The Topic: The Post Hoc Fallacy
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When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grandparents. They, like many Southerners, had a farm populated with animals to eat and animals to help. It was everywhere alive with edible plants – fields of corn and cucumbers and peas and butterbeans and peanuts, and throngs of mysterious life from stumps claimed by beds of ants to mushroom fairy rings, living things tending to business without our influence.
Remembering it now, I can see the symmetry of the rows, and the order of the barns, the arrangement of tools, the stockpiles of feed. I remember the care my grandmother took with tomatoes, nudging them along from the soil to the Ball jars she boiled, sealing up the red, seedy swirls under lids surrounded by brass-colored shrink bands. I remember my grandfather erecting dried and gutted gourds on polls so Martins would come and create families above us and we wouldn’t suffer as many mosquito bites when shelling peas under the giant pecan tree we all used for shade.
For me, the wonder of that life, even then, was in how so much was understood about cause and effect, about what was to come if you prepared, took care, made a particular kind of effort. It was as if they borrowed the momentum of the natural world instead of trying to force it one way or the other, like grabbing a passing trolley and hoisting yourself on the back.
This relationship with cause and effect was not perfect, not that I knew that then. In fact, my grandparents had a collection of books about cause and effect that I adored called Foxfire. They looked like encyclopedias, and they were numbered. Foxfire 1, 2, 3, etc. Looking them up just before writing this, I discovered they were actually anthologies of an old Appalachian magazine. An article in the Christian Science Monitor from 1983 and an entry at the Georgia Encyclopedia website both say the contents of the magazines came from interviews with people who were already old in the 1960s, people from around the South who shared folktales and folk knowledge and folk remedies and methods of borrowing that same momentum that my grandparents busied themselves pursuing.
My grandparents considered the Foxfire books correct and accurate and worthy of study, reference, and reverence. They were second only to the Bibles resting beside the beds in several rooms. They only had one worn copy of each of the Foxfire books, but as a whole they had their own shelf, just outside the kitchen. What could you find inside them? Rural tips and tricks to tackle the harsh wilderness. What you would call life hacks today, except concerning moonshine and planting crops. Some advice was great, passed down for generations and finally captured in an interview for the magazine right at the end of other people’s grandparents’ lives. A lot of the advice wasn’t so great, though as a boy I never noticed any suspicion or skepticism among my family. A hacking cough, said one Foxfire book, could be cured by swallowing a wad of local spiderwebs. That one I remembered. Others I didn’t, but they came hurtling back to me once I looked at the contents on Amazon today. I saw entries on “Snake Lore” and faith healing but also sections on how to make soap and butter, and how to build sturdy log cabins. It’s a mix of things that seemed to work. Some of it true wisdom, and a lot of it completely wrong. Those Foxfire books, and the life my grandparents led, was prescientific and irrational, but most of the time it produced results. The bits that are wrong, and downright bizarre, make me smirk while I push up my glasses from behind this computer, but then I remember that the only time my grandparents visited the grocery store was to buy things like milk, beef, and cheese since they no longer had the energy to deal with cattle. Other than that, well until their 70s, they very nearly lived completely off the land, which is something I couldn’t do today.
The Foxfire books, and the lives of the sort of people whose knowledge is captured within, are another testament to how we have always depended on good-enough solutions to the complexities of decisions, judgments, and reasoning. Whether or not the people practicing these techniques for decades and longer knew for sure they had pinpointed the causes to the effects they were seeking, things tended to work out anyway. Do spider webs cure coughs? No. Does your cough get better after you eat them? Yes. It’s no different than the zillions of remedies I see floating on the web right now from wine to chocolate to gluten abstinence and paleolithic dining. We mess up all the time when it comes to cause and effect, but it usually doesn’t lead to enough harm to notice. In general, over many generations, we’ve gotten by because more often than not the system works well. It might not get you to the moon, but it will keep you alive and full of butterbeans. Also, you might be burned as a witch.
In modern times, when the system hasn’t worked out well, it once led to one of my favorite mental pratfalls of all time. A few years ago, Bill Clinton bought and wore in public a magical amulet.
That’s right, magical amulet. There isn’t a single entry in those Foxfire books, not a solitary nugget of folk wisdom my grandparents could have offered up that is any less wacky than the Power Balance Bracelet. A band of silicone with a tiny hologram affixed to the side that, according to the manufacturer, enhances natural energy fields and provides balance to the wearer as he or she comes into resonance with the hologram. The result? Better athletic performance. Well, that’s what the company used to claim, but that was before they lost a $67 million lawsuit and had to publicly state, “We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct…” Now the company makes ambiguous claims about “Eastern philosophies.” You can find Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints endorsing the enchanted bracelets of power at the company’s website right now. He prefers the black collection made with “surgical grade silicone.”
The Power Balance bracelets were debunked thanks to scientific research, much of it conducted in Australia and Wales. The results showed that they had no more power than any other bracelet charged with meaning and supported by belief. No doubt, most of the contents of the Foxfire collection have yet to receive a similar level of scrutiny.
Who wore the power bracelets in their heyday? At least one former president, a slew of professional athletes, and one third of my uncles. Enough people to make the company more than $30 million in 2011, according to the Associated Press. Presumably, all of them intelligent, reasonable people who had no problem with the idea of a factory that employs wizards.
Still, the Power Balance bracelet is just another in a long line of magical items and alternative cures that people have fallen for since there have been people, and there will be many more thanks to the post hoc fallacy. After this, therefore because of this – that’s the fallacy. It’s a rule of thumb, a heuristic, that guided my grandparent’s farm, filled the Foxfire books, and for the most part got human beings out of the nomadic lifestyle and into yoga, but it isn’t perfect. Whether you go to the doctor for your cold, or you decide to eat a ball of cobwebs, or eat nothing but grapefruit for a week, your cold will get better. Which one then is the true cure? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. That’s our predicament. We are stuck with this weird brain that’s so bad at pinpointing cause and effect that one of us can run an entire country, give rousing speeches that change the world, yet not possess the skepticism required to prevent him from handing over $30 for a hologram with a magic spell inside.
On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, you’ll learn a lot more about the Power Balance Bracelet as we explore the post hoc fallacy, and how it leads to all sorts of things from pressing disconnected crosswalk buttons to rubbing your nipples with frozen cabbage.
At the end of the episode we discuss a recent study that suggests men drink so that their smiles become contagious.
NOTE: Some of this content is material researched for and written about in a chapter in my second book You Are Now Less Dumb.
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