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A Chinese parable is told about a man who was sitting by a tree one day when suddenly a rabbit came hopping by. Not looking where it was going, the rabbit slammed headfirst into the trunk of a tree. There it was just a few feet from the man lying dead on the floor. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, the surprised man took the rabbit, skinned it, and ate it for dinner. So captivated was the man at how easy it was to procure fresh meat for dinner that day, that he sat by the foot of that tree for the next 40 years waiting for the next rabbit to kill itself by running headfirst into the tree. I doubt he was very successful (A. J. Hoover, Don’t You Believe It: Poking Holes in Faulty Logic, 21).
Hasty generalization is a fallacy that occurs when you “jump to a conclusion” about something before having sufficient information about it. In other words, a judgment is made based on a very small and limited sampling of the data (Hoover, 22). Just think of our rabbit lover. Jumping to the conclusion that because one rabbit hit its head on a tree and died, giving rise to an easy meal, is no reason to think there will be many other similar circumstances in the future. When we move carelessly or too quickly from a particular case to making sweeping generalization, we commit the fallacy of hasty generalization (Carl Cohen and Irving M. Copi, Introduction to Logic 11th ed., 160).
The logical form of the fallacy is as follows:
- Sample S is taken from population P.
- Sample S is a very small part of population P.
- Conclusion C is drawn from sample S and applied to population P (see Logically Fallacious, link below).
By committing this fallacy one makes “an inference from some specific examples to a general principle,” however, the specific examples are limited in scope (Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, 100). This generalization is a simplification where the conclusions being drawn are the results of facts being distorted.
Examples of Committing the Fallacy
One episode in the 1960s Batman television series had Robin bemoaning the fact that “you can never trust a woman” after being tricked by the evil Cat Woman. Batman quickly rebukes Robin as making a sweeping generalization:
The television series was entertaining and silly, but in this instance, logically sound!
Many recall the popular and oft told Indian fable of the “Six Blind Men and the Elephant.” This is an another example of a hasty generalization. Six blind men come across an elephant in their journey and touch a different part of the elephant. One touches the leg and believes it’s a pillar. Another touches the tail and believes it’s a rope. The third touches the trunk and believes it’s a thick branch of a tree. The fourth touches the ear and believes it’s a fan. The fifth touches the belly and believes it’s a wall. The last touches the tusk and believes it’s a pipe. In touching just a small part of the elephant, they all come to a wrong conclusion about the entire object.
Here are some other examples of the fallacy:
- Jennifer notices that her biology teacher always seems annoyed when Jennifer speaks in class. Jennifer decides to find out why and meets with her teacher after class. “I had your sister in my class two years ago and she was a trouble maker. I expect no less from you,” explains the teacher. (The teacher jumped to the conclusion that since Jennifer’s sister was a trouble maker, Jennifer must be one as well.)
- My grandfather smoked a pack of cigarettes everyday since he was in his 20s and he died at 92. Cigarettes can’t be that bad for you! (Concluding there are no health risks to smoking cigarettes on the basis of the longevity of one man is unreasonable. Millions of people have died of cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes.)
- Alice enlists in the Army and becomes friends in boot camp with three girls who grew up on farms in the Midwest. Alice is struggling to meet the standards of marksmanship on the combat range. The three farm girls eventually take top honors in marksmanship. Alice wishes she grew up on a farm because she’s convinced all farm girls are the best shots in the world. (Alice is making a hasty generalization because she’s prematurely concluded all girls who live on farms have similar shooting skills. An empirical research study may show the opposite to be true,)
- Roberto says that nine out of ten dentists recommend brand “X” toothpaste. “It must be the best brand there is.” (However, the study John refers to, only surveyed ten dentists to offer their opinion. On the contrary, a national, random survey asked 1,500 dentists for their opinion on brand “X” and only 15% recommended the brand.)
- John, a self-professed atheist, believes all Christians are irrational because his Christian co-worker Tom said philosophy is an evil enterprise. (John is making a judgment about all Christians based on a stereotype he created because of Tom’s comments about philosophy. There are many Christians who think differently about philosophy. Tom may be the exception to the rule.)
How to Avoid Committing the Fallacy Hasty Generalizations
Avoiding a hasty generalization is a matter of not coming to a sweeping conclusions about something based on insufficient data. The reason researchers draw their inferences from large, random samples of a population is to avoid any type of sweeping generalizations. Whenever you find yourself “jumping to a conclusion” about something, just pause a minute and ask yourself, “Is the judgment I’m making based on a large enough sampling of the data? Do I have enough facts to justify my assumptions?” If not, simply refrain from making the judgment and look into the issue further.
But how do you respond to the fallacy when you hear one? You can answer a hasty generalization by simply giving a counterexample. A counterexample is when you keep the form of the argument being made, but you substitute some of the terms. Consider this simple example, suppose someone says, “My family and I drove to New York City for vacation. We had a great time, but while we were driving in Manhattan, three yellow cabs cut us off. We almost got into an accident all three times! All of the cab drivers in that city are the worst drivers in the world, we’ll never go back!” Using the logical form above;
- The three cabdrivers (sample S) is taken from every cabdriver in NYC (population P).
- The three cabdrivers are just a minute fraction of the total number of cabdrivers in NYC.
- Therefore, it is claimed that all cabdrivers are dangerous drivers (conclusion C, is drawn from sample S and applied to population P).
What would be a counterargument? Giving a simple demonstration to show that not all NYC cabdrivers are a danger behind the wheel when driving alongside other passenger cars. The facts are the same (there are passenger cars driving along side of NYC cabs), but the circumstances are different (rather than the cabs cutting off the other vehicles, they yield the right of way, signal before they change lanes, drive at safe speeds, obey traffic lights, etc.).
Being mindful of the ways in which hasty generalizations are committed will aid us in recognizing when we or others violate the principles of sound reasoning. Logician Virginia Klenk correctly notes,
Every time you draw a conclusion on the basis of certain evidence, infer one thing from another, or try to figure out the consequences of a certain course of action, you are using logic. Logic is a matter of what follows from what, and the better you are at figuring this out—that is, the better you are at reasoning correctly—the more likely you are to come up with the right decision in practical situations. (Virginia Klenk, Understanding Symbolic Logic 4th ed., 2)
For more information on how you can study logic and logical fallacies, visit the Southern Evangelical Seminary’s website at www.ses.edu.
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Bennett, Bo, “Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies.” Accessed August 15, 2017. https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/100/Hasty-Generalization.
Cohen, Carl and Irving M. Copi. Introduction to Logic 11th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Damer, T. Edward. Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments 3rd Ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995.
Flew, Antony. A Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd Ed. New York: St. Martins Press, 1984.
Klenk, Virginia. Understanding Symbolic Logic, 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Kreeft, Peter. Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles. Edited by Trent Dougherty. 3.1 Ed. South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2014.