Columns

Forget Fact Checkers, We Need Logic Referees

Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash

I sometimes wish for someone to form a squad of logic referees. You could have them on set on TV news and reporting programs, old professors with white beards and vertically striped black and white uniform shirts to establish their authority. Then when somebody says something egregiously stupid, a red flag flies onto the set, followed by a referee saying “post hoc ergo propter hoc, 15 yards and loss of down”. Or maybe we could take a hint from soccer and give yellow cards and red cards. If the referee gives the host a red card then the remainder of the show has to be replaced with calming music and pictures of puppies.

There have certainly been several instances this week. My favorite is probably Chris Hayes saying “if the electoral college weren’t in the constitution it would be unconstitutional.”

Now, admittedly, stupid tautology should probably only be a 5-yard penalty, and he might, as Walter Olson insists, have an actual point hiding in there: that the electoral college is different than the usual procedure for popular voting. Which, of course, it is. It’s meant to be.

I suppose it’s always possible that he was being purposely funny, or thought he was. I can even sympathize with that — I’ve had punchlines die. But considering his response wasn’t “you didn’t get the joke” but “you silly conservatives are so triggered by me telling the truth!” I am very suspicious that he didn’t make a funny on purpose and still doesn’t understand why it’s funny.

But that’s really a side issue compared to one of the most common lapses in logic, spurious correlation. I saw a fun example of that on twitter today (sorry I lost the original tweet) when someone tweeted that nearly 100% of the people who caused car accidents have drunk water in the last 24 hours.

Everyone understands that that’s a joke but consider some of these assertions:

  • most school shooters have taken antidepressants.
  • many mass shooters have used marijuana (this was on Tucker Carlson a few days ago.)
  • many autistic children displayed symptoms of autism after receiving the MMR vaccine.

All of them, as stated, suffer from the same problem: when a large part of a population has done something like receive a vaccine, you can’t be surprised when a small segment of that population has done the same thing.

With school shooters and mass shooters, there’s a very strong likelihood that they have been treated for some psychiatric problem in the past. If they have been, there is a very strong probability that they’ve been treated with psychiatric drugs and among the most common are antidepressants. So it’s very likely that a school shooter or mass shooter has been treated with psychiatric drugs. But you can’t then infer that the psychiatric drugs are the reason — because millions of other people are treated with psychiatric drugs without becoming mass shooters.

Millions and millions of kids take the MMR vaccine at about the same age, and some kids develop signs of autism when they’re a little bit older. That doesn’t mean an MMR did it; after all, most of the same kids drank breast milk or cows milk or ate baby food.

But this fallacy seems to be just supremely suited to being used to manipulate public opinion. Most mass shooters are white, especially with the somewhat flexible definition of white that used by the media. (remember “white Hispanic”?) But then most people in the United States are white. They have mass murders in China and Japan and guess what? The perpetrators are mostly Chinese and Japanese. To take a page from Chris Hayes, most mass shooters used guns — but the biggest mass murders tend to come with bombs, arson, or of course airplanes.

The point is not that it’s impossible that anti-depressants or marijuana or MMR vaccines might have a role. It’s that when someone makes that argument, you should really look at the argument and say “Does that make sense? Or is someone trying to manipulate me?”

Then you can be your own logic referee and remember in the future who can and can’t be trusted.