I started writing this intending to make a particular point but then the post got long and I can’t be bothered to edit it back down to size, so maybe I’ll write a follow up.
Sometimes we get so worked up about specific facts that we lose sight of more general truths. We should want the big picture and the low level detail to be part of the same, coherent story but this is really difficult, especially when we want to argue for a particular conclusion.
Take bad calls in sport. Our reactions are wildly inconsistent if they go for or against us. When they go against us we’ll go into detail about why this particular case is particularly inexcusable. When a bad call goes our way (and there is no possibility of arguing that the call was actually fine) we are more likely to get philosophical, “Well, that’s the nature of the game. These things balance out in the end.” Unless the ref is actually fixing the match, the second reaction is actually sensible and the first reaction is just plain wrong. We all know that refs make mistakes all the time and we simply don’t care when the mistakes are not important, but these mistakes are no less blameworthy than the important ones. It’d would be a sign of a genuine problem if the mistake rates were different in big situations (even if they were lower!), but I’ve never seen this argued for.
The conceptual framework you use should take the available information into consideration. If you know that refs makes mistakes then your general beliefs about refs should reflect this. Another example is free speech. Most people I know think the principle of free speech is a good thing. This is not undermined by the cases where people use the right to say or write ridiculous, immoral things. But I quite often see people saying things like, “the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to be offensive.” Not only does it include that right, that is almost the very definition of free speech. Since it would be the government that enforced any prohibition on offensive speech, a definition of “Free speech = speech the government decides is not offensive” is hardly reassuring. Now perhaps free speech is actually a very bad thing because of all the offence flying about, but then you need to argue against the principle of free speech, not try to stop individual assholes spouting hateful crap.
How about terrorism, or shark attacks? Individual instances of both have such a powerful grip on our imaginations that actual policy responses to them are *ridiculous*. I’ve read articles suggesting that in the US many people would choose to drive instead of fly if they could so the extra number of deaths from car accidents may be higher than the number of deaths from the 9/11 attacks. If the goal is not to die, we are mistaken to drive when we would otherwise fly.
We are not always wrong to let individual facts influence our general beliefs about something or someone. It doesn’t matter if a person doesn’t murder people as a general rule; one murder is enough to justify a generally negative opinion of him. And of course we are not justified in dismissing particularly salient events if it turns out that they are norm. This is the whole point of the saying, “the plural of data is not anecdote” (*It definitely isn't! What is the plural of data?) . There is a reason why we collect proper data instead of just telling compelling stories.
There are plenty of cases where the visceral, detailed events seem to directly contradict what the data tells us. In these cases we need to actively resist the emotional force of particular events and let more impersonal, abstract truths guide our beliefs. Failure to do this has bad consequences, like massive overreaction to terror attacks.
But if you agree with all this, in what other areas do you think we tend to make the same mistake?