Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stop Using Your Personal Experience to Make Sweeping Generalizations

I get in a lot of fights on the Internet. I’ve noticed in comment threads and discussion boards across this great planet of ours that many of us tend to think that our personal experience matters when it comes to widespread phenomena. We think that since we have experienced something that it proves a point. This is called the “anecdotal fallacy,” and we really need to recognize and avoid it.

What Is the Anecdotal Fallacy?

Also referred to as “misleading vividness,” the anecdotal fallacy occurs when we can recall a particular event or phenomenon with sufficient vividness as to make it seem as if we can generalize it to a more widespread population. Though it could be an instance of a more common occurrence, you really cannot base this on one occurrence.

What the hell does any of that mean? I think understanding these logical arguments comes with examples. So, here we go.
  • Example 1: I saw a white dude with a backwards hat steal an old lady’s purse. Therefore, white dudes with backwards hats regularly steal in general.
  • Example 2: I was given incorrect change by a teenager working at the corner store. Therefore, teenagers these days suck at math.

Both of the conclusions drawn in these examples are based on anecdotal fallacies. I catch myself doing this all the time. I even have a solid background in statistics and (social) scientific research. It’s an easy fallacy to fall into.
Logical Fallacy Ref is pretty awesome:
Why Do We Commit the Anecdotal Fallacy?

The jackass in me wants to attribute the prevalence of this fallacy to people being so self-involved and vapid that they can’t wait to offer information about their own personal experience. I’m sure this is the case for some, but more likely, our own personal experience is the easiest information we have access to.

At a different and perhaps more valid level, there is an understandable distrust of the mainstream media. That is, news sources can post about a phenomenon all they want, but why are we to believe them? They’re probably just trying to push an agenda. Plus, the media feed off of sensationalism. They want us to be afraid of those white dudes with backwards hats or to think that teenagers are destroying this country or whatever sells papers or gets the clicks.

When we don’t trust the media, where can we get our information? We’ll always have our personal experience.
Also, be skeptical of ALL media.
What Can We Do?

There are a few things we can do:
  • Recognize when we are committing the anecdotal fallacy and stop it.
  • Recognize when others are committing the anecdotal fallacy and call them on it.
  • Become sophisticated media connoisseurs – This is a tough one because it will take practice and time. There are good news sources out there. The best way to find the good ones is to read as many different perspectives as possible and always read with a critical eye.
  • Look for cold, hard facts from legitimate scientific research to support our opinions. If we can’t find real evidence, then we don’t really have much to base our opinions on.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is important. It is the beginning of the scientific method. Our observations feed into hypotheses which can then be tested and lead to theories. We just need to make sure that we are not skipping the whole scientific experimentation part of the scientific method. This is when we get into anecdotal fallacy territory.

What are your thoughts?

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