Rhetorical Media and Civic Life
Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
February 18, 2015
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is described as, “Ignoring the difference while focusing on the similarities, thus coming to an inaccurate conclusion,” (Carroll.) The origins of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy began from a joke about a Texan gunslinger that pointed his gun at the side of a barn and shoots several holes into the barn. Afterwards, he walks up to the barn and points to his bullet holes and reasons that this is the center and his bullets shot the bullseye. This is proof, he says, that he is a sharp shooter (Carroll.)
There are many examples of this. If you went to a fortuneteller and she read your palm, she might tell you that you will meet someone and fall in love. Hoping for more details, you ask her more about this woman. The fortuneteller says that she drives a red car, she has brown hair, she works at a restaurant, and that she loves cats.
Five years later you meet the love of your life. She drives a blue car, she works for an insurance company, and she has a goldfish. But, she does have brown hair. He goes back to the fortuneteller demanding his money back. But the fortuneteller just smiles, “She does have brown hair.” The fortuneteller is pointing to the one prediction that she made out of many to prove that she named your match. Her prediction proves the Texas sharpshooter fallacy because she is pointing to one point out of many to say she can tell the future, when really she was just guessing, and there is no proof that she can tell the future.
Basically, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is pointing to the exception in a cluster of statements to prove a point. Another definition is, “inserting meaning into randomness,” (Carroll.)
These examples are somewhat silly without any harm coming to either party. In reality, it can be much more difficult to prove a fallacy from the truth. In 1999, Atul Gawande wrote an article for the New Yorker that centered on burgeoning clusters of cancer cases without a reason as to why these cases could be happening (Gawande.) Scientists were unable to find any scientific reason, and citizens in these clusters were stumped and were determined to find a cause to fit the pattern of cancer cases in their area. It’s true that the cluster is there, but constructing a reason to fit the pattern is the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
Carroll, R. (2003). The Texas Sharp Shooter Fallacy. In The skeptic's dictionary: A collection of strange beliefs, amusing deceptions, and dangerous delusions (1st ed., Vol. 1, p. 23). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Gawande, A. (2004, April 3). The Cancer-Cluster Myth. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from http://www.astswmo.org/Files/Meetings/2008/2008-Annual_Meeting/Presentations/Federal Facilities/CancerClusterGawand.pdf