Let me first begin by saying that I do not have a formal background in philosophy. I was looking into formal logic and common fallacies and could not find a formal framework for the following situation : Imagine someone says that x dropped out of school and won the nobel prize. To refute this, someone cites that generally, people who drop out of school do not do well, hence someone who dropped out could not have won the nobel prize. On the face of it, this looks like the exact opposite of appealing to ridicule (where the general is incorrectly refuted by citing the extreme). Is there a formal name for this?


It does not follow, because in general people who drop out of school do not do well, that a particular person, X, who dropped out did not do well and even win the Nobel prize. It's like saying because most people cannot do X, a particular individual cannot do X. It was certainly improbable that X would win the Nobel prize but no more than improbable : and improbabilities can and do happen all the time. (Though in any particular field - to avoid the obvious objection - less often than probabilities.)

As for a label, John Stuart Mill deals with this type of case under the heading of 'Fallacies of Generalization' ('A System of Logic', V.5). See also C.L. Hamblin, 'Fallacies', London: Methuen, 1972, 48-9.

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  • I disagree with this answer only because I believe it's impossible to calculate probability in most cases. Will going to school increase Bob's chances of getting a Nobel prize? My answer: there is no way to compute Bob's chances of getting a Nobel prize in either case, so the question is moot. – user935 Mar 5 '18 at 19:48
  • @barrycarter. Well, I don't think it's practically possible to calculate probability of this sort either, so I've no disagreement with you there. My main point was to object to the inference from what is generally the case to what cannot be the case in a particular instance. A parallel : generally people who are long-term heavy smokers contract cancer but if I tell you that X, who is a long-term heavy smoker and is cancer free, I wouldn't accept that I must be wrong about X because generally people who are long-term heavy smokers contract cancer. Calculating probability doesn't come into it. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 5 '18 at 21:47
  • Or have I missed your point ? Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 5 '18 at 21:48
  • I was objecting to the sentence "It was certainly improbable that X would win the Nobel prize" because I'm saying there's no way to compute that probability (you could argue that it's improbable that any given person will win the Nobel Prize). I agree with your main point that, even with purely mathematical probabilities (which do exist), improbable isn't the same as impossible. – user935 Mar 6 '18 at 4:47
  • Now I understand, I agree. Thanks for explaining. Best - GT – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 6 '18 at 9:21

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