, and then some others showed up a few minutes later. I had to reiterate some of what I had already said.

There are advantages and disadvantages to having such a discussion in a chatroom as opposed to in person. The main advantage of the chatroom is that we can all say everything we want to say—no interruptions. We can also take the time needed to say it more eloquently than we might have if we had to think it up as we spoke. We can all be working on what we have to say at all times; we may read others’ writings faster than they would be able to say them out loud, which gives us more time to write our responses. We can write at any time without worrying about interrupting anyone by speaking out, nor do we need to worry about failing to listen to them due to thinking about our own response while trying to listen to others.

Nevertheless, I suspect that I tend to prefer arguing in person. I enjoy being able to see and hear everyone make their points. We can all look around and see that the other people are not angry or aggravated, while in a chatroom it’s difficult to get one’s tone across effectively. When arguing about an issue such as abortion or religion, I would certain prefer to do so in person, preferably while eating ice cream. I suspect that would be very helpful to producing a nice, light-hearted atmosphere.

There are also disadvantages to speaking in person, such as the fact that people may not get to say everything they want to say, due to interruptions. I’ve sometimes been frustrated when discussing things in person because of this. A well-established system of taking turns could get around this problem. However, taking turns comes with its own problems. Nobody likes waiting. Sometimes a point might be made that really begs to be responded to immediately—especially if we believe it to be mistaken—and we think it bears addressing before letting the other person go on to make a series of points that are based on that faulty premise, points which they will just be wasting time to make.

I wonder if it might be possible to have it both ways—to argue by writing in a chatroom in person, as we did in class, but let everyone speak out loud whenever they want to. This may also be imperfect, however, since it requires people to keep up with two separate forums for the same discussion (the chatbox and what the people say out loud) and they may end up ignoring one method in favor of the other. It might be a worthwhile experiment, however.

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Utilitarianism: Refusing to minimize suffering is NEVER justified.

What is the basic guiding principle of morality? I argue that it is utilitarianism. In fact, I argue that morality is a convoluted, unnecessarily emotionally loaded, vague, and ultimately meaningless concept if it is considered to be anything but utilitarianism. This post won’t be remotely floaty-minded as some of my others have been. It may have structural errors or lost trains of thought, since I haven’t carefully edited it. I may also sound rather mean or condescending towards those who might disagree with me towards the end. Again, lack of careful editing. (I accidentally typed that as “carefule diting” and was tempted to leave it that way to prove my point.) The main points are made largely in terms of the arguments themselves, with little effort to soften the blow for anyone who may find my opinion to be an extreme one. I ask your forgiveness in advance. It would take a longer time to write this in a way that might be more persuasive on an emotional level. However, anyone who disagrees is welcome to comment. I will respond in as much detail as necessary.

Of course, it is hard to avoid sounding cold, calculating, even cynical when discussing utilitarianism–especially when defending so strong a version of it as I do. I haven’t the energy to go through this piece and add jokes here and there to lighten the mood, so just pretend I did and laugh now and then even though there is no attempt at humor in this whatsoever.

I take a position of very rigid utilitarianism. I’ve never seen a good challenge to the principle. People have made numerous attempts at counterexamples to it over the years—scenarios that pose a moral dilemma which purport to have an obvious solution that is contrary to the notion of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I have found these counterexamples unconvincing because they always do one of two things. Either the solution they think is obvious IS in accordance with the utilitarian principle, even though the writer didn’t realize it because it wasn’t immediately obvious—or the right solution is the one they consider obviously immoral, because they have reasoned it to be so by a faulty principle. These counterexamples do, however, force us utilitarians to further qualify our position, making it more complex than the impression that the basic principle would give.

An example would be slavery. An anti-utilitarian might say “Oh, maximizing utility, you say? You want maximal utility, bring back slavery! That would let so many people get more work done and still get to relax. But of course, slavery is wrong despite being in accordance with utilitarianism—therefore, utilitarianism is wrong, or at least limited!”

But no. Slavery is NOT in accordance with utilitarianism. It is not the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Many people benefit from slavery; this is true. However, it is not enough for many to benefit—not if it is as the expense of others, who suffer. To keep only one factor in mind, that of quality of happiness/suffering rather than number of people involved, let us say there is a society which has the same number of slaves and slave-owners. The slave-owners are very happy. The slaves, however, suffer the indignity of a lack of freedom to own anything, including themselves. It is here that we need to qualify the principle of utilitarianism—suffering must outweigh happiness. We must give greater weight to the ideal of minimizing suffering than to maximizing happiness.

The reason minimizing suffering is secondary to maximizing happiness is that a neutral level of happiness is, well, “okay.” It is acceptable to be at a medium level of happiness; we can say this from personal experience. Too much less than a medium level, however, becomes acutely unpleasant. It becomes clearly unacceptable before long. Happiness beyond the level of “okay,” however, we should consider a luxury. Important, yes—but not desirable if it pulls others below the threshold of acceptable comfort. Thus, it is not okay for a man to have the added happiness of having a slave at the price of the unacceptably low level of comfort the slave feels.

One might ask “What if the slaves ENJOY being slaves?” This will, quite simply, not be the case across the board. However, if the slave enjoys his position, it is likely because he has been raised with such little ambition that he simply does not know how much more he will enjoy being free to pursue his own ambitions. There may be exceptions. A slave may be considered part of the family and wish to serve the family as one would serve their own flesh and blood. In this case, freeing that individual slave may not actually improve their position in life—however, it would give them the freedom to leave if they so chose. That freedom to leave if their preference changes is also an important benefit. In this case, it comes with little cost to the slave-owning family to allow it if the slave does not with to go—and at a significant enough gain if the slave does wish to go, to more than offset the lack of such free labor the family must now endure. In this case, also, freeing the slave is the morally obligatory action, because it brings about the greatest good.

Another example would be gladiator battles for the enjoyment of those privileged to watch them. Old-school Roman coliseum battles where slaves fight to the death. We again have slavery—but what if there are so many fewer slaves than free men and women? Is it moral to kill two people, or even one person, for the enjoyment of a thousand? A person using this argument to discredit utilitarianism as a universally desirable principle would say that this maximizes the good, yet is clearly wrong.

But in what way is it clearly wrong? It is clearly wrong, I would say, specifically because it goes against the principle of utilitarianism—as does all slavery. Starting with the principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” plus the qualifier we’ve established that suffering outweighs happiness, we can add another qualifier—suffering outweighs happiness so much, so much, that the suffering of one person for the benefit of a thousand is still undesirable. Those people watching the gladiator battles will not be forced into a state of abject suffering by being denied the fun of watching two people fight to the death. They will be inconvenienced. They will get over it, whereas a man whose freedom and/or life is taken away by force generally cannot endure such a thing with a medium level of happiness intact.

Now, a harder counterexample—let’s say there is a runaway trolley car that is headed towards five workers on the track. These five workers are distracted in some way; there is no chance whatsoever that they will get out of the way. You are on a bridge overlooking the track, between the trolley and the workers. There is a heavy man leaning over the rail to get a better view. Let’s say you know for sure that the weight of the heavy man will certainly stop the trolley car if he falls in front of it. You have the chance to push him over the edge, and doing so will stop the car and save the five people further down the track. (He is heavy enough that he will stop the car—but you are not.) Is it moral to push him?

In real life, this may not be so easy to be sure of; but it’s a fine example of an extreme sort of a potential counterexample to utilitarianism. It is an example that Michael Sandel brought up at his OCU lecture to provoke careful thought about basic moral values and assumptions.

I was one of less than a dozen people–out of maybe five hundred audience members–who voted “yes” when asked if it was moral to push the man over the ledge—to actively, violently, kill him—to stop the trolley car and save the lives of the other five people. It seems a simple question of one life vs. five lives—why, I wonder, did so few people agree that it was moral to kill one man to save five? I suspect there were three reasons that so few people raised their hands, but the third is most significant.

1. A few people may have misunderstood the question and thought they were being asked if they actually truly WOULD push the man off; it was pretty clear they were really being asked whether it was moral to do so, without regard to whether they really would live up to their moral judgment. Sandel would have done better to clarify that. Probably, however, most people understood the question.

2. A few others may have been hesitant to raise their hands, fearing to be seen as someone who would consider actively killing an innocent person as being justified under any circumstances.

3. Most people, however, probably understood the question and were honest about their answer. They had a genuine moral objection to violently killing the one man to save the five.

Before addressing why so many people considered pushing the heavy man to save five people to be unjustified—perhaps akin to murder—let us examine a simpler scenario Sandel provided us with previously.

Sandel’s earlier scenario:

You are now the driver of a runaway trolley. The brakes don’t work, but the steering does. There is a fork in a track up ahead. There are five people on the track you’re headed down. If you do nothing, those five people will lose their lives. There is one person on the other track—if you turn the wheel, you will kill that one person instead. What do you do?

Most people said they would turn the wheel. They would turn the wheel and kill one person—or, we might say, allow the trolley car to kill them—rather than do nothing and let five people die. I won’t worry here about those who objected even then. The point is, most people saw no problem with turning the wheel and running over one person unavoidably, in order to avoid running over five others. It was a simple case of one life vs. five.

Why, then, is pushing the heavy man over the ledge seen as more murderous than to turn a wheel and kill a man? It is still a decision of one life vs. five. It is seen as unjustifiable to push the heavy man, I think, because of the act’s visceral, violent nature. It is an emotional objection to killing a man with one’s own hands, rather than turning a wheel.

One person noted that the five people down the track were workers; they were on duty, and they knew there were some risks to the job. The bystander, however, was just that—an innocent person going on with his life. Perhaps we may grant that the death “in the line of duty” of a person with a known hazardous job may be a lesser tragedy than the death of a man going about his daily life. But is it five times lesser? I am skeptical. For five police officers or five firefighters who die saving a single person, one could perhaps make the case that it was best to let them die so that the one civilian could live—but simple trolley track workers? How dangerous a job that is considered, I am not sure, but I highly doubt it is considered so hazardous that they go in expecting to put their lives on the line, as police, soldiers, or firefighters would. The possibility of this being an especially dangerous profession is, however, a possible rebuttal to my argument.

But let me provide a change of my own to the scenario—suppose the five people on the track are also ordinary citizens, just like the heavy man whose girth could stop the trolley at the cost of his life. In this case, I suspect most of the people who voted “No” and would not push the man would still not push the man. Admittedly, this is just speculation. My hunch is, however, that most people paid more attention to the violent nature of pushing the heavy man rather than to the occupation of those who would die so that he may live.

One objects to violently killing one person so that five people may live because it seems categorically wrong, it seems wrong, fundamentally, to kill one man so violently under any circumstances. Of course violently killing a fellow human being is always terrible. And we feel that. We recoil at the very thought. And yet, killing him will prevent an equal tragedy from befalling five others—and so, it is the greater good to kill him. There is another instance of suffering in addition to his death, however—our own suffering.

We will suffer when we push him over the ledge and watch him die. We will suffer for long afterwards. We may suffer for the rest of our life. We would suffer the feelings of guilt, even though we would truly have done the right thing. But how much more suffering it would be for the families of the five men who would have died had we failed to act. How much more guilty we would truly be, even without feeling it, if we had let those five people die, even as we may delude ourselves into thinking we did the right thing merely because we’d feel less guilty.

We put too much stock into whether an action makes us feel good or guilty; this is not always a good way to tell whether something is right. We may think it is some magical sense, which invariably tells us what is right and wrong. But we can feel guilty for doing what is right. We can feel guilty for putting a dog outside, or for punishing a misbehaving child. We may feel good when we buy expensive presents for those we love, even though we’d be doing a world of good more if we gave more money to a charitable organization to feed the hungry in Africa. We wouldn’t feel as good about helping the hungry in Africa not because it wouldn’t be as good to help them—but simply because we cannot see them.

What makes us feel good or guilty is largely psychological. Sometimes it is a reliable sense of what is best. Sometimes it is not. It is not a reliable indicator of what constitutes a “categorically” right or wrong action. When we allow ourselves to think so, we place our own feelings above the needs of others. We murder four people by not pushing the heavy man, because now five will die instead of one. And why will they die? They will die because we were just too selfish to do something that would make us feel guilty. That is what it boils down to.

If you disagree, think about your own reasons, and your own feelings. Can you explain, with reasoned arguments, what mistakes I have made in my reasoning? I did start to rush this post towards the end, so I am sure I have overlooked certain objections. I am confident that I can effectively respond to any counterarguments that might be made, but I probably could have done more to anticipate them in advance.

I don’t mean to blame anyone who holds the opposing view. Nor do I mean to speak condescendingly. The assumptions about morality I have spoken of—however misguided—are hard-wired, biologically and socially. They’re part of the most basic aspects of our worldview. It’s hard to discern them if one is unpracticed. I didn’t formulate the rigid utilitarianism I hold today overnight. It took years for me to learn to articulate these concepts. It’s not obvious at first glance what the right thing to do is. I do, however, consider it obvious upon close and careful inspection, perhaps a great deal of it. The biases that can prevent someone from seeing the solutions to some dilemmas—or seeing the ambiguity of others—can be nearly impossible to see in oneself.

I could more fully defend the principle behind utilitarianism in opposition to other principles, but that wasn’t the main purpose of this post. Maybe, however, it would have been more prudent to start with that. I don’t have time now.  If you disagree with my assessment of utilitarianism or my solution to the “heavy man and the trolley” problem, I invite you to explain to me why I am wrong.

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Exploration # (?): Eating without sight

I decided to eat my midnight snack of chips and queso without using my eyes. I recall seeing a suggestion in one of Keri Smith’s explorations to eat food blindfolded. I didn’t blindfold myself–an unnecessary inconvenience–but I did keep my eyes closed (and kept my glasses off) while eating. I do not remember which exploration this was; I simply remembered seeing it when I read the book—at least, I’m 99% sure it was in the book—and decided to try it.

After heating the queso with my eyes open, I put the queso bowl on a plate and put it, as well as an opened bag of chips, on the floor (I eat on the floor because my desks are cluttered). I sat down in front of them, closed my eyes, and began.

The next thing I did was accidentally dip two of my fingers in the queso, in an attempt to locate the plate. I grabbed some chips out of the bag with my right hand, felt along the floor with my other hand for the plate, and put the chips on the plate. To eat chips and queso is a surprisingly active process. One needs to dip each chip in the queso, and then, without letting the queso drip on the floor or on oneself, eat the chip. It sounds easy enough when you’ve got eyes to help you. It is a minor struggle to accomplish this blindly.

The queso was very hot, and therefore prone to dripping—which is how I always prefer it, although this turned out to be a liability tonight. I had to keep my head above the bowl to avoid dripping the queso on the floor. I had no way of knowing how much queso I was getting on each chip, or how much it dripped, or how long to hold it up before it stopped dripping. I had to avoid holding it over anything except the bowl.

I cheated twice, opening my eyes briefly to make sure I had not gotten any queso on the floor. This would have meant cleaning it up immediately, but luckily I avoided it.

With a meal that required less conscious activity, the method of eating without being able to see could be more enjoyable. It could potentially force me to contemplate my food more heavily and thereby enjoy its taste more. With chips and queso, however, it was frustrating because I had no knowledge of how much queso I was getting on each chip, and I had to put in an extra effort to avoid dripping it. This detracted from my enjoyment of the food. Ultimately, I ended the experiment after a couple dozen chips, and now I am off to enjoy the rest of my meal with restored sight.

 

Afterward:

I am halfway through my meal now (or snack, or whatever). I have noticed a habit that I did not consider before; after dipping a chip, I try to maneuver it so that the side with the more queso is on the bottom–which, of course, makes it more important to wait until enough queso has dripped off that this can be done safely. However, I had been doing it subconsciously. That is, I didn’t notice it until after I started eating with my eyes open. Trying to do it with my eyes closed had the effect of making me realize how many steps were involved that I never consciously registered before.

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A picture of irony

Irony is a word that many people, including myself, have difficulty using correctly. Probably the easiest way to tell if a picture is ironic is to see whether something about it indicates that someone has made an effort to do something—but has achieved the opposite of their goal.

By this fairly straightforward definition, I can provide a fairly straightforward example. See the picture below.

“Nothing” is misspelled. “Regret Nohing.” The irony is that one can infer the person whose arm is pictured got the tattoo (I can make no comment on whether it’s real) with the intent to express a willingness to go valiantly charge through life without looking back with regret on past mistakes—and now they have no choice but to acknowledge that a mistake was made and that they have to either do something about it–or live with having failed to achieve their goal of having a properly written tattoo.

It is also possible, however, that they will subvert this possible irony, if they genuinely do not regret their tattooed typo. Also, I can’t rule out the possibility that they did it on purpose in order to be ironic. (Did I use the term correctly? Would this be ironic? Even after my research—see below—I am not sure.)

Further research:

The following page seems to have a fairly good breakdown of common misuses of the word “irony.” It is not the same as a coincidence, nor is it the same as bad luck. A situation is ironic only under very specific circumstances. The article goes on to show some captioned pictures that purport to display irony—but do not. I am not sure whether it is ironic to fail to properly use the term irony. If one misused the term irony while trying to correct someone else’s misuse of the term, that would indeed be ironic. Simply misusing the term ironic in a general context, however, may not be.

http://www.cracked.com/funny-1085-irony/

Here is another page, featuring some more light-hearted discussion on the confusing and apparently somewhat subjective nature of misusing the word “irony.” It is rather less enlightening than the Cracked article.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/irony

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Mis-analyzing true facts in support of faulty conclusions

It is an interesting question how the media, politicians, or other parties can “massage” information to fit a particular agenda. How is information “massaged,” without directly lying, to give a misleading impression?

There are two main steps to arriving at a conclusion in a simple argument of fact. One step is establishing the information—the raw facts, or “grounds.” The other step is to establish the “warrant,” the way in which these facts entail a certain conclusion. (The warrant also needs support, called “backing,” and the grounds need evidence as well.)

These two steps also provide for two ways in which an argument can be faulty, whether by accident or design (or both). A person could use sound reasoning but apply it to inaccurate “facts.” Someone could also use perfectly true facts but present them in such a way so as to provide illusory support to a false conclusion.

We all have numerous inherent biases that lead us to try to make shortcuts in our logical thinking—fallacies—often without realizing it. The number of biases and fallacies we are prone to would appear to indicate that we are not, by nature, rational creatures. We have to train ourselves to use reason consistently by learning about the various kinds of mistakes we must strive to avoid.

I do not know much at all about statistics, so I’m not sure I can comment a whole lot on that topic. I do know that there is a book called How to Lie with Statistics (from which our book about maps—which we still haven’t started—got the idea for its title) but I don’t know much of the details on how this may be done.

One fallacy of analyzing statistics or information that I can think of, however, is the correlation-causation fallacy. When we see one very noticeable thing change, and we also something else change at the same time—especially if this happens consistently—it is an instinct we have to automatically jump to the conclusion that the first change caused the second.

For instance, when childhood autism diagnosis rates began to increase at around the same time that certain new childhood vaccinations were introduced—and the symptoms generally appeared shortly after the children had received their vaccinations—it could easily be assumed that the vaccinations were actually causing the children to develop autism. What was less intuitively obvious for us to consider, however, was the fact that numerous other factors—including increasing alertness to the autism symptoms and a broadening of the ways it could be diagnosed—could well have increased the rate of autism diagnoses. Additionally, it needed to be remembered that autism symptoms already tended to show up at around the same young age that children were typically vaccinated. These facts which undermined the obvious conclusion were, and still are, often ignored by anti-vaccination alarmists in order to strengthen the immediate impression of a causal connection.

Another easy mistake when it comes to analyzing information occurs when we have a particular conclusion that we seek to support. In this mindset, we can make the mistake of imagining any seemingly relevant phenomenon that we cannot explain otherwise as lending support to our conclusion. For instance, if we believe our house is haunted, we may cite a series of perfectly true facts—examples of mysterious noises, moving shadows, oddities glimpsed in our peripheral vision, a feeling of being watched, objects becoming lost and reappearing elsewhere without anyone recalling who moved them. We can easily take such facts and consider them to be evidence of a haunting—but without thoroughly considering alternatives that could plausibly explain all these things, it is a mistake to consider them evidence of such an extraordinary claim.

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