The George Banks Fallacy

One of the blessings of being a parent is that you get to see your favorite childhood films again. In my life, that has most recently meant seeing Mary Poppins many times over. I’ve enjoyed it because it turns out that it’s also a great film for grown-ups. In fact, it has given me the perfect name for a logical fallacy that’s been bothering me for some time.

In the opening scenes of the movie, the aptly named banker, George Banks, distressed by the “chaos” of his home-life decides that he must take matters into his own hands and find a nanny who will care for his children properly. What is the proper way to run a family? Like a bank, how else?: “A British bank is run with precision. A British home requires nothing less.”

But a family isn’t a bank, so why should you run one as if it were. A little over one hundred twenty minutes later, George Banks has learned his lesson and embraced a family life modeled on, well, a family–much to the pleasure of his wife, children, and housekeepers. Movies are nice that way.

In real life, however, this may be the single most common logical fallacy in use, which is saying something. It makes it all the stranger that, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been named–until now. The essence of the George Banks Fallacy then, is this: the application of a model or method to a problem in one domain of life that is drawn from a completely unrelated and irrelevant, other domain of life.

The most time-honored use of this fallacy is usually stated something like: “Poetry ought to be more scientific” or “The production of flan [a delicious Mexican custard] should be based on the principles of chemistry” or “The frequency with which one gives one’s children hugs should be based on solid research data.” Actually, the examples one sees in real life superficially appear more sensible than this–things like, “Historical research needs to be more scientific” or “Engineering is a simple application of the principles of physics”–but it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that they boil down to the same illogical confusion of metaphors and methods.

Metaphors and methods are a great deal of what disciplines of knowledge or practice–everything from particle physics to carpentry–really give their practitioners: a set of metaphors for thinking about their topic and a set of methods for solving problems related to it. When we engage in the George Banks fallacy we misapply metaphors to situations they fit poorly and use techniques that are unlikely to succeed. In rare cases, this results in a startling success. Mostly however, it results in failure, if we’re lucky, or the stultification of whole fields of knowledge and practice, if the fallacy becomes widespread enough. In our day and age, it is very widespread.

As it happens, George Banks is a perfect example of another common use of this fallacy that is both more recent and more pernicious than “Everything should be scientific.” This is the “Everything should be run like a business” approach. Like its better-established cousin, this fallacious fondness for business has its origins in its high social status and the corresponding assumption that it must be the best way of doing things. So nowadays schools are run like businesses, hospitals are run like businesses, and governments are run like businesses. We’ve actually gone even further, people frequently say that schools “are” businesses and hospitals “are” businesses, and who can forget the famous misquote of Calvin Coolidge: “The business of America is business” (he actually said, ““the chief business of the American people is business,” so close enough).

The problem is that the business of a business is making money. That’s its purpose, and within the bounds of decency that’s acceptable for a business. But the purpose of a school is educating people, and the purpose of a hospital is healing them. If you try to run them like a business you end up with our modern university system–where tuition costs are astronomical in order to finance administrators’ salaries and vanity construction projects designed to attract more customers, oops, I mean students–and our modern health care system–where corporations don’t see a problem with artificially inflating drug costs hundreds of percent and a visit to the hospital can bankrupt a family. It’s enough to make one want to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” or maybe something even more colorful.

This problem runs deep in our society. If we want to move away from it–and we should–we need to accept our limitations. No one human field of knowledge or practice holds the key to everything. Our lives and the world we live in are ridiculously complex. That’s why we invented so many different approaches in the first place. Carpenters don’t need to master Newtonian physics; they need to master carpentry. Schools shouldn’t focus primarily on the “bottom line”; they should focus on education. Trying to make one approach cover all of our problems isn’t thinking outside the box. It’s trying to cram one box inside another, in the process badly mangling it.

And with that extended metaphor, I think I have made clear both why the George Banks fallacy is dangerous and why it’s past time to retire the “box” metaphor. 🙂

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