The Yao Ming Argument

By | September 15, 2019

Often we hear arguments that ring sort of true when they otherwise should not. Some of these I call The Yao Ming Argument. It is when you take an exception and make it seem like the normal, the average.

Yao and others walk into a Conference (all are standing)

For example, as the US struggles with its messed up healthcare system, people continually point out to me that the US has world class, even leading medical capabilities and facilities.  People come from all over the world to use them. 

That is true; but having exceptional capability does not mean the system works for people who may really need it.  That’s the Yao Ming fantasy.

I have seen Yao Ming?  He is Chinese.  He is well over 7 feet tall.  Should we conclude, therefore, all Chinese must be at least 7 feet tall?

That is the distillation of the argument.  An exception doesn’t proves the point.

People offer these arguments all the time.  The media is tuned to exploit exceptional events: shootings, infidelities, entertainers or athletes who are themselves exceptions, outliers.  We become very familiar with these exceptions. We start to think they are normal.

Because an exception is true, doesn’t make it representative of the average or the normal.  They are exceptions.  They are not typical.

So when one criticizes the education system, one should not cite Harvard or MIT as being representative and therefore say “no problem.”

Unfortunately, we seem to have more information about the exceptions than we do about the mundane.  Mundane just isn’t news.

The mass media news is particularly susceptible to this when they continue to strive for “American Exceptionalism” by pointing out every achievement of a US citizen. They do not equally cover exceptional international people or events elsewhere in the world. Or the mundane everyday failures. 

This leads people to believe that the items presented are typical.  They are not; they may be true but not typical.  There are always many, many more mundane people and events that do not make the news.

This leads many US citizens to believe that their country is, essentially, the Yao Ming of countries.

Too often we use facts we are aware of through the media and represent them as being typical or a group we are trying to understand.  For every Muslim that is a terrorist, there are 30 million Muslims struggling along in their normal life.  For every police officer who wantonly fires their gun, there are thousands who are well trained and do an excellent job without resorting to their gun.

But the Yao Ming argument persists.

When someone supports their assertion by referencing a exceptional, or even outstanding, person or occurrence, just remember that all Chinese are not over 7 feet tall.

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