Nov 17 2020

Following The Rules

Most of us have probably had the experience, whether we remember a specific incident or not, of playing with friends when we were very young. When children first learn how to play with others one of the first lessons learned is that you follow the rules of the game. You don’t get to make up your own rules as you go along. And of course those of us who are parents will better remember seeing this behavior in our own children. There is a natural competitiveness that children have, and they don’t like losing. When they do lose, it is common for them to attempt to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat by making up new rules ad hoc – after they see the results.

This is amusing when we see children do it, and it seems obvious why you can’t make up your own rules to reverse engineer the results you want. But of course, we continue this exact same behavior as adults, we simply do it with more sophistication and subtlety. Even scientists do it – when they do we often call it p-hacking, or perhaps harking (hypothesizing after the results are known). But using complex statistical analysis does not make the behavior fundamentally different than making up new rules on the elementary school playground.

Harking in science is very common. I most often see it in the form of making up explanations for why a clinical trial has failed. Perhaps the dose was too low or the treatment duration too short. Perhaps there is a subset of people in whom the treatment does work, if we just find the right parameters. Maybe we need to start treatment earlier. These are all reasonable hypotheses, and may be true in some cases, but raising them after a treatment has failed, and for no other reason than the fact that the results were negative, is not very predictive that any of them are true. It is simply making up excuses after the fact.

From a logical perspective we may call this behavior by the informal logical fallacy – the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. The arbitrarily Texan example boasts that they can always hit the bullseye of a target with their rifle. They then shoot at the side of a barn, then go up and draw a target around the hole they just made – bullseye. Again – this is so obvious an example that it’s humorous, but the behavior is actually extremely common in more subtle forms. Conspiracy theories thrive on this fallacy. They take whatever has happened and then fit it retroactively into their conspiracy narrative. Anything becomes evidence of the conspiracy, after the fact. That is why real scientific hypotheses have to make predictions about outcomes that are not currently known.

I am writing about this now because we are seeing this post-hoc fallacy playing out on a national scale, with millions of American freely engaging in it. We just had a national election, following rules that were laid out before hand – rules that have been hammered out and tweaked over two centuries of voting. The pandemic did throw us a curve ball, but we had months to prepare, a practice round with the primaries, and by all accounts this was the “most secure election ever.” About 150 million ballots were cast, which is amazing when you think about it. The logistical task of transparently counting all these ballots, verifying them, and adding up the totals was carried out over a relatively short period of time. We now have a clear and indisputable result.

But about half the country does not like the outcome, so they are desperately searching for ways to change the rules after the fact. Fortunately many states have already baked into their election laws that once voting starts you cannot change the rules of the election. These efforts, therefore, are not getting anywhere in the courts. Judges are not just ruling against efforts to throw out votes or delegitimize the results – they are laughing them out of court.

The most obvious example of playground hypocrisy was the fact that in states where Trump was ahead supporters were chanting “Stop the vote” and in states where Trump was behind they were chanting “Count those votes”. So I guess such childish efforts to change the rules after the fact are not always more sophisticated in adults.

But in many interviews that the media just love to showcase, many Trump voters see evidence of a rigged election in the background noise of the logistics of modern elections. Given the massive effort, there are always going to be anomalies. What is amazing, if anything, is how few and how small the anomalies are. Many point to the fact that Trump was ahead on election night, and then a blue wave slowly but inexorably wiped out his lead. This is not inherently evidence of fraud, and no one before the election would have identified this pattern as evidence of fraud – but after the fact people can essentially use harking to make it retroactively into evidence for what they want. This is made worse by the fact that pretty much every pundit discussing the election before hand predicted that exactly this would happen, because more Trump voters were voting in person day-of, and more Biden voters were voting by mail, which would take longer to count, especially in those states that don’t start counting until election day.

All of this is why courts have rules of evidence. In those courts, under oath and under scrutiny, no credible evidence of significant voter fraud has been presented. But in the schoolyard of public opinion, we see an adult version of all the childish behavior we see in children. And of course they are all following the schoolyard bully who is throwing nothing short of a full-blown toddler temper tantrum, insisting they won, that their opponents cheated, and wanting the change the rules to suit their needs. Most of us learn that this behavior is unacceptable, and if not we usually refer to those children as spoiled brats.

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