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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

General truths are generally true

Posted by Scott Tibbs at 4:00 AM (#)

I recently read an article that made the point that one thing is statistically better than another thing for a select group of people. Someone interviewed in the article argued that the general truth is not true because of exceptions X and Y. This illogical "argument" is typical of our unfortunate tendency as a culture to deny general truths.

(I am not addressing that specific issue in this blog post, because that is not the point I am trying to make here.)

It is true that in the case of exceptions X and Y, the thing being considered is not preferable. However, exceptions are just that: Exceptions to the rule. Showing that there is an exception to a general truth does not invalidate a general truth. The existence of those exceptions only serves to prove that the general truth is not universally true. It is possible for something to be generally true without being universally true.

I have caught myself doing this many times, and I still do this. If I do not like a general truth or I do not want it to apply to me, I immediately start thinking of the various exceptions to show that the general truth is not always true. Even when I am arguing a point that is generally true, I feel compelled to recognize the exceptions to that general truth to pre-empt the inevitable "but what about X" responses.

But this is a poor rhetorical tool and, quite frankly, is a childish way to argue your point. It is often intended to sidetrack a legitimate discussion with a red herring. It is one thing to attempt to prove that what is presented as a general truth is actually not generally true, but pointing to exceptions (especially statistically insignificant exceptions) is not something a serious person should use in an argument.

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