Friday, October 11, 2013

the genetic fallacy


"What's up, big guy?"

"Did you know that haptic technology means touch technology, like a smartphone's touch screen, and that the word haptic comes from the Greek word haptesthai, meaning to touch?"

"Pretty cool. I didn't know that. Where'd you find that out?"


"What? Wikipedia?"


"Son, you know better than to trust Wikipedia! It's full of mistakes and misinformation! It's garbage!"

So Dad, however well-intended he might have been, just committed the genetic fallacy. It could very well be that Wikipedia is as full of holes as he suggests, but this doesn't give him grounds to dismiss his son's information, for that information might correspond to reality.

The genetic fallacy involves dismissing a claim, proposition, or other information because of its origin—its genesis (hence the term genetic fallacy). This dismissal is fallacious because the information in question might be true.

Example: a crazy homeless person grabs you and shouts, "The sun is shining!" If the sun does indeed happen to be shining, the crazy person would be right, no matter how crazy he might be. There's no relationship between the man's insanity and the correctness of his claim.

In American jurisprudence, people—including lawyers, who should know better—commit the genetic fallacy all the time: "You can't trust his testimony! He's a convicted felon!" Little thought is given to the possibility that the testimony, measured not against the testifier's character but against reality itself, could be veridical.

Imagine that your eleven-year-old son quotes a claim—say, about something purportedly scientific—from a teen magazine devoted to Lady Gaga or the (currently fracturing) Jonas Brothers. Do you dismiss the claim simply because it came from such a fluffy magazine? If you're logical, you don't. You verify. If the claim is veracious, you'll be able to confirm its truth independently (if you can be bothered to do so; most people aren't that scrupulous). If you disagree with the claim, then the way to counter it isn't by saying, "Meh... never trust those kiddie mags." It's by marshaling evidence and making a rational counter-claim—an argument. "Never trust kiddie mags" isn't an argument: it's fatuity.

So in your everyday dealings with your fellow aliens, try to avoid committing the genetic fallacy. Committing the fallacy doesn't make you look particularly impressive. In fact, you may just end up looking... well, not exactly bright.



SJHoneywell said...

For what it's worth, my rehearsed speech to my composition students is, "You shouldn't use Wikipedia. This isn't because Wikipedia is an untrustworthy source. While there is some bad information there, it's about as good as any other non-peer-reviewed source. No, the reason you shouldn't use Wikipedia is because it will make all of your teachers really angry. Why risk that?"

And then I show them exactly how to really use it as a way to find other sources.

Bratfink said...

A lawyer's job is to protect his client.

Truth has nothing to do with that job.

Kevin Kim said...


I think that's spot-on. My own spiel is that Wikipedia should never be quoted (or actually used) as a source in a serious research paper, but that it's a perfectly decent jumping-off point for further, better research. So I don't think you and I are that far apart in how we tell students to approach Wikipedia.


Your cynicism is touching.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Word too the wise: Don't listen to Kevin - you can't believe anything he says!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Charles said...

Brat's right, though. The American justice system (or any justice system, really, especially jury-based systems) isn't based on logic, it's based on rhetoric.

On Wikipedia: I once had an MA student cite Wikipedia in a draft of his thesis. I gently explained to him that Wikipedia is not generally considered a valid academic source, and if the information was true then he would be able to verify it elsewhere. Thanks to Wikipedia's insistence on citing sources, he was able to do so.

John from Daejeon said...

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Academic sources are just as fraught with errors as Wikipedia's are.

I still feel like a fool for taking academics' word (and that of a couple major English encyclopedias) that Guglielmo Marconi invented radio and not Nikola Tesla, and that doesn't even begin to get into the nonsense that so many "so-called" academics and academic sources tried to get me to believe about the inventor(s) of television.

As a student, I was constantly misled by mostly one-sided "history" and shockingly blind "eyewitness" cited material, but I was forced to rely on these "official" documentations as the whole truth. When actual truth of the matter is that most so-called eyewitnesses to history weren't born with absolutely perfect recall (or even eyesight), and over time (when the victors write their memoirs) even the sharpest memories begin to lose focus and we are left with rather hazy recollections of the winners slanted viewpoints. I know firsthand the problem that those can have, especially when the subject being quoted is suffering from dementia and shouldn't have been quoted in the first place.