Tag 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.

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.

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.

The average person must think

Richard Cohen, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, has struggled with some very basic logical notions.  Today is no exception.  Today again he puts on his contrarian hat and accuses a lot of unnamed people–admirers of Sonia Sotomayor (Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court) of elitism and racism.  He writes:

With the nose of a trained columnist, I detect the whiff of elitism-cum-racism emanating from the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The whiff does not come — Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich notwithstanding — from Sotomayor's own statements; nor does it come from her controversial decision upholding race-based affirmative action. It comes, instead, from the general expression of wow about her background. Imagine, someone from the projects is a success!

"Nobody expects you to be chosen someday for the Supreme Court when your father was a welder with a third-grade education," wrote Richard Lacayo in Time magazine. He is right — the expectations are all otherwise. You can see them on display in many of the reports about Sotomayor's background. She was raised in public housing projects. She grew up in the Bronx, which the average person must think of as a particularly nasty part of Mumbai, and she is, finally and incriminatingly, Puerto Rican. This is all, apparently, very hard to imagine.

With the nose of a trained nonsequitarian, I detect a whiff of it-does-not-follow here.  Cohen's only evidence of a "general expression of wow" is some guy writing in Time and his own "the average person must think."  He then goes on to debunk this not-established-to-exist general expression by running through a list of unnusually successful (and therefore completely unrepresentative) people (for any background) who come from public housing projects (Mike Tyson, Jay-Z, Ken Auletta, etc.).  No one can plausibly deny the empirical possibility of being a success in any endeavor despite having been born in the projects.  But what wows people are the probabilities.  As Cohen ought to know, the expectations for people in the projects are indeed very different, not out of racisim, but out of a realistic sense of how one is successful in America.  I doubt it is really elitism to think that.

White whine

White men can't catch a break these days.  First, the white guy lost the Presidential election, now the winner gets to appoint someone to the Supreme Court.  Though Obama has so far said nothing, this hasn't stopped speculation of the weirdest variety:

 

That's a stock image of an average white guy in a tie (from istockphoto.com), not, as one might have imagined, some shunned potential Supreme Court nominee.  Now Richard Cohen–liberal columnist in the Washington Post–expresses his deep concern over the fate of white men under the impossible burden of affirmative action.  He writes:

As the time approaches for President Obama to choose a successor to Justice David Souter, the term "litmus test" will be heard throughout the land. The White House will deny applying any such thing, but the nominee will undoubtedly be chosen according to where she stands on abortion, unions and other issues beloved by liberals. This is fine with me, but what I want to know is where she stands on Frank Ricci. He's a firefighter.  

What follows is a detailed description of Ricci's case (recently argued before the Supreme Court)–how he's been discriminated against on account of his being white, and so forth.  That may be, and by Cohen's very sorry description of the case, it looks absurd.  But as a general rule absurd arguments do not make it all the way to the Supreme Court, so one might wonder.  But that's not the point anyway.  Cohen seems to take this particularly absurd case as representative for how affirmative action needs to end, since, of course, racism is over and so forth (because "For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this.").

It's worse than this, however, because affirmative action (as demonstrated by Cohen's extreme example) is profoundly unfair in principle (like trying to "square a circle."):

Liberalism, a movement in which I hold a conditional membership, would be wise to get wise to what has happened. Blatant affirmative action always entailed a disturbing and ex post facto changing of the rules — oops, you're white. Sorry, not what we wanted. As a consequence, it was not racists who were punished but all whites. There is no need to cling to such a remedy anymore. There is, though, every need to retain and strengthen anti-discrimination laws, especially in areas such as fire departments, where racial discrimination was once endemic. Sufficient progress has been made to revert to treating individuals as individuals. After all, it is not some amorphous entity called "whites" who will suffer: It is un-lieutenant Ricci.

Bill Clinton tried to square the circle of affirmative action in his "Mend It, Don't End It" speech of 1995. It was a moving and eloquent address in which he recounted his region's history, reminding us of the depth and ferocity of racism in the South and elsewhere. Trouble is, the New Haven case proves that affirmative action was not mended at all. It remains noble in its ends and atrocious in its means, and it now provides Obama the chance to use his own family's history — indeed his own history — to show why it ought to conclude.

Affirmative action was never meant to "punish" racists by excluding them from employment.  This underscores Cohen's failure to grasp both the concept of affirmative and the facts of the case he discusses (his only reference is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two conservative think-tankers).  One can found more background on the relevant legal questions here.  Without the necessary and obvious context, Cohen's ranting sounds a bit like this.

Compound error

I read these things and shake my head:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments.

The criticism most often voiced was that by holding Rancourt up as an example of the excesses indulged in by those who invoke academic freedom, I had committed the fallacy of generalizing from a single outlier case to the behavior of an entire class “Is the Rancourt case one of a thousand such findings this year, or it the most outlandish in 10 years?” (Jack, No. 88).

That's Stanley Fish, the New York Times' interpreter of the academic world.  Sounds like he has been accused of a hasty generalization in the form of "nutpicking."  I'm not particularly interested in the merits of the charge–Fish seems even to concede it.  One minor observation.  I'm sure we are all guilty at one point or another for reasoning that badly.  The difference is that Fish gets to air out his errors in the New York Times.  Anyway, he makes things worse as he defends himself.  He writes (following directly):

It may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Eegads!  "Carrying the behavior to its logical extreme" is the characteristic marker of the slippery slope.  And its supported by an alleged fallacy of accident: certain very jerky professors are going to interpret academic freedom very broadly, and, since they will allege this, there must be a logical connection between academic freedom and being a complete nitwit.  Well there isn't.  Just because the connection is alleged by some–how many, not many I would guess–does not mean the connection obtains.  What Fish has done, in other words, is compound the error of one fallacy (the hasty generalization nutpicking variety) with three more:the slippery slope, the fallacy of accident, and the implied hasty generalization again!