Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

By Jake Block

In Latin, it means, “After this therefore because of this.”  Yes, it’s confusing, but it’s a common fallacy set wherein someone assumes that because and event occurred after another event the two must be somehow linked.  The second event happened because of the first.
An example ad absurdum might be something like, “Most people who are read the last rites die shortly afterward, therefore, the words of the Catholic Priests kill people.”  Now, of course this is absurd and you would hope that no logical person would think like this… well… unless your are a devotee of conspiracy theories, where it would make perfect sense and become a rallying cry to ban Catholic Priests and/or the giving of the last rites to dying people.
One example of the post hoc flaw is the evidence often given for the efficacy of prayer. When someone reasons that as they prayed for something and it then happened, it therefore must have happened because they prayed for it, they commit the post hoc fallacy. The correlation between the prayer and the event could result from coincidence, rather than cause, so does not prove that prayer works.

Personal superstitions often arise from people committing the post hoc fallacy. Consider, for example, a sportsman who adopts a pre-match ritual because one time he did something before a game he got a good result. The reasoning here is presumably that on the first occasion the activity preceded the success, so the activity must have contributed to the success, so repeating the activity is likely to lead to a recurrence of the success. This is a classic example of the post hoc fallacy in action.  We all know of the people who only wear purple socks on Thursday, because they wore purple socks on Thursday 25 years ago, they won $250 in the lottery.  The fact that they may not have won a thing since is beyond the point.  In their mind, the act of putting on that pair of purple socks was the precedent cause of their windfall.

Now a lot of this is simply naivety, and looking for causal aspects of what could be strictly acausal in nature.  But the thing is, you can find causality a hell of a lot easier than it is to accept that there could be no cause… just dumb luck… a freak accident… nothing anyone did to cause an avalanche, but the simple act of gravity acting upon a weighted, wet mass on a downward plane.  The people killed below never saw it coming, but doesn’t someone have to be to blame?  Under the concept of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the die was cast in “something’s path,” and the ripples in the fabric of time and space now spread and widen, like the ripples in a lake when you toss in a pebble.  One single action that can change EVERYTHING?  That’s a hell of a lot of credit to give to a lowly pebble.

But they say one bullet fired by Gavrilo Percep set the wheels of war in motion when one of the bullets he fired toward Archduke Ferdinand, being chauffered in an open car through the streets of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  A fatal bullet struck and killed the Archduke, presumptive heir to the throne of Austro-Hungaria.  One bullet killed the Archduke, and that one bullet’s impact began a rippling effect that would reach out to the world, resulting eventually in the deaths of 37 million people, both military and civilian, on all sides of the conflict.  It apparently negated… or trumped the power of the ripples from the other bullet that killed his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg.  It also, apparentl nullified the bullets of the other would be assassins that had been dispatched with guns and bombs to accomplish the same feat as Precip. whose fateful bullet swept them all up in the resultant dragnet.  The conspirators wasted away in prison.

“Post hoc ergo propter hoc.”  From that one bullet, war began.  Millions killed.  The world in chaos.  The loss of the war to the amassed forces of the world.  One bullet, forged amongst millions, somehow swept the world into devastation and, one could argue, set the world solidly on a collision course with Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and even greater devastation in World War II.  Truth be known, it was on that path before the Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrivic ordered his teams of assassins into the field.  What ripple precipitated what?  It would depend upon one’s point of view.

If one searched hard enough, one can find causality in any event.  Take, for example, the deadly songs such as Gloomy Sunday, written by Reso Seress in 1932, popularized by the American Blues legend, Billie Holiday.  Its lyrics, haunting and indeed “gloomy,” were thought to be the catalyst for a rash of cluster suicides in the 30s, leading to its blacklisting on many radio stations.  Listen to it.  Holliday’s voice, the music and the lyrics are compelling and profoundly sad.  But are they sad enough to cause people to commit suicide?  It is estimated that 200 people world-wide ended their lives because of it, and it’s writer Reso Seress did indeed commit suicide by jumping off of a building in Budapest, Hungary in 1968.  His girlfriend, who inspired the song committed suicide shortly after the song’s release.  She left a suicide note with only two words, “Gloomy Sunday.

“Sunday is gloomy
My hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows
I live with are numberless
Little white flowers
Will never awaken you
Not where the black coach
Of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thoughts
Of ever returning you
Would they be angry
If I thought of joining you
Gloomy Sunday
Gloomy is Sunday
With shadows I spend it all
My heart and I
Have decided to end it all
Soon there’ll be candles
And prayers that are said I know
Let them not weep
Let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream
For in death I’m caressin’ you
With the last breath of my soul
I’ll be blessin’ you
Gloomy Sunday
Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep
In the deep of my heart here
Darling I hope
That my dream never haunted you
My heart is tellin’ you
How much I wanted you

Gloomy Sunday

If Saress had never penned the lyrics, had never scored the first note… would hundreds of lives have been spared by the rippling effect of the song’s blighted existence?  Would Saress and his star-crossed love have lived in happiness, were it not for the sadness of this song.  Were the sad lyrics the catalyst, or was it the depressing musical score… or was it simply coincidence upon coincidence upon coincidence?

What about a song that is loved by many?  In 1961, Japanese artist Kyu Sakamoto released his biggest hit, “Ue o Muite Aruko (I Look Up as I Walk).”  It was released later in 1963 in America as “Sukiyaki.”  The song was wildly popular and reached #1 on the Billboard top 100 in 1963.  It is considered to be one of the best selling singles in history, and spent 8 solid weeks at the top of the charts.

Kyu Sakamoto enjoyed much success, wealth and fame as a singer, based primarily on the strength of that one, popular song.  He lived in Japan and traveled the world singing his song and enjoying the fame and notoriety.  The song speaks of a man who lost his love and is remembering times long past.  Life goes on, even through lonely times.

“I look up when I walk

So the tears won’t fall
Remembering those happy spring days
But tonight I’m all alone
I Look up when I walk
Counting the stars with tearful eyes
Remembering those happy summer days
But tonight I’m all alone
Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies above the sky
I look up when I walk
So the tears won’t fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I’m all alone
Remembering those happy autumn days
But tonight I’m all alone
Sadness hides in the shadow of stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon
I look up when I walk
So the tears won’t fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I’m all alone
But Kyu Sakamoto’s life ran afoul of a ripple out there, making its way from whatever starting point into the air, high above the Sea of Japan and Japan Airlines flight 123 on August 12, 1985.  Sakamoto and 519 other passengers were killed in the “deadliest single-aircraft accident” to that date.  What caused that ripple?  Was it his song?  Was it collateral damage from some malevolent curse cast into the ethers by some satanic master magician?  Or, more likely, was it a pre-existing problem with the 747?
Japan’s Aircraft Accident Investigation commission officially concluded that “The rapid decompression was caused by a faulty repair after a tail-strike incident during a landing at Osaka Airport SEVEN YEARS EARLIER.  A doubler plate on the rear bulkhead of the plane was improperly repaired , compromising the plane’s airworthiness.  Cabin pressurization continued to expand and contract the improperly repaired bulkhead until the day of the accident, when the faulty repair finally failed, causing the rapid decompression that ripped off a large portion of the tail and caused the loss of hydraulic controls to the entire plane.
In the end, much like most incidents friendly or foul, it boiled down to what most logical people could see as just dumb luck.  No, 520 people weren’t in some bizarre 6 degrees of separation conspiracy, aligning magically with Kyu Sakamoto, placing them all on that same fated plane at the same terrible time.  One could make a huge leap of faith in the concept of “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” and pinpoint the bad repair job and the mechanic’s human error to the 747 seven yeare prior to the tragedy… or perhaps to the tail-strike and the aircraft captain’s human error mistake.  Or perhaps… perhaps… it boiled down to just bad luck.  Planes fail.  Sometimes we find the reason, other times we simply end up laying a wreath on the surface of the ocean and move on.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc…”after this therefore because of this” only makes sense when a direct and valid correlation can be made indicating cause and effect.  There was an earthquake in Oakland, CA at 7:55AM and a plate fell from the shelf in my home in Suisun City 40 miles away at about the the same time.  One could logically draw a cause and effect line there.  However, the fact that the was an earthquake in Oakland, CA at 7:55 AM could scarcely be related to an increased incidence of mange in the dogs of Ogden, Utah, nearly 750 miles away.  Common sense should always be our go-to setpoint.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc can often be countered with Interdum accidit stercore. (Sometimes shit happens.)”
The Orders of The Sect of the Horned God

The Order of Pan
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