Category Archives: Hasty Generalization

Culture warriors, like, always commit hasty generalization

Robert Stacy McCain’s post at the American Spectator is an exercise in hasty generalization.  McCain reports on the egregious behavior of one Hugo Schwyzer of Pasadena City College.  Schwyzer loves sleeping with the undergrads.  By his own reckoning, by 1998, he’d slept with at least 24 of his students.  He also passed himself off as a scholar of feminism, sexuality, and gender justice.  So he teaches classes about pornography and then sends out pics of himself masturbating.  Dude sounds like a straight-up weirdo, no doubt.  Trouble is, McCain takes Schwyzer to be representative of what the professorate is like generally.

Actually, there was a lot odd about Schwyzer’s career, but he may have seemed fairly normal among the lunatic perverts employed by sex-crazed academia nowadays….

But he is certainly not alone in his madness, which is merely symptomatic of how American academia has lost its collective mind.

So, how does McCain base this thought that Schwyzwer’s behavior is representative of academic culture?  By invoking Bill Ayers, Herbert Marcuse, some women’s studies professors who are ‘queer theorists’ and advocate lesbianism to their students, a Columbia prof who had a sexual relationship with his own daughter, and Freud.

Here’s the deal.  It’s too easy to take the worst actors (or who may seem the worst) in a group as representative of the group.  Say, for example: Republican Senators against gay rights but who nevertheless proposition men in bathrooms.  Or preachers who preach clean living yet take advantage of their position of power to coerce women to have sex with them.  See? Easy.  But they aren’t necessarily representative.  What happens is that these folks and their behaviors are so egregious, they stick with us and become easy ways to characterize the groups.  This is the error of what’s called an ‘availability cascade,’ and it screws up the way we make reliable inductive inferences. And so we see one here – egregious behavior by professor causes right-wing pundit to generalize that behavior to all profs.

Just like a philosopher to stereotype

Branding small

Today, this was pinned on the bulletin board in the departmental office.

I don’t see any reason to think that this is how philosophers in general think of branding.  On the basis of what is this individual performance to be taken as representative?  However, this performance is a very good sterotyping version of hasty generalization.  So there’s that.

Satire and Nihilism

Jim Geraghty at National Review Online has an interesting essay on the state of satire in American political culture.  He makes a contrast between satire in the good old days and the way it’s used today:

When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery…. The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.

So, to keep score:   old satire is taking a moral stand using irony as a means to speaking truth to power, new satire is irony for its own sake.  The new satire just heaps ridicule on everyone who’s earnest, so is incapable of communicating a coherent moral vision.

[T]here isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those (parodic) worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient. . .  unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny….

And so the new satire is simply (a) nihilistic, and (b) because it takes no substantive moral stand, can’t have any real critical bite.  Now, I think Geraghty is wrong about John Stewart’s political satire.  He does have a moral view.  But, regardless, if satire doesn’t have a critical bite and satirists are just nihilists, then why is it that satirists, according to Geraghty, only needle the Republicans?

As a close to the essay, Geraghty makes a move I find very interesting, and one I’ve been considering on and off for a while — the Poe phenomenon.  Given all the scandals and their silliness (Mark Sanford, Bob Menendez, Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer), the real stories of those in power sound very much like the silly send-ups of them.  Geraghty notes:

[I]n the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion. In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.

Now, I think this is an overstatement.  I’m not sure that if Poe’s Law is true, satire is superfluous.  Satire, even if it’s the nihilistic contempt Geraghty’s worried about, is expressively different (even if not always received as different) from the events satired.  Satire is a meta-language, one that comments on and captures a reaction to the events satired.  Now, I don’t think it follows that satire is superflous, even if it’s nihilisic and difficult to tell from simple reportage, as it’s a different thing from what’s satirized.  But maybe Geraghty’s on the right track —  some forms of satire are simply self-indulgent post-adolescent pap. But that can be satired, too, and (if it’s well done) that’s not superfluous, is it?

Mallard Fillmore’s critique by reportage?

Here's a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon.  It portrays president Obama making two inferences.  First, there is the argument by projected increase:

P1: The rate of entitlements in 1962 was 6%

P2: The rate of entitlements in 2012 is 35%

C1: Entitlements are increasing at a rate of .58% a year.

The second inference is the regular conservative culture of dependency argument:

P3: If one depends on entitlements, one is dependent on the state.

P4: If one is dependent on the state, then one will vote for the welfare state

P5: If one votes for the welfare state, then one will vote for liberals.

C2: Those dependent on entitlements will vote for liberals.

Putting C1 and C2 together yield the final conclusion:

C3: The proportional voting block for liberals is increasing at .58% a year.

There are other features of the presentation in the background, too, namely, that it's implied that Obama already knows about the culture of dependency argument, and that because of that, he's arranged to make P2 true.  That is, it's a politically motivated move to make people dependent so as to make them Democrats. 

Now, I think it's clear that Fillmore is displaying the inferences here critically.  So what's the critical edge to it?  Here's my best try to reconstruct it:  the implication is that Obama is intentionally making people dependent on government assistance to make them more liberal.  That will make them more inclined to vote for him and his party in this and upcoming elections. 

But two questions here.  First, I don't think it's appropriate to attribute the first argument to Obama.  Few people would think that rates of increase like this are projectable.  There was a story circulating a few years back that given the rate of dropoff of jobs in philosophy in the last year, we're only three years away from having NO jobs. Of course, few precipitous dropoffs are projectable, as there are natural bottoms and tops to markets.  So even after the precipitious dropoff in PHIL jobs, it hit a bottom.  The same, presumably, is the case with dependency, at least in the sense of entitlement deployed here.

The second is whether the second argument is right, too.  England has a conservative party.  They win elections. Shouldn't that be enough to show that government assistance doesn't guarantee political affiliation? 

Regardless, the weird thing is that the Fillmore cartoon presents the very bad inferences as not just intellectual moves, but as plans

Just how to show you’re an intellectual

George Leef at NRO makes the case that liberals are confused about who the party of stupid is.  Here's his main argument:

If conservatives are anti-intellectual, why did so many read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom after Glenn Beck mentioned it last year?

It's not clear what the rhetorical question is supposed to show. Is it that conservatives, generally, are intellectuals — so they read books plugged by folks on Fox News — or is it that there are genuine conservative intellectuals (like Hayek), and the proof that they're intellectuals is that they get read, and others don't?  If the first, is the fact of reading proof of being intellectuals?  Not yet, and moreover, it's not that clear that all those copies of The Road to Serfdom got read — they just got bought.  If the latter, just how is it that being widely read is proof of being an intellectual?  It proves that you write stuff that people like, but that's not yet being intellectual.  And conservatives should know that, as they are so regularly bucking the stream of what they see as popular thought.  I assume that Leef is taking the former line of thought, as he follows with the second rhetorical question,

Why would Forbes publish intellectual-rich content like this piece by Professor Art Carden?

I suppose the thought is that because Forbes publishes intellectually-rich content, there must be a market for it in its readership, which is conservative.  And so conservatives are intellectuals.  First question: how many conservatives read Forbes instead of The Weekly Standard or Human Events?  That's nut-picking for your evidence — like if I wanted to make the case that Liberals are really intellectuals, I'd only look at The New Republic.   Second question: how does the fact that your magazine has intellectually rich content prove you're an intellectual?  I know lots of folks who read, on the liberal side, The New Yorker, and they've got very little going on in their heads.  It's the thing to have in your book bag. 

I know a better way to tell someone is an intellectual: not to ask whether they've read the best minds of their own side, but whether they've read and understood the best minds of the other side. 

Anecdotal evidence of global warming

Will Oremus has reported at Slate that more people nowadays are believing in global warming, because more people have experienced extreme weather recently.   

What accounts for the rebound? It isn’t the economy, which has thawed only a little. And it doesn’t seem to be science: The percentage of respondents to the Yale survey who believe “most scientists think global warming is happening” is stuck at 35 percent, still way down from 48 percent four years ago. . . .  No, our resurgent belief in global warming seems to be a function of the weather.  A separate Yale survey this spring found that 82 percent of Americans had personally experienced extreme weather or natural disasters in the past year.

Pat Robertson changed his mind about global warming, too, because he reported a few years back that his back yard was noticeably hotter. (Note: Robertson more recently said he's not a "disciple of global warming" because there are no SUV's on Mars, so there's that… if you hold your views on weak evidence, it's easy for other weird thoughts to influence you.)  And, do you remember how the warming denialists went crazy when D.C. had that big snowstorm?

And so we see the problem with anecdotal evidence: it is certainly relevant, but it is not systematic, often not representative, regularly selective, and too often framed by how the question was asked or by the intensity of the event reported.

Via Media

Cathy Young wonders,

Which is the more serious problem today: Islamic extremism or anti-Islamic bigotry?

In her even-handedness she admits that both are serious. But guess who doesn't? That's right. The Left. Young argues that Liberals have spent ample energy railing against anti-Islamic bigotry, but have failed to also take seriously the threat of Islamic extremism: 

Yet nowhere in The Nation will one find recognition that extremism in Islam is a particularly serious problem. 

Young has beef with the Muslim-lovers at The Nation for failing to call out the bad stuff Muslims believe and do. Unfortunately, her evidence is rather weak: 

One author dismisses the issue by stating that "every group has its loonies." Another writes that while misogyny and religious repression in some Muslim countries should be denounced, it can be done without generalizing about Islam.

These authors are apparently not serious enough! We need to generalize…

Evidence against her assertion, on the other hand, is rather strong (see here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…you get the point). 

Instead of letting basic internet research get in the way of her argument, Young paints a picture of left-wing political discourse as biased in favor of protecting the good name of Islam while failing to face up to the very real threat of what she considers a particularly dangerous religion. Young contends that, "for complex historical and cultural reasons, radicalism in Islam is far closer to the mainstream than in other major religions right now." What evidence does she provide? 

There is no country today where a Christian government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy or illicit sex.

(Except for here. Also, while the few places that do have death penalties are Islamic, many other non-Islamic countries have severe penalties for homosexuality)

And,

Freedom House, an esteemed human rights organization, reports that many U.S. mosques carry extremist literature. Supposedly moderate Muslim groups such as the Islamic Circle of North America have hosted speakers with extreme ideas.

So, there must be some truth to all this anti-Islamic sentiment (except from you, Pam Geller!). Get serious. It is entirely disingenuous for Young to write that, "Concerns about bigotry are justified. But they should not deter legitimate debate about problems in modern Islam." Legitimate debate about problems in modern Islam are not necessarily separate from concerns about anti-muslim bigotry. Indeed, one of the main causes of extremism in Islam is the West's callous abuse of Islamic peoples over the last century. Further, there is no evidence that the Left's anti-bigotry writings have come anywhere near the level of debate-killing as shouts of "anti-Semitism" have done in discussions of extremism in Israel. Young provides no real evidence that the Left has confused legitimate criticism of Islam with bigotry. Rather, Young has created a false narrative in the guise of being even-handed in order to both attack the Left and keep open the door for continued abuse of Muslims around the world. 

The debacle of higher education

Yesterday the entire academic blogosphere blew up in a rage over a poorly reasoned post on the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog by Naomi Schaefer Riley.  She wrote in favor of the elimination of African-American Studies PhD programs.  I say "wrote in favor of" because to say "argued" would have given even fallacious arguments a bad name.  Here's a taste:

You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

The post was entitled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies?  Just Read the Dissertations."  Sadly, the author didn't read any dissertations, abstracts or extracts.  She read synopses of works in progress.  Her objections are then almost pure speculation:

But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights? 

I'd point out that affirmative action and civil rights are not coextensive terms (and besides, is that even the argument of the dissertation?).  Anyway, in addition to embarassing herself hugely by not reading the unwritten dissertations she claims are evidence of shoddy thinking and then criticizing them, she only picked out three examples, as if these three dissertations were sufficiently representative of all of the work in African American Studies.

Thankfully, the students reply here.

Garbage such as this does not belong in the first draft of an undergraduate paper.  Somehow, however, it found itself in Chronicle of Higher Education.  So here's how the editors defend themselves:

Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit. Take a moment to read The Chronicle’s front-page story about the future of black studies, written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton and weigh in.

If this is the justification for posting Schaefer Riley's piece, then it's appears the Editors of the Chronicle have no standards at all.  Making matters worse, Schaefer Riley defends herself (post here), writing:

Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece. 

She will forgive the commenters who do not understand that she can invoke evidence she has not seen to criticize arguments that haven't been made and advocate the elimination of academic programs she knows nothing about.

And there is enough money to get *someone *to read a dissertation on black midwifery: it's likely to be the salary of an Assitant Professor.

A narrow, self-interested agenda

A handy rule of thumb for distinguishing between an argument and an explanation is whether the "conclusion" is something in need of proof.  You explain why coffee wakes people up in the morning, you don't argue that it does.  Borderline cases are legion, but this rule generally works with appropriate context qualifiers.  However easy, people mess this up.  Here's a good example from the Washington Monthly:

One of the principal differences between K-12 and higher education is that people representing elementary and secondary teachers often go to elaborate lengths in denying the extent to which they’re pursuing a narrow self-interested agenda at the expense of student welfare and the public good, whereas in college they’re completely upfront about it. Two recent examples illustrate. Last week, the Chronicle reported how Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor’s efforts to enroll more minority and low-income students, provide more need-based financial aid, and improve engagement with the surrounding community is meeting resistance among the faculty:

Seems to me that even an iron manner would say that the first two claims might only be accepted as commonly known and largely indisputable facts in the newsroom at Fox.  What interests me is the "two examples illustrate" remark.  I suppose he means "two recent singular instances must go in the column marked 'this claim is true'".  He must mean this because this is one of those claims that really needs a lot of proof, and two examples aren't going to do it.  Besides, the first case he cites (immediately following the above) doesn't make the case that professors are following a "narrow, self-interested agenda."  Here it is:

One of the most-contested parts of Ms. Cantor’s plan to remake the student population has been the acceptance rate. The rate, which stood in the mid-50-percent range after she arrived, spiked up to around 60 percent in each of the last two academic years. That sent up warning signs to both professors and students, who worried that Syracuse was becoming less selective. “Ivy Leagues pride themselves on minuscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent,” said an editorial last winter in The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.

Some professors agree, although they have been reluctant to speak out because questions about the university’s admissions policies have touched off charges of racism here. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” says David H. Bennett, a professor of history. He says that Syracuse already had a diverse student population before Ms. Cantor arrived, but that the chancellor has taken it to a level unmatched by other selective universities. “If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” he says. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

However jerky this selected passage sounds, the professors in question can't be interpreted to be insisting on narrow self interest, when their primary interest is in the value of their students' degrees.  Every student, I think, ought to have access to a Harvard quality education, but I don't think it's appropriate they all go there.  In the first place, Harvard probably isn't big enough.  Second, if everyone went there, it wouldn't be Harvard. 

I'd like every university to be as inclusive and diverse as mine.  I guarantee that if the President of the University moved to alter that image, the Faculty would object en masse, and for similar reasons as the faculty at Syracuse.

Anyway.  I wonder if I need to point out that one doesn't use "illustrations" or "examples" (let alone just two of them) to prove general claims.  Even the kids who didn't get into Syracuse know the name for that.

Ad hominems and drawing conclusions about character

Ad hominem abusive fallacies are fallacies of relevance.  The basic scheme for the fallacy type is:

P1: S holds that p

P2: S has some vice, X

C1:  Therefore, p is false (or unacceptable).

With my informal logic classes, I have the regular joke: Just because Brenda is a heavy drinker, that doesn't mean that she doesn't know much about politics — She may be a heavy drinker because she knows politics!  That gets lots of laughs, believe me.  But now, consider an argument of a different form, but composed of similar propositions:

P3: p is demonstrably false (i.e., there is sufficient and easily accessible evidence that p is false)

P4: S holds that p, despite P3

C2: Therefore, S has some vice X (where X = vices from simple stupidity to willful ignorance to suffers from ideological thinking)

Importantly, the argument has very similar claims as the ad hominem abusive, but it is of a different form — we are reasoning to S's vice, not from it.  Now, it is clear that this second kind of argument can be made hastily (as there is a big difference between being wrong and being stupid — that's the Fallacy of No Reasonable Alternatives, a species of false dilemma), but it does seem right that P3 and P4 are relevant to C2.  This second form of argument is one either (a) addressed to some third party about S or (b) addressed directly to S in order to request that S reform how she performs in argument regarding p (and perhaps other issues).

With the theoretical apparatus assembled, let's look at Steve Chapman's column, "Why Birtherism is Here to Stay," over at TownHall.com. 

There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better.

What is Chapman's explanation for this phenomenon — people who believe things that they should know better to not?

A poll taken after the release of his birth certificate showed 18 percent of those who have seen it still aren't convinced.  Something about this president impels many people to accept anything that is said about him, as long as it's unfavorable. . . .   Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him. People of this bent don't proceed from facts to a conclusion. They prefer to reach a conclusion and then scrounge for any facts — or "facts" — that support it.  For them, being told Obama is a natural-born American is like being told he's a loving father and a loyal friend. They won't buy it because it doesn't confirm what they want to be true.

The logician and pragmatist C.S. Peirce called these sorts of patterns of thought 'pseudoreasoning,' and it looks very much like a form of rationalizing.  And the key to the effectiveness of these strategies of thought is that the people making errors with them are not exposed to the consequences of being wrong.  If you pseudoreason your way to believing that you can fly, you pay the consequences.  But if you pseudoreason your way to believing that the President of the United States is a Muslim Marxist AntiChrist, you make lots of friends (and if you stop believing them, you lose those friends).

This is surprising only if you think of political views as a matter of logical reasoning. For many people, they really aren't. They're a way of indulging emotional impulses without suffering painful consequences. . . . [I]f thinking Obama is a foreigner brings you closer to people you like, you come out ahead. Birthers would rather be wrong than be divided from their allies. So the fiction that Obama was born in Kenya will endure, and many Americans will hold fast to a ridiculous article of faith that has been conclusively refuted.

The thing is that this does amount to calling Birthers credulous, ideological, and cognitively blind.  Chapman forgot one thing more for his piece: directing readers to the comments for this piece!