The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

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By aaron

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a fallacy in which someone stresses the similarities in a data set while downplaying or ignoring the differences.

The name of this fallacy comes from an analogy to a Texan who shoots holes in the side of a barn. Then, after shooting, he draws a circle around the tightest cluster of bullet holes and declares that to be his target, then proudly gives himself the title of “sharpshooter”. While the sharpshooting Texan is usually seen as a joke, many people apply that very same logic to real world scenarios.

A common example is when people make “prophecies” or predictions about the future. The fortune teller will make vague statements about what is to come, then when that point in the future arrives, they “clarify” their statements to fit what actually happened. Sometimes, the point in time itself is not even clear, with the predicted events just being said to happen at some point in the future. The problem with this methodology is that if you make enough vague predictions of events that will occur at some undefined point in the future, then eventually, out of pure chance alone, there will be some event that resembles the predicted event, and the fortune teller can point to that as “proof” of their predictions.

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is the product of a psychological phenomenon called apophenia. Apophenia is a human tendency to create meaningful patterns in random data. When given random noise, the mind will try to make sense of it. For example, we look at a puffy cloud and see the image of a dog, or we look at burnt toast and see an image of jesus. This is how psychics make their predictions. They simply make foggy predictions of events that are almost certain to come true, then leave it up to the mind to notice the smaller details that match up.

As an example, consider some of the predictions of Nostradamus, one of the most well-known fortune tellers. Here is one of his predictions:

“The rock holds in its depths white clay,
which will come out milk-white from a cleft,
Needlessly troubled people will not dare touch it,
unaware that the foundation of the earth is of clay.”

This verse is predicting an event with some sort of white material coming out of the Earth that people don't want to touch. Some followers of Nostradamus believe this is a prediction of the 2011 Fukishima nuclear disaster, in which the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant was hit by a tsunami causing nuclear meltdowns and release of radioactive material into the surrounding area.

If that seems like a stretch, that's because it is. In fact, before the Fukishima disaster, many believers thought this verse referred to a volcanic eruption. Even in the days of Nostradamus, volcanoes were nothing new, so he could easily predict some event that vaguely resembles a volcanic eruption that was certain to happen at some point. Then, when the nuclear disaster happened, his followers circled a new target around that new event that matched even more closely with his prediction. That is a Texas sharpshooter fallacy played out over almost 500 years.

If Nostradamus could really predict the future, why didn't he clearly predict the Fukishima disaster in no uncertain terms? He lived in the 1500's, and radiation wasn't even discovered until around 1896, so a clear prediction of the tsunami and details of the resulting nuclear disaster would have been a far more powerful demonstration of his fortune telling powers. Instead, he hedged his bets by speaking in vague terms.

As with our sharpshooting friend from Texas, fortune telling is the process of drawing targets after the data has been collected. A reliable prediction about the future based on statistical evidence is one thing, but to make your prediction after the events have occurred is a Texas sharpshooter fallacy. #logic #skepticism #critical thinking #fallacy #fallacies

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