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The Apples and Oranges Test: How to keep debates focused on the right questions

If Santa asked me what I want for Christmas, I’ve got my answer.  I’m too old and sobered to ask for world peace, but I’ve got the next best thing.

I want the whole world to know and be able to apply the Apples and Oranges Test.  It would end a whole lot of fighting, and focus us on the real questions, not the distractions. Of all the things I’ve learned in my overeducated life, it’s my favorite, the best take-away ever, with immediate application to ending tedious squabbles and worse, people being manipulated into behavior that doesn’t serve them or anyone but the manipulator.

Since I’m also too old and sobered to believe in Santa, I’ll just share the test here.

We all know about leading questions.  If asked whether it’s good to be steadfast, most people answer yes, because being steadfast sounds good.  If asked instead whether it’s good to be stubborn, most people answer no, because being stubborn sounds bad.

Both are leading questions, since steadfast and stubborn are loaded terms, steadfast having positive connotations, stubborn having negative connotations. They lead us to answers just because we prefer good things to bad. But they don’t lead us to the same answers, because we have different opinions about which behaviors count as steadfast and stubborn.

Leading questions, and loaded terms lead us by the nose down all sorts of wrong paths and into all sorts of messy, protracted debates:  You say you’re steadfast; he says you’re stubborn.  He says he’s being diplomatic; you say he’s lying. She says she’s being open-minded; you say she’s being indecisive. They say ending the war would be “cutting and running;” you say it’s “knowing when enough’s enough.” Lives are lost and nation’s ruined in debates like these. People will guilt-trip you out of your steadfast commitments by calling you “just stubborn.”

We treat these paired terms as different as apples and oranges. Steadfast is one thing; stubborn is something else entirely. Maybe they are apples and oranges; maybe they aren’t. So how can you tell?

That’s where the apples and oranges test comes in, the scientific standard by which we can settle disagreements over whether two terms describe different behaviors or are merely terms for the same behaviors distinguishable only by how we feel about them: If we approve of the behavior we’ll call it being steadfast. If we disapprove we’ll call it being stubborn.

The test is this: Can the person who claims that they’re as different as apples and oranges (we’ll call him Peter) provide an objective way to distinguish between them? If Peter can’t, then the distinction is a matter of opinion. We’re not really debating whether to call a spade a spade or a rake. We’re debate whether we approve or disapprove of the behavior, in our example, calling the committed behavior we approve of “steadfast” and the committed behavior we disapprove of “stubborn.”  

By objective we mean a way of distinguishing them that anyone could apply yielding the same results.  For this, imagine Peter hiring someone at random to sort behaviors out as either steadfast or stubborn. Will Peter’s hire sort them the way he would, or would the hire’s sorting yield a different result?  If the sorting is the same, then Peter’s test is objective. Otherwise, no.

With apples and oranges, objective sorting is pretty straightforward. Oranges are orange, apples aren’t.  Oranges have seeds anywhere in the meat, apples don’t—their seeds are in the center. Oranges have a bitter skin; apples don’t. We could find people who couldn’t apply these tests--the color blind, for example who can’t distinguish the color orange. But that aside, people would sort apples and oranges the same way always.

Often people misunderstand the test. For example, Peter might try to distinguish the terms by examples, usually extreme ones, saying, “You want objective definitions proving that steadfast and stubborn are as different as apples and oranges?  That’s easy. Martin Luther King was steadfast; Hitler was stubborn.”

Three problems with this approach: First it’s subjective. Though most everyone now agrees that MLK was good and Hitler was bad, apparently they didn’t always or else there wouldn’t have been so much resistance to MLK or so much support for Hitler.

Second, extreme examples don’t a definition make. They won’t help us distinguish in the gray area where our debates live.

Third, examples are not definitions. You can’t hire someone to sort even apples and oranges by giving them a Granny Smith and a Navel.  They won’t know what to do with the red apples.

“OK, says Peter, “Steadfast is being committed and dedicated, devoted to a good cause, whereas stubborn is just being egotistical, pigheaded, clinging to a bad cause.”

Good cause; bad cause—that’s a matter of taste and personal preference, hardly objective at all.

“Well,” Peter might say, “steadfast is being committed to a cause that will pay off.  Stubborn is being committed to a cause that won’t. Looking back you’ll be glad you were steadfast and sorry you were stubborn.”

Again, subjective: Since we don’t know how the future will play out, there will be plenty of subjective speculation about what will and won’t pay off. One man’s good investment is another man’s bad investment.

“Fine,” Peter says, “Be a stickler. Steadfastness is dedication to a cause—any cause.  Stubbornness is an unwillingness to consider alternatives.

Three problems here too:  First, Peter is passing the buck, defining loaded terms with other loaded terms, steadfastness (good) defined as dedication (good); stubbornness (bad) defined as unwilling to consider alternatives (bad).

Second, even if we think of unwillingness to consider alternatives as neutral, it’s hardly objective.  How does your hire decide who is willing and unwilling to consider alternatives.  How many alternatives?  How much considering?  Plenty of the people you consider stubborn will say, “look I’ve considered alternatives and I’m sticking to my guns.”

Third, and most importantly, these definitions are unrelated to each other, they run in parallel isolation. Remember with apples and oranges we distinguished by comparing apples and oranges by the same standards.  Oranges are orange; apples are not orange. Oranges have seeds anywhere in the meat; apples don’t have seeds anywhere in the meat.  If Peter expects people to draw the same line he does, he has to draw the line through the same ground, for example saying “steadfast has objective characteristic X; stubborn doesn’t have objective characteristic X.”

Applying the Apples and Oranges Test, I’ve found lots of popularly distinguished term people swing around like they’re just calling a spade a spade, that simple don’t pass the test.  So here’s a challenge to you if you’re willing. Can you provide an objective way to distinguish between any of the term pairs below?  I can’t, and not for lack of trying.

Your effort here will give me all I want for Christmas, but it’s not just for me.  If you practice applying the Apples and Oranges Test you’ll be amazed at the results. You’ll be able to think more clearly about the choices you make, you’ll be less influenced by people who try to manipulate (persuade) you into answering their loaded questions their way, you’ll make decisions that pay off better and as a result have merrier Christmases forever more. 

Term pairs (I call these synantonyms—their definitions are synonyms; their connotations are antonyms. And not to overwhelm you, this is just a handful.  I’ve got hundreds of these):

Spineless, flexible

Lying, being diplomatic

Seduced, persuaded

Greedy; prudent

Selfish; self-protective

Fearful; cautious

Judgmental; discerning

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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