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Reasoning Skills and Jumping to Conclusions Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 29, 2011

Biased Generalizations

On a local TV program, you hear that a recent poll shows that 85 percent of people surveyed support drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If most Americans feel this way, you think that maybe you should rethink your position on the issue. Unfortunately, what you haven't been told is that the only people who were surveyed for this poll were employees of major oil companies.

The problem with a survey like this is that the pool of people it surveyed was biased. Think about it for a moment. Employees of oil companies are going to favor drilling for oil because it will generate revenue for the oil companies, which in turn means job security for the employees. Therefore, the conclusion that the majority of Americans favor drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is biased as well. It's based on a survey of biased respondents and, as a result, cannot be considered representative of Americans as a whole.

Biased generalizations can be made without using surveys as well. Any conclusion based on the testimony of someone who is biased is a biased generalization. For example, imagine you tell a friend that you're taking a class next fall with Professor Jenkins.

"Professor Jenkins?!" your friend replies. "She's terrible. I got an F in her class."

Should your friend's reaction change your mind about taking the class? Probably not. Your reasoning skills should tell you that your friend's conclusion about Professor Jenkins might be biased. If he got an F in her class, he isn't likely to have a very good opinion of her.

Let's look at another example. Read the following inductive argument carefully:

All of my friends say fraternities are a waste of time. So I guess you shouldn't bother trying to join one if you don't want to waste your time.

How could this be a biased generalization? Write your answer below.

If this conclusion is based on evidence from biased sources, then the generalization (the conclusion) is biased. For example, if those friends who say that fraternities are a waste of time are also friends who had wanted to be in a fraternity but had not been invited to join, then they're likely to have a negative (biased) opinion of fraternities. Hence, their conclusion would be biased.

On the other hand, how could this be a reliable inductive argument? Write your answer below.

If all the friends were members of a fraternity, then this would be a much more reliable conclusion. If all the friends were members of different fraternities rather than the same one, it'd be even more reliable; their conclusion would represent a broader range of experience.

To avoid being biased, then, conclusions should be drawn only from a sample that's truly representative of the subject at hand. An inductive argument about student involvement on campus, for example, should be based on evidence from all types of students, not just those on the Student Affairs Committee.

Non Sequitur

A non sequitur is a conclusion that does not follow logically from its premises. The problem with this fallacy is that too much of a jump is made between the premises and the conclusion. Here's an example:

Johnson is a good family man. Therefore, he will be a good politician.

It's great that Johnson is a good family man, but his devotion to his family does not necessarily mean that he'll be a good politician. Notice that this argument assumes that the qualities that make "a good family man" also make a good politician—and that's not necessarily, or even probably, the case. Many good family men are lousy politicians, and many good politicians are not particularly devoted to their families. The argument makes a leap—a big one—that defies logic. It's certainly possible that Johnson will be a good politician, but solely judging from the premises, it's not likely.

Here's another example of a non sequitur:

Josie is left-handed, so she'd be a good artist.

This non sequitur assumes that left-handed people are more artistic than right-handed people. This may sometimes be true, but it is not always the case. Furthermore, even if she is artistic, being a good artist requires inspiration and dedication, and we have no evidence that Josie has those qualities. Therefore, we can't logically conclude that Josie will be a good artist.

Here's one more:

You like cats. Cathy is a cat person, too, so you'll get along well.

What's wrong with this argument? Here, the arguer assumes that because you and Cathy are both "cat people," you will get along. But just because you both like cats doesn't mean you'll like each other. It's another non sequitur.

Some non sequiturs follow the pattern of reversing the premise and conclusion. Read the following argument, for example:

People who succeed always have clear goals. Sandra has clear goals, so she'll succeed.

Here's the argument broken down:

    Premise 1:   People who succeed always have clear goals.
    Premise 2:   Sandra has clear goals.
    Conclusion:   Sandra will succeed.

Though at first glance, the example may seem reasonable, in actuality, it doesn't make logical sense. That's because premise 2 and the conclusion reverse the claim set forth in premise 1. When parts of a claim are reversed, the argument does not stay the same. It's like saying that geniuses often have trouble in school, so someone who is having trouble in school is going to be a genius, and that's just not logical.

In Sandra's case, your critical thinking and reasoning skills should also tell you that simply because she set clear goals for herself doesn't mean they'll be achieved; hard work and dedication are also factors in the formula for success. Furthermore, the definition of success is something everyone determines for him or herself.

Tip

Assuming almost always gets a person in trouble. Think twice—or even three times—before you jump to conclusions. You may regret the trip.

Reasoning Skills and Jumping to Conclusions In Short

When it comes to inductive arguments, you need to be on the lookout for three kinds of logical fallacies. Hasty generalizations draw conclusions from too little evidence. Biased generalizations, on the other hand, draw conclusions from biased evidence. Finally, non sequiturs jump to conclusions that defy logic; they make assumptions that don't hold water.

Skill Building until Next Time

  • The next time you meet someone for the first time, be aware of how you form an opinion of him or her. Do you jump to conclusions, or do you wait until you've gathered more evidence to decide whether or not he or she would make a good friend or colleague?
  • Teach a friend what you learned in this lesson. Give your friend a few of your own examples of the three fallacies.

Exercises for this concept can be found at Jumping to Conclusion Help.

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