Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The problem with historical arguments

From a letter in Slate:
Whenever we hear news of yet another great man-made tragedy, among the first things to be vetted is the historical background of the incident, often presented in the guise of causality. Yet such attempts often border on or dive straight into the Post Hoc Propter Hoc logical fallacy (lit. "before this because of this"), also known as the "false cause" fallacy.

By trying to draw out the long line of human action occuring decades or even centuries before the incident, we try to present that timeline as its causam primam, though the truth of History is that it's always tenuous at best to tie the deeds of past generations to those of today's. People make their own choices in life, and sadly they often choose to live by those prior histories.
In the same vein, counter factual arguments often boil down to saying little more than "if things were better yesterday then they would better today".

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