LOGICAL FALLACY: THE EXTREME CASE
A recent feature about the budget crisis in California carried a story about a costly new school complex in LA that purportedly contains extravagant features. Admittedly the project did cost a ton of money. But the impression that has been drawn from the story is that California’s financial woes stem from frivolous and unnecessary expenditures. In reality most LA school buildings are modest, and many are old, outmoded, and downright dilapidated.
Why is this argument misleading? Because it implies that new, luxurious schools are the norm, when they are not. Further it implies—if not asserts—that the main issue is excessive expenditures when in fact one of the major sources of the problem is low tax revenues and tax avoidance by wealthy individuals and companies. Like a magician’s slight of hand, it directs attention away from where the rabbit might really be hiding.
Here’s another example, this one also from education. Several stories about schools in NYC told of teachers in public schools who are so incompetent that they have been removed from classrooms. However, these incompetents remain on the payroll because they have tenure and belong to unions. The thrust of these stories is that public teachers are incompetent, and tenure and unions are bad.
Why is this misleading? Because it implies that these incompetents are typical of all or many teachers in public schools. Actually they are a tiny percentage of all teachers. The problem occurs mainly in inner-city schools that have difficulty attracting highly competent, highly motivated teachers. Do these kinds of incompetent teachers exist? Certainly. But are they typical? Certainly not.
The vilification of public school teachers seems to be part of a campaign to attack public schools.
In truth, public school teachers do not deserve vilification. Just think about a typical teachers’ work day. They must get up before the sun rises in order to be at school when the children arrive, they are present with the children all day, remaining until they depart. As the nation’s baby-sitters, they must deal with temper tantrums, misbehavior, and disrespect from the students and frequently abuse and threats from parents. When teachers do get home, their work day has not ended. There are lesson plans to be produced and papers to be evaluated. And all of this effort for low or very modest pay.
It’s inaccurate and unfair to brand teachers as a class as lazy and pampered.
The point. When you use an example, if you are intellectually honest, don’t use one that is atypical. And don’t fall for an argument that relies on atypical examples, either.
If someone tries to foist one off on you, one way to deflect it is to ask: “Can you demonstrate that this is typical, or is it an extreme case?” or simply, “Is this typical of all schools in LA (or whatever)?”
(Power questions are in bold.)
The classic book on this subject is “How To Lie With Statistics.” We have treasured it for years. Highly readable.