Bad argument: “I turned out fine”

An Australian parenting expert details why making an “I turned out fine” argument does not work:

It’s what’s known as an anecdotal fallacy. This fallacy, in simple terms, states that “I’m not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be O.K. for everyone.” As an example: “I wasn’t vaccinated, and I turned out fine. Therefore, vaccination is unnecessary.” We are relying on a sample size of one. Ourselves, or someone we know. And we are applying that result to everyone.

It relies on a decision-making shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Related to the anecdotal fallacy, it’s where we draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call. In this case, autobiographical information is easily accessible — it’s already in your head. We were smacked as kids and turned out fine, so smacking doesn’t hurt anyone. But studies show that the availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can cloud us from making accurate decisions utilizing all the information available. It blinds us to our own prejudices.

It dismisses well-substantiated, scientific evidence. To say “I turned out fine” is an arrogant dismissal of an alternative evidence-based view. It requires no perspective and no engagement with an alternative perspective. The statement closes off discourse and promotes a single perspective that is oblivious to alternatives that may be more enlightened. Anecdotal evidence often undermines scientific results, to our detriment.

It leads to entrenched attitudes. When views inconsistent with our own are shared we make an assumption that whoever holds those views is not fine, refusing to engage, explore or grow. Perhaps an inability to engage with views that run counter to our own suggests that we did not turn out quite so “fine.”

One data point does not make for a broad understanding of how the world works. A single case can illustrate larger trends – but it does not necessarily describe all that happens.

I wonder if one of the issues with the health patterns discussed here is that many people do indeed turn out fine even though there is clear evidence that a certain behavior leads to bad outcomes. Take the example of not wearing a seat belt while riding in the car. Even though more than 30,000 Americans die each year in accidents, the majority of people do not die and most driving goes by without event. Accidents are common but they may not be regular.Many people could indeed say they turned out fine and the thing they experienced still be bad for people.

Is Chicago’s flag “a much bigger deal than” the flags of other big cities?

Here is an argument for “why Chicago’s flag is a much bigger deal than any other city’s flag“:

As reporter Elliott Ramos suggested in a 2011 post for WBEZ, Chicago’s love affair with its flag seems to have taken off in the 1990s, with an influx of young adults into the city. Michael, a kickball player featured on the Chicago Flag Tattoos website, explains why he felt compelled to have the flag permanently emblazoned on his arm: “After moving to Chicago and living here for a few years, Chicago really kind of took a place in my heart, so I thought it’d be a good thing to do.”…

Symbolism aside, the flag’s simple, bold design is the reason it caught on. On his Urbanophile blog, Aaron M. Renn wrote: “In the United States, I’d have to rate Chicago far and away #1 in the use of official civic symbols (maybe the best in the world for all I know), and also note the overall high level of design quality of these objects … If you come to Chicago, you’ll notice that the city flag is ubiquitous.”

It’s enough to make you wonder: Is this a unique local thing? How do other cities’ flags stack up against Chicago’s?

Turns out, many are bland, and a few are downright appalling. Even the good flags aren’t necessarily well-known by the people of their cities.

When the North American Vexillological Association (vexillology is the study of flags) conducted a survey in 2004 ranking the nation’s best city flags, Chicago’s flag received a stellar 9.03 out of 10 possible points. But that was only good enough to land Chicago in the No. 2 spot. No. 2? Who could possibly beat us?

There is some limited evidence here: anecdotal tales that Chicagoans seem to display the flag often and the flag is rated highly by a flag group. But, there are several issues at work here. One, Chicago’s flag might be “better” than other flags. This is more of an aethestic or design consideration. This is where you want to appeal to outside, impartial groups like the North American Vexillological Association. Second, Chicagoans might like their flag or identify with it more than residents of other cities. Perhaps it indicates that Chicagoans have some decent levels of civic pride. This could be addressed by survey research. Third, Chicagoans might display the flag more often. This is probably the easiest to quantify and observational data could provide better evidence (perhaps easier to do these days with Google Street View).

Given the evidence presented in this piece, I’m not convinced any of these three options are true…

Sociologists = people who look at “boring data compiled during endless research”

If this is how a good portion of the public views what sociologists do, sociologists may be in trouble:

Anthony Campolo is a sociologist by trade, used to looking at boring data compiled during endless research.

Data collection and analysis may not be glamorous but a statement like this suggests sociologists may have some PR issues. Data collection and analysis are often time consuming and even tedious. But, there are reasons for working so hard to get data and do research: so sociologists can make substantiated claims about how the social world works. Without rigorous methods, sociologists would just be settling for interpretation, opinion, or anecdotal evidence. For example, we might be left with stories like that of a homeless man in Austin, Texas who was “testing”  which religious groups contributed more money to him. Of course, his one case tells us little to nothing.

Perhaps this opening sentence should look something like this: time spent collecting and analyzing data will pay off in stronger arguments.


Why don’t we collect data to see whether we have become more rude or uncivil rather than rely on anecdotes?

NPR ran a story the other day about how American culture is becoming more casual and less polite. This is not an uncommon story: every so often, different news organizations will run something similar, often focusing on the decreasing use of manners like saying “please” and “you’re welcome.” Here is the main problem I have with these articles: what kind of data could we look at to evaluate this argument? These stories tend to rely on experts who provide anecdotal evidence or their own interpretation. In this piece, these are the three experts: “a psychiatrist and blogger,” “a sophomore at the College of Charleston — in the South Carolina city that is often cited as one of the most courteous in the country,” and “etiquette maven Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.”

There is one data point cited in this story:

Research backs up Smith’s anecdotal observations. In 2011, some 76 percent of people surveyed by Rasmussen Reports said Americans are becoming more rude and less civil.

Interestingly, this statistic is about perceptions. Perceptions may be more important than reality in many social situations. But I could imagine another scenario about these perceptions: older generations tend to think that younger generations (often their children and grandchildren?) are less mannered and don’t care as much about social etiquette. As this story suggests, perhaps the manners are simply changing – instead of saying “you’re welcome,” younger people give the dreaded “sure.”

There has to be some way to measure this. It would be nice to do this online or in social media but the problem is that face-to-face rules don’t apply there. Perhaps someone has recorded interactions at McDonald’s or Walmart registers? In whatever setting a researcher chooses, you would want to observe a broad range of people to look for patterns by age, occupation, gender, race, education level (though some of this would have to come through survey or interview data with the people being observed).

In my call for data, I am not disagreeing with the idea that traditional manners and civility have decreased. I just want to see data that suggests this rather than anecdotes and observations from a few people.

Islamophobia: a complicated tale

Time magazine asks a provocative question with its August 30th cover: “Is America Islamophobic?” The story cites a number of statistics, including recent poll figures about whether Americans think President Obama is Muslim, to suggest that Americans have some qualms and/or misperceptions about Islam.

I have little doubt that there is truth in the article – the situation could certainly be improved. However, even with the generally negative tone, the story also  admits the situation is more complicated:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME–Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11. 

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are in a minority. But to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there’s no one in Europe of the stature of a former House Speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism.

A couple things to take out of these two paragraphs:

1. Evidence of increased violence against Muslims is limited or doesn’t exist.

2. There is some anecdotal evidence. This is not necessarily bad evidence but it isn’t systematic or tell us how widespread the issues are.

3. This is not what we might typically consider “religious persecution” – which perhaps suggests how this is defined will change.

4. These issues may be worse in other nations – there is more written about this is in the magazine version as opposed to the abridged version online. Some of the part that is missing between the two paragraphs quoted above:

Polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world. Two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim to be named Miss USA. Next month, the country’s first Muslim college will formally open in Berkeley, California…

This suggests that America is one of the better Western nations Muslims can move to. What about America has led to these feelings of safety and freedom among Muslims? We could ask another question: what about America has stopped the response to Islam from being worse, particularly considering the emotions and symbolism of 9/11?

Another quote in the article is intriguing: writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar says, “Islamophobia has become the accepted form of racism in America…You can always take a potshot at Muslims or Arabs and get away with it.” The part about the potshots may be true but the first part of this quote ignores a long and complicated racial history in America, particularly antipathy toward African-Americans and other groups. Americans have an infamous legacy of dislike and hatred toward newcomers or “the other” – this is not simply an issue with Muslims.

This is a complicated situation that bears watching.