The Sin of Discounting Specifics with Generalities

You cannot dismiss a claim by pointing out general reasons why people tend to be mistaken about such claims.

Moreover, you can’t go making arguments that could be equally said of both sides. What’s so hard about this? I’ve pointed it out as a Christian, and I’ll point it out again as a conflicted agnostic. It’s all over the place. And this doesn’t even exclusively apply to the big questions.

You cannot dismiss evidence because “people went out expecting to find it.” Seriously. The real question is whether or not they found it. I recognize that you’re thinking about the errors of cherry-picking and systematic bias. But those are much different from suggesting that all evidence be blindly stumbled upon in order to be meaningful.

You cannot dismiss people’s memories because “memory is fallible.” You cannot dismiss something someone saw because “people see all kinds of things.” In some contexts, memory and sight are fallible. In others, they aren’t.

You cannot dismiss a conclusion or a belief because “people just want to support worldview X” or “people believe all sorts of things.” I hate to say it, but it really doesn’t matter whether people are wrongly-motivated, or even if they are credulous. It only matters whether their conclusions make sense.

You can’t argue against a specific reason for believing in God by stating that “people have always been trying to use God to explain things that have natural explanations.”

You can’t argue against a specific reason for disbelieving in God by stating that “people will always find a way to deny God so they don’t have to follow him.”

You cannot blindly assert that “nothing can convince you anyway, you won’t change your mind.” Nothing can convince YOU, and YOU won’t change your mind! It is not a prerequisite of meaningful debate that both parties appear on the brink of changing their minds. Especially because it’s possible that one party is right about the issue at hand, and knows this with enough certainty that faking uncertainty is disingenuous.

I recently read a book by Vincent Bugliosi (whose science is a bit deficient, but who is nonetheless a logical man). He began by posing a question to the following effect: “If a bum and Winston Churchill both had something [conflicting] to say about World War II, who would you believe?” The answer, he explains, is not “Winston Churchill,” as 99% of people respond. The answer is “I’d have to hear what he had to say.”

But people don’t hear what’s said, because people are biased, and they’re too busy making generalizations about how people are biased and don’t hear what’s said.

Let the specifics speak.


2 Responses to “The Sin of Discounting Specifics with Generalities”

  1. wabasso Says:

    This is excellent and true. This was already on my list of things to hold dear but of course reading about it in a coherent form servers as reinforcement and a welcome reminder.

    This morning a coworker was complaining that the printer prints duplex by default and thus they need to reprint everything single-sided before sending it to legal. Their concern was that the legal department would miss the other side of many pages as the document was circulated and photocopied.

    I said, “You can’t make decisions based on the expected incompetency of others”. I immediately realized that most of my work is based on this premise.

  2. Thanks.

    I think that’s a bit of a different discussion, because we all make decisions anticipating others’ incompetence. It isn’t even so much that we anticipate incompetence, but that we reduce the likelihood of mistakes. We block off open pits, put “warning” signs all over the place… we see more value in reducing the chances of injury and death than in punishing people for lapses in judgement, gaps in their intelligence, and so on.

    Besides, it’s partly just economics. If the legal department misses the other side of the page, everyone suffers, whether it’s their fault or not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: