Idols of the Tribe

— Prominent among the fallacies “having their foundation in human nature itself” is the belief that, when any uncommon event has happened, a recurrence of it becomes more remote or improbable. A man has two narrow escapes from being struck by lightning ; forthwith he imagines that he is in less danger than his neighbors from thunderstorms. A whist-player gets an entire suit of trumps, or, as was recorded in the London Times in the spring of 1892, four players each get an entire suit of cards, though the pack has been duly shuffled. The players feel certain that this is less likely to happen to them again than to others. A church or school has an annual outing, held always about the same time of the year. It has been favored with fine weather half a dozen times in succession. If, on the previous day, the sky looks threatening, the remark sure to be made is that, after so many propitious holidays, bad weather must be expected. If, again, your newspaper fails to reach you one morning, you count on a long period of regularity. Yet a little reflection shows that a man who has been in two thunder-storms is as likely as anybody else to be caught in a third ; that one deal of cards has not the slightest traceable influence on the next; that the weather of one church outing does not affect its successor ; and that a postoffice miscarriage, provided it does not lead to increased carefulness, is no guarantee of prolonged regularity.

Yet we are all apt to confuse sequence with causation, coincidence with correlation. Worthy Thomas Fuller ridiculed the Kentish belief that the Goodwin Sands were caused by the erection of Tenterden steeple, but there are still multitudes of people who imagine that the moon’s quarters govern the weather of the ensuing week, and elaborate attempts have been made by pseudo-scientists to associate droughts, and even revolutions, with sun spots ; as though the moon’s disk were not constantly changing, the quarters being merely arbitrary divisions ; as though weather were uniform over the world or over a particular country ; as though sun spots could cause a drought in India and a wet summer in Europe. In like manner, astrologers failed to see that an infant’s horoscope ought to have applied to every other infant born at the same moment. It may be urged, indeed, that the universe is a web in which every thread is related to every other ; but when we speak of a coincidence, we mean that our limited knowledge and faculties can detect no link between two events. It is the only term we can apply to the storm which followed (it did not precede or accompany) the defeat of the Armada, to the storm at Cromwell’s death or at Pius IX.’s proclamation of infallibility, to the death of Jefferson and Adams on the jubilee of independence.

That time is causative is another general fallacy into which Bacon himself, curiously enough, fell; for, speaking of innovations, he says, “Time is the greatest innovator,

. . . but quietly, and by degrees scarce to be perceived.” Now, time really does nothing. Time works no marvels, though marvels may happen in its course. If buildings decay, it is not from the ravages of time, but it is the result of agencies working in time. A condemned man who trusts to time to demonstrate his innocence trusts to things which will happen in the course of time. Closely connected with this fallacy is the notion that cities or states are bound to perish. Macaulay’s New Zealander — borrowed from Hannah More, who borrowed it from Volney, who borrowed it from Plutarch’s picture of Marius seated on the ruins of Carthage — implies that time is an agent of inevitable decay. But cities and states perish only if there are causes of destruction, operating perhaps for a long period. Rome is a thousand years older than London. Is it therefore doomed to an earlier fall, or must either necessarily fall ? So, again, to speak of time as passing quickly is really to say that the earth’s diurnal or annual revolution is accelerated. All these expressions, it may be pleaded, are elliptical or metaphorical. Yes, but there is a general tendency to take them literally.

Another prevalent fallacy is that reforms are a going back to the past; not a progress, but a recovery. Magna Charta barons fancied that they were contending for the laws of Edward the Confessor. The first Protestants thought they were restoring the purity of the primitive church ; yet Renan, who had surely studied that period, smiled at such a notion. The Roundheads believed themselves to be reasserting old liberties. Louis XVI. was styled, in his brief heyday of popularity, the “Restorer of French Liberties.” The extension of the suffrage in England used to be demanded as a reversion to the past. Vegetarianism is advocated as a return to pristine diet. All this proceeds from the belief in the good old times. Yet, though, as St. Simon says, “the golden age lies before us,” progress might have been more difficult but for the belief that man was “advancing backwards.”