I do not like ill-reasoned spam; I do not like it, Sam-I-am.

If my experience is at all typical, you probably have a friend or relative who occasionally sends you emails like the one below, which I recently received. In reading it, you’ll find several logical errors, along with errors of other types that render it absurd and unreliable (and perhaps dishonest), regardless of your political affiliation. The friend who forwarded this to me and the person who forwarded it to him are both bright people, but they accepted this argument without question. The fact that the argument supports their political beliefs no doubt played a role in their willingness to embrace it without qualm, but would they have noticed the logical fallacies if its conclusions conflicted with their own? It’s likely that they would have. Sadly, relatively few people in America have been trained in the basic skills of critical thinking, even including people with a college education. I’ve seen several examples of arguments made on the floor of congress by our elected officials that were no more reasonable than the one that appears below. And before you accuse me of targeting politicians—the low-hanging fruit of flawed and often dishonest argument—I’ll add that I’ve known CEO’s and other executives of large corporations who reasoned on this level as well. How can government function and businesses thrive when decisions are made based on such a flawed reasoning process?

Rather than sharing the email that I sent as a reply to the argument below, I think it would be more fun for you to critique it from scratch. No matter what your political leanings, what are the flaws in this argument? How would you counter it in a debate?



14 Comments on “I do not like ill-reasoned spam; I do not like it, Sam-I-am.”

By Andy Holaday. April 6th, 2009 at 4:13 pm

OK I’ll start.

Mark Twain is sometimes credited with saying “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Several large cities are conspicuously absent. What about NY, Chicago, LA, Atlanta? How do they compare?

The conclusion is the impoverished are securing their own fate by electing certain leaders. At least two things would need to be known to support this: First, that they vote at all (is the number of votes from this group representative of the group?) and second, that they primarily vote for dems.

Misrepresenting the facts by deliberately selecting those that conveniently support the conclusion is a lie, and a damned lie.

It is disappointing to see so many appearances of this spam in other blogs with no thoughtful responses.

By Greg P.. April 6th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Would the fallacy be that of the illicit major?

All of these cities are poor,
No Republicans are mayor of these cities,
therefore no cities with Republican mayors are poor

Also, the quote is from William J. H. Boetcker, not Lincoln.

By Tim. April 6th, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Their argument is this:

“It is the poor who habitually elect democrats”

Considering the audience, I would counter in two steps:

1. show them a representation of data that tells the opposite story.
2. explain why you can’t trust either representation of the data.

For step 1, show something like this:

(source - 2008 election and 2007 poverty stats from US census)

and then ask if the still think poor people habitually vote democrat.

then for step 2, explain about correlation vs causality and also about samples and significance, and also about percentages vs actual numbers, by then they are probably bored and not listening.

By Chris. April 6th, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Correlation does not equal causation!!!

A few flaws that caught my eye:

1) Electing democrats is most likely a response to being poor rather than a cause.

2) Urban areas are much more likely to elect democrats; for instance, pick any 10 of the US’s biggest cities and most will have democratic mayors.

3) Assumption that the aim of electing a mayor is solely to create a larger % of rich people residing in the city.

By CrystalsQuest. April 6th, 2009 at 8:28 pm

* None of the percentages of people below the poverty line were sufficient on their own to elect someone - regardless of party.
* Assumption that the person elected is directly responsible for the financial status of the people within the city
* The cities that had the longest periods since they last elected a republican mayor were actually LOWER on the list… Respectively 7th, 8th & 10th.
* Deliberate exclusion of any population grouping under 250,000 (skewed the results?)
* Assumption that the poor are electing the democrats - as already mentioned, this is at best a correlation, not a causative link.

You could just as easily argue that if you move to a city with pop. 250,000 or more, you’re likely to fall below the poverty line!

By Joe Harris. April 7th, 2009 at 8:02 am

I’d like to see your response…

I think all universities should be required to refund 100% of tuition if the graduating student is not capable of naming and explaining 3 logical fallacies.

In fact they should be taught to high school students but that may be hoping for too much.

By M. April 7th, 2009 at 3:57 pm

1. Poverty level is not explained. Below $1 a day? $2? $25?
2. 2006 American Community Survey, August 2007?
3. 5) miami -> 5??) St Louis?

By Matt. April 7th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

What are some of the claims the spam author makes?

1. Certain American cities have high “poverty” rates.
Fair enough, although there’s no distinctions offered
here as to what defines “poverty”. Is being poor in Buffalo, NY, exactly the same as being poor in Miami, FL? Is being poor in
Detroit the same thing as living off a $1 a day in the
slums of some third world country? And why does the argument
ignore the poor people in rural America?

2. All these cities with high poverty rates have something important in common: they elect Democratic mayors.
Is electing Democratic mayors the only significant commonality among these cities? An understanding of the cities social and economic history might bring to light other significant similarities besides
the election of Democratic mayors.

3. All poor people in these cities always vote for Democrats.
Perhaps many poor people in poor cities vote Democratic,
but do all of them all of the time? Some statistics would be useful here.

4. Poor people in the cities who elected Democratic mayors were the
cause of the election of a Democratic mayor.
Perhaps the poor helped to elect a Democratic mayor, but there
also were “non-poor” people who voted for a Democratic mayor.
The original city/state/percentage statistic has
Detroit with the highest poverty level at 32.5% of the population.
Even if you assume 100% of these people voted and voted Democratic,
32.5% isn’t going to win most elections. A candidate needs votes
from more sectors than from those in poverty.

5. All elected Democrats have the same policies.
Have all the Democratic mayors in the cities with high poverty
had the same policies? Have any of the Democratic policies
matched their Republican counterparts in low poverty cities?
Can we see what those policies were?

6. Democratic policies encourage behavior in poor people that keeps those people poor.
This may be the most interesting, debate-causing claim implied by the spam author, but citing the history of Democratic mayors in poor cities, while factual, and then using that as the basis for a weighty conclusion was not a good way to achieve his/her aim.

7. Republican (or non-Democratic) policies would ensure poor people stop being poor.
Both parties have a tendency to see themselves as having the ability
to fix all social and economic problems. But Utopia was a book,
not a real place! Utopia

By Iliya Ruvinsky. April 13th, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I didn’t read previous comments deliberately, so thats what I think:

1. The ststistics, thrown here are insufficient in terms of time line. They mention top 10 poorest cities for 2006. The question is: What was the statistics in the previous years? Did they mention exactly the same cities or did not? And if they didn’t, of which political camp were the mayors of other poorest cities?

2. Who are the mayors of top 10 richest cities in the US? Are they all republicans?

3. What kind of distribution of rep/dem related mayors the US have between rich, medium and poor cities? Is there a clear (more than 85%) correlation between the bias like: the poorier the city, the heavier the probability of the democratic mayor to be elected AND historically, there were more democrats as mayors elected in those cities.

I am not a citizen of the US and have no any direct involvement or concern of what part is better - democrats or republicans. My questions are purely statistical and they just stress inconsistencies in a pseudo logic, used in the topic.

By Giulio. April 14th, 2009 at 8:39 am

As Iliya, I’m not a citizen of the US.
Intrigued by the topic I spent 10min googling, so I came across the following official census document that explains very well the topic:
The context is the key element. It’s all about how these numbers are collected, used and presented.

Take care

By Jeremy. April 14th, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Thomas Sowell has some great work on the misuse of statistics.

It’s hard to see a slice of data without the “big picture” pieces. California is pretty Blue, and I don’t see it anywhere on the list, so correlation (as stated) does not necessarily imply causation.

By D La Plant. May 7th, 2009 at 9:36 am

Which way does the causality run? Large cities have significantly higher concentrations of blacks and hispanics. The poverty rate is higher among Blacks (25.3%) and hispanics (21.5%) than the overall population (13.3%) according to the U.S. Census Bureau document. Do blacks and hispanics vote for Democrats at a higher rate? Do poor people tend to vote for more government services?

The large cities with lowest poverty rates are Plano, TX, Virginia Beach, VA, Colorado Springs, CO, Anhorage, AK, San Jose, CA, Mesa City, AZ, Las Vegas, NV, Honolulu, HI, San Francisco, CA, and Anaheim, CA. Not all of these strike me Republican strongholds.

By Nike Lebron VI. June 12th, 2009 at 7:00 am

I think all universities should be required to refund 100% of tuition if the graduating student is not capable of naming and explaining 3 logical fallacies.

By Colin T.. July 14th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

The simplest argument against it is this: Even if it’s true that Republican mayors are good for the poor, perhaps the rich, the 50%+ of people above the poverty line, are keeping them down by electing Democrats. In other words, the exact opposite conclusion could be drawn from the data provided.