Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A common fallacy trap

Time and time again, I see the following fallacy. Someone comes up with a theory of stuttering that fits their experience, and then they automatically believe that their interpretation of facts or theory must be right. Of course, that is fallacious. Why? Because there might be alternative theories that also fits all facts. So which theories is the correct one?

Here is an example. My 95-year old great aunt keeps on telling me that someone stole something from her, and I ask why. She says: Well I had placed my money here and now it is not there anymore. Therefore someone must have stolen the money, and she claims it is her neighbour. Her theory is completely logical, consistent, and fits all the facts. Indeed maybe her neighbour sneaked in to steal, after all the money is not there anymore, he could have jumped over the fence, and he is over-friendly offering her help! Very suspicious. The trouble is of course that there is an alternative theory, namely that at her advanced age of 95 she just simply put the money somewhere else and forgot about it! I told her clearly that while I completely accept her experiences are factual i.e. that she had money, that she cant find it anymore, that the neighbour is overfriendly, I do not share her interpretation of the facts and believe that it is more likely that she forgot about it. She agreed with me. And when I asked her whether she knew some old friend who forgot stuff. She agreed again with me. And then she says: But unfortunately it is not true in my case! ;-)

And the same is true for some theories on stuttering...

1 comment:

Oren said...

This is a great post, Tom. I had exactly the same experience with my late grandmother (even though she was "only" 85 years old). However, I believe there was another reason why my grandma blamed her neighbor ... my grandma merely wanted some attention from her siblings.

Back to science, I believe that some scientists claim that their theory must be right not because they truly believe so, but simply in order to draw attention to their work. While I do not endorse it, I must admit that sometimes it is the best way to make your voice heard. Unfortunately, if you say that your theory MAY explain stuttering, or only explains SOME aspects of the disorder, there are good chances of the theory being disregarded.

The bottom line - maybe the problem is in us? Maybe we should not expect theories to do that much, and accept them instead as limited tools whose main function is in helping us design new experiments?