Critical Thinking Tip: Use Precise Language; Don't Inaccurately Generalize

Photo: geralt/Pixabay

Photo: geralt/Pixabay


A commonly-overlooked critical thinking tip is speaking with precision and not inaccurately generalizing about a group. These two things are related but not identical.

This critical thinking tip is obviously non-partisan and extends across the entire ideological spectrum. That said, our first example features Ben Shapiro talking about the left.


"I also think that if you are looking to be offended, then you are going to find something to be offended about, the latest iteration is: Cosmo has put out a piece by the Redbook editors that says that you should not allow your child, your daughter, to dress as Moana for Halloween. Moana is, of course, the Polynesian princess from the self-titled movie Moana. In any case, the original article, written by Sachi Feris, discusses how her white daughter was torn between dressing as Elsa from Frozen or the titular character from Moana. Feris expresses concern that while an Elsa costume might reinforce notions of white privilege, dressing up as Moana is essentially cultural appropriation, the act of reducing someone's culture to stereotypes and thereby belittling it. Though Feris puzzles over how one might wear a Moana costume respectfully, she ultimately decides it just isn't a good idea. 

So let's get this straight: The left is saying: Your daughter can't dress up as a Polynesian girl that she admires, because that's bad, because something. We can't have heroes that are cross-cultural. We just can't do it. Jews have to dress up like Jews. White folks who are not Jewish or or Italian or German have to dress up like those people. Basically, dress up as yourself is the Halloween advice from the left this year for white people."


Notice what he does wrong here: He's reading from and criticizing one particular article written in Cosmopolitan magazine, but he uses it as if it's representative of the views of the left, generally. 

Ben doesn't say: "This particular person is arguing." He doesn't say: "This person on the left is saying."

He says: "The left is saying."

When did the left, as a group, come together and elect this particular person as their representative? This author doesn't represent the left; they represent themself. They aren't enunciating the official Halloween costume views of the left; they are enunciating their own personal views on the subject. 

And it's especially ridiculous that he portrays an author in Cosmo as representing the left, because it's not like this is some kind of authoritative, liberal think-tank. As they describe themself, Cosmopolitan magazine is "Your source for the latest sex tips, celebrity news, dating and relationship help, beauty tutorials, fashion trends, and more." This isn't exactly the Bernie Sanders campaign website.

I don't know about you guys, but when I'm looking for sound, liberal policy analysis, I pick up the nearest Cosmopolitan magazine and start reading.

If this was some kind of elected government representative that people on the left came together and agreed, as a majority, that he should represent our views in government, then he would have more credibility in speaking this way. But when you're reading from a magazine that specializes in make-up tips and "six new ways to please your man," this kind of language is absurd.

What about people on the left who disagree with these views? I'm on the left; I'm not saying these things—because I don't care about Halloween costumes. If the left says this, and I'm on the left, why don't I say this? Am I not a walking refutation by counter-example?

You might say, "Well, of course, not literally every person on the left says this, but a large portion of the left does." How large of a portion? And how do you know this? How large of a portion is large enough to justify describing the group as a whole, or the group generally, in this way? How do we go about deciding which views characterize a group? And how do we even know that that's what Ben meant here? When a person says "the left thinks this," do they mean a majority? A vast majority? The entirety? There is no specificity build into this kind of language, so it gives birth to alternative and contradictory interpretations. The most foolproof way to speak with precision about a group is to consult the available polling data—something that people, far too often, fail to do.

And it just so happens that Gallup conducted a study in 2016 entitled "Free Expression on Campus: A Survey of U.S. College Students and U.S. Adults." This particular study gathered polling data on the question of offensive Halloween costumes. They asked college students:


"Do you think colleges should or should not be able to establish policies that restrict each of the following types of speech or expression on campus? How about . . . wearing costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic minorities?"


They found that 72% of Democrats said yes, they should be able to restrict these, compared to 56% of Republicans.

So a majority of the college-aged left and right, according to this polling data, favor restricting offensive Halloween costumes. Data for other age groups might vary—and ideally, for the question at hand, we might want to find polling data that doesn't restrict itself to one particular age group—but from this study, we see that there's certainly not the sharp partisan divide we might expect to see if we got all of our information about this issue from The Ben Shapiro Show. For the sake of simplicity, let's just extrapolate this polling data, perhaps inaccurately, to the rest of the left and right, and say that these percentages would be about the same across all age groups.  

When 28% of Democrats, almost a third, don't support a particular viewpoint, is it fair to describe the left, generally, as holding this view? When only 16% more Democrats than Republicans hold this view—with a majority in both cases holding the view—does it make any sense to frame this viewpoint as exclusive to the left? Could we not easily clear up any confusion and inaccuracy by simply glancing at the available polling data?

Some might say, at this point: "This approach is just too pedantic and technical for ordinary conversations; you're asking too much of people." But I really don't think so. This takes one Google search and a few extra words. Instead of saying "the left thinks this," all that speaking with precision requires is saying "about three quarters of people on the left think this." 

Nobody is asking you to bore your listeners to death by painstakingly providing them with utterly irrelevant details. There's no need for the average person to spend 15 minutes carefully detailing the methodology of a poll that they're citing. This critical thinking tip just means to use the degree of precision that's required to speak with accuracy about a given topic.

And you can cover the basics of polling methodology in a sentence, so it's not like people are going to start falling asleep on you when you say: "Gallup polled college students in 2016 and found that 72% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans favor restricting offensive Halloween costumes on campus." Saying that this is asking too much of people is just not a serious argument.

(If you're a real stickler for the details, you may have noticed that this Gallup polling data doesn't assess the exact question that the Cosmo article discusses: whether parents should allow their children to dress up as the Disney princess Moana versus whether college campuses should allow Halloween costumes that stereotype racial or ethnic groups. But these questions are closely related enough that I think it's reasonable to assume we'd see a high degree of concordance between a person's answers to both. Ideally, we'd want to find polling data on the exact question at hand. When that's not available, get as close to that question as you can, because that data can still be at least somewhat informative.) 

I think it is important to ask, at what point is it fair and reasonable to describe a group, generally, as holding a certain view? Is there a certain percentage threshold that justifies speaking in this way? If 80% of a group agrees with something, can we then describe the group as holding this view? What about or 90% or 95%? Even in these cases, are we still not leaving out of the discussion and misrepresenting the subset that doesn't hold these views? I think, in all cases, the best path is to speak with precision. You simply cannot go wrong by being specific and accurate. Cite percentages, or even just use words like "most, a majority, the vast majority," and so forth, and you're on the right track. Or if the group is of a sort that you can apply labels to the different subsets—such as young-earth creationists, fundamentalist Chrsitians, extremist Muslims, and so forth—then use those more specific labels so as to avoid any confusion and to make clear which portion of the group you're talking about.

I should also point out that there's nothing wrong with using one particular person's argument as an example of what we see from a group and analyzing it accordingly; the problem is using a viewpoint as representative of that group without first establishing that it actually does represent that group. Simply asserting, without evidence, that it does, is not good enough. 

This does depend upon the nature of the group in question, because certain groups, by definition, will hold certain views, such as young-earth creationists. It's fair to talk about this group as a whole believing in a God, believing in creationism, believing that the earth and universe are 6,000 years old, because holding these beliefs is what it is to be a young-earth creationist. But other, more broad groups, such as Republicans, are going to hold a much more diverse set of beliefs, so more care is required to talk about this group accurately.

This critical thinking tip extends beyond just accurately describing groups; it also applies to the basic language we use when communicating our ideas. Let's take a look at another example, in this case, a YouTube comment that I stumbled across. 

First, some context. This was a reply to a comment of mine in which I originally expressed skepticism towards the Trump-Russia narrative and pointed out that Kyle Kulinski, Glenn Greenwald, and Jill Stein were basically in the same boat as me.

YouTube user "Dan Sanger" said the following:


"Kulinski and Greenwald aren't good company. They're bad company. So is Stein. She's just as much Putin's bitch as Trump is. The Green Party of Russia BEGGED Stein not to be so cozy with Putin. That she decided to throw in with a corrupt fascist says a lot about her moral integrity."


I saw this comment and responded by saying the following: "This is just a parade of weasel words that you've trotted out."

And for those who don't know, Wikipedia defines weasel words as "words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that a specific or meaningful statement has been made, when instead only a vague or ambiguous claim has actually been communicated. This can enable the speaker to later deny the specific meaning if the statement is challenged."

So I said:


"This is just a parade of weasel words that you've trotted out. 'Putin's bitch . . . cozy with Putin . . . decided to throw in with Putin' . . . This is extremely vague language that you're using.

. . . What evidence do you have to support the claim that Stein is 'Putin's bitch'? And what, exactly, do you mean by that? Be specific, here. Do you mean that she simply defends him? Do you mean that she's being paid large amounts of money by him to do and say certain things? Explain what you mean and prove it."


This YouTube comment illustrates why it's important to use precise language. If I don't even know what it is that you believe and are advocating, how can we talk about it? How can we productively debate something if I don't even know what that thing is? Are we debating Jill Stein merely being a useful idiot? Are we debating her being financially corrupted by Vladimir Putin himself, or perhaps by people associated with him? Are we debating her agreeing with his views? Publicly endorsing his actions? Your guess is as good as mine.

When a person uses vague language like this, it prevents a clear and focused discussion from taking place because the specific topic of discussion hasn't really even been announced yet. And this, of course, can lead to people talking past each other, to accusations of misrepresentation and putting words in one's mouth, and so forth. Being clear about what exactly it is that you're saying eliminates these problems and paves the way for a potentially productive conversation, or at least a conversation in which both parties understand what it is that the other person is arguing in favor of.

Although I've already touched on some of these throughout the post, it's worth spelling out the many benefits to using precise language.

As I just pointed out, this critical thinking tip helps to keep people from wasting their time by talking past each other or putting words in their opponent's mouth because they weren't specific enough about what they were saying. It ultimately lays the groundwork for a productive dialogue. 

And it can also lead us to have a different kind of conversation from the one we otherwise would have had. For example, if both sides took for granted that the left thinks X about Halloween costumes, perhaps the conversation would devolve into a standard left vs. right pissing contest. But if we instead started by pointing out that about 75% of the left compared to 50% of the right thinks X, then maybe the conversation would be about the merits of the ideas themselves rather than about which group is superior. 

Or, alternatively, instead of bickering about what percent of what groups support a particular viewpoint, if a person just accurately represented the group the first time around, we could save ourselves the trouble of arguing about the numbers and instead talk about the core issue at hand. How many conversations about Islamic terrorism have you seen hijacked and derailed at the outset because a person came forward with "Well, not all Muslims act this way or believe these things."

This is the bread and butter of Islamic apologists, and we could deny them the opportunity to make this point and sideline the more important conversation by simply distinguishing between extremist Muslims and moderate Muslims. "Yeah, not all Muslims commit or sanction acts of terrorism, and that's why I specifically said extremist Muslims, so can we now talk about the link between Islamic beliefs and acts of violence?"

Another benefit to using this critical thinking tip is that performing the required research educates us and fills us more with more knowledge—knowledge that we can transmit to other people who might have been unaware of the polling data or pieces of confirmatory evidence until we plainly spelled it out to them.

Communicating accurately also reduces the number of easily-avoidable mistakes we'll make. It can also reveal inaccuracies in the way that we think about people or groups. For example, instead of seizing upon one anecdote as confirmation of your view of a particular group, if you researched how prevalent that belief or behavior actually was among the group in question, you might discover that a significant portion of the group doesn't actually think or act this way. Or, alternatively, if you had some vaguely negative view about a person—if you felt like a politician might somehow be in cahoots with another nation's leader—but then asked yourself: "What, exactly, is it that I believe about this person, and how do I know that it's true?", you might quickly discover that you don't actually know what you're talking about. 

The careless usage of language is preceded by careless thinking. The thought and research required to speak with precision ultimately provides us with a more rational and realistic worldview and set of arguments. 

This critical thinking tip has a lot of benefits, and hopefully, going forward, you will try your best to use it.