Tag Archives: Sweeping Generalization

Blue-haired old ladies or reasoning from experience

5 Oct


mimi-with-blue-hair-and-maria-age-8  I was at my hairdresser the other day and our conversation turned to her many regulars, mostly old ladies who come weekly for a wash and a set.  I told her about Mimi, my grandmother, and her blue hair.  How she never seemed to be pleased with the color each time she came home from the beauty shop.

I then casually asked Lisa, “You probably don’t even know about blue hair for little old ladies!”  She came back right away with, “Oh, yes I do!  In fact, I regularly have blue-haired elderly clients.”

After recovering from my shock that blue-haired OLD ladies still existed, I decided to spring that news on my middle school students.  My ‘show and tell’ venture, using the above picture, brought many questions.

I think because I could produce a photo, no one boldly proclaimed, “Well, I’ve never seen a blue-haired little old lady.  I don’t believe you!”

But that is exactly how most people identify truth in our culture today.  Unless they have personal experience of something, or have heard about it from their friends and contacts, they don’t believe it.

Kind of arrogant, don’t you think?

What makes someone think that he can trust his experience and personal knowledge enough?  Does not that seem a bit presumptuous to dare to declare a universal truth, one that applies across the board?  Are you that infallible?

In logic, there are statements or premises that, if true, apply to all members of the subject of the premise.  We call that a ‘universal’. An example is:

  • All men are mortal

If this statement is true, then every member of the ‘man’ family must be mortal.

If this feature does not apply to every single unit of the subject, then at most one can say:

  • Some men are mortal

The same logic laws apply to the negative versions of these statements:

  • No men are mortal is a universal assertion
  • Some men are not mortal is a particular premise

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of us are relying on self-centered sloppy thinking in making truth claims. Consider the following types of generic statements:

  • “I’ve never heard of X.  I just can’t believe X exists.  For surely, if it did, then I would have encountered some mention of it?”
  • “No one I know of thinks that.  I don’t believe it.”

That’s as ridiculous as us saying, ‘I’ve never experienced echolocation (bees use of magnetic cues to travel), so I don’t believe in it.’

Or, ‘I’ve never seen God, so He isn’t real’.  Allegedly one of the Soviet cosmonauts boasted like that upon returning from orbit.

And just this morning I read a Tim Keller quote.  He’s pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan: “Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.”

As our American culture polarizes more, may we be slow to proclaim these sweeping universal generalizations with a tone of authority and pursue the more humble reasoning of the particular.

I don’t want to be like the little boy in CS Lewis’ mud pie example, taken from his essay The Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”



Who’s allowed to make General Statements? It’s Fallacy Friday!

26 Jul


Mary Kaye women always wear pink!

Women from Dallas have big hair!

When I was growing up, my dad forbade me to make ‘general statements’ by disclaiming, “Maria – you are not a general, yet!”

It wasn’t until I was teaching logic that I realized other reasons for avoiding big broad, unsubstantiated pronouncements that were not backed up by enough data!

Welcome, again, to Fallacy Friday!  This is the day when we examine more examples of faulty reasoning.  Fallacies are shortcuts undertaken by either ignorant, lazy or devious people to convince you of the truth of their assertion!  But beware.

I just spent a week in Dallas, practicing new techniques in teaching second language acquisition.  Our group shared the hotel with 3 batches of Mary Kaye sales consultants, one after another.  In the elevators, in the restrooms, in the hallways bounced, minced & chattered well-coiffed, flawlessly made- up women, bedecked with sales awards.  

And no, contrary to my pre-conceived idea, Mary Kaye women DO NOT all wear pink.   That is a Sweeping Generalization.

All Mary Kaye women I have seen wear pink

Here are some Mary Kaye women

Therefore, they will be wearing pink

The problem is that the MK women I have experienced are too small a population size for me to come to my conclusion.  Hence I have just made a Sweeping Generalization.


Now about my second pronouncement about hair – a true Hasty Generalization:  I’ve actually only met ONE woman from Texas who had big hair, Beth Moore.  I think what compounded my idea was that some people make fun of Texan women by talking about their hair.  For me to conclude, from ONE data point + hearsay, that all women from Texas have big hair is even worse than my Mary Kaye pre-conceived idea!  

So what do we do with those traditional sayings that get passed along?  Is there NO truth in them?

Just be more specific.  Instead of claiming “ALL this or that”….or even worse…. leaving off a quantifier altogether – (i.e. claiming “Mary Kaye women….Texan women….without the words – all/some/no/some…not), BE SPECIFIC and use that honest 4-letter word “SOME”.

Consider these assertions that are MORE honest if they can be backed up by at least one example:

  • ·         Some capitalists are dishonest.
  • ·         Some conservatives are not compassionate.
  • ·         Some liberals resort to name-calling.
  • ·         Some teens talk back to their parents.
  • ·         Some mothers-in-laws criticize constantly.
  • ·         Some Americans are not fat.

Your HW for the coming week is this – try practicing awareness of your own thoughts or speech:

          What Sweeping or Hasty Generalizations do you tend to make routinely?