In- Formal Inductive Generalizations

Because professionals using modern techniques can make bad statistical generalizations through biased sampling, it is not surprising that our everyday, in- formal inductive generalizations are often inaccurate. Sometimes we go astray because of small samples and biased samples. This happens, for example, when we form opinions about what people think or what people are like by asking only our friends. But bias can affect our reasoning in other ways as well.

One of the main sources of bias in everyday life is prejudice. Even if we sample a wide enough range of cases, we often reinterpret what we hear or see in light of some preconception. People who are prejudiced will find very little good and a great deal bad in those they despise, no matter how these people actually behave. In fact, most people are a mixture of good and bad qualities. By ignoring the former and dwelling on the latter, it is easy enough for a prejudiced person to confirm negative opinions. Similarly, stereo types, which can be either positive or negative, often persist in the face of overwhelming counterevidence. Criticizing the beliefs common in Britain in his own day, David Hume remarked:

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An Irishman cannot have wit, and a Frenchman cannot have solidity; for which reason, though the conversation of the former in any instance be very agreeable, and of the latter very judicious, we have entertained such a prejudice against them, that they must be dunces and fops in spite of sense and reason.3

Although common stereotypes have changed somewhat since Hume’s day, prejudice continues to distort the beliefs of many people in our own time.

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