Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Opinion Research and "the Fallacy of Misplaced Concretion"

Twice in recent days I have been called and asked to participate in an opinion survey. The first time I agreed, and soon I was being asked things like "Do you think the country is going in the right direction?" At first I protested that my opinion was more complicated than that but soon learned that the caller would accept only the answers on the survey. We proceeded a while until I finally asked how many more questions there were. She answered that she would read faster! In exasperation I said I did not intend to answer any more question. What is wrong here?

By insisting that all answers be of the yes or no type or at best a multiple choice option, the fullness of the whole is distorted. Reality  (or at least my opinion about it) does not conform to these categories. The assumption behind them  commits what  A. N. Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concretion (FMC), to wit, an abstraction is made from a totality and the abstraction is identified  with the whole concrete reality in all its complexity and with all its ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions (a paradox is a contradiction when used by a theologian).

My refusal to answer in the simplistic terms offered annoyed me and frustrated the questioner, who was only doing what she was told.

The second time I just said no and ended the matter.

Is the country going in the right direction? Yes, in my opinion, in some respects, e. g., the changing attitudes toward gays and lesbians. In other respects, in my view, we are going in the wrong direction, e. g., toward a more dysfunctional politics and  a meaner  less civil society. A mere yes or no will not suffice, unless we are willing to commit the dreaded fallacy. In letters to the editor, radio talk shows, TV punditry, sermons, and daily conversations, the FMC is committed a lot!

The best these surveys can do is to assess a general mood regarding what the respondents feel is the most important factor to them at the moment, a sort of  universalized gut feeling about things.
The next time I am called, I think I will say just say no and refer them to my blog site.

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