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Come and visit Coalville!

2010-04-25

David Taylor, Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, said this on the 3rd February, 2009 in a debate on Skills and Further Education:

I spent many years working in further education, and I recall that, in the period leading up to 1997, FE was left to go to rack and ruin; indeed, there was no capital spend towards the end of that period. One day when he has a spare moment or two, will the hon. Gentleman come with me to the A511 just a little north of Coalville town centre to have a look at the magnificent Stephenson college, named after George Stephenson, that has been built there, and which is having a huge impact on FE in Leicestershire? We will then see whether he can still read with a straight face the following phrases in the Conservative motion:

“current policies are hindering training opportunities…freezing the further education capital spending programme”.

What hypocrisy! If I were allowed to say that, that is the word I would use.

This, logic fans, is called a hasty generalization: deducing a general conclusion from an unrepresentative sample. The Conservative motion may be right or it may be wrong about the freezing of capital spending in the further education sector – I do not know without consulting the statistics –  but you cannot simply point to one particular “magnificent” college.

The rhetorical move here is widespread through public debate both in Parliament and outside. I think of it as the “come visit with me gambit”. Someone makes a general statement about something, and then the person who opposes that view responds by saying “how dare you say that for many things t, p holds? There is one thing t in such-and-such a place where p does not hold! You ought to come visit!”

The “you ought to come visit” is simply an appeal to emotion: how dare you, the Westminster elite, cast judgement on all the good people of this land without even daring to visit them? But, I would suggest, to anyone who is thinking reasonably, it ought to be unconvincing. For plenty of ordinary day-to-day things we accept testimonial evidence. For instance, I am confident in my belief that Mount Fuji exists, but I have never been to Japan. I have heard people who live in Japan or have visited Japan speak of Mount Fuji, and I have seen photographs and other representations of Mount Fuji. And I have not heard anyone tell me that Mount Fuji does not exist. It would be a strange world indeed if the only way to make a statement like this would be to have direct perceptual experience of Mount Fuji. Similarly, if the only way to make statements about general sets is to have direct perception-based knowledge of all the members of that set, then politics would cease to be possible.

In Britain, there are over 1,200 hospitals and over 3,200 secondary schools: given that each politician would – in order to protect themselves from ignorance – need to spend half a day at each place (say) before he is allowed to make decisions about health and education, he would need to spend at least six years visiting hospitals and secondary schools. This is a rather contrived and silly example, but it is the sort of thing I think of whenever I see politicians making pious remarks about how wonderful their local school or leisure centre or hospital radiology wing or whatever is. If politicians are not allowed to have these beliefs without this lengthy process of direct experience formation, then voters aren’t either. The problem is that the direct experience doesn’t actually help: if something very bad is happening, a quick visit from an MP won’t reveal that. To the casual visitor, a school with a major bullying problem won’t look very different from one without.

Of course, the rhetorical move cuts the other way. One can simply respond “Ah, but there is one thing t in such-and-such a place where p does hold and you ought to come and visit!” This is in fact what two Conservatives promptly did: David Willetts and David Burrowes.

If David Taylor wanted to refute the motion without offending logic, he need simply have answered it with the statistics, by appealing to facts about all further education colleges. However wonderful Stephenson College on the A511 near Coalville is, it is logically feasible that it is a rare exception to the rule.

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