Trying to be Smart: on bringing up extremely rare exceptions to prove forests don’t exist, only trees

When my kids don’t want to do their work (typically word problems in math,) they start coming up with all kinds of crazy scenarios to try to evade the question. “What if Susan cloned herself?” “What if Joe is actually the one driving the car, and he only saw the car pass by because he was looking at himself in a mirror?” “What if John used a wormhole to travel backwards in time and so all of the people at the table were actually Joe and so I only need to divide by one?” “What if Susan is actually a boy but her parents accidentally gave him the wrong name?” “What if ALIENS?”

After banging my head on the wall, I started asking, “Which is more likely: Sally and Susan are two different people, or Sally cloned herself, something no human has ever done before in the 300,000 years of homo Sapiens’ existence?” And sometimes they will, grudgingly, admit that their scenarios are slightly less likely than the assumptions the book is making.*

I forgive my kids, because they’re children. When adults do the same thing, I am much less sympathetic.

Folks on all sides of the political spectrum are probably guilty of this, but my inclinations/bubble lead me to encounter certain ones more often. Sex/gender is a huge one (even I have been led astray by sophistry on this subject, for which I apologize.)

Over in biology, sex is simply defined: Females produce large gametes. Males produce small gametes. It doesn’t matter how gametes are produced. It doesn’t matter what determines male or femaleness. All that matters is gamete size. There is no such thing (at least in humans) as a sex “spectrum”: reproduction requires one small gamete and one large gamete. Medium-sized gametes are not part of the process.

About 99.9% of people fit into the biological categories of “male” and “female.” An extremely small minority (<1%) have rare biological issues that interfere with gamete formation–people with Klinefelter’s, for example, are genetically XXY instead of XX or XY. People with Klinefelter’s are also infertile–unlike large gametes and small gametes, XXY isn’t part of a biological reproduction strategy. Like trisomy 21, it’s just an unfortunate accident in cell division.

In a mysterious twist, the vast majority of people have a “gender” identity that matches their biological sex. Even female athletes–women who excel at a stereotypically and highly masculine field–tend to identify as “women,” not men. Even male fashion designers tend to self-identify as men. There are a few people who identify as transgender, but in my personal experience, most of them are actually intersex in some way (eg, a woman who has autism, a condition characterized as “extreme male brain,” may legitimately feel like she thinks more like a guy than a girl.) Again, this is an extremely small percent of the population. For 99% of people you meet, normal gender assumptions apply.

So jumping into a conversation about “men” and “women” with “Well actually, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just social constructs and gender is actually a spectrum and there are many different valid gender expressions–” is a great big NO.

Jumping into a discussion of women’s issues (like childbirth) with “Actually, men can give birth, too,” or the Women’s March with “Pussyhats are transphobic because some women have penises; vaginas don’t define what it means to be female,” is an even bigger NO, and I’m not even a fan of pussyhats.

Only biological females can give birth. That’s how the species works. When it comes to biology, leave things that you admit aren’t biology at the door. If a transgender man with a uterus gives birth to a child, he is still a biological female and we don’t need to confuse things by implying that someone gestated a fetus in his testicles. Over the millennia that humans have existed, a handful of people with some form of biological chimerism (basically, an internalized conjoined twin who never fully developed but ended up contributing an organ or two) who thought of themselves as male may have nonetheless given birth. These cases are so rare that you will probably never meet someone with them in your entire life.

Having lost a leg due to an accident (or 4 legs, due to being a pair of conjoined twins,) does not make “number of legs in humans” a spectrum ranging from 0-4. Humans have 2 legs; a few people have unfortunate accidents. Saying so doesn’t imply that people with 0 legs are somehow less human. They just had an accident.

In a conversation I read recently, Person A asserted that if two blue-eyed parents had a brown-eyed baby, the mother would be suspected of infidelity. A whole bunch of people immediately jumped on Person A, claiming he was scientifically ignorant and hadn’t paid attention in school–sadly, these overconfident people are actually the ones who don’t understand genetics, because blue eyes are recessive and thus two blue eyed people can’t make a brown-eyed biological child.  A few people, however, asserted that Person A was scientifically illiterate because there is an extremely rare brown-eyed gene that two blue-eyed people can carry, resulting in a brown-eyed child.

But this is not scientific illiteracy. The recessive brown-eyed gene is extremely rare, and both parents would have to have it. Infidelity, by contrast, is much more common. It’s not that common, but it’s more common than two parent both having recessive brown-eyed genes. Insisting that Person A is scientifically illiterate because of an extremely rare exception to the rule is ignoring statistics–statistically, the child is more likely to be not biological than to have an extremely rare variant. Statistically, men and women are far more likely to match in gender and sex than to not.

Let’s look at immigration, another topic near and dear to everyone’s hearts. After Trump’s comments about Haiti came out (and let’s be honest, Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, is one of the world’s largest cities without a functioning sewer system, so “shithole” is actually true,) people began popping up with statements like “I’d rather a Ugandan immigrant who believes in American values than a socialist Norwegian.”

I, too, would rather a Ugandan with American values than a socialist Norwegian. However, what percentage of Ugandans actually have American values? Just a wild guess, but I suspect most Ugandans have Ugandan values. Most Ugandans probably think Ugandan culture is pretty nice and that Ugandan norms and values are the right ones to have, otherwise they wouldn’t have different values and we’d call those Ugandan values.

Updated values chart!

While we’re at it, I suspect most Chinese people have Chinese values, most Australians have Australian values, most Brazilians hold Brazilian values, and most people from Vatican City have Catholic values.

I don’t support blindly taking people from any country, because some people are violent criminals just trying to escape conviction. But some countries are clearly closer to each other, culturally, than others, and thus have a larger pool of people who hold each other’s values.

(Even when people hold very different values, some values conflict more than others.)

To be clear: I’ve been picking on one side, but I’m sure both sides do this.

What’s the point? None of this is very complicated. Most people can figure out if a person they have just met is male or female instantly and without fail. It takes a very smart person to get confused by a few extremely rare exceptions into thinking that the broad categories don’t functionally exist.

Sometimes this obfuscation is compulsive–the person just wants to show how smart they are, or maybe everyone around them is saying it so they start repeating it–but since most people seem capable of understanding probabilities in everyday life (“Sometimes the stoplight is glitched but usually it isn’t, so I’ll assume the stoplight is functioning properly and obey it,”) if someone suddenly seems incapable of distinguishing between extremely rare and extremely common events in the political realm, then they are doing so on purpose or suffering severe cognitive dissonance.


*Oddly, I solved the problem by giving the kids harder problems. It appears that when their brains are actively engaged with trying to solve the problem, they don’t have time/energy left to come up with alternatives. When the material is too easy (or, perhaps, way too hard) they start trying to get creative to make things more interesting.



The Inverse Motte and Bailey

The Motte and Bailey technique of argumentation basically involves defining a term or concept in a positive way intended to inspire agreement, and then actually using the term in a much less agreed-upon way. A commonly given example is, “Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal,” a statement that probably most Americans (and Westerners) agree with, while actual feminist argue for a great many things that are not covered in the original supposition, like, “Abortion should be legal and easily available for all women, at all points in pregnancy.” Since the vast majority of men don’t even have wombs, abortion legality isn’t exactly something that can fall under the doctrine of “full equality” (whether you like it or not.)

In the Inverse Motte and Bailey, instead of defining the term as something good that everyone likes, you define it as something bad, and then very carefully note that the thing that you are doing does not technically count as this bad thing. Racism is a good example of the Inverse M & B. No one wants to be called a racist–racism is generally regarded as extremely evil, and therefore anything that is racist is extremely evil. So when someone says, “Hey, you’re being really racist,” the general response is, “No, look, see, racism is clearly defined as XYZ, and this thing I am doing is clearly not XYZ, and therefore not racism.”

In the regular motte, the more-difficult to defend position, (say, abortion,) is effectively shielded from some amount of criticism by the easily defended position (“femism = equality”). In the Inverse Motte, the person has to argue that their position doesn’t fall under the easily defeated position.

An argument along these lines that comes up frequently is, “Is hating Islam (or Muslims) racist?”

One side argues that racism is the irrational hatred of races of people based on belief in inherited, racial characteristics, and that Islam is not a race or an inherited characteristic, but just a bunch of beliefs that people freely choose to believe and act on. There is no biological reason compelling Muslim women to wear headscarves–it’s just something people believe they should do. And things people believe are completely up for criticism, just as we criticize people who believe in UFO abductions or like books we think are dumb.

The other side argues that this is all just rationalization, because obviously most humans on earth do not freely choose their religious beliefs (otherwise religions would be randomly distributed and few people would practice the same religion as their parents,) not to mention that apostasy is illegal in many Muslim countries. Religion is an important part of most peoples’ cultural/ethnic identity, so attacking their religion may have the same effect as any other form of attacking peoples’ ethnic identities.

Ah, says the first side, but many anti-Muslim people are themselves ex-Muslims who love Muslim people but hate the religion.

Yes, says side two, but you are not one of these people. You are a white guy from America, so I think you are racist.

In short, Side Two wants to define racism broadly, in order to cover, “That thing you are saying.” Side One wants wants to define racism narrowly, in order to say, “This thing I am saying is definitely not racism.”

Of course, in reality, people are extremely bad at advocating their own positions, so what you actually get is “You’re racist!” “No i’m not, i hate all religions equally!” “Muslims Americans face all kinds of discrimination and it’s horrible!” “Yeah, well, ISIS kills tons of Muslims, don’t you care about all of the Muslims being murdered by other Muslims? I THOUGHT NOT. Clearly you are just posturing and don’t actually care about the evils being perpetrated against Muslims.” “Israel is a Nazi state committing genocide against Palestine and the UN should nuke it!”

Anyway, I feel like I still need a conclusion, but I’m getting really tired and can’t really think of one.
Supply your own!