Electrical Failure, Logical Failure, and Political Discourse

We now join the conversation in progress . . .

Engineer (casually): “It’s a condition called thermal runaway.”
Editor (wide-eye-ed-ly): “It melted?”
Engineer (indignantly): “No, we unplugged it before it melted. We’re not idiots.”

While the Editor considers the evidence for and against this claim, additional evidence is tabled.

Engineer (conclusively): “We didn’t let the magic smoke out.”

Now just a doggone, dagnabbed, cotton-pickin’ minute. Magic smoke? You’re kidding me, right?

As it turns out, not at all.

Just before failing, electrical equipment emits smoke: blue and fetid, according to the experts. Since the equipment thereafter functioneth not, the smoke was, clearly, vital to its functioning. Q.E.D., as mathematicians and philosophers like to say, “quod erat demonstrandum” being a mouthful, and “So there!” being a little mouthy.

Exactly how the smoke is vital is, as yet, unknown, and may as well be called magic. In any event, “letting the smoke out,” magic or not, is a well-known failure mode for electrical and electronic devices.  After having been in New Zealand, I’m just hoping it’s not a well-known failure mode for planets, too.

Blue acidic-pH pond emitting steamng
Is the planet letting out the smoke?

But I digress.

Now, it isn’t every day that you find an in-joke—an engineering in-joke at that—that relies for its humour on a well-known failure mode for logical argumentation; to wit, the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy.

After this, therefore because of this.

OK, maybe it’s not so well known. I certainly don’t remember having heard about post hoc ergo propter hoc before, not in so many words. But in first-year philosophy I did hear about a similar concept that seemed, somehow, to be fewer words. Maybe because they were English. Maybe because I was younger.

Correlation does not imply causation.

I mean, it’s obvious, right? The rooster crowing doesn’t cause the sunrise. The shaman dancing doesn’t cause the rainfall. The driver braking doesn’t cause the collision.

Of course, sometimes both correlation and causation are at work, or there is some degree of causation, and that’s where things get a little less obvious. Not to say, tricky. Which reminds me, for some reason, of our upcoming federal election.

Completely unable as I am to predict its outcome, I can, nonetheless, predict with utter certainty that candidates for elected office will make many claims that assume simple causality in a complex world.

They will crow (umm, I mean, speak with justified yet dignified pride) about good things they’ve caused by their past actions and good things they will cause by their promised actions.

They will slam (umm, I mean, note with sincere and restrained regret) the bad things the other guys have caused by their past actions and/or inactions and the bad outcomes to be expected from their proposed actions.

After this, therefore because of this.

This time, I’m determined not to overlook any such sloppy argumentation, even when it aligns with my own preconceptions and biases. I’m determined to remember the many intervening factors between policy and outcome. I’m determined to acknowledge the limits of any government’s power to shape people, communities, the country, and the world, especially in the short term.

I’m determined, in short, to watch for folks pointing to magic smoke.

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4 Comments

  1. I never fail to wonder at how little scientists know about common occurrences. I am looking forward to your next political cautionary essay on mirrors, Isabel. The smoke in your New Zealand photo appears to have negated the effectiveness of the water as a mirror, so there’s a lovely entry.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – That “water” was amazing – the same colour as Lake Louise, at least to my mind’s eye, but virtually opaque, even without the steam rising from it. I use “water” because the pH was so low our guides said it virtually qualified as acid.

  2. Jim Taylor

    The all-too-common failure to distinguish between cause and correlation is, umm, all too common. Once upon a time, students were taught things like logic (as part of the trivium or quadrivium or something like that). Today, I think, everyone needs a basic understanding of statistical and probability theory. In politics (to which you drew our attention) it’s probably true that if Tom Mulcair gets to form the next government, the economy will tank. But that will be a correlation, not a cause; the cause will be that the corporations will withhold their investments in new products and processes until a government more in line with their own biases returns to power.
    Jim

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Well, as someone in the business world, I might take issue with your analysis, but at least it’s analytical, not emotional. I think we ought to be able to discuss differences of opinion rationally. In the backing and forthing we would all learn some new things, I expect.

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