Generalizations: A Love/Hate Story and the Dangers of Mind Reading

We make generalizations because they can sometimes depict, on average, something that is usually true. Others call this pattern recognition: a vital skill. But don’t let it turn you into a mind reader. Because you’re not.

And yet people think that they are! They think that they know you better than you know yourself! On line, or real life, so many act and believe as though they’re the second coming of Professor X.

Professor X from the X-Men

Even worse, people think that generalizations mean you are talking about everyone. It all goes back to the comprehension gap between what words actually mean and what people think they mean. Is it due to the deplorable state of American education? A mass hysteria induced by political demagogues whipping people up into frenzies? Arrogance and ignorance walking hand-in-hand?

Probably a combination of all three, and more. But whatever the reasons, false mind reading is a cognitive trap that it’s important to be aware of so that you do not fall prey to it.

All generalizations, including this one, are either false or dangerous, depending on if you follow Mark Twain’s or Alexandre Dumas’ formulation. But regardless, they are telling you, based on observable patterns, that something is usually something on average, or in the aggregate.

Now, we see how this can lead to some rather distasteful stereotypes based on things like ethnicity, religion, national origin, and so on: All X are good at Y, or bad at Z. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Given America’s increasingly violent political climate, I’m focusing more on the realm of disagreement: “All Republicans are evil racist Nazis.” “All Democrats are America-hating communists.” “All Libertarians are unserious, weed-smoking open-border advocates with no real ideas.”

Okay, that last one might be true. But I digress.

Whatever the case, generalizations can lead to a lot of vitriol. Check out the political violence in Berkeley that happened over the weekend if you don’t believe me when I say that generalizations are turning people into mind readers.

What do I mean by mind readers? It’s this: If you believe that “All X are Y,” and you meet one X who is not Y, that disproves your generalization.

This is why a good, effective generalization speaks in terms of averages and not absolutes.

Anyway, if one encounters the exception to their absolute generalization, what do they do? Do they reevaluate their position based on new information, perhaps tweak their mental model, and come to a greater understanding of the world and their fellow citizens?

Of course not. Continue reading “Generalizations: A Love/Hate Story and the Dangers of Mind Reading”

The Comprehension Gap

The logo for the organization Reading Is Fundamental

I feel it is obligatory to write about the whole Google memo thing; it’s all everybody is talking about anyway, so why not chime in?

“Because enough is enough, Alex!”

Ah, but I think you’ll find my take to be slightly different than your average customers’.

(See what I did there? It’s called foreshadowing).

So the memo, what some are calling an “anti-diversity screed” and are characterizing as “arguing that women are not biologically fit for tech roles.”

Which begs the question: did these outlets even read the memo, or are they lying about it?

You see, I am not here to discuss the contents of the memo, or its now-fired author James Damore, or even discuss what this means to the future of the American workplace–if you want to read a good article about all that stuff, check out Lord Adeonistake on the whole controversy.

I’m not even here to talk about the media: I do not expect honesty from them, nor do I expect them to be particularly intelligent enough to grasp what the memo actually said, which can be boiled down thusly:

The gap in representation in STEM fields does not stem from sexism, but from the AVERAGE PREFERENCES women make when choosing an occupation, some of which are driven by biological differences between men and women, and Google’s strategy of using discrimination to promote women, and certain other groups in general, does more harm than good.

That’s it. The author wanted more women to be working in STEM fields generally, and at Google in particular–in fact, he sounds like a fan of diversity (this is where reading comprehension comes in: did people just skip that part, or ignore it?). The memo is not “anti-diversity”; it is more “anti-Google’s current diversity policies, which he claims are not producing the desired effect, and are in fact causing more harm than good.”

A picture of the outside of Google headquarters

That’s a bit more nuanced, right? It’s not as good for clickbait, though. And you’ll notice that I am neither attacking nor defending the contents of the memo . . . I’m just trying to set a baseline of understanding so we know what we are talking about. It’s like in a formal debate or an informal argument: both sides need to be sure that they are talking about the same thing. Remember when that used to be important?

And yet, people want him drawn and quartered. People are frothing-at-the-mouth mad. You may find the contents of the memo offensive or distasteful–and that’s fine–but I certainly hope you at least read and understood what it actually said.

More shocking, to me at least, is this:

So many people seem to lack both a basic understanding of statistics and of basic reading comprehension.

And many of these people went to college.

This is what disturbs me the most. Continue reading “The Comprehension Gap”