I’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.