The Intentionality Fallacy

If you lookup “intentionality fallacy” you’d probably find a lot of references to literature and other arts, since that is its usual context. We need to start talking about it in other things too. For example, everything.

In brief, the intentionality fallacy happens when you are trying to understand, interpret, or critique a work of art and you depend almost entirely (or totally exclusively) on “what the artist’s intention was.” I thought this book was a commentary on X, but the author said it was actually about Y so that’s the only correct way to look at it.

At first, it might not sound like a fallacy. Surely, we should consider a work’s intended meaning when we analyze it? Unfortunately, like all informal fallacies, the logic doesn’t hold up if you apply it to the majority of things, art or otherwise.

Think about those news bloopers that pop up on YouTube from time to time where a news reporter or meteorologist is drawing on a map and their drawing looks a whole lot like a penis. They were not intending to draw that, but it really looks like it to a lot of people. All of those people aren’t wrong in recognizing the same pattern, the fact that so many see the same thing indicates that there is something to see. In this case, it is pareidolia, but the fact that many people can clearly see something that was not intended to be drawn can’t be discounted. We can’t just say, “no, that’s not what your eyes are telling you because that’s not what the drawer intended to do.”

Recently, I’ve been seeing this fallacy a lot among teachers (I’m probably suffering from a version of the Frequency Illusion bias) and it seems insidious. I’ve been working with a rookie teacher a lot recently who often justifies some really bad choices with “Well, I was intending for this to…” As if a noble intention eliminates the fact that the students received no valuable development from a lesson or absolves one from criticism.

It is also a huge problem with assessment (yes I’ve made this basic point before). As an ESL teacher, I spend a lot of time looking at ESL tests. One of the biggest ones in the world is IELTS. It is intended to measure how closely to a native speaker a non-native English speaker’s ability is. However, native English speakers often struggle with it and score poorly on it. The design of it, intended for maximum fairness and accuracy, involves a listening portion which requires listening, reading, and writing simultaneously. Any problem in a student’s ability to read or write will automatically lower their listening score, as will any of a multitude of other factors that affect their ability to do this form of multitasking. The intention of IELTS doesn’t match the realities of the test. It also, despite claiming otherwise, often requires a level of background knowledge on certain (random) things and a test-taker’s score could be sabotaged by complete chance.

This problem is not unique to IELTS, and indeed may be true for most standardized tests (and most regular tests too). However, I don’t see nearly enough dialogue about the gap between intention and reality in these areas. It doesn’t mean we should disregard all intentions and always look only at the final product (that’s leaning towards the outcome bias), but we need to pay closer attention, especially in education, to seeing if effects really match intentions.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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