The Logical Fallacy of The Missing Subjunctive

An example of the fallacy, in general terms:

The state of the world has not improved,
therefore the effort intended to improve the
state of the world has not been effective.

The fallacy is in ignoring what the state would have been in the absence of the effort. The valid basis for comparison is ignored and probably unknowable.

The Fallacy of The Missing Subjunctive is related to the better known post hoc ergo propter hoc error. In the latter the cause is argued by a later effect that may in fact be unrelated. In the missing subjunctive fallacy the cause is disproved in the absence of a missing fact: what the state would have been in the absence of the cause.

This fallacy is particularly popular for arguing the failure of opposing politicians.


1. "The authors begin with statistics about the steep rise in the number of prisoners, but they ignore the fact that crime has neither increased nor decreased much in comparison. Imprisonment has not solved the problem." (from IEEE publication letter to editor)

Unknown: what the effect today would have been in the absence of the intended cause: imprisonment. If without the increased imprisonment the crime rate would have been much higher then the imprisonment solved the problem of increasing crime rate. The crime rate is less than it would have been.

2. "The 'War Against Poverty' has not worked; there are more people on welfare than before."

Unknown: the number on welfare if there had been no "War Against Poverty."

3. "The war against drugs has failed."

Unknown: the state of the drug problem if there had been no war.

(The drug war is a monumental blunder, nevertheless the statement above is invariably based on the subjunctive fallacy and loses its effectiveness for that reason.)

4. "Although not necessarily weather related, in 1275 Geoffroy de Briel, a major figure in medieval Greece, died during a military campaign of dysentery, a disease often exacerbated by cold wet conditions." in *Global Warming* by Thomas Gale Moore

Unknown: how many more would have died of dysentery in *warm* wet conditions. Tropical travellers of the liberal ideology would attest to many more. (This is only one of the more humorous of the countless twists of logic in this ideological tour de force, an outstanding example of the genre. I am indebted to John McCarthy of Stanford for displaying it on the Internet, as well as his developing essay on ideology and logic.)

5. "The U.S. intervention in Somalia was a failure."

Unknown: how many more would have starved if the U.S. had not intervened.

Watch for missing subjunctives. They are in your daily newspaper.

Copyright (c) 1996 Mason A. Clark. May be used without permission for a non-commercial purpose provided no changes are made and this notice is included. Distribution is encouraged. Comments are invited.

The Two Criteria of Poker and Catastrophism

The science of Catastrophe and the science of Poker are a bit more difficult than just knowing the odds.

Let me list the catastrophism arguments as I see them. As in "hard" science, there are arguments based not on arithmetic data but on general observations, and contextual arguments that make certain things reasonable and other things unreasonable to all reasonable men.

Of course, this is all well-known to you, but bear with me a moment while I set up the context -- a basis for agreement.

Experiments with many life forms in closed environments show the unsurprising fact that they eventually destroy themselves both by running out of food and by poisoning their environment.

In addition, experiments with higher life forms, such as white rats, show that - as population becomes crowded - the creatures become increasingly antisocial. In short, fighting and wars break out even when the environment supports life very well.

Data is well known for the loss of some elements of the human environment, for example, the dodo bird. And many more creatures and pieces of the Earth, for example, the Mesabi iron deposit that contributed so much to the industrialization of the U.S. (please don't jump in here with taconite. That is beside the point of the consumption of the Mesabi)

It is also a fact that the loss of such environmental elements as the dodo and the Mesabi have not significantly slowed the advance of the economy, the technology, or the living standard. We have done without the dodo and have found other and plentiful sources of iron.

The point is that some human-induced changes in the world are irreversible. That there may be compensations is another subject.

Massive amounts of data are on hand, and coming in daily, showing the degradation of important parts of the Earth. For examples, the erosion of top soil, the reduction of the ozone layer, the depletion of rich mineral deposits, the increase in atmospheric CO2 -- and the list goes on. The presence of large amounts of dangerous wastes - some of it radioactive - poses almost-intractable problems of long-term management, longer term than any human institutions with the possible exception of religious priesthoods.

Most of the data is beyond dispute. Some is controversial. Some is unimportant.

If you are a gambler, and all of us are in some way in our lives, then you know there are TWO criteria for placing a bet, not only one.

The first is the "odds". If the odds are good enough, you go forward - you place a bet. Some of you believe, very reasonably, that the odds of a great human planetary catastrophe are low, negligible, one-in-a- million. Choose your number.

The second is the "stake." If the stake is high, the odds must be more favorable for a bet to be placed.

A five-of-six chance of winning in small-stake poker is worth betting: place your nickels on the table.

A five-of-six chance of survival in Russian roulette - firing a revolver at your head with one round somewhere in the cylinder - is acceptable only if accompanied by a pre-existing suicide compulsion. Or a belief that the bullet can be dodged after the gun is fired.

What is at stake in the ecologic-catastrophism betting is the existence of human society as we now know it. Heaven knows, it has its faults, but its all we've got. If the catastrophe occurs, even in partial degree, the suffering of wars, migrations, disease, and starvation will exceed anything we can imagine. What are the odds? AND what is at stake?

The data - and there is a great quantity - must be evaluated in terms of its consequences. If the loss of a fish is unimportant, even good data showing the loss has little value - the stake is low. If the loss of a fish signifies the loss of an important food source or the death of a sea, even weak data must be given attention. You must consider both the ODDS of the data being right and the STAKE to be lost if the bet is wrongly placed.

In this great game humans play with the planet Earth, the ODDS are unknown but the STAKE is so enormous that you must, at all costs, avoid participation in the game. I won't be here when the cards are turned over. I wish you youngsters - and my grandchild - good luck in the greatest game ever played.

Copyright (c) 1996 Mason A. Clark. May be used without permission for a non-commercial purpose provided no changes are made and this notice is included. Distribution is encouraged. Comments are invited.

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