“If you were born in _______, then you’d be a ______.”

“If you were born in _______, then you’d be a ______.” It’s a phrase that you might have heard before, but if you haven’t you certainly will in the future. The first blank is filled with the name of a country or region and the second with a belief system. So you might hear something like, ‘If you were born in the Middle East, then you would be a Muslim.’ This phrase is the epitome of the genetic fallacy, which is committed when one believes that if they can trace the origin of a belief, that the belief is either true or false. In my experience, it is typically utilized to illustrate something as false. There are three main problems with this token phrase. 1. Logically: As stated above, this commits the genetic fallacy. The problem with doing so is that one’s tracing the origin of a belief has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the belief. Suppose I assert, ‘You just believe the Earth revolves around the Sun because you were taught in school to believe that.’ That may be true, but it has no bearing on the truth that the Earth rotates around the Sun. The Earth would rotate around the Sun even if you were not here to believe it or even if you learned about that fact some other way. Read this brief article for a further explanation. Put simply: One’s belief about some fact is independent of the truth of that fact. 2. Categorically: The second problem with this phrase is that it lacks a proper quantifier. Does the advocate of this phrase mean that all people that are born in x will believe in system A? This is obviously not true as there are a variety of belief systems in numerous countries, even if the minority of belief systems represent a very small percentage of the population. A more accurate phrase might be something like, ‘If you were born in ______, then you would probably be a _______.’  Although this would be more accurate, I still think the proposition is false, which leads me to my third criticism. 3. Probabilistically: The amended phrase, ‘If you were born in ______, then you would probably be a _______,’ still suffers from a defect of insufficient background evidence. This disagreement in probability theory comes to a divide between two camps: frequentist and Bayesian probability theories. I find Bayesian theory superior against the frequentist approach because when we evaluate probabilities, we are not dealing with data as if it were in a vacuum.

The Bayesian theorem

Consider this explanation from RationalWiki:
The main focus of probability theory is assigning a probability to a statement. However, probabilities cannot be assigned in isolation. Probabilities are always assigned relative to some other statement. The sentence “the probability of winning the lottery is 1 in 100 million” is actually a fairly meaningless sentence. For example, if I never buy a lottery ticket my probability is significantly different than someone who buys 10 every week. A meaningful “sentence” in probability theory must be constructed with both the statement we seek to assign a probability to and the background information used to assign that probability.
So, the token amended phrase above is not necessarily true; for it to be true depends upon the background evidence. For example, ‘If you were born in India, then you would probably be a Hindu’ is entirely contingent upon who your parents were and the choices they made in raising you! ‘If you were born in India’ to Christian missionaries, then you would very likely be a Christian! Unless of course you had a bad experience as a child in which case you may have rejected the faith of your parents. See: What someone probably believes is entirely dependant upon background evidence. There are three reasons why we should be suspect of the phrase, ““If you were born in _______, then you’d be a ______.” Logically it commits the genetic fallacy, which illustrates the invalidity of the claim right off the bat. Categorically it lacks a quantifier, which might confuse some because the person asserting the phrase may be communicating a concept of necessary entailment that was not meant to be communicated. Probabilistically it fails to consider background evidence, which is very important when correctly understanding probability theory.
Kurt Jaros is the Executive Director of Defenders Media and the host of the Veracity Hill podcast.


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