The Fallacy of the Heap and Social Engineering

The fallacy of the heap involves continuum. A heap can be two grains of rice or all the rice in the world. If one more grain is added to a pile of rice that is called a heap, is the pile no longer a heap?  This is also the fallacy of the beard, where it is difficult to agree on what length of hair constitutes a beard. When an entity can be measured along a continuum, the fallacy is that any division, no matter what it is called, cannot exist, because the divisions are artificial. This is, of course, not true, because many people have beards, and the term “heap” is widely used and understood.

In social science, there are major pitfalls and difficulties in observing, then classifying people, behavior, and other entities that have a continuum of the factor. In assigning numeric values to social entities, the continuum can be artificially divided into classes or categories, but much attention must be paid to how those divisions are made, and with what justifications.

A community, for example, may be assigned to a class based on the average annual income. But the actual annual income can range from zero, as we consider unemployed members of the household. In lower income neighborhoods, individuals might be hoarding great wealth, but live in the appearance of an average or poor lifestyle.

The continuum of income, property and wealth then becomes problematic when trying to classify and divide groups of people based on what they have, because other continuum or situations contribute factors which overlap and influence human activity and behavior.

When a marketing scheme includes fallacious reasoning in dividing customers into classes, many problems occur. Advertising that targets only a certain population only can offend the neglected populations, ultimately causing informal or formal boycotts of the product.

When social engineering is aimed at a wide population, there are problems in not properly identifying, defining and recognizing the divisions in the continuum of people. There are economic factors that overlap with ethnicity, language, age, education and other facts about the population. Aiming a social engineering campaign at only one of these factors is done at great risk.

In encouraging the population to contribute to charity, some segments will respond to a spokesperson of any ethnicity or gender, and others will want to see someone from their ethnic or gender group.

There is an “if-then” aspect to dividing continuum and to applying social engineering techniques to the divisions. IF a division is correct, THEN the class or segment of the continuum will behave as expected.

False continuum divisions or divisions that are plagued with lack of understanding of the entities and of the continuum, itself, can lead to even more problems in social engineering campaigns. Surveys can provide detailed information, but there is the issue of false answers or inflated answers that aggravate results form questions that are based on faulty divisions of the continuum.

Other problems arise from deficiencies in dividing continuums into classes. Some classes may overlap in some factors and may be discrete in others. If the social engineering endeavor does not examine this issue of overlap and discrete divisions, attempts to target individual groups might be prone to errors.

The fallacy of the heap and the fallacy of the beard are not always fallacies. Many artificial divisions of continuum, with titles, descriptions or details of the ways in which the divisions were made actually present a workable picture of segments of a continuum. In the military, very specific regulations determine that a beard is of a specific length and is allowed for specific purposes, such as with disorders of the skin from ingrown hairs. The grade point average system has been in use in determining whether students are failing or passing for a long time, and is a good indicator of who is suited for school and who might need to get some help or change their ways.