While most of the world remembers D-Day and the Normandy landings, others look back in history and notice that other major conflicts also started in June, such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austra-Hungary on June 28, 1914, that started World War 1, and the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War on June 17, 1775. Other significant events that took place in June include the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (June 19, 1862), the Tiananmen Square massacre (June 4, 1989), and the beginning of the Korean War (June 25, 1950). A cursory glance may make some people think that there is a pattern. However, anyone who holds a belief that wars and significant historical events tend to start in June may be making a Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
The term came from a fabled Texas cowboy who shot the side of a barn several times with a shotgun or a pistol. He found a cluster of holes and drew a bullseye around it, making it appear as if he was an expert marksman. The Texas sharpshooter fallacy focuses on specific facts or data while ignoring the fact that random chance could have caused the effect. Facts are cherry-picked to suit an argument, and patterns are “organized” to fit a presumption.
Journalist and writer David Ramsey, author of You Are Not So Smart, used the Lincoln-Kennedy urban legend as an example of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. First, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were elected as president of the U.S. 100 years apart. Both were assassinated with a firearm, and their assassins were known by “three names with 15 letters, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, and neither killer would make it to trial.” Both vice-presidents who served with Lincoln and Kennedy had the same last name, which was Johnson. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808. Lyndon B. Johnson was born in 1908. Lincoln was killed in Ford Theater; Kennedy was killed in a Lincoln made by Ford. Both presidents were killed next to their wives.
Although this seems like a spooky piece that is told on Halloween, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy blinds other facts that showed differences between the assassinations. Lincoln was shot with a pistol; Kennedy was shot with a rifle. Lincoln was a Baptist; Kennedy was a Catholic. Lincoln was shot in Washington D.C.; Kennedy was shot in Texas. Lincoln was shot in a theater; Kennedy was shot in a moving automobile. Lincoln sported a beard; Kennedy did not. The list of differences could go on, from the environment to the color and style of clothing the presidents wore on the day of their death. For every similarities that exist, ten more differences also exist. Thus, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy can narrow viewpoints and thoughts to a small spectrum of the whole.
Although the Texas sharpshooter fallacy can make June seem like common start for war or grand changes, it can be used to address serious and life-threatening matters. The terminology was first used to describe how cases of disease cluster in a population epidemiology, according to Gary N. Curtis, Ph.D., who is the author of Fallacy Files. A famous example was the case with Erin Brockovich in which hexavalent chromium in the water supply of Hinkley, California, was blamed for causing cancer among some of the residents, which led to a $333 million legal settlement. However, a study conducted by John W. Morgan, Ph.D., from Loma Linda University showed that the cancer rate “was no greater than that of the general population.” In fact, the rate was slightly lower. A 2010 study by California Cancer Registry also showed similar findings of the cancer rate.
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy tends to make people jump to the conclusion that a cluster of information is the result of a cause. Curtis stated that this is fallacious because the cluster could be the result of random chance. Even if it is not caused by chance, there are other possible reasons why the clusters occur other than the cause chosen. Such clusters should not be used for a causal conclusion; instead, they could be used to form a causal hypothesis which needs to be tested. “In short, correlation is not causation,” Curtis concluded.
By drawing a “bullseye” around June, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy can make some believe that wars and major conflicts tend to start in that month, ignoring or paying little attention to other conflicts that happened in other months. For example, someone might put a bullseye around December and note that wars and conflicts happen in that month, such as the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, the Battle of Givenchy in 1914 during World War 1, the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 during the American Civil War, and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Patterns can be woven from randomness, and that is one of the traits of the human mind. “You see patterns everywhere, but some of them are formed by chance and mean nothing,” Ramsey wrote. “Against the noisy background of probability things are bound to line up from time to time for no reason at all. It’s just how the math works out.”
By Nick Ng