The Fallacy of Difference, in Science and Art


by Julia Galef

It’s not often that you find something that’s a fallacy both logically and creatively — that is, a fallacy to which both researchers and artists are susceptible. Perhaps you’re tempted to tell me I’m committing a category mistake, that artistic fields like fiction and architecture aren’t the sort of thing to which the word “fallacy” could even meaningfully be applied. An understandable objection! But let me explain myself.

I first encountered the term “fallacy of difference” in David Hackett Fischer’s excellent book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he defines it as “a tendency to conceptualize a group in terms of its special characteristics to the exclusion of its generic characteristics.” So for instance, India’s caste system is a special characteristic of its society, and therefore scholars have been tempted to explain aspects of Indian civilization in terms of its caste system rather than in terms of its other, more generic features. The Puritans provide another case in point: “Only a small part of Puritan theology was Puritan in a special sense,” Fischer comments. “Much of it was Anglican, and more was Protestant, and most was Christian. And yet Puritanism is often identified and understood in terms of what was specially or uniquely Puritan.”

Here’s a less scholarly example from my own experience. I’ve heard several non-monogamous people complain that when they confide to a friend that they’re having relationship troubles, or that they broke up with their partner, their friends instantly blame their non-monogamy. But while non-monogamy certainly does make a relationship unusual, it’s hardly the only characteristic relevant to understanding how a relationship works, or why it doesn’t. Non-monogamous relationships are subject to the same misunderstandings, personality clashes, insecurities, careless injuries, and other common tensions that tend to plague intimate relationships. But the non-monogamy stands out, so people tend to focus on that one special characteristic, and ignore the many generic characteristics that can cause any kind of relationship to founder.

So the fallacy of difference is a fallacy of science (broadly understood as the process of investigating the world empirically) but how is it also a fallacy of art? Because artists, like scientists, are concerned with understanding the world, though their respective goals are different. While scientists want to model the world accurately in order to answer empirical questions, artists want to make us believe in the story they’re telling us or the scene they’re showing us, or to highlight some feature of the world that they find particularly beautiful or interesting, or to successfully provoke a desired reaction. That tends to require a pretty sophisticated understanding of how the world looks and acts and feels.

When they fail, it’s often the fallacy of difference at work. In novels, TV shows and movies, a flat, “one-dimensional” character is a telltale sign of a clumsy writer who focused on his character’s one or two special traits at the expense of all the generic traits common to most human beings. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because it’s such a straightforward template for creating a character: you start with one or two unique traits — “She’s the rebel!” or “He’s the funny one!” — and then whenever your character has to react to some situation you can just ask yourself, “Okay, how would a rebel react here?” or “What would a funny guy say to that?” But no one is a rebel or a clown full-time. Most of the time, they’re just a person.

Same goes for building a fictional setting, which in many comic books or movies functions a lot like a character in its own right. It’s certainly true that real cities have distinct flavors to them, just like people have distinctive personalities, so if you’re walking in Brooklyn, it feels unmistakably different from walking in Manhattan, or Baltimore, or San Francisco. There are characteristic building styles and features that define a city’s aesthetic, like Baltimore’s row houses, or Brooklyn’s brownstones. So it’s tempting to design your fictional city around some special aesthetic theme, like “futurism” or “noir.” But even the most futuristic of cities wouldn’t really only consist of sleek skyscrapers and helipads, and even the most sordid and noirish city wouldn’t really be all dark alleyways and disreputable bars. Like all cities, their special features should be offset against all the generic ones: the nondescript office buildings, bus stops, grocery stores, laundromats, and so on. (Or whatever their equivalents are, in your fictional universe.)

If you’re building a real city instead of imagining one, the fallacy of difference comes into play in a different way. Architecture is really more design than art, in that each building is supposed to provide a solution to a particular problem — e.g., “We need a place to educate our children,” or “We want an office building that encourages interdepartmental interactions.” So the temptation for architects is to focus on the special characteristics their building should have to solve that problem, at the expense of the generic characteristics that all buildings need in order to be comfortable and pleasant. Bryan Lawson’s The Language of Space contains a thoughtful discussion of this trap, though he doesn’t explicitly call it the fallacy of difference: “When architects come to design specialized buildings, such as a psychiatric unit, they tend to focus on the special factors rather than the ordinary ones,” he says. “We design lecture theaters with no windows as perfectly ergonomic machines for teaching, and then forget how unpleasant such a place might be for the student who is there for many hours, day after day.”

The fact that this fallacy pops up in creative pursuits as well as empirical ones is interesting in its own right, I think, but it’s particularly worth noting as a reminder to fight our tendency to compartmentalize what we learn. You’ve seen this before, no doubt, on a smaller scale. For example, most people who ace the logic problems on the LSAT, after leaving the classroom will blithely make the same kinds of arguments that they easily identified as fallacious when they were in “spot the fallacy” mode. But concordances spanning endeavors as seemingly dissimilar as art and science suggest the existence of even broader compartments — and the benefit of noticing them, and breaking them down.

Piece originally posted at Rationally Speaking | Creative Commons Licence

About the Author:

Julia Galef is a New York-based writer and public speaker specializing in science, rationality, and design. She serves on the board of directors of the New York City Skeptics, co-hosts their official podcast, Rationally Speaking, and co-writes the blog Rationally Speaking along with philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci. She has moderated panel discussions at The Amazing Meeting and the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, and gives frequent public lectures to organizations including the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Student Alliance. Julia received her B.A. in statistics from Columbia in 2005.