David Weinberger has an intriguing post up today about the “Fallacy of Examples“. He’s reacting to a column from Nick Kristof in the New York Times titled “The Luckiest Girl“, which recounts the story of Beatrice Biira, a young woman from Uganda whose improbable journey through Connecticut College began with the donation of a goat to her family through Heifer International.
David finds the story moving – how could you not! – but points out that Biira’s amazing journey is hardly a typical outcome of livestock donation programs. Indeed, the reason Kristof is telling it is that it’s so remarkable. And that may be something of a problem:
I’ve noticed in business writing in particular the frequency of what we can call the Fallacy of Examples (a type of Fallacy of Hasty Generalization). You read some story about a successful CEO as if we should learn from his (yes, usually it’s a him) example. But we are struck by examples frequently because they’re exceptional. As exceptions, examples are the last thing you want to learn from.
Not always, though. Sometimes examples are typical. That’s different. The trick is determining which are which.
The problem of deciding whether an example is typical or exceptional struck me as resonant with Clay Shirky’s new (brilliant, must-read, go buy it now) book Here Comes Everybody. Throughout the book, Clay points out that online communities tend to experience a power-law (Pareto) distribution of participation. If you attempt to generalize about the group as a whole from the most prolific participants, you’re going to misunderstand what’s going on.
This is a predictable misunderstanding – we appear to have a tendency to assume that people we encounter are distributed on a bell curve. Fly into Amsterdam and you’ll notice that there are a lot of tall people around. Spend a day or two and you’ll likely conclude that Dutch people are tall, significantly taller than Americans. This turns out to be true – Dutch people are now roughly two inches taller than their American counterparts, likely due to a better diet and excellent state-subsidized healthcare – your extrapolation from a few data points is a pretty accurate one.
Try a different experiment – watch some American TV and try to extrapolate the bell curve of body type in the US. You’re going to get it wrong, and you’re going to feel fat, no matter how skinny you happen to be. People on American television aren’t a bell curve distribution in term of weight – they’re way, way out on an extreme. Media critics suggest that the relentless repetition of images of underweight actresses has a negative impact on young women, leading them to aspire to extreme body types.
Here’s the thing – it’s lots easier to write about extreme examples rather than median ones. (It’s probably easier to watch extremely thin people on TV than ones of median weight as well.) Stories of prolific wikipedians, alpha bloggers or brilliant flickr photographers are more interesting than stories about someone who set up a LiveJournal, posted five times then gave up… which is lots more typical. And Biira’s story is far more compelling than the story of a girl whose family got a goat, and is slightly better fed than the median Ugandan, but who didn’t get to go to school. This, unfortunately, is probably closer to the median effect of livestock donation – not a bad thing, by any means, but not wholly transformative.
The answer to the Fallacy of Examples is not to stop giving examples. Human beings need stories to be interested in issues – that appears to be how we’re wired to take in information. Joi Ito, writing about the recent Global Voices summit, talks about how personal stories can help solve “the caring problem”, making international incidents relavent to audiences who might not care about this news otherwise. Kristof needs to tell us about Biira to get us interested in livestock donation – we’re not going to pay attention without a human story to hold onto.
(Indeed, some critics point out that livestock donation is a form of storytelling as well. Your $120 isn’t buying a goat – it’s a way of getting you to donate to an agricultural charity which will use your money to provision livestock, but also to pay staff salaries, fundraising expenses, etc. The story of giving a goat to a poor family convinces you to give, and perhaps to give more than you otherwise would.)
The solution may be to try to contextualize the story – is the example given an ordinary or an extraordinary one? Kristof signals this with his title, making it clear that Biira is an extraordinary case. But the story would probably be a fairer one with a more representative, median example, offered as a contrast. If you buy a goat for a Ugandan child, you’re probably not going to send a young woman to college… but you just might. It’s hard for me to blame Kristof for telling this amazing story, but it makes me wonder how many unconcious and inaccurate generalizations I’m making every day, looking at extremes and unconciously assuming they’re medians.