Category Archives: Hasty Generalization

But by sensibility

I recently edited this.  When I wrote that, I was thinking of the clairvoyant insights of E.J.Dionne.  Today he writes:

Yet there is another world in Democratic politics, a practical, mostly middle-aged and middle-class world that is immune to fervor and electricity. It is made up of people with long memories who are skeptical of fads and like their candidates tough, detail-oriented and — to use a word Obama regularly mocks — seasoned.

At this point one might expect that such a generalization would be followed by tedious, but detailed and accurate, analysis of polling data from numerous sources.  Your expectations would be wrong.   

These are the Hillary people, and they gathered in Manassas last weekend in significant numbers at the Grace E. Metz Middle School, cozy schools being a preferred venue for a Clinton campaign aware that mammoth rallies are normally beyond its reach.

She does not lack for loyalists. Paulie Abeles of Derwood, Md., held aloft a hand-printed sign that did not mince words: "Talk Is Cheap. Mistakes Are Expensive."

Abeles explained that people who are being "swept along by the eloquence of Barack Obama's speeches" forget that at one time, George W. Bush was seen as "charming" and "inspirational." And electability was on her mind. If President Bush raised the terror alert level four days before the election ("I happen to be very cynical," she averred), the Democrats would want their most experienced candidate confronting McCain.

Well, that's one person.  Got any more?

As she speaks, Doug Hattaway, one of her aides, notes that her practical litany is precisely what appeals to working-class and middle-class voters who respond to "tangible issues." They also rebel against the idea that they are not part of the cool, privileged masses for Obama. One of the signs at the Manassas rally defiantly touted "Well Educated High Earners for Hillary." This is a party divided not by ideology but by sensibility. Things have gotten very personal.

Let me get this straight.  Dionne goes to a rally for Hilary Clinton.  A rally is a place where active, motivated supporters of a candidate go.  At that rally, he quotes one supporter and one of Clinton's aides as evidence of her appeal–and a tasteless sign as a sign of the divisiveness of the Democratic campaign as a whole.

I don't know what this kind of column is doing on the op-ed page.  It seems like reporting, albeit very bad reporting.  Dionne talks to exactly two people, consults no polling data, and goes to one place.  On the strength of this, he draws the conclusion that the party is separated by "sensibility" (which he doesn't define by the way), not by ideology. That may be the case, but  Dionne doesn't even come close to offering the kind of evidence that would establish that.   But it should be stressed that all of Dionne's wasted or half hearted effort is directed at establishing some kind of meta-political point–that is, a point about the politics of politics.  And so he looks for explanations of people's attitudes when they can just as easily offer justifications–here's one Dionne hasn't considered: People vote for Clinton because they think she will be a better President.

To the Catwalks!

Anne Applebaum has got Hollywood’s number:

>In fact, for the malcontents of Hollywood, academia and the catwalks, Chávez is an ideal ally. Just as the sympathetic foreigners whom Lenin called “useful idiots” once supported Russia abroad, their modern equivalents provide the Venezuelan president with legitimacy, attention and good photographs. He, in turn, helps them overcome the frustration Reed once felt — the frustration of living in an annoyingly unrevolutionary country where people have to change things by law. For all of his brilliance, Reed could not bring socialism to America. For all of his wealth, fame, media access and Hollywood power, Penn cannot oust George W. Bush. But by showing up in the company of Chávez, he can at least get a lot more attention for his opinions.

Take that Sean Penn and Naomi Campbell–the only malcontents of Hollywood and the catwalks (first time I’ve heard that as well) Applebaum bothers to mention.


Empirical generalizations are a matter of common sense, and, yes, generality. Most people know that one counter example is not enough to render it false. Most people. Most people also know, by way of generalization, that general rules are bound to be interpreted in surprising ways some of the time. That’s no surprise. Since the subject of rules is human behavior, there are (1) bound to be exceptions and, (2) instances where people will test the limits of the law, and, more importantly, (3) people who refuse to understand that general rules regarding human behavior are subject to (1) and (2)–most of the time that is.

A rule about workplace speech in California (I bet you can see what’s coming) concerns speech on the employee bulletin boards and email system. Fair enough. There are rules because people abuse public fora. But things went awry (as could have been expected). Here’s what happened, in George Will’s retelling (I recommend one seek an independent source for this):

>Some African American Christian women working for Oakland’s government organized the Good News Employee Association (GNEA), which they announced with a flier describing their group as “a forum for people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of the day. With respect for the Natural Family, Marriage and Family Values.”

>The flier was distributed after other employees’ groups, including those advocating gay rights, had advertised their political views and activities on the city’s e-mail system and bulletin board. When the GNEA asked for equal opportunity to communicate by that system and that board, it was denied. Furthermore, the flier they posted was taken down and destroyed by city officials, who declared it “homophobic” and disruptive.

>The city government said the flier was “determined” to promote harassment based on sexual orientation. The city warned that the flier and communications like it could result in disciplinary action “up to and including termination.”

>Effectively, the city has proscribed any speech that even one person might say questioned the gay rights agenda and therefore created what that person felt was a “hostile” environment. This, even though gay rights advocates used the city’s communication system to advertise “Happy Coming Out Day.” Yet the terms “natural family,” “marriage” and “family values” are considered intolerably inflammatory.

As usual, we make no judgment here on the merits of the case as it stands (it seems poor taste to use language you have chosen on purpose to offend any captive audience–but sometimes that is unavoidable). We would merely like to return to the whole idea of general rules which are bound to confuse some and be abused by others.

Free speech, for instance, means you can assert the false without legal penalty, but you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater. You also can’t use it threaten people with violence of one kind or another. And the limitations continue. It’s a general rule. Rules have exceptions. To think such rules have no exceptions is simply the fallacy of accident (misapplication of a general rule). To suggest, however, that the existence of those exceptions means the rule ought to be abandon is to compound that with the ignoratio elenchi (suggest an extreme conclusion follows from premises the suggest something milder).

Worse than those two things would be to put them together to arrive at a silly conclusion:

>Congress is currently trying to enact yet another “hate crime” law that would authorize enhanced punishments for crimes motivated by, among other things, sexual orientation. A coalition of African American clergy, the High Impact Leadership Coalition, opposes this, fearing it might be used “to muzzle the church.” The clergy argue that in our “litigation-prone society” the legislation would result in lawsuits having “a chilling effect” on speech and religious liberty. As the Oakland case demonstrates, that, too, is predictable.

Not really. It doesn’t demonstrate anything. The Oakland case illustrates that rules (or laws) regarding human behavior will have exceptions and that people will exploit them (sometimes illegitimately). It doesn’t show that there shouldn’t be rules. Besides, if you want to demonstrate any proposition regarding human behavior, you’ll need many many more instances. One won’t inflammatory anecdote won’t do. That’s a hasty generalization.


So you want to refute–i.e., prove to be false–someone else’s generalization. There’s only one way that I can think of: show that the generalization is false. That means your evidence of its falsity must be as general as the claim itself. Pointing out exceptions to a generalization only demonstrates your inability to grasp one foundational notion of informal reasoning. Two examples of this from our dear friend, George F. Will:

>Once America’s most industrialized city, Newark attracted the attentions of New York mobsters (the movie “On the Waterfront” was filmed on New Jersey docks) whose depredations contributed to the flight of industry just as blacks were arriving from the South. Partly because of the cost that organized crime added to many city contracts, Newark spent twice as much per citizen as did other midsize cities. And the riots came, (redundant) evidence of the problematic nature of attempts to spend one’s way to domestic tranquility.

The first part of this paragraph shows how the spending in Newark was uniquely corrupt. How that then can be evidence for the claim that spending does not equal domestic tranquility baffles: it wasn’t effective spending. Unless, of course, Mr.Will means to refute the view of the person who says: “all social spending–including the corrupt cosa nostra kind–ensures tranquility–and if you find one counterexample, I will be wrong.”

Here’s the second:

>Today, per-pupil spending tops $17,000, which is 75 percent above the national average and a (redundant) refutation of the public education lobby’s not disinterested judgment that in primary and secondary education, cognitive outputs correlate with financial inputs. Seventy percent of Newark’s 11th-graders flunk the state’s math test. Booker says that under the previous mayor’s administration, every elected official sent his or her children to private schools.

Again. That’s hardly a “refutation” of that rule. It’s a counter-example. And perhaps a reminder that not just any money counts. Money well spent counts. I think that’s probably what the rule means.

But in both cases, in order to show the falsity of the generalization being refuted, Mr.Will will have to come up with a more representative counter-example than the city awash in mob corruption (on account, in part, because of its place in global trade–the port of Newark). If he wants actually to say something true, then perhaps he ought to try to do a little non-Heritage foundation research.

Memorial Day

It’s Memorial Day. George Will, one-time ardent supporter (“The Case for Bush“) of the man who has created the mess we’ll be in for a long time, reflects on its significance:

>The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says no property shall be “taken” without just compensation. The concept of an injury through “regulatory taking” is familiar and defensible: Such an injury occurs when a government regulation reduces the value of property by restricting its use. But the taxi cartel is claiming a deregulatory taking: It wants compensation because it now faces unanticipated competition.

Taxis in Minneapolis. Sure, immigration has been in the news. But not everything is an opportunity to make such pseudo-libertarian points. As a low-tax, civil liberties kind of guy, perhaps Will might be interested in the more obvious theme of the weekend–the war in Iraq. Aside from the sheer murderous folly of our entire Middle East venture, the erosion of the plain-language civil liberties of the constitution and the executive’s groundless assertions of power seem more pressing than crappy arguments by anecdote against Will’s silly view of “liberalism.”

Probably better for folks to meditate on this:

>Parents who lose children, whether through accident or illness, inevitably wonder what they could have done to prevent their loss. When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death.

And he was against the war.


A major in the Marine reserves writes a guest op-ed in today’s New York Times in favor of the surge, he argues toward the following rhyme scheme:

>The idea is that, starting this fall, the Iraqi units would bulk up so the American units could begin to break up, moving to an advisory model in which the number of American soldiers embedded with Iraqi units triples while the overall United States force declines. Today many American patrols operate independently. In a year’s time, ideally, no American patrol would leave its base without a fully integrated Iraqi presence.

Fair enough, but that seems to me like the warmed over stand up/down view. But back to how he makes the case. Two things I think are worth noting.

First, the confusion of the war in Iraq with the war some kind of war against expansionist ideologues:

>The two Congressional votes last week establishing timelines for withdrawing American troops completely undermined such assurances. The confusion stems from an inherent contradiction in our politics: Though the burden of war is shouldered by few, the majority of Americans want to vacate Iraq, and the percentages are increasing. Something has to give.

>We’re four years into a global conflict that will span generations, fighting virulent ideologues obsessed with expansion. It’s time for those who are against the war in Iraq to consider the probable military consequences of withdrawal. But it is also time for supporters of the war to step back and recognize that public opinion in great part dictates our martial options.

Others say we’re in the midst of a civil war in Iraq. And the fight against the other guys–the big trash talking guys bent on expansionism, is another fight of another type. Worse than that, they argue that our presence in Iraq, however well-intentioned, does naught but give the trash-talking expansionists reason to enlist more into their terrorist enterprise. Iraq, after all, is a mostly Shiite country, al Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist movement; the Sunnis aren’t going to take over Iraq.

Second, support the troops:

>It’s hard for a soldier like me to reconcile a political jab like Senator Harry Reid’s “this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything” when it’s made in front of a banner that reads “Support Our Troops.” But the politician’s job is different from the soldier’s. Mr. Reid’s belief — that the best way to support the troops is by acknowledging defeat and pulling them out of Iraq — is likely shared by a large slice of the population, which gives it legitimacy.

Yet another reason to dump the now ironic phrase “support our troops.” But this sets up the argument by anecdote:

>It seems oddly detached, however, from what’s happening on the battlefield. The Iraqi battalion I lived with is stationed outside of Habbaniya, a small city in violent Anbar Province. Together with a fledgling police force and a Marine battalion, these Iraqi troops made Habbaniya a relatively secure place: it has a souk where Iraqi soldiers can shop outside their armored Humvees, public generators that don’t mysteriously explode, children who walk to school on their own. The area became so stable, in fact, that it attracted the attention of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. In late February, the Sunni insurgents blew up the mosque, killing 36.

That’s only one battlefield, some would argue, in big war. The rest, as almost no one disputes, is going so well as to have only 36 people killed.

A larger point

Today another example of the argument by anecdote. I’m still uncertain how to classify this–and thanks commenters for the comments–but this one instance of it I think is emblematic.

That was a joke. Today George Will finds two examples–two anecdotes as it were–of silly regulation by government at the behest of business interests.

>PHOENIX — In the West, where the deer and the antelope used to play, the spirit of “leave us alone” government used to prevail. But governments of Western states are becoming more like those elsewhere, alas.

>Consider the minor — but symptomatic — matter of the government-abetted aggression by “interior designers” against mere “decorators,” or against interior designers whom other interior designers wish to demote to the status of decorators. Some designers think decorators should be a lesser breed without the law on its side.

And that’s the thing. Let’s say the anecdotes are true as told. How can we conclude that they are “symptomatic of government-abetted agression.” These are two–only two–instances of apparently silly regulation. Why bother writing a column devoted to pointing out two instances of government silliness? Well, maybe, as some will certainly object, you have a “larger point.”

In the world of reasoning and logic, larger points follow from smaller points, and without smaller points, larger points do not exist. Or at least they are not justified.

So, what larger points could Will think he’s making?

He makes no effort to entertain the justifications for such regulations, he cannot conclude that they are unjustified. They certainly sound silly as he has described them. But one shouldn’t have a lot of confidence is such obviously uncharitable descriptions of minor consequences of regulation. One can certainly ask how emblematic those particular rules are of the regulation in question. And Will hasn’t done anything to establish that.

Could it be true that this regulation is actually strangling business? No evidence is offered of that. Now I suppose the reader might fill in his or her own outrageous anecdotes. But no effort is made even to gesture in the direction of evidence that would justify such broad conclusions as these:

>Beyond the banal economic motive for such laws, they also involve a more bizarre misuse of government. They assuage the status anxieties of particular groups by giving them the prestige, such as it is, that comes from government recognition as a certified profession.

So in the end we have what might be evidence that some of the rules consequent upon a couple of laws make people laugh. That’s comedy–and it’s certainly funny–but it’s not much of an argument.

But the larger point he’s making? There isn’t one.

Anecdotal arguments

Glenn Greenwald has some thoughts worth considering about the fallacy of the “argument by anecdote.” He writes:

>The Ward Churchill whirlwind is one of the classic examples of this rotted genre. “Stories” of that type — which are, as I’ve noted before, perfect examples of the logical fallacy of “argument by anecdote” — are naturally attractive to lazy journalists because they enable broad political points to be made simply by focusing on single anecdotes in isolation. Very little analytical or journalistic work needs to be done in order to covert those anecdotes and cliches into a sensationalistic, attention-generating story.

While I think he’s correct in his assessment of the problem with that sort of arguing. I wonder however if the argument by anecdote is either (1) another way of saying “hasty generalization” or (2) it is a rhetorical specification of the same or maybe (3) something else.

Argument for (1) and (2): To focus on single anecdotes (usually outrageous, as Greenwald correctly notes) isn’t by itself reasoning badly. To infer from the single anecdotes to some broader generalization is reasoning badly. In this sense the argument by anecdote is a kind of fallacy of weak induction.

Argument for (3): on the other hand, the difference with the argument by anecdote is that usually that generalization is not made explicitly. It is merely implied that the anecdote is representative. So in a sense, the outrageous anecdote distracts us from the more pertinent question (and the one that has been assumed) as to whether that anecdote represents anything at all (which it doesn’t). In this sense, it’s a kind of fallacy of relevance.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Old, tired, ineffectual

E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes:

>In 1984 three exit polls pegged Ronald Reagan’s share of the ballots cast by Americans under 30 at between 57 and 60 percent. Reagan-style conservatism seemed fresh, optimistic and innovative. In 2006 voters under 30 gave 60 percent of their votes to Democratic House candidates, according to the shared media exit poll. Conservatism now looks old, tired and ineffectual.

Those two exit polls don’t establish the claim that conservatism is “old, tired and ineffectual.” Sadly, however, these are the only hard facts cited in the piece. The rest is a series of do-you-remember-whens about NASCAR and evangelical Christianity, how once they seemed ascendant, now they seem reactionary–or, old, tired, and ineffectual. Dionne writes:

>Now the chic medium is televised political comedy and the cool commentators are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Even though their political fortunes have certainly changed with the recent elections, lots of people still listen to Rush Limbaugh. And the recent election is a phenomenon far too complex to be handled in such a superficial, E-Network kind of way. Besides, the Reagan election comparison is at best a misleading one–and you can’t place it alongside the most recent midterm election without covering over enormous differences (the current disastrous war, scandals, the Katrina disaster, and so on).

As we constantly say of the conservative political media, at least they argue for their positions. While they may argue badly (as we have documented here), at least the advance reasons for positions, rather than nearly fact-free meta-commentary of the political entertainment complex. That, if anything, is old, tired and ineffectual.

Cultural equality

Multiculturalism seems to be the topic of the week. In USNews Michael Barone writes a column called “Cultures aren’t equal” and in The New York Times David Brooks writes a piece called “All Cultures are not Equal.” As the titles suggest, the point of these pieces is to argue that multiculturalism is bad. For Barone, the view bears some responsibility for the London bombings; For Brooks, multiculturalism obscures intelligent discourse.

First, Barone writes,

Multiculturalism is based on the lie that all cultures are morally equal. In practice, that soon degenerates to: All cultures all morally equal, except ours, which is worse. But all cultures are not equal in respecting representative government, guaranteed liberties, and the rule of law. And those things arose not simultaneously and in all cultures but in certain specific times and places–mostly in Britain and America but also in other parts of Europe.

In addition to the obvious slippery slope (“soon degenerates . . . “), Barone is guilty of the non causa pro causa or the wrong cause fallacy; the cause of the London bombing has something to do with the bombers buying the idea that divinely sanctioned mass murder is a legitimate way of advancing your political position–the recently jailed Eric Rudolph, homophobic abortion clinic bomber, knows something of this view–rather than say the tolerance of cultural difference.

For Brooks, on the other hand,

The gospel of multiculturalism preaches that all groups and cultures are equally wonderful. There are a certain number of close-minded thugs, especially on university campuses, who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist or sexist. The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history – resources and brain chemistry – because that’s what they can measure and count.

These poorly reasoned quips about multiculturalism (it appears to be the case that economists and scientists don’t work at universities, they’re racists and sexists, or they don’t ask intelligent questions) serve as a springboard for his more ambitious sociological project; according to him, multiculturalism inhibits understanding of the sorts of human events–such as terrorism–that should concern the inquisitive mind. That’s a bold claim–one which, as far as we can tell, he does nothing to establish. But the unarged assertion is becoming standard repertory.

Such excursions into grand theory raise more troubling questions. The attentive reader will not swallow the strawman (and just incoherent) description of multiculturalism of these two pieces–few I think would affirm the extreme moral relativism implicit in Brooks’s and Barone’s pieces. If anything, if notions are to blame, then the culprit of recent terrorism on British soil is that all too fancy notion of freedom of speech. But in the end, the attentive reader will wonder why Brooks and Barone have taken to such broad sociological categories to explain the homicidal actions of individuals. There is a word for such hasty cultural and racial generalizations, but it’s not coming to mind.