Chances are you’ve heard it said that “plane crashes occur in threes”. And you even may be able to cite some examples of that actually happening. When you examine the data more closely, however, you see that plane crashes can occur not only in threes, but in fours, fives, sixes, sevens and so on. It’s just that we human beings have a tendency to clump things into threes because we perceive the number three as having some kind of cosmic significance. Furthermore, in order to make the “rule of three” apply, we are willing to constantly alter the parameters: sometimes the three crashes occur in one month, sometimes in one year, sometimes in one decade. This conviction that air traffic accidents routinely group themselves into triads for our convenience is an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, which all too often governs people’s beliefs, actions and policies.
The term comes form the anecdotal illustration of someone firing a shotgun at the side of a barn a few times and then, finding among all the buckshot a cluster that are fairly close together, drawing a target around them and claiming that was what he had been aiming at. Though the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy usually isn’t so deliberate, it produces the same kind of result: a limited set of data singled out to make the case that the end result was really what was intended all along. It causes us to find the likeness of Jesus or Elvis on a tortilla, and then insist that it must have been placed there by a Divine Hand.
This fallacy is an outgrowth of two natural human tendencies. The first is the urge to notice patterns, to make sense of seemingly random input. This tendency served us well in ages past when knowledge was very limited; noticing, for example, that cold weather came around at a certain time every year helped save lives. The other tendency, however, is a bit trickier: it’s the urge to formulate a narrative, an explanation, a cause. This is also useful if done properly, but all too often it isn’t, and just results in myths, misinformation and misconception. And in today’s world, it often gives rise to conspiracy theories.
A classic example is the perennial “Clinton body count”. As right-wingers have reminded us at short intervals for years, a large number of people who have crossed paths with the Clintons at some point have died “suspicious” deaths. Some were even (cue sinister music) “apparent” suicides. What these folks never can seem to wrap their heads around is that you can compile such a “body count” for just about anyone — especially for individuals who have spent decades in the public eye. The Clintons have crossed paths with millions of people, and have become casually acquainted with many thousands. The odds that some of those people would meet “suspicious” deaths (especially if you’re willing to do some tinkering to meet the definition of “suspicious”) are quite high indeed.
So one component of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is cherry picking. The Clinton haters have no problem picking up on the “body count” for the Clintons, but totally tune out those for everyone else. Among thespians, there is a superstitious prohibition against uttering “Macbeth” inside a theatre except during a performance or rehearsal, because it’s said to bring bad luck. This no doubt stemmed from a few incidents in which calamity actually did follow on the heels of such a vociferation; but whoever formulated the superstition neglected to notice that there were many other instances when it did not.
It’s always tempting to draw such unwarranted conclusions, because of that innate tendency to notice patterns, even when they aren’t really there. And that’s the second component of the fallacy. Ages ago, someone noticed that the orientation of certain constellations coincided with certain events on earth; so they concluded that the stars have some kind of influence on mundane affairs; and thus the discipline of astrology was born. (Actually, there’s at least a grain of truth there: everything in the universe exerts an influence on everything else, however subtle and complex.) In fact, constellations themselves are something of an optical illusion — which is to say that their arrangement depends on the location of human observers at a certain point in the cosmos. And as things in space are constantly moving, the orientation of constellations is actually rather different now than it was back when astrology was born.
The third component of the fallacy is concocting a general narrative from the skewed interpretation of cherry-picked facts. Which means not only would you conclude that the Texan intended to place those particular hits within a particular radius based on the radius being selectively drawn after the fact; you’d also conclude that she must be a skilled marksman. Not only do people interpret the likeness of Jesus in a select few topographical features of a tortilla, they conclude this is proof that God works in mysterious (and sometimes comestible) ways.
In his book Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen hits the nail on the head by characterizing Texas Sharpshooter mentality as one for which “there are no coincidences”. For some people, everything happens “for a reason”; every little glitch in an election process is a sure sign that massive fraud occurred — if and only if the election didn’t go your way.
In 1966, recording artist Buddy Starcher had a radio hit with a spoken word recording called “History Repeats Itself” — which, to the accompaniment of schmaltzy passages from “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “America The Beautiful”, recounts a number of similarities and parallels in the assassinations of Lincoln and JFK. Here’s an excerpt:
Lincoln was elected in Eighteen Hundred Sixty, Kennedy was elected in Nineteen Hundred Sixty…. Both were shot from behind in the head. Their successors, both named Johnson, were Southern Democrats with seats in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was born in Eighteen Hundred and Eight, Lyndon Johnson was born In Nineteen Hundred and Eight… John Wilkes Booth…was born in 1839, Lee Harvey Oswald…was born in 1939…
Booth and Oswald were both assassinated before going to trial. Both presidents’ wives lost children through death while in the White House. Both presidents were killed on a Friday and in the presence of their wives. President Lincoln’s secretary, whose name was Kennedy, advised him not to go to the theater. President Kennedy’s secretary, whose name was Lincoln, advised him not to go to Dallas. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and ran to a warehouse. Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and ran to a theater. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters. The names Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each contain thirteen letters. The names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each contain fifteen letters.
Okay, so that’s a pretty striking set of coincidences. But so what? What conclusion are we supposed to draw from this? The only one that works is, as the title suggests, “history repeats itself”. At least sometimes. There are many, many other times when it doesn’t. Starcher doesn’t mention, for instance, that Lincoln was born in 1809, while Kennedy was born in 1917 — even if you do the numerological trick of adding all the digits, you don’t get a satisfactory result. Or that Abraham and John Fitzgerald do not have the same number of letters.
Because of such a strained reading of a set of coincidences, there emerged a narrative about what was called the “zero factor”, also known as the Curse Of Tippecanoe: since William Henry Harrison was elected in 1840, every president elected in a year ending in zero had died in office. This was true until 1980, but since then, the “curse” seems to have lifted — though people have tried to connect to it the fact that an assassination attempt was made on Ronald Reagan. What’s really happened is that we simply have more data to consider, and so the coincidence that involved 7 presidents no longer seems like such a big deal. And let’s not forget that the point of calling it the Curse Of Tippecanoe, thereby implying that something in Harrison’s life was a supernatural (and extremely vengeful) trigger for it, was simply to provide an excuse for excluding the inconvenient pair of zero-year presidents who came before Harrison and did not fit the pattern.
The universe is filled with coincidences, accidents, chance happenings. Quite often, they form fascinating patterns, as in the assassination similarities. But that doesn’t mean that there is any purpose or meaning behind them. If you insist on looking for purpose and meaning, you’re just indulging in delusion, and setting yourself up to be manipulated.