This morning I woke up thinking about logical fallacy. Back when I taught Critical Thinking, about 1/4 of the sixteen weeks were dedicated to understanding how a thing was said, and an equal amount of time was dedicated to detecting a statement you heard was unreasonable. Just for the fun of it, I threw a few random statements out on the blog. I’m not saying I believe any of this; I just want to use them as an example.
- Carrie never gets anywhere on time.
- People who drive Audis are jerks.
- Italians are quick-tempered.
- You are an unsafe parents if you keep a gun in your house.
- Don’t eat that candy; you’ll rot your teeth!
The problem here is obvious enough, even if you don’t know the name for it. We’ve seen people do this: we call it stereotyping, or making false assumptions. The fallacy itself is known as Hasty Generalization, and falls inside the group of statistical (or inferential) fallacies. This is fancy speak for: “you look at a person or thing, and draw a set of quick conclusions for the group(s) that the person/thing belongs to.”
The other day, I went to the Unemployment Office, and here is what I saw:
There was a young-ish woman with her kids in tow. She had a hyperactive toddler who was scooting from chair to chair, and an infant who screamed for the better part of the 20 minutes I was there. Every once in awhile, she’d turn to the toddler and snap a Spanish imperative at him. This would have an effect about as long as a cricket’s chirp, and the boy would go back to scrambling.
Now here are the things I can conclude from observing this person:
- The woman was of Hispanic descent, and so were the kids. (she was speaking to her children in Spanish, not in English)
- The mother was probably unemployed. (why else would she be there? It wasn’t exactly Party Central. In fact, it was quite similar to the DMV, only a lot less happy.)
- The woman was probably a mother, or sister. (she was young and probably not a grandmother)
- The baby was unhappy.
- The toddler was bored.
Now here are a few things I cannot conclude (because they would be hasty generalizations).
- That woman is an irresponsible mother.
- That woman is disrepectful in polite society.
- She doesn’t know how to control her children.
- Unemployed people are Hispanic.
- People who draw unemployment are irresponsible/disrespectful.
Hasty Generalization is dangerous. It is the root of most, if not all, stereotype and prejudice. Comedians love it. Watch Colbert Report and count the number of generalizations he uses to comedic effect. Humorist Dave Barry tapped the meme of our nation’s political divide with a hasty generalization:
“Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks; or that ALL blue-state residents are godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts?”
Another fallacy along this road is called slothful induction. The idea of slothful induction is that, despite overwhelming evidence, you ignore a conclusion or results from a sampling of information. Think Global Warming here; or a person who, Robert Downey Jr., “was probably just unlucky” after his fifth trip to rehab. Anytime you hear the phrase “despite overwhelming evidence…” this is slothful induction. And this fallacy works both ways, incidentally. Say, for example, you really respected Pope John Paul II. You cannot conclude, from your knowledge of this man, that every Pope in history (or, certainly, the Catholic Church) deserve respect. Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. But you can’t make that assumption based on your love of Pope John Paul.
Mind you, a statement may be true, all while being a hasty generalization. The truth of the conclusion is not necessarily tied to the fact that it was arrived at by an over-generalization. The idea here is you need to need to find *other* ways of proving it. For example, if a social worker walked into my house right now, and watched my son Alexander for five minutes, they might leave saying “the kid plays videogames nonstop.” Now, this is a TRUE statement, but the social worker cannot assume such a thing from a five minute visit. It might have been an aberration in his schedule.
The reason I’m bringing these things up is because thinking matters. This is an election year. Stuff is being claimed every day by the candidates (and the president), some of which is true; much of which is a distortion; some of which is simply fallacy. Don’t believe me? Newt Gingrich said, a few weeks ago, that the “African-American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” In case you missed them, the three hasty generalizations here are (1) African Americans community is unemployed , (2) that community lives off food stamps and (3) as a group, (by extension) they are satisfied to do so. I’m not picking on Mr. Gingrich per se. I just wanted you to see how commonplace fallacy is, in public speech.
Have a nice day (if I can be so bold…) I encourage you to take some time from your day, go look for some logical fallacies out there, and recognize them for what they are!