Alias: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc1
Sibling Fallacy: Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc
Sheldon (on phone): Oh, hi mom. … The Arctic expedition was a remarkable success, I'm all but certain there's a Nobel Prize in my future. Actually, I shouldn't say that. I'm entirely certain. No, mother, I could not feel your church group praying for my safety. The fact that I'm home safe is not proof that it worked, that logic is Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. No, I'm not sassing you in Eskimo talk.2
|Event C happened immediately prior to event E.
Therefore, C caused E.
|Events of type C happen immediately prior to events of type E.
Therefore, events of type C cause events of type E.
|The only policy that effectively reduces public shootings is right-to-carry laws. Allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns reduces violent crime. In the 31 states that have passed right-to-carry laws since the mid-1980s, the number of multiple-victim public shootings and other violent crimes has dropped dramatically. Murders fell by 7.65%, rapes by 5.2%, aggravated assaults by 7%, and robberies by 3%.3
|[E]vidence shows that even state and local handgun control laws work. For example, in 1974 Massachusetts passed the Bartley-Fox Law, which requires a special license to carry a handgun outside the home or business. The law is supported by a mandatory prison sentence. Studies by Glenn Pierce and William Bowers of Northeastern University documented that after the law was passed handgun homicides in Massachusetts fell 50% and the number of armed robberies dropped 35%.4
|Roosters crow just before the sun rises.
Therefore, the crowing of roosters causes the sun to rise.
The Post Hoc Fallacy is committed whenever one reasons to a causal conclusion based solely on the supposed cause preceding its alleged effect. Of course, it's a necessary condition of causation that the cause precede the effect, but it's not a sufficient condition. In other words, a cause must precede its effect, but one event's preceding another is not enough to conclude that the one caused the other. Thus, post hoc evidence may suggest the hypothesis of a causal relationship, but it is never sufficient evidence on its own to establish it.
Post Hoc also manifests itself as a bias towards jumping to conclusions based upon coincidences. Superstition and magical thinking include post hoc thinking. For instance, when a sick person is treated by a witch doctor, or a faith healer, and becomes better afterward, superstitious people conclude that the spell or prayer was effective. When people treat diseases with snake oil or other quack remedies and eventually recover, they often attribute their recovery to the oil. Luckily for the snake oil salesmen, those who don't recover will not be around to badmouth the oil. Moreover, sick people usually seek treatment when their illness is at its worst, so that they are likely to begin feeling better almost immediately thereafter. Since most illnesses will go away on their own eventually―or the patient will die―any treatment will seem effective by this kind of thinking. This is why it is so important to test proposed remedies carefully, rather than jumping to conclusions based upon anecdotal evidence.
These two examples show how the same fallacy is often exploited by opposite sides in a debate― in this case, the gun control debate. There are clear claims of causal relationships in these arguments. In the anti-gun control example, it is claimed that so-called "right-to-carry" laws "effectively reduce" public shootings and violent crime. This claim is supported by statistics on falling crime rates since the mid-1980s in states that have passed such laws. In the pro-gun control example, it is claimed that state and local gun control laws "work", presumably meaning that the laws play a causal role in lowering handgun crime. Again, the claim is supported by statistics on falling crime rates in one state. However, the evidence in neither case is sufficient to support the causal conclusion.
For instance, violent crime in general fell in the United States since at least the early 1990s until a few years ago5, andfor all that we can tell from the anti-gun control argumentit may have fallen at the same or higher rates in states that did not pass "right-to-carry" laws. Since the argument doesn't supply us with figures for the states without such laws, we can't do the comparison.
Similarly, the pro-gun control argument doesn't make it clear when Massachusett's drop in crime occurred, except that it was "after""post hoc"the handgun control law was passed. Also, comparative evidence of crime rates over the same period in states that did not pass such a law is missing. The very fact that comparative information is not supplied in each argument is suspicious, since it suggests that it would have weakened the case.
Another point raised by these examples is the use of misleadingly precise numbers6, specifically, "7.65%" and "5.2%" in the anti-gun control example. Especially in social science studies, percentage precision to the second decimal place is meaningless, since it is well within the margin of error on such measurements. It is a typical tactic of pseudo-scientific argumentation to use overly-precise numbers in an attempt to impress and intimidate the audience. A real scientist would not use such bogus numbers, which casts doubt upon the status of the source in the example. The pro-gun control argument, to its credit, does not commit this fallacy. This suggests, though it doesn't nail down, an appeal to misleading authority in the anti-gun control one.
- Translation: "After this, therefore because of this", Latin. See: Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985).
- "The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation", The Big Bang Theory
- "The Media Campaign Against Gun Ownership", The Phyllis Schlafly Report, Vol. 33, No. 11, June 2000.
- "Fact Card", Handgun Control, Inc.
- TCR Staff, "DOJ Survey: Violent Crime Now on the Rise", The Crime Report, 9/10/2019. See, also, the two line charts for violent crime in the following article: John Gramlich, "What the data says (and doesn't say) about crime in the United States", Pew Research Center, 11/20/2020.
- See: The Fallacy of Overprecision.