An exercise on detecting fallacies in newspapers

Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | Posted by Debajyoti Datta | Labels: , 0 comments

I am quite fond of Justice M. Katju, the newly appointed chairman of the Press Council of India. For starters, he has correctly identified the deep seated rot within the Indian media. Will he able to do something about it? Only time will tell and I certainly hope he does but already the apologists for the New Media are coming out the woodwork and twisting his words to portray him a negative light. Some of these articles criticizing Justice Katju are out right non-sense and don’t deserve any attention of our grey cells but others are putting the spin with much more subtlety. Case in point being this piece published in the Hindu by Nirupama Subramanian. Unless you read the article critically you might end up agreeing to the points of the author. So let me deconstruct the article and point out the fallacies.

While deconstructing I would make references to SCHOPENHAUER'S 38 STRATAGEMS or 38 ways to win an argument, please note that it is something of a satire and really tells you how not to argue. So I begin my first salvo –

Nirupama Subramanian wrote: 
“Yet I find myself disagreeing with Justice Katju's broad swipe. It is easy to tar the entire media with one broad brush of criticism. But not all journalists are the same, just as not all judges are the same. There are many journalists who are doing exactly what Justice Katju thinks journalists should be doing, and they are not necessarily all high-profile.”

I refer to Schopenhauer’s first and sixth points - 
Carry your opponent's proposition beyond its natural limits; exaggerate it. The more general your opponent's statement becomes, the more objections you can find against it. The more restricted and narrow his or her propositions remain, the easier they are to defend by him or her.
Another plan is to confuse the issue by changing your opponent's words or what he or she seeks to prove.

Why do I say so? Nirupama Subramanian grossly exaggerates and misrepresents what justice Katju is saying. This is what Justice Katju actually said
"I am not saying that there are no good journalists at all in the media. There are many excellent journalists. P. Sainath is one of them, whose name should be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian journalism."

So Niruspama Subramanian constructs a straw man of her own and then proceeds to argue against the straw man. Unless we recognize she is arguing against a straw man we might think she is right but in reality she is hopelessly wrong as Justice Katju never said what she would like us to believe he said.

Secondly, Nirupama Subramanian wrote: 
“It also needs to be said that the media have made a lot more positive contribution than they are given credit for. Much of the corruption that has come to light over the last one year, all the scams that are currently churning the Indian polity, would have gone unnoticed had it not been for exposés by news organisations.”

This is a very common divisionary tactic used to deflect criticism called “whataboutery”. There are two forms of whataboutery, the author uses the second from which goes like this – it is an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the behavior being criticized by pointing to topics the commenter considers to be more important. 

To give a more straight forward example - consider a man who beats up his wife regularly. When produced in court, the accused gives the excuse, "My Lord, but I always obeyed the law before, I paid my taxes, I help my neighbors". Now should the man not be punished for beating up his wife based on this excuse? Compare with what the author is saying that the media is involved in paid news etc but in media's defense they have also uncovered scams so they shouldn't be criticized for paid news! The argument put forward is ridiculous. Justice Katju has never denied the good work done by the media; instead he is criticizing those aspects of the media which he considers unethical. By putting forward the argument of whataboutery, Nirupama Subramanian already concedes that Justice Katju is correct, so she tries to direct our attention to what she considers the good aspects of the media.

Lastly, Nirupama Subramanian wrote: 
“But it is also expected of the chairman of the Press Council to separate himself from Everyman, and take a more nuanced view of the complex terrain before him.”

In this she reveals her true intentions. Why must Justice Katju distance himself from the ordinary individual? Why are journalists so afraid of ordinary individuals? Is it because they realize that we mere mortals can see through their nonsense? What complex terrain is there? What is so complex in understanding that paid news is unethical and should be punishable? What does she mean by nuanced view? This is the prime example of the mentality of the some journalists, who fashion themselves as intellectuals. They seem to consider to us as retarded who will eat whatever they feed us.

Outbreak of viral encephalitis in Bihar, India

Posted: Monday, November 14, 2011 | Posted by Debajyoti Datta | Labels: , 1 comments

An outbreak of viral encephalitis is ravaging the childrenof Magadh division in Bihar India. This is the second wave of encephalitis that has hit the state after the rainy season with 383 children affected and 82 lives lost. The local health authorities are ill equipped to handle such an epidemic and Bihar being one of the poorest states of India does not help much. Conveniently the local media has given it scant or no coverage.

Image courtesy: The Hindu
 Suspected causative agents

It appears that more than one microorganism is responsible for the outbreak with the Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV) being the prime suspect. It is estimated that at least one third of the cases are caused by JEV which is endemic in the region. JEV, a flavivirus, consists of eight virus species and two subtype viruses. Japanese encephalitis is a zoonotic disease with the zoonotic cycle affecting mosquitoes and pigs and/or water birds. Humans are dead end hosts and become infected accidentally. The major vector implicated in transmission to humans is the mosquito Culex tritaeniorhynchus, breeding mainly in rice paddies. Both rice paddies and pigs are abundant in rural Bihar, perpetuating the epidemic.

JEV has an incubation period of 5 to 15 days with the average incubation period being 6-8 days. There is usually a prodromal period at the onset characterized by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headache. The prodromal period, which can last for several days, is followed by higher mental functional abnormalities ranging from mild confusion to coma. Seizures are common in children. Tremors and other movement disorders may occur. Acute flaccid paralysis resembling poliomyelitis may also occur. The fever generally disappears by the second week of the disease followed by the onset of extrapyramidal symptoms like chorea.

On examination, hypertonia and hyperreflexia may be present. There may be cranial nerve involvement like facial palsy etc. Parkinson like extrapyramidal features may be present. Mortality in resource poor settings is about 35%.

In ProMED-mail, an internet based outbreak reporting system of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, enterovirus infection has also been suggested as a plausible etiologic agent. However there is no evidence available at present for an enteroviral cause.

Failure of Policy?

Following an outbreak of JE in 2009 in the Bodh Gaya division of Bihar, a massive vaccination campaign was launched in that division and no further cases of JE were reported. Inexplicably such vaccination campaigns were not organized in other divisions of the state. Result – fresh outbreak in another division (Magadh).

The local hospital is also in shambles with water and power shortages and the only ventilator lying useless. Mackenzie, J., Gubler, D., & Petersen, L. (2004). Emerging flaviviruses: the spread and resurgence of Japanese encephalitis, West Nile and dengue viruses Nature Medicine, 10 (12s) DOI: 10.1038/nm1144