A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

September 25, 2015 § 7 Comments

Alexander Pope once opined that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”  We can see multiple examples of this almost daily.  But, it was truly brought home to me on Twitter last weekend.  Against my better judgement, I got into a discussion that became an argument over discrimination against the Irish in Canada.  My interlocutor was dead set on presenting the thesis that the Irish were the lowest of the low well into the 20th century and the infamous NINA (No Irish Need Apply) signs were ubiquitous across our fair Dominion.  To back up her argument, she cited her grandparents, who reported seeing the NINA signs when they arrived (I’m not sure when they arrived, but she was roughly my mother’s age, a Baby Boomer, so I would hazard her grandparents arrived in the 1920s), a random page from a House of Commons debate where then-Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald denigrated the Irish in 1889, and a screen cap from an historical newspaper aggregator that reported some 30,000 NINA mentions in Canada.  But the time frame was not clear.

This kind of logic would not pass a freshman course.  In short, she cherry-picked her evidence to back up her thesis.  Now, I know a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to the Irish in Canada, a result of a Master’s thesis and a PhD dissertation (and forthcoming book) about the Irish in Quebec, from the 1840s to the 21st century.  I have read nearly every book on the Irish in Canada (and North America as a whole) as part of the process leading to the MA and PhD.  Her basic thesis, that the Irish were discriminated against is not wrong.  But this argument is largely limited to the 19th century, and more than that, to the middle decades of the 19th century.  Certainly, discrimination continued to plague the Irish in Canada beyond, say, 1880, but, by then, the Irish were also successfully integrating into Canadian society, through accommodations from the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture, through accommodations made by the Irish themselves, and by the Irish forcing themselves into the Canadian body politic.  As the 19th century drew to a close, the Irish had infiltrated the corridors of power in Canada, both politically and economically.  But this does not mean that all discrimination went away.

First, she essentialized my argument, claiming that I said that NO discrimination occurred after 1900, as if the turning of the century was some magic boundary.  And then she produced this cherry picked evidence, which I countered with the larger argument, pointing to both individual and cultural successes.  She claimed that Toronto was different than Montreal.  That is correct.  But, I countered with information on the plight of the Irish in Toronto.  No luck.  She was convinced she was right.  I didn’t go so far as to get pedantic and explain how history is made/written/produced, but when I rejected her argument, she accused me of calling her grandparents liars.  At this point, I cut my losses and muted her on Twitter.

All I could do was shake my head and ponder why and how so many people are so resistant to logic and reason. It’s not like I’m innocent of this, either.  Recently, an argument broke out on the Facebook wall of one of my friends about the level of integration of Anglophones in franco-québécois culture.  All three of us arguing were ex-pat Montrealers, all three of us Anglos.  All three of us have PhDs, in other words, we should’ve known better.  Instead, we devolved into anecdotal evidence, personal stories, and ignored the meta-data all three of us are very familiar with on the matter.  So while we did not, like my interlocutor on Twitter, devolve into cherry-picking our evidence, we still engaged in #logicfail.

My point in telling this second story is to point out we all do this.  But there is great danger in this.  It leads to an American populace that thinks that Ben Carson is right when he says that the President cannot be Muslim because Islam is incompatible with the Constitution.  And still greater ills.

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