The Accident Fallacy: A Beginning to Solve Many Issues

Want to help the world be a little bit better? Master the Fallacy of the Accident, and Apply It

Want to help the world be a little bit better? Master the Fallacy of the Accident, and Apply It

What is it? Confusing an accident (non-essential attribute) with an essential attribute?

  • Racism: Surface vs Character
  • Education: Degree vs Knowledge and Ability
  • Religion: Nominal vs Actual
  • Appearance vs Reality

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Controversy for Progress

Do you want to make the world a more peaceful? Have more discussion, not less. Have more controversy, not less. Similar to teaching a young person to drink moderately, rather than teaching them to embrace abstinence, wrestling with controversial subject matter is a must for an intelligent and free person. It is better for the person, and better for the society.

Do you want to make the world a more peaceful? Have more discussion, not less. Have more controversy, not less. Similar to teaching a young person to drink moderately, rather than teaching them to embrace abstinence, wrestling with controversial subject matter is a must for an intelligent and free person. It is better for the person, and better for the society.

Consider this quote from Tolstoy:

“If everyone made war only according to his own convictions, there would be no war.” Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Page 25

Basic assumptions

  1. Some problems are properly solved intellectually, rationally, and voluntary (almost everything important)

2. Some problems solved with violence (some break into your house, attacks you, invades your country, etc)

3. Moral and intellectual virtues are like muscles, with practice they are developed, with disuse, they atrophy.

Ground Rules for Rational Discussion:

  • No fallacies (no irrelevant attacks, but focus on the argument at hand; see my articles on Fallacies here, here, )
  • Respect for Truth and Right (see my article Rational Discussion)
  • Respect for the Other Members of the Discussion

Negatives of avoiding controversy

  • Avoiding controversy atrophies your own convictions.
  • Avoiding controversy is itself a statement of relevance (something that can be compartmentalized into another part of your life, means that you are not willing to confront the ill effects of taking a public stand)
  • Avoiding controversy allows for collecting false friends and superficial associations (think of Aristotle’s analysis of Friendship, based on Utility, Pleasure, Goodness)

Positives of regularly confronting controversy

  • If you can be the person that confronts controversy, then you can be a leader, and a force for good (leaders confront controversial issues)
  • If you’re regularly investing in dealing with substantial matters, then the superficial matters are getting less attention
  • If you develop your intellect and your moral courage, then you are encouraging all those around you to be better people (wrestling with controversy does just that)
  • Positively changes your investment of time and energy (think about when people compare the salary of NBA stars to teachers, or soldiers, and some lament that the stars should get less; with a bit of economics in mind, in a free market, people who support the sport, vote with their dollar to give players raises. When you devote your time and money to being more intelligent, well-spoken, and positively-influential, then you’re investing in education)

What can you do to help develop yourself and others

  • Organize your thoughts on controversial matters
  • Understand the moral and rational implications of moral and rational thought: the implications actually matter- meaning, if you find that one of your core beliefs is wrong, than you are obligated to modify your beliefs; if you find that your lifestyle is wrong, than you are obligated to change your lifestyle (if you aren’t willing to do that, are you a person of integrity at all?)

Homework for your personal growth

  • Make a list of controversial issues that are live today
  • Articulate in writing what you think on them
  • Expose the argument that you think is compelling in front of others (be respectful, though)
  • If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these things, in front of your friends, family, coworkers, ask yourself why this is the case.
  • Explore these topics: God, Economic Theory, Abortion, Racism, Gun Rights, Euthanasia, Charity vs Taxed Welfare, Socialism vs Capitalism

Great websites along similar lines:

Please Stop Misrepresenting Statistics: Correlation is not causation.

Repeat after me: Correlation is not causation. No, really: Correlation is not causation. It may have something causal to it, or it may not. It might have something informative, or it may not.

Oh my goodness, I can barely stomach watching the news, or watching social media posts…the statistical fallacies are basically palpable.


Repeat after me: Correlation is not causation. No, really: Correlation is not causation. It may have something causal to it, or it may not. It might have something informative, or it may not.

A disparity in a statistic does not have causal power because mere statistical correlations are not inherently causal at all!

A true statistic does indicate something, but it is not obvious what that something is.

Case 1: 100% of serial killers drink water. Should we infer that water leads to murders, murderers, etc? Why not?

Case 2: If you and Jeff Bezos were in a waiting room for something, the average net worth for those in the at waiting room would be around 50 billion dollars, assuming you are worth around 0 billion. Should we infer that you do, or should have 50 billion dollars? No. But why not?

Case 3: 100% of the top cartel family is wealthy (this cartel derives its income from prostitution, violence, drug trafficking, etc).  Are we justified in concluding that a member in the top cartel derives money from nefarious means? If yes, then why?

Case 4: 30% of group A are incarcerated. This is 10% more than some other class B. Should we infer that there was a miscarriage of justice? If yes, then why?

To talk about these issues meaningfully, we have to distinguish two types of cause: Agent causes, and natural causes (non-agent causes). Agent causes have to do with the choices of free agents (humans with free will). The other type of cause does not have a direct bearing on our choices (at least not in any obvious, direct, and explanatorily rich way). If we make these distinctions, then we can easily tackle these four cases.

In case 1, the difference between serial killers and non-serial killers has relevant relation to whether they drink water (it has to do with a set of actions, pursuits, etc, of different agents, choosing different paths in life).

In case 2, the average wealth of 50 billion dollars has no bearing on your because wealth has nothing to averages. Rather, it would need further information about previous choices, investments, property, etc. Importantly, there is no obvious insight into mere averages, and we are guilty of hasty generalization if we try to sneak in any other ideas without justification.

In case 3, the wealth of a given cartel member is stipulated to be ill-gotten because of the historical provenance of wealth creation. In other words, the fact that money was ill-gotten has nothing do with the numbers and percentage, it has to do with the quality of free will actions on behalf of the agents. The numbers themselves provide no helpful information…because….mere statistical correlations are not necessarily causal, nor even explanatory, without further information.

In case 4, we are not justified in concluding anything about group A or group B at all because none of the relevant information is included. It says nothing about the choices, the laws, the process by which they were incarcerated. The idea that they should be equal in every way is astonishingly naive.

I have many ideas on why some get misled by statistics, but this is a long enough post. Let’s make the world less crazy with fewer fallacies. Please. Seriously. Please.

As a last-minute qualification, the wrinkle is that some correlations might indicate something causal. However, the issue here is that there is a good reason to not jump to conclusions. For instance, taking cyanide does lead to death. But this simple point here is that we are not justified in making an automatic jump between correlation and causation.

For other posts on voting, social media, logic, citizenship, and philosophy.

For a more in-depth look at statistical fallacies go here.

For a good video introduction to statistical fallacies go here, in the context of the social sciences, Jonathan Haidt (start towards the end if you only want the correlation/causation discussion).

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How to Refute an Argument (and how not to)

What is the difference between an uncritical attack, on the one hand, and a critical refutation, on the other? Understanding what is wrong and right is quite different from feeling comfortable with a given set of ideas and positions (comfort does not necessitate rightness or truth). To this end, to know this difference between actually arguing and refuting, I will briefly explain what a refutation actually is (and isn’t). In the world of information, this is extremely important.

If you want to pinpoint the source of an error in a given argument, you basically have two fronts to consider: (1) the truth of the premises, and (2) the reasoning between the premises that lead to the conclusion (validity). Knowing this, we can also infer how NOT to refute something. That is to say, a true refutation does at least one of the two things we just discussed (or both). A false refutation is something that looks good on a superficial and emotional level, like something substantial is being said but doesn’t survive careful analysis (it isn’t actually substantial; flash without substance).

Boiled Down: uNDERMINE AN ARGUMENT BY SHOWING the FALSITY OF ONE OR MORE PREMISES, AND/OR SHOWING THAT THERE IS AN INVALID INFERENCE.

fOR A COMPLETE REFUTATION, HOWEVER, YOU NEED A COUNTER ARGUMENT THAT CONTRADICTS THE CONCLUSION OF THE ARGUMENT THAT YOU ARE ATTACKING.

Some popular fallacies are basically attacks (not on the actual argument, its premises, etc). Ad hominem (latin for ‘against the man’) is popular, which is simply to attack the character of the arguer or the platform that they have. For instance, rather than wrestling with the cited data, the interpretation of the data, or the reasoning, one could attack the style, or appeal to anything else that prevents another person from ‘taking it seriously.’ The ‘it’ here is the argument. The argument is important, the means that the communication is made, verbally, visually, etc, but these things are not important (only important in an auxiliary way).

This can’t be stressed enough. A bad person can make a good argument. A good person can make a bad argument. A smart person can assert something foolish and stupid. A fool can say something brilliant and true. This is why critical thinking and logic are so important. If we can cultivate the ability to reason together, examine arguments, and know what the ‘point’ of the argument is, then we can all jointly get closer to the truth.

With this in mind, if you read something that you think is wrong, the burden is two-fold: showing the falsehood of premises, and/or showing the illicit inference. That’s it.


Contrariwise, a false refutation is precisely when you make an attack that essentially tells yourself and others: ‘don’t wrestle with the premises and reasoning’. That is, a false refutation is an attack on the general credibility of the arguer instead of the argument itself.

There are some some notable things to be said though, regarding credibility of sources. A person known for lying might be lying. True. A news site known for fabricated stories might be fabricating stories. These are things that we should be aware of. However, if we are to be part of the critical discussion of ideas and truth, we have to demonstrate where the arguments go wrong, if we are to understand how to get things right.

In short, critical reasoning is hard, and we should be on our guard to not pretend we are doing it, when in fact, we are just attacking something without examining it carefully. An honest solution is easy. You can say, ‘I don’t know.’ Or, ‘I haven’t examined the studies yet.’ The worst thing that you can do though, is to pretend to think carefully when there was nothing going on but sheer prejudice (‘I don’t like this view, so it must be stupid and wrong’).

So, let’s talk about premises and reasoning because that is what critical thinking requires. It is hard. It is time-consuming. But it is better for everyone.

See also these articles on reasoning and logic: