Cilla Webster takes issue

In the Sunday Times letters page today (not available online, sorry), Cilla Webster takes issue with Ben Trovato’s open letter to Errol Naidoo regarding E-Tv’s screening the Naked News. That’s fine – she can have her view, as can Naidoo, regardless of how stupid those views might be. But Webster’s letter does allow for a quick and easy demonstration of the ‘false cause’, or ‘correlation, not cause’ fallacy. Webster writes:

A few years ago a 12-year-old boy in a township nearby me was sitting in his grandfather’s chair, watching the late porn movie. There was a hit out on the grandfather and the child was killed instead because he was watching porn. It was a tragedy for the parents.

I’m sure it was a tragedy for the parents, and the boy was no doubt somewhat alarmed when the gunmen (or whatever) came in for the hit. But the story – or at least this account of it – is a tragedy for reason also, in that it picks an arbitrary detail of the story as being the ’cause’ of the boys death. He was killed because:

  • He was at home.
  • He was sitting in his grandfather’s chair.
  • The killers were mistaken as to where the grandfather was.
  • The chair was in a particular position, which perhaps didn’t allow the killers to spot that the grandfather looked mysteriously small, and young, before pulling the trigger.
  • The child was watching TV.
  • etc.

To say that porn caused the boy’s death is laughable, and trivialises a sad story. His death was correlated with watching porn, but there is no causal connection. For there to be one, it would have to be the case that it is impossible for the child to not have been in that chair, at that time, under any other circumstance. Watching the news, for example. Or even, watching some gospel programming.

These are the sorts of reasons why we can’t take people like Naidoo seriously – not because their conclusions are obviously nonsense (porn could be bad for gender relations, or contribute to some harms), but because their arguments, and their evidence, show few signs of having ever given the matter a moment’s thought.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.