Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On Scotsman, feminists, and logical fallacies

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas....mine was most definitely lovely.  I got an iPad and a garbage can full of manure.  I'm relatively sure I'm one of only a handful of people on the planet to get that combination of gifts (and love them both!).

Anyway, I recently ran in to an interesting logical issue that I've been mulling over.  

I've done a few posts lately on benevolent sexism and some of the annoying research that tries to assess it lately, but I'd like to make it clear that I am actually a feminist.  While I find some attempts at measuring sexism a little less than intellectually rigorous, I also can't ignore that much of my educated/working mom/non last name changing life is due to those strong women who came before me.

So it was with interest that I read this Quora interview with Gayle McDowell (republished on Slate) on "Why Do Some Women Hate Feminism?".  

In this piece,  she talked about her view of feminism and why it inspired hatred from many people.  

Now the piece itself was good, but not groundbreaking.  What interested me was one of the comments, where someone accused her of engaging in the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.  You can read more about it at the link, but here's the original story that coined the phrase: 
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing". The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing".
I thought this was an interesting accusation.  If taken seriously though, I wondered how this allows anybody to protest any characterization of any group they happen to belong to?  I mean for the moment we're talking about feminists, but nearly every religious/ethnic/cultural group has to defend themselves from people who claim that their group is inherently violent/bigoted/crazy.

What always gets me in these claims is that people want to keep with sweeping generalities rather than even admit the data they'd need to ever make that particular claim provable.  Are feminists out to destroy men?  Well, in order to ever assess that, you'd need to figure out approximately how many women define themselves as feminists (using a population representative sample of course) and then figure out how to assess whether or not they wanted to destroy men.  This would get you in to assessing "hidden" agendas as well, as many would likely not admit it, meaning you'd have to ask tricky questions to sort through it, and likely get some false positives.  That's a lot of work.

Anyway, I'm not a philosopher, but I'd guess the "no true Scotsman" fallacy is one that should be hurled with care.  Group identity is any area where we will almost never have data to back up our feelings, and that needs to be kept in mind.


  1. I have done a great deal of defending groups I belong to along these lines, but I also have some guilt.

    I make accusations about groups only when I have some combination of leaders/important figures/a large percentage of the group making statements or engaging in actions that justify a particular interpretation. Even then, I am likely to qualify or temper my comments. Professional advocates are, after all, paid to be outrageous and function as lightning rods - I only half-mind that. But when the rank-and-fail starts drifting into their rhetoric, I am more likely to be irritating myself.

    I doubt those who disagree with me think I hold back half enough.

    1. I wasn't specifically thinking of politics when I wrote this post, but your comment reminded me of the running debate I've had with several people over how much media figures speak for political parties.

      Are statements by Rush Limbaugh valid Republican beliefs? Glenn Beck? I think more people take them as Republican doctrine than say, Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart's words are taken as reflective of Dem beliefs, but it's an interesting question.