Thursday, November 18, 2004

Doughnuts, carrots, and a short guide to interpretation

QOC: "Eating a dozen doughnuts a day will make people fat. Carrots, on the other hand, are a God-given food, delicious and nutritious. People should eat more of them."

C #1: "That's not true. Why, my cousin Phil eats nothing but celery and water. By what you say, he should be thin and yet he weighs 500 pounds. Don't judge people just because they are fat and think they're all doughnut gluttons!"

C #2: "Doughnuts have nothing to do with fat. My little brother can eat a dozen doughnuts every day and he's skinny as a rail."

C #3: "Some people are allergic to carrots. Don't force them to eat carrots, it will make them sick."

C #4: "Are you saying it's a sin not to eat carrots? That's ridiculous! Don't be so legalistic."

QOC's revised post: "In many cases, excessive consumption of doughnuts can, for some people, cause them to gain unwanted weight, although of course there are many causes of weight gain and some of them are no one's fault at all. I personally prefer to eat carrots, which are quite tasty and healthful, and although of course I would never suggest that it was divinely mandated to eat carrots, still, I think if more people ate more carrots, they might possibly find it beneficial."

This is not meant to pick on any of my commenters; the level of discussion on this blog has (almost always) been courteous, intelligent, and beneficial. This is more a compilation of common logical fallacies I see on various blogs and discussions. To deconstruct them:

C#1: This a formal logical fallacy whose technical name is "denying the antecedent." In other words, if I say "If X, then Y," it is quite irrelevant to prove that Y can occur without X. I never said that X was the only possible cause of Y, and logically, I don't need to.

C#2: This is not a structural fallacy, but simply an attempt to negate a rule by proving an exception. Just because you have proven that one person can eat huge quantities of doughnuts without gaining weight does not mean you have disproven the main point, which is that excessive doughnut consumption generally results in weight gain.

C#3 and #4 are both getting a little carried away. Just because someone says something is a good idea does not mean they are going to force it on anyone, insist that everyone ought to do it, or claim that it's a sin for people not to do it.

Being a lawyer, I like to make sure I have enough qualifying statements so that people don't misinterpret what I have to say. Being a writer, I often find excessive qualifying statements suck the meat out of what I was trying to say. It annoys me if even after loading something up with qualifying statement upon qualifying statement, people still insist on interpreting a generalization as a universal, exception-free rule, or a suggestion as a command.

So here's a general guide to interpreting this blog: If I say X is a good thing, but don't say X is what God commands everybody to do, it's because I don't think X is what God commands everybody to do. If I criticize action Y but don't say people who do it are sinning, it's because I don't think they are. If I say A usually results in B, I'm not denying that sometimes B comes from other causes and sometimes A results in something else.

I like offering opinions, and it's only fair that I should expect disagreement. I like to talk about broad swaths of culture and ideas, and I know perfectly well there are almost always exceptions. But if we spend all our time focusing on the exceptions, we miss out on having a discussion over the broad swath.

This post does not specifically address any other post, nor do the hypothetical comments herein listed specifically criticize any other comments. The opinions contained herein are strictly those of the author, and may or may not reflect those of the organization. Let the buyer beware. Don't drink and drive. Patent pending. No animals were harmed in testing this post. Wear sunscreen. Price may not include product. Do not take with milk. May cause side effects which include, but are not limited to, crossed eyes, headaches, and spinning craniums. Dolphin safe. FDA approved. Beware of dog. No trespassing. The end.

No comments: