Thursday, December 10, 2009

Are Generalizations Useful?

William Blake noted that "To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize alone is a distinction of merit." Journalism is primarily about anecdotes, witness the Malcom Gladwell phenomenon.

Robin Hanson recently posted an interesting blog post on women using sex as a bargaining chip in marriages. Midge Decter (wife of Norman Podhoretz) noted this in her autobiography, that a woman's main power over men was that they needed sex less than men did, and this actually countered their disadvantage in earnings and strength quite effectively.

Yet, there seemed many feminists unhappy with Hanson's cynical evaluation of male-female relationships. One commenter (a 'sex activist') noted that
it would be nice to see some recognition that women sometimes don’t get as much sex as (or the kind of sex that) they want out of long-term relationships. And that there are men who have considerably more complex experiences of sexuality than you seem to acknowledge here.

So, Robin noted a generalization (women have a propensity to do X more than men), and some women got hysterical (heh) about the insight. Let's be clear. A stereotype is that all A are A. These are generally untrue, because there are exceptions to most assertions (eg, 'men are taller than women'). But generalizations are true and useful. It is useful to know that walking in a dark alley containing a bunch of young men is dangerous for a young woman. Not that all such situations mean bad things will happen, but the odds imply it is not a good idea.

Most things come down to probabilities, and learning to slant them in your favor is part of an intelligent life. For those who think only deterministic relations are interesting, or known facts about individuals, I just can't empathize. I find it a childish view of life. Not that anecdotes and biographies aren't interesting, but they are primarily interesting as how they are relevant to everyone's story, or a metaphor for something larger.


Anonymous said...

Oh please. True, stereotypes are sometimes just useful generalizations and yes "most A are B" is not equivalent to "all A are B." But surely such an astute observer of humanity as yourself has noticed that people are very concerned about their group identities, and that people are often faced with an inherently ambiguous and uncertain world and rely on simple stories and narratives to gain a sense of control of it. As a result, stereotypes are likely to be more than pure statistical generalizations carried out by objective observers.

I have a colleague whose wife appears to be remarkably materialistic. He feels that he makes a good living so that she can enjoy fancy handbags and days at the spa; he wants kids but she isn't convinced that they can afford them. (He makes a decent upper middle-class income; she works in the low-paying fashion industry.) Whenever he talks about her, he inevitably refers to "how women are" or "how New York women are" -- his wife is not unusual in any way, she's just like every woman. Also, did you know that women always blame their bad behavior on their hormones (PMS!) but men are not able to do so? In case it's not clear, this man is not some poor misunderstood statistical genius with a gift for generalization; he is simply a cretin.

And dude? "A woman's main power over men was that they needed sex less than men did, and this actually countered their disadvantage in earnings and strength quite effectively." Well, if Norman Podhertz's wife said it, that seems like quite compelling empirical evidence in favor of a quite straightforward proposition. In early modern England, a very common male complaint about women and wives was that they had insatiable sexual appetites. I guess the development of calculus and statistics in the intervening centuries has allowed man to gain a better sense of the truth.

Anonymous said...

And now I just read that Hanson post a. He gets his head handed to him pretty well after he trots out the lame "I'm just generalizing, do you want me to put in a PC disclaimer in every sentence" comment, although he doesn't seem to realize it.

It would be one thing if Hanson and most of his male commenters were basing their statements on some sort of broad statistical evidence. Then the dismissiveness towards contradictory anecdotes might be justified. But all Hanson and the pro-Hanson commenters have to offer are anecdotes of their own! The blog post revolves around a NYT magazine article for chrissakes and Hanson's questionable interpretation of it. Oh, and I guess there is some evo-psych handwaving thrown in there as well, so that certain experiences can be grounded in "objective fact" while other experiences can be put in the politically correct "random noise" bin. You know, because Hanson has dedicted himself to Overcoming Bias.

Anonymous said...

NNT is going to war with you over this! Prepare to feel the wrath of the black swan!

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