The Skewed Sample Fallacy of Oppression

Horatio Alger - Strive and Succeed - Skewed Sample FallacyI’ve known a lot of people from a broad array of backgrounds. They range from people living on the street to people with millions of dollars. (I’ve had no experience with the super rich.) And something I hear a lot from the people who have done fairly well economically is that they succeeded, so anyone could do it. Note: I am not just talking about the millionaires. I hear this kind of comment from people just scraping by in the lower middle class. Anyone who has overcome adversity can make the same claim. But this is a demonstration of something very dangerous: the skewed sample fallacy.

Let me make it personal for a moment. Although I had the great advantage of having parents who were interested in the life of the mind, I also suffered badly from dyslexia. As a result, I had a very hard time learning to read and write. And this was at a time when people didn’t think much about dyslexia. Normally, I would have just been written off as simply stupid, if it hadn’t been for my prodigious gift for math. So it would be easy for me to dismiss the failures as others, “I could barely read into my teens yet I became a writer!” Blah, blah, blah! Shut that man up!

Sample Size: One

This is what I mean by the skewed sample fallacy. And in this case, the sample size is one: me (or you). In my case, my lack of literary skills eventually made me embarrassed. And this led to my becoming fascinated with the language. But that was just me. I think a more natural response is to avoid it. And if not that, embracing it wouldn’t assure success. (Note: I’m only a good writer relative to my environment; every day I learn something that makes me embarrassed about something I wrote yesterday.)

On a personal level, the skewed sample fallacy is fine. It’s great that people feel good about themselves. It’s on the social level that it is pernicious. This is because it is society’s winners who set the rules. And every one of them thinks that their wealth and power are due to their own wonderfulness. As the football coach Barry Switzer said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

But even if they were born with every disadvantage and managed to make it to the top of our economic pecking order, nothing changes. In fact, I generally find such people the biggest abusers of the skewed sample fallacy. They do, at least, have strong evidence that bad circumstances can be overcome.

Social Policy Based on Skewed Sample Fallacy

Everywhere I look in society, I see evidence that our social policies are based on millions of individuals’ one little skewed sample fallacy. Look at Bill Gates. To him, all poor children need are good schools. After all, some desperately poor children have been put into special educational programs and become great successes. But is that how we are to set policy?

Certainly many conservatives think this very thing. After the 2012 election, Avik Roy made the ridiculous argument that we liberals had equality of opportunity all wrong. Basically, he claimed, equality of opportunity means not having any laws against the poor. So as long as there is no law stopping a malnourished child who misses the first five years of school is legally allowed, they still have an equal opportunity to make good as Donald Trump’s kids.

What I’d like to see is society’s “winners” understand that they don’t define the world. Policy based on their own experiences is rarely good policy. They usually have advantages that they don’t see. And so they need to see that just because they rose and others did not is not an indication that they are better and others are worse. And I make that plea first and most forcefully to myself.

Odd Words: Abiogenesis

DNA - AbiogenesisI’m starting a new series today: Odd Words. I got the idea last night because I was very tired and didn’t feel like writing. So I grabbed a book I bought ages ago but never opened, The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. The book is literally falling part. I’m using its cover as a bookmark. But it’s fascinating.

I like dictionaries. It doesn’t matter if you know the words. We know words more by how they are used than by their definitions. I constantly find myself wishing to use a slightly uncommon word. But then I wonder, “Is this what I mean?” So I look it up. And in almost all cases, I’m using the word perfectly. But it’s always a joy to see the odd words laid out so simply — so directly.

Words I Don’t Know: Abiogenesis

But I found something interesting on the first page of the Everyday Reader’s Dictionary. Of the 20 words, there were 5 that I didn’t know at all. And I learned new things about words I did know. For example, did you know that abalone is a kind of snail? Abalone is very popular here in northern California. The smell of it alone, makes me sick, so I’ve never tasted it. But I am looking forward to asking people the next time I find myself around it, “How are you enjoying your snail?”

Today’s word is “abiogenesis.”

Ab·i·o·gen·e·sis  noun  \ā-bī-ō-‘je-nə-səs\

1. generation of living organisms from inanimate matter, as the laboratory creation of a virus from a complex protein molecule.

Date: circa 1870.

Origin: not (a-) life (bio) generated (genesis).

Example: With that in mind, can scientists reproduce the conditions of earth where abiogenesis began and successfully create these self-replicating peptides?EvolutionFAQ

Back Off!

Now before anyone says it: yes, I could have pieced that word together. As a matter of fact, I’ve got to have been exposed to it, because certainly Carl Sagan must have mentioned it in The Dragons of Eden. But the truth is that I’ve never had a huge vocabulary. Nor do I want one. After you get past about 50,000 words, you’re in “types of fish” territory.

So if you already know words that come up in this category, good for you! But don’t scoff or feel too proud. You’ll just look small. And if you’re very nasty, I’ll give you a differential equation to solve!