Anti-tiger rocks and misplaced causality.

The example of the dangerous crosswalks in NYC reminded me of the classic exchange between Lisa and Homer Simpson concerning the effectiveness of “bear patrols” in their town:

Later, a full-force Bear Patrol is on watch.  Homer watches proudly.

Homer: Not a bear in sight.  The Bear Patrol must be working like a
Lisa: That’s spacious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

Homer incorrectly links causality of a tiger-free Springfield to the mention of the rock. This may be a result of Lisa’s status as a generally intellegent and trustworthy source of information. As a result, Homer trusts her reputation blindly and accepts her logic. This particular example is somewhat ridiculous (who would buy a rock to keep away tigers?), but perhaps the political popularity of bear patrols in Springfield gives an insight into how we might misplace the importance of threats in our own society.

The biggest example that I can conjure is the war in Iraq. Sure there were no major terrorist attacks in the US while the war carried on, but was such a costly endeavor a cause of the security that we enjoyed? Perhaps we might have saved thousands of lives and would have not ruined so many others if we had been able to resist the collective urge to retaliate on any available foe after the September 11th attacks? The crowds were wildly in favor of the expansion of war, but they were incorrect in assessing the reality of the threat that Saddam Hussein actually posed.


4 thoughts on “Anti-tiger rocks and misplaced causality.”

  1. The Simpsons does a great job of layering its humor. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head but i feel as though a lot of the jokes they make appeal to both smart viewers and dumb viewers. So within a joke there are two jokes, one which appeals to the intellectual who can understand that vague reference while also appealing to the fool who finds the joke funny for some simple reason. I think that the way major media outlets handled reporting the onset of the war is similar to how Groening structured his jokes. Some media outlets relied on biased sensationalist reporting appealing to the uninformed, while others reported more tactfully. I guess what i’m getting at is this, everyone loves the Simpson’s because everyone can understand it regardless of how smart or how dumb they are. Our Media, not so much. The topics covered by them are consistent but the same cannot be said about their audiences and their perceptions of those events. Its this ideological divide between readers of different media that allow for such sketchy reporting.

    1. This is a really great and funny example of logic based on false causality. Sensationalism in news and unfortunately public policy tends to make this mistake far too often for the sake of simplicity. Not just the Iraq War, but even some of the economic arguments we’ve seen on the news about balanced budgets, Fed policy, or outsourcing are way off the mark of real cause and effect.

  2. I feel like a lot of the influence seen in this Simpson’s example comes from the idea of authority. Homer generally regards Lisa as smart and trustworthy, so he is willing to take her word on certain matters. Authority may lead people to place more of an emphasis on the advice or recommendations of certain people, and this could lead to a potential skew in a person’s perception of that recommendation.

  3. I agree that the Simpson’s example is excellent for illustrating misplaced causality, but I do not believe that Operation Iraqi Freedom is appropriate for this. The main “selling point” for the Iraq War was not retaliation for the Setember 11th terrorist attacks, but to neutralize the perceived threat of weapons of mass destruction being wielded by a corrupt and crumbling Iraqi government. Yes, the old adage of harboring terrorists was used, but if you read the documents and especially the Silberman-Robb Commission report, you will find that WMDs were by far the biggest reason. One of the most interesting conclusions is that Saddam Hussein believed that the US were able to see through his bluff and know that he did not actually have WMD, but he was far more worried about Iran and Israel knowing he did not have WMD. Perhaps some Bayesian analysis would have helped the policymakers out, as “a lack of rigorous analysis” which was based mostly on inferences and assumptions has been identified as one of the primary issues with the decision making process that led up to the war.

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