Generalizing: Learn the Lessons of History, But Which Ones?

A few months before Katrina, I grabbed one of the first Mardi Gras parades in a rural town outside New Orleans. Race relations there seemed different from those here in Northern California. Blacks were more outgoing and friendly to whites, and yet there also appeared to be more racial segregation. In the parade, the floats and groups were rigorously analyzed.

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The only integration I found was several clusters of black and white teenagers. I watched a policeman go out of the way to harass a black youth who had been hanging out with a few white women.As I was heading back to my car I saw one set by a 7-11 and thought to ask them directly about the condition of race relations. A white woman spoke to them all,”Oh, it’s getting better. The police still offer you a hard time but it is not bad.” The woman called me back. she asked.”Are they still letting gays marry there? ‘Cause I believe that is so disgusting.”OK, not entirely like-minded. She had learned a lesson about bigotry, but she hadn’t generalized it. Me, I’ve seen enough instances of damaging bigotry to extrapolate into a universal pattern. Bigotry against blacks, Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, gays-I get it-no bigotry is okay. What you do not do to elephants you do not do to gays either.In this election I am trusting a disenchanted country will do some careful generalizing. Too much attention on Bush and Cheney’s bad character distracts us from queries about what makes them poor. Should we conclude that they are just bad apples, then what is to stop equally counterproductive individuals with different names and faces from taking their locations?Everyone says,”Individuals who don’t understand the lessons of history are forced to repeat it,” but if this statement doesn’t miss the point entirely, it just barely grazes it. Sure, we should attempt to find out lessons-but the true question is that course, what generalizations? From Stalin and Hitler should we generalize to no more leaders with mustaches? No more short men and women?What we want, obviously, would be to interrogate lessons from history that end up paying in the future. Regrettably, although that’s a great goal, it is useless as a guideline. The future is not here yet, so you can not use it straight to direct your generalizations.Still, our society’s accelerated progress over the last few centuries is largely a product of civilization realizing the appropriate generalization is the name of the sport. Science and engineering are largely tries to systematize the process of successful generalization. In the hope of boosting this process, however slightly, here are a few generalizations about generalization applied to the coming election.Undergeneralizing: Sometimes we fail to learn because we don’t generalize at all. Bush voters who criticize the president have a tendency to shield their votes. Gore, Kerry, and the whole liberal agenda would have been much worse. McCain will fix things. Abu Ghraib? A few bad low-level soldiers. There’s nothing to understand, no generalization to be drawn.When McCain stated the financial problem was caused by greedy people on Wall Street and the response was to fire the head of the SEC, he sounded like unsophisticated leftists I knew in the’70s. The problem is a few greedy people leading big corporations. Replace them with un-greedy folks like me and it’ll all be groovy.Overgeneralizing: Litmus-test radicals believe they have found the one or two variables from which you can generalize to everything you need to know about a candidate. A Christian? Anti-abortion? For homosexual marriage? Divorced? A loyal partner? For change? A traditionalist? The Sufis say,”He who’s burnt by hot milk blows on ice cream” Not many dairy products will burn you. And not all Christians are great leaders. To litmus-test radicals on the left or the right, specialist status isn’t earned through careful evaluation but through passionate self-certainty. They’ve found the 1 cause that things. It’s a priority not because they have compared it to other issues but since they may make an impassioned argument for its intrinsic and isolated merit. “But do not you see, it is a basic right!” Certainly it is the tonic.Generalization serves two masters. We hope to learn history’s real classes so we don’t have to repeat them. The other is our present gut instinct, which unquestionably prefers some lessons to other people. The alcoholic’s future self wishes to avoid future hangovers, but the alcoholic’s gut doesn’t wish to detect that those hangovers are caused by alcohol instead of tonic.Most Republicans do not seem to want to consider the possibility that they’ve had a substantial chance to try their ideas out in the real world and that in general those thoughts don’t do the job too as they’d hoped. Only this week, days after the 700 billion bailout was announced, I was probing a right-wing buddy about the core values and principles that push his beliefs. He is for the bailout as the lesser of 2 evils. On core values, though, he told me something he knows for sure. The same friend tells me that he relishes arguing with liberals like me because our arguments are so weak and implausible. He is the 2nd conservative to tell me that this month. In other words, we generalize poorly. We’re either slow learners or we are driven to our generalizations by our gut instincts, maybe not our logical thoughts as they are.Psychological research* indicates that we all generalize via two parallel methods, the logical mind and the gut, and that the gut predominates. The gut is quicker acting than the rational mind. It is often right or we wouldn’t survive. But there is lots of proof that the gut makes it wrong consistently on key matters.Ideally, therefore, we’d be rational about when to use our gut instincts and should be rational. One of the more troubling findings so is strong evidence that most of us assume we’re more rational than we actually are. We interpret gut instincts as logical instincts. Guts have the upper hand. Our guts tell us our rational thoughts are telling us that our rational minds are generalizing from the evidence and not our guts. We generalize incorrectly about our generalizing performance and ability.Me and all of my Obama-supporting friends contained. We assume we are the logical ones. Given the psychological evidence regarding everyone’s capability to interpret their own interpretive prowess, we are disqualified as authorities on the topic of our own rationality. So are our both gut-motivated Republican detractors. Really, posterity receives the final word on whose generalizing abilities were greatest. It alone knows how skillful individuals were in generalizing to the ideal course of history to find out rather than the wrong ones. Unfortunately it was not unavailable for comment at the time of this writing.For a great new survey of the findings, check out Nudge: Improving decisions about health wealth and pleasure. I’m an evolutionary epistemologist, meaning a research and teacher focused on the ways we all generalize, drawing conclusions from inconclusive data, shopping among interpretations of signs, theorizing and applying abstractions if we understand it or not. I look at how we do this stuff and how we can do it even better.I’ve worked in companies, non-profits and professors. My Ph.D. is in Evolutionary Epistemology and that I also have a Masters in public policy. I’ve written a few e-books including”Negotiate Together and Win! I’ve taught college-level psychology, sociology, Western History, theology, philosophy and English. I am currently a research collaborator using Berkeley professor Terrence Deacon in what is called Emergence concept: How life originates from non-life and the way things change as it does. The road to living well is not through finding something ceaseless to hold on to or letting go of what as some spiritualists suggest, but in handling and enjoying the strain, especially through the arts and sciences. Philosophically and interpersonally, I’m an Ambigamist: Deeply romantic and deeply skeptical.I am working on a few new books:”Doubt: A User’s Guide,””Purpose: A Natural History,””The Problem with People: Steps Toward An Objective Definition of Butthead (not only anyone with whom you butt heads)” and”Zoom Meditations: The Artwork of Multi-Level-Headedness.”

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