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Monday, October 31, 2011

Fallacies: Some Problems of Thinking About Infants and Children

It can be quite hard to think straight about child development, and even harder to think about practical child-related issues like parenting and teaching. One problem is that each of us individually (even teachers) can know only a limited number of children in our lifetimes--- yet we want to use that small number of children to generalize and come to conclusions about millions of children. Another problem is that even when we read about empirical research, or when we do it ourselves, so we have a lot of information, it still doesn’t work to make a prediction about an individual child on the basis of data summarized statistically. These problems make it awfully tempting to jump to conclusions from the information we have. Our jumps don’t always land us on solid ground.

I’m going to describe some fallacies, or errors in reasoning, that are all too easy to make when wrestling with complicated material about child development. Keep in mind that these have nothing to do with whether the basic facts are straight, although getting the facts wrong is obviously a problem too. Fallacies are mistakes we make in drawing conclusions even from correct information.

The ecological fallacy involves assuming that information about a large number of children can give us an accurate prediction about a single other individual. For example, in a recent series of articles, several psychologists have suggested that research work on the Strange Situation as a measure of attachment can justify using the Strange Situation to make a decision in a child custody conflict. Although no one would be justified in dismissing research evidence as a way to think about the family situation, it is fallacious to claim that what was found statistically in a study of a number of children will also be true of a single individual. The statistical findings were calculated from a set of measurements which were different from each other, and no single one of them may have been exactly equal to the calculated statistics. (But this does not mean that it is useless to compare an individual child to characteristics of a group, as is done in calculating the height or weight of a child relative to growth norms.)

The post hoc fallacy is the assumption that if one thing happened after another, the first thing to happen must have caused the second event. (In some cases, of course, the first did cause the second; the error is to think that it must have done so.) This is a common error of reasoning about child development. In its broadest form, it leads to the belief that because childhood happens first and everything else happens later, events in childhood must be the cause of all adult events such as happy or unhappy marriages, success or failure in school, and abusive or nonabusive treatment of one’s own children. By this reasoning, infancy and early childhood are of necessity more important periods than later childhood, as suggested by Bruce Perry and many others. A specific recent example of the post hoc fallacy is the belief that if adolescents who behave violently have been engaged in violent video games, the games are necessarily the cause of the violent behavior. (This idea was in fact shown in the syndicated comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” this morning, which suggests that it’s now something “everybody knows”.)

The misleading vividness fallacy involves the assumption that an event that is experienced, remembered, or imagined with many vivid details and strong emotional implications is more likely to cause an important outcome than events that are remembered or imagined vaguely or without much associated emotion. One special issue for child development discussions is that adults who would experience a strong reaction to an event right now are likely to attribute that same strong reaction to an infant who experienced a similar event. For example, an adult who can experience or imagine vividly a powerful reaction to abandonment or separation from a loved one may incorrectly attribute the same kind of reaction to a newborn baby; this attribution may lead the adult to assume that an experience of separation for a newborn was not only emotionally vivid but must of necessity be the cause of important life outcomes.

The genetic fallacy (nothing to do with heredity!) reasons that the origin of an idea provides the proof of its correctness. A common form of this fallacy looks at beliefs as proposed by one’s grandmother, a member of the clergy, or an experienced foster parent, and takes the sterling qualities of the sources to be evidence that what they say must always be correct. For example, when I was asked to discuss a problem with a young foster mother some years ago, I found she was far from interested in my attempts to re-frame a foster child’s bad behavior; she responded, “My grandmother says something different, and she goes to church every Sunday, so I think she’s right.” The genetic fallacy also applies to situations where people take a position because “I was always taught…” or “in my family they say…”. As in other fallacious reasoning, of course, the claim about child development may be correct, but it is not correct because of its origins--- other evidence must exist to show that it is correct.

If you are in an argument with somebody about a child development issue, don’t expect to be able to win by demonstrating a list of fallacies your opponent has committed! That strategy will just make them madder and more intransigent. The usefulness of looking for fallacious reasoning is really in our individual examinations of our own beliefs. It’s hard for most of us, including me, to ignore vivid experiences, for example, and there’s so much post hoc reasoning around that we can easily be sucked into it. But if we all examined our own beliefs more carefully--- well, we might be able to improve our thinking, and the world along with it.

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