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Error: "Soft-Boiled Eggs Are Better Than Hard-Boiled Eggs"

Soft-boiled eggs

1) Introduction

Finding the actual cause of an event is not always obvious. But if we get fooled into thinking something is the cause, even though it is not, it can have serious consequences on our intellectual life.

2) Contaminated eggs, or the cooking method?

Let's start with an example. Let's imagine a village where everybody customarily eats hard-boiled eggs. Let's also suppose that the farmers give their chickens feed contaminated with toxic chemicals. Of course, villagers would often have serious heath problems, because of the toxic eggs.

Suppose then a new egg farmer arrived, and started producing eggs correctly, without letting his hens eat contaminated feed. What would happen if this new farmer told all his clients to only eat his eggs soft-boiled?

Of course, some people without scientific training, seeing hard-boiled eggs causing death and disease, while soft-boiled eggs just caused nutrition and good health, would conclude: "Soft-boiled eggs are better than hard-boiled eggs!"

3) An actual example of this error

This error pops up regularly, in all kinds of contexts.

For example, because currently in Canada we have a type of democracy called a "representative democracy", and because many of our politicians are corrupt, some people claim that a "participative democracy" will solve our problems.

Except a political decision is good or bad, independently of the quantity of persons that vote or participate in the decision-making process. Hens that eat grains contaminated with toxic wastes will lay contaminated eggs, which will remain contaminated, whether soft or hard-boiled. In the same way, political decisions that are contaminated with ignorance, selfishness, pride, etc., are going to be corrupt decisions, whether they were "layed" by a representative or a participative democratic process.


4) A few technical details about errors related to the cause

There are many ways one can be mistaken about the real cause of some effect. Logicians explore these various errors, and sometimes give them technical names.

First, let's look at some types of causation:

	1) A is a cause of B

	2) B is a cause of A

	3) A can be a cause of B, and
	B can be a cause of A

	4) A and B are caused by C

	5) A is caused by B and C

	6) A and B are unrelated


As you can imagine, all of these types of causation can be "mixed up", in other words, you could think you're looking at a #2, when in reality it's a #1, or a #5, etc. For example (partially inspired by Wikipedia):

4.1) Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (Latin meaning: "After this, therefore because of this"). A #6 which is erroneously thought to be a #1, because A precedes B temporally. Example: "Soft-boiled eggs are better than hard-boiled eggs." (Explained here above.)

4.2) Wrong direction. A #1 which is erroneously thought to be a #2. Example: "Driving a wheelchair is dangerous, which is why so many people who drive wheelchairs are handicapped."

4.3) Spurious relationship. A #4 which is erroneously thought to be a #1. Example: "Ice cream is dangerous, because when ice cream sales go up, more children drown in pools." (It's the heat wave which causes both the increase in ice cream sales and drownings.)

4.4) Fallacy of the single cause. A #5 which is erroneously thought to be a #2. Example: "A shooting occurs in a school, and the shooter listened to satanic music. Therefore satanic music caused that shooting." (It could very well be a combination of satanic music, sloppy gun control laws, irresponsible parents, etc.)

4.5) Circular cause and consequence. A #3 which is erroneously thought to be a #1. Example: "Lack of formal education causes poverty." (You could rather say poverty tends to make it hard to get formal education, and lack of formal education tends to make it hard to get a good job, hence tends to make you poor, etc.)

Etc., etc...

Studying errors is interesting and often helpful. That being said, remember that error, by definition, tends to be "indefinite" and "formless". (For example, think about all the ways a house can be incorrectly built: crooked windows, doors that don't close, paint that peels, etc.) Because of its very nature, it's impossible to provide a solid and exhaustive classification of error.

5) Conclusion

Next time someone tells you that soft-boiled eggs are better than hard-boiled eggs, show them your middle finger!

(No, I'm not advocating vulgarity, it's that the middle finger of the Philosopher's glove is the "Cause finger". We must make an effort to go past apparent causes, to find the real cause.)

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