We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
"Category error" is one of those terms that I use intuitively (AKA lazily), but never looked into.
The definition is ascribing a property to something whch cannot have that property, thus placing it in the wrong, inaccurate, or misleading category of things.
Example: "It's like comparing apples with oranges." (It's an odd expression, since they are both round fruit, etc, but we know what is meant by the analogy.)
Often category errors are simply cute ways of speaking or figures of speech, without intent to confuse, as in:
Example: "My car doesn't want to start." (attributing intentionality to a pile of metal)
Example: Socialist ideas marched through Europe.
Example: "My computer can't think fast today."
Ex: "My brain is trying to kill me" (Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes)
or colorful and poetic:
Ex: :"..while my guitar gently weeps."
When a psychiatrist says "The id is at war with the superego" (Dr. Bliss would never speak that way), that entails a sort of category error by attributing "thingness" and capacity for action to abstrations (also entails the fallacy of "reification" - closely related - eg. attributing "thingness" to abstract concepts). Thus while the statement basically says nothing, it's a useful if awkward kind of shorthand for something that is meaningful. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in his very readable mega-classic The Concept of Mind, represents the latest word on the ways we think of mental things - (and slays Descartes in the process).
How can category errors be used to trick people? It just takes a little sleight-of-hand.
One often used by medical malpractice plaintiff's lawyers and all kinds of trial lawyers is to attempt to conflate two distinct categories: "accident" with "error." Thus: "Ladies and gents of the jury, it is clear that if Mr. Jones had bothered to built a stronger fence around his pool, the thunderstorm that knocked down the tree would not have crushed his fence, thus permitting the neighbor, poor old widow Mrs. Smith's only friend, her cute little white Shitzu (show photo), to drown in the pool, leaving her bereft and traumatized, requiring years of costly psychiatric help and daily taxi rides to the Pet Cemetery. Ladies and gentlemen, this was no weather accident - this was negligence pure and simple with a catastrophic result."
"2900 children died from firearms in 2004. Handguns must be made illegal." What category errors are involved here? First, they define "children" as age 0-19, thus including gang warfare and criminal actions in the numbers. Second, they include suicides, which accounts for 33% of that number, and accidents, which are 6%. Third, they do not mention how many of those deaths were via illegal firearms - eg. already banned). Fourth, they do not mention how many of those deaths were by handgun. Thus by confusing and mixing categories, an effort is made to maximally dramatize the effect.
A now-classic example is the famous "hockey stick" graph which is meant to demonstrate man's effect on climate. The hockey stick graph represents an insidious category error, because it uses tree-ring climate data for most of the graph, but the recent upswing is from entirely different data - surface temperature - so it is like counting bushels of oranges in this year's apple crop.
Editor: My apologies to The Barrister, but I did a bit of work on this one also, making it a bit too long.
I'd classify the firearms example as a misuse of information - http://humbugonline.blogspot.com/2005/01/examples-of-misuse-of-information.html - they are deliberately misusing the stats to bolster their position.
This is a general problem with the citation of statistics. Much of the time stats are cited with an unfounded implication with respect to the reasons for the stats (usually something bad that we need to fix).
A while ago now, when I was in an undergraduate tutorial at university, the tutor cited the fact that part-time employment was becoming the norm (as shown by an increase over time). The tutor and unthinking students assumed that this must be a bad thing (caused by the evil government), in that most people must want full-time employment. I pointed out that if the statistics didn't actually ask people - specifically the people who are employed part-time - if they wanted to be employed full-time, then we have no grounds for making that assumption. Moreover, I was happily working part-time, as were the majority of students in the tute…
It took a while for the penny to drop but most of them seemed to get it. Statistics are meaningless unless we understand the context the data was gathered in and more importantly, a plausible and justified reason for the stats is proposed.
(BTW - the example I give is from Australia, to give it its context.)
Yes, you guys are the experts! Stat Abuse is the Growing Crisis in the Western World. All fallacies overlap, don't they?
Our mission is to hunt them out, and try to expose them, despite all of our tiny numbers of readers.
It's our calling! As it is yours. Keep up the good work! We love your Humbug blog.
yes, disingenuous might be the right word.
I do know why it was done, but the fact that it was done is why it is controversial.
and, Ben, we didn't say it was wrong - just a mix of data.
Keep keeping us on our toes.