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The noncentral fallacy - the worst argument in the world?

157 Yvain 27 August 2012 03:36AM

Related to: Leaky Generalizations, Replace the Symbol With The Substance, Sneaking In Connotations

David Stove once ran a contest to find the Worst Argument In The World, but he awarded the prize to his own entry, and one that shored up his politics to boot. It hardly seems like an objective process.

If he can unilaterally declare a Worst Argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member."

Call it the Noncentral Fallacy. It sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, anyway?

It sounds dumb only because we are talking soberly of categories and features. As soon as the argument gets framed in terms of words, it becomes so powerful that somewhere between many and most of the bad arguments in politics, philosophy and culture take some form of the noncentral fallacy. Before we get to those, let's look at a simpler example.

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: "But Martin Luther King was a criminal!"

Any historian can confirm this is correct. A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and King knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest - hence his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is the noncentral. The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. Since we don't like these things, calling someone a "criminal" naturally lowers our opinion of them.

The opponent is saying "Because you don't like criminals, and Martin Luther King is a criminal, you should stop liking Martin Luther King." But King doesn't share the important criminal features of being driven by greed, preying on the innocent, or weakening the fabric of society that made us dislike criminals in the first place. Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King.

This all seems so nice and logical when it's presented in this format. Unfortunately, it's also one hundred percent contrary to instinct: the urge is to respond "Martin Luther King? A criminal? No he wasn't! You take that back!" This is why the noncentral is so successful. As soon as you do that you've fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it's about whether King was a criminal. Since he was, you have now lost the argument.

Ideally, you should just be able to say "Well, King was the good kind of criminal." But that seems pretty tough as a debating maneuver, and it may be even harder in some of the cases where the noncentral Fallacy is commonly used.

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The Virtue of Narrowness

56 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 August 2007 05:57PM

What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world.
       —Twelve Virtues of Rationality 

Within their own professions, people grasp the importance of narrowness; a car mechanic knows the difference between a carburetor and a radiator, and would not think of them both as "car parts".  A hunter-gatherer knows the difference between a lion and a panther.  A janitor does not wipe the floor with window cleaner, even if the bottles look similar to one who has not mastered the art.

Outside their own professions, people often commit the misstep of trying to broaden a word as widely as possible, to cover as much territory as possible.  Is it not more glorious, more wise, more impressive, to talk about all the apples in the world?  How much loftier it must be to explain human thought in general, without being distracted by smaller questions, such as how humans invent techniques for solving a Rubik's Cube.  Indeed, it scarcely seems necessary to consider specific questions at all; isn't a general theory a worthy enough accomplishment on its own?

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