Monday, February 27, 2017
A Logical Misfire: The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
With his gun cocked haphazardly at his side, our shooter lets loose a torrent of lethal, leaden vectors upon an unsuspecting barn. Smirking to himself, and thinking himself a clever sort of fellow, he grabs a paint can and, with the gusto of Picasso, paints himself the picture perfect portrait of a bullseye pattern – its center ring containing his scattered spray of splintery holes.
He runs into town, proclaiming his virtuoso with the rifle. Curious, the townsfolk follow him back to his property, and approach the sagging, wooden structure. Before them is a tidy knot of bullet holes, perfectly at the center of a freshly painted target. The gaggle of slack-jawed yokels marvel at the skill of the shooter, who just seemingly completed an impressive feat of skill with only a little trickery. Voilà! A metaphor for a fallacy is born.
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a famous flaw in logic, made ever-more famous by its vivid title and corresponding story. The fallacy, which is similar to psychological phenomena like confirmation bias and the hindsight effect, occurs when an argument is made from a random pattern of observations that supports a specific, usually causal, conclusion. In this fallacy, the argument is generated from the data, rather than the argument being made, and then the data collected. As such, orators employing this fallacy conveniently select observations which matches their beliefs, making a random pattern seem meaningful.
The error in this flaw in reasoning is obvious. If a person, say a scientist, wants to test a hypothesis, the usual procedure is to make said claim, collect data, and see if the claim still rings true. What the Texas sharpshooter fallacy says is first, the scientist should collect data and then she should make a claim from this. But while one can do that and possibly be scientific, the trouble with the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is the omission of contradictory data. Our scientist may dishonestly make her data look meaningful and causal by leaving out large portions of it.
One quite common way in which people unwittingly commit to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is through one of humanity’s defining characteristics – storytelling. A story, after all, is just an edited collection of facts and opinions, feelings and thoughts. When we tell stories about how our 3rd grade teacher was the devil incarnate, or how amazing that star quarterback was, we, intentionally or otherwise, leave out a lot of details which would be contradictory to this narrative. We do this because it makes the story better if all the details are neat and consistent, even if real life doesn’t work out that way. In politics, we use this same fallacy to cast the opposing side in a negative light, or to make our own side seem to be the saints. In either case, truth is sacrificed for storytelling.
Perhaps a more entertaining way the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is employed is through conspiracy theories. Generally, conspiracy theories hinge their cases on a series of coincidences. Say, some shadow organization has “connections” to this high-profile individual; and that person was mysteriously missing during the time when so and so was murdered; and voilà – Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer, or the Lizard King, or maybe both. Anyway, the point is, with enough coincidences, a conspiracy theory hopes to convince you that they’re more intentional and sinister than mere chance. The problem, however, is that these “facts” are selectively picked from a much larger stack of other, contradictory facts. It’s because these other facts don’t get named which make most conspiracy theories good examples for the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
In sum, it’s clear the Texas sharpshooter fallacy permeates much of our culture and rhetoric. From the deep, dark mysteries of the Bermuda triangle, to the talking heads on television, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is responsible for seeing patterns in data where there are none; and in particular, it occurs when data is either ignored, or the chain of causation is flipped, to make the argument. To overcome it, it’s best we simply remember that most of life is, in fact, rooted in chance; and that we finally admit Ted Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer.