The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

"if a group deviates in the current generation from the mean social status, set at zero, then on average will have deviated by a smaller amount, determined by b, in the previous generation. A group of families now of high social status have arrived at the status over many generations by a series of upward steps from the mean. And the length and speed of that ascent, paradoxically, are determined by the rate of persistence, b." -- Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises, p. 215

This is a perfect example of what Alfred North Whitehead referred to as "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." In reality, what we have our particular, concrete individuals, members of families, doing this in that in the world, and succeeding or failing to some degree or another. From a large number of such individuals, Clark has devised a model of changes in social status. Within that model, there is a parameter, called b, which is determined by the average speed of assent or decent in social status among family members. It is these actual, concrete activities that make b what it is. But Clark gets this exactly backwards: for him, this abstract entity, b, is somehow controlling the actions of real-world individuals! It is like thinking that a baseball player's batting average determines how often he will get hits, as if somehow a number on the TV screen can influence his swings, rather than how often he gets hits determining his batting average.

Once you become alert to this sort of error, it is really shocking how often one finds it committed, and by very intelligent people. (We saw, for instance, Daniel Kahneman treating "regression to the mean" as if it were some sort of control of real world events.)


  1. A lot of libertarian rhetoric/theory commits this one.


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