Historical Correlation Fallacy

X happened, and then Y, so Z policy was effective is a common way for writers building a narrative to gloss over the fact that the two things linked may not actually have a causal relationship.

For example, X slew Y, becoming king is pretty clear: the killing of the old king allowed the new king to take his place. But consider “X brought peace to the realm by lowering taxes, negotiating with his barons, and concluding several alliances with his neighbors.”

It sounds straightforward. But can we be sure that the king’s policies were the direct cause of peace? Maybe the weather was good for several years, raising crop yields and giving everyone enough that they didn’t have to fight for resources. Maybe the king was lucky in getting a generation of barons who were more inclined to bend the knee than take control. Maybe the king’s neighbors were busy fighting civil wars, and too preoccupied with internal matters to seek outside enemies. Maybe all three things happened, and if any one of them had been missing, the kingdom would have been plunged into chaos.

Especially when reading condensed histories, we have to be aware of the perspective of the author, and what sort of point they might be making, even unconsciously, with the way they frame the story.

The Persecution Fallacy

Seems everyone wants to claim persecution of some sort as a way of bolstering their case. We’ve arrived at a point where we know enough about our recent history to see people – artists, scientists, political activists – that were persecuted in their time, but were right, and have now been vindicated. So we want to represent ourselves as being like those people: just as determined, just as persecuted, and just as right.

We’ll do it to gain sympathy for our cause, even when the persecution itself is completely made up.

I’ve seen Protestant Christians in the US adopt this tactic several times. They make themselves out to be the lone voices in the wilderness, when in reality over 80% of Americans believe in God, it mentions God on our money, and the Presidential Oath of Office is usually taken on a Bible. Not exactly a tigers-in-the-colosseum level of persecution.

I see anti-GMO activists take this stance when talking about Monsanto and other big corporations. These corporations are big, and mean, and use their lawyers to push people around, so obviously GMOs must be bad. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. There’s no scientific evidence that GMOs cause health issues. And really, if we had to give up GMOs, we’d have to drop most of our diet, seeing as domestication itself – of wheat, of cattle, of even friggin apple trees – is a way of modifying an organism’s genetic makeup. Being the little guy in this case doesn’t make them right. It just makes them little.

Finally, I see people that want better treatment for women in the workplace, or to increase the number of women in the sciences, that point to the vitriol from their opponents as support for their position. It’s as if they say, “Look at how mad we make people. We couldn’t make people that mad without being right, could we?”

Well, yes, you can. That’s not to say that I don’t agree with most of these people: I think women should be able to choose their career freely, without fear of harassment or hazing or running into a glass ceiling. But it’s not the anger that that stance can generate that makes it right. It’s right because respect is right, because we respect human beings and give them certain rights as part of that respect, and because women, as human beings, deserve that respect and those rights.

In the end, the Persecution Fallacy is another form of the ad hominem fallacy. It just operates in reverse: these people think badly of me and try to shut me up, therefore I must be a persecuted genius, therefore I’m right.

Unfortunately, while persecution is real and suppression of speech is real (and wrong), it doesn’t make the position of the person being persecuted correct. It just makes it harder to judge it impartially.