Fourteen years before the Titanic was built, Morgan Robertson wrote a book called Futility, which was first published in 1898.
The story features an enormous fictional passenger ocean liner called the SS Titan. The fiction story and the real life Titanic had some uncanny similarities. The Titan and the Titanic were described as unsinkable, both struck an iceberg, both sank in the month of April, both sank in the North Atlantic and they did not have enough lifeboats for all the passengers. Morgan has since been described as a clairvoyant, a seer and even spooky. Others have aptly described this as a case of life imitating art. But could it have simply been a random occurrence that led to these inaccurate conclusions about Morgan?
Failure to take randomness into account, leads to inaccurate conclusions by ignoring the differences between situations, and choosing only to focus on the similarities. The delusion of coincidence is a predictable malfunction of human logic. This is known as the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. The fabled Texas sharpshooter is the tale of a dishonest cowboy who fires his gun randomly at the side of his barn, then afterwards paints the bullseye around the spot where the most bullet holes cluster on the barn’s wall, making him look like an excellent marksman.
The findings of an opinion poll in 2018 by Ipsos showed Deputy President William Ruto was perceived to be the most corrupt politician in the country. More recently, there have been innuendos that every corruption scandal from maize, to construction of an oil jetty, to unbuilt water dams all revolves or traces back to Ruto. The most recent spat has been between him and the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, where the contention is not that money has been stolen, but rather the amount that is said to have been irregularly misappropriated for personal gain.
According to public opinion, the common denominator when these and other scandals are clustered has been Ruto. There is no shortage of theories and opinions fronted that he uses his cronies and associates appointed to the scandalised public institutions to siphon public resources for his personal benefit. Subsequently, his allies have taken every opportunity in public forums such as funerals and the social media, to threaten and remind his accusers that the mud thrower never has clean hands. The consensus from their perspective is that these are efforts to dissuade his presidential political ambitions.
Begs the question, have we, as a nation, become the Texas sharpshooter? Have we been drawing a bullseye of Ruto’s face around the spot where scandals involving people of the Kalenjin nation are clustered?
In economic-speak the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is an analysis of outcomes out of context that can give the illusion of causation rather than attributing the outcomes to chance. It fails to take into account randomness when determining cause and effect, and instead emphasizes how outcomes are similar rather than how they are different. For instance, many investors sometimes fall prey to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy when evaluating portfolio managers because they focus on the trades and strategies that a certain manager got right while inadvertently disregarding what he didn’t do well.
Another example is that of an entrepreneur who has failed in several business attempts alongside one single successful one. The businessman is likely to tout his excellent entrepreneurial capabilities while downplaying his many failed attempts. This is likely to give the false impression that the business man is more successful than he really is.
In Ruto’s case, the biggest association with graft has been the Kalenjin factor. But have we bothered to interrogate the differences between those suspected to have stolen public funds and have been questioned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, and Ruto? Have we examined their ethos, their values, their morals, their faith and their beliefs, their motives and opportunities, with those of Ruto? Or is the fact that they share a similar mother tongue enough to suspect and publicly convict the Deputy President of all the national scandals without due process? Have we become victims of the clustering illusion?
Ordinarily, humans cluster things and then draw conclusions, because clustering and seeing patterns is the brain’s natural inclination to create order from chaos. Sometimes, when we look up at clouds, it is easy to see shapes of humans, animals or objects. Others see images of Jesus on a half-eaten toast. Seeing recognizable patterns in otherwise unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia. It is the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meanings between unrelated things and can easily fuel obsessiveness and paranoia.
I submit that if our true intentions are about fighting graft, we need to stop this obsession of branding Ruto as the High Priest of Corruption; because doing so is fighting the man and not the vice. Yet undoubtedly, corruption is a hydra-headed monster, where when one of the hydra heads is cut off, two more grow in its place. And the most frightening part of all, is that the hydra has an immortal head.
There are no two ways: The hydra monster of corruption must die. To kill the hydra, the shortest head branches are cut off first to strangle the regrowth of that entire section. Likewise, we should allow those suspected of corruption to be prosecuted in their individual capacities without invoking Ruto’s name or association. It will diminish the power of those perceived as ‘untouchable’ while choking the rhetoric that is used as political fodder in the guise of shielding mtu wetu.
Finally, my unsolicited advice is to Ruto is you don’t pour more troops into a battle that you are already winning. Likewise, the incessant and loud political rhetoric in your defense by those perceived to be your foot soldiers, underscores the fact that things that are false need continuous reinforcement to be believed.
Horse thieves are not hanged because they stole horses; but so that other horses will not be stolen – George Savile.