Monday, January 25, 2010

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Often I receive useful and interesting reactions to my blogs and I am my readers grateful for them. One such a reaction was by a reader of my blog last week, who added the comment “post hoc ergo propter hoc!”, to which I reacted “Exactly!”, for that is what my argument is (see note). I concluded seemingly that the recent cold waves in Europe and elsewhere in the world had been caused by the Climate Conference in Copenhagen. In fact, my blog was a cynical critique of the Climate Conference, of course, and I suppose that the readers of my blog have understood this.
Usually post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments and related reasonings like cum hoc ergo propter hoc (see note) are not as innocent as in my blog last week. We hear them everywhere around us and we see everywhere that people behave as if such arguments are valid, with the most serious consequences. For instance, the increase of crime is often ascribed to the rising numbers of foreigners in a community without any clear evidence. But maybe the truth is that the crime rate has risen because the foreigners are assaulted by the autochthonous people. Or another one, the economy is going down and the unemployment increases. What one often hears then is: “Those foreigners did it; they have taken our jobs”. The fact is, however, in many cases, that “those foreigners” have jobs that most local people do not want to do and the economy would even be more in trouble if there were no foreign labourers to do that work. And what to think of the holocaust? Jews were murdered because they were used as scapegoats for who knows what. The murder of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda is another case in point. Often we see here also the false argument that facts are ascribed to individuals because they belong to a group. Suppose that 60% of the Bytheway family are criminals. Then it is quite possible that I, the writer of this blog, am not a criminal and that I am the most honest person in the world.
What makes all these arguments so treacherous is that they might be true in the sense that it is quite well possible that what follows is caused by what precedes it or that there is another relation between things happening together. A cause precedes always its effect, for instance. And it is true, an individual might have the average characteristics of the members of the group he or she belongs to. But it is a matter of fact that such kinds of arguments are so often wrong that it is better to consider them as fallacies.

note: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” means literally “after this, therefore because of (on account of) this”. For instance, the rooster crows, and therefore the sun rises. “Cum hoc ergo propter hoc” is the false argument saying that if two facts or events happen to take place together, one is the cause of the other. For example, in the countryside there are both more storks and the birth rate is higher there than in towns, so the higher birth rate in the countryside must have been caused by the higher number of storks. Nobody will accept such arguments in simple cases, but in more complicated cases people often do.
More on and

Monday, January 18, 2010

The effectiveness of “Copenhagen 2009”

I have never seen never seen an international conference that has been as effective as the Climate Conference in Copenhagen one month ago. People have criticized this conference and called it a failure because no substantial decisions have been taken there. However, hardly had the conference ended or Europe and other parts of the world have been hit by a cold wave.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dutch passion

When it is winter and the temperature falls below the freezing point, the Dutch become restless: will it be possible or will it not? And yes, this year we can do it again, and I could do it again, too: skating. Of course, we can skate a big part of the year round on rinks with artificial ice, but skating on natural ice is something different. Skating on natural ice means skating on little or large lakes, on ponds, ditches and canals. Marvellous and extended spaces open for you once you can move on the ice. Places where you never come when the water is not frozen, even not by boat. Nature reserves normally closed to the public are now areas where it is free to skate. No one can stop a Dutch skater, certainly not the owner of a nature reserve, so the only solution then is to open these areas to the public.
In the past, when cars and trains still had to be invented, skating was not only a joy to do, as can be seen on the paintings by old Dutch masters. It was also practical. Normally, the only way to go somewhere was by foot, by horse or by coach or cart. And because many people did not have much money, most went by foot. But when there was ice, people could travel long distances within a short time. Some people skated even up to 200 km on one day. It was a good occasion to visit relatives that did not live in your town or village. But today skating has become a pure pleasure and a sport or both at the same time.
Last Monday, when I made my first gliding strides of this winter on a mere not far from my home (yes, it is a nature reserve, normally closed to the public), I was thinking about my blog. For hadn’t I been there on the ice, I should have sat behind my laptop writing down my next thoughts for the world. What should I write about? That Descartes saw the body as a machine, but that, after a year without skating, it is quite difficult to control this human machine on the ice and making the perfect strides? Or should I write something about “mens sana in corpore sano”, a healthy mind in a healthy body, and how in my life both come together, I hope? Or relate my activity to the meaning of sport for philosophers like Socrates and Plato? However, if I would do that, in a certain sense it would not be true. I mean, of course, it would be true, but in fact it would have nothing to do with my skating and in general with the skating of the Dutch. For even although it would be an interesting and useful explanation or framing of it, it would have nothing to do with what this skating really stands for, for skating is simply a Dutch passion.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The sensationlessness of nonviolence

In an article titled “Protest mobilization, protest repression, and their interaction” Clark McPhail and John D. McCarthy briefly describe and analyse one of the largest British riots in the last quarter of the 20th century, the 1991 Poll Tax Riot in and around Trafalgar Square in London. Despite the violence reported by police and media, scientific analysis of the case must lead to the conclusion, according to the authors, that “[it] is no exaggeration to assert that in this riot ... violence by civilians or by police officers is the exception rather than the rule. This is not ... the impression left by the print and electronic media, who consistently report violence against person and property, if and when it occurs, to the exclusion of the more frequent, prosaic, and nonviolent actions by the majority of the actors in the riot area” (in: Christian Davenport (eds.), Repression and Mobilization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005; pp. 17-18).
I think that generally this is true, not only for the case described: Media are more interested in reporting the violence in actions than the nonviolent behaviour of the participants. Even more, peaceful actions and demonstrations are often ignored just because there is no violence. Simply the fact that there is an action going on is often apparently not enough, even if this action is reasonable and justified. I do not want to say that peaceful actions are always ignored but generally the selection made in the media which actions to report is that way that one gets the impression that public actions and violence are linked in some way. However, during the years I have taken part in many demonstrations and other actions. Only one of them ended in disorder (although I do not have seen violence then; it was an anti-Vietnam demonstration about 40 years ago with some 50.000 participants). All other public actions I participated in had always a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. What I know from this experience, but also from reports that I received in other ways (mainly not from the big public media) is that a nonviolent course of public actions is the normal way. Even more, I dare to say that more than 99% of all public actions go off in a peaceful and pleasant way. But who is interested in talking about what is normal even when it may be more interesting? Aren’t we all sensation mongers and muckrakers in our heart who secretly enjoy the bad news and do not want to value the good news?