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The Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions

published November 2018

Why the singular of “data” is not “anecdote”

Scientific American (cover)

This column was first published in the November 2018 issue of Scientific American.

For a documentary on horror movies that seem cursed, I was recently asked to explain the allegedly spooky coincidences associated with some famous films. Months after the release of Poltergeist, for example, its 22-year-old star, Dominique Dunne, was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend; Julian Beck, who played the preacher “beast,” succumbed to stomach cancer before Poltergeist II’ s release; and 12-year-old Heather O’Rourke died months before the release of what would be her last starring role in Poltergeist III.

The Exorcist star Linda Blair hurt her back when she was thrown around on her bed when a piece of rigging broke; Ellen Burstyn was injured on set when flung to the ground; and actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros both died while the film was in postproduction (their characters died in the film).

When Gregory Peck was on his way to London to make The Omen, his plane was struck by lightning, as was producer Mace Neufeld’s plane a few weeks later; Peck avoided aerial disaster again when he canceled another flight at the last moment (that plane crashed, killing everyone onboard); and two weeks after filming, an animal handler who worked on the set was eaten alive by a lion.

During the making of The Crow, star Brandon Lee was accidentally shot to death by a stage gun with blanks; he was the son of Bruce Lee, who also died mysteriously at a young age, possibly from a drug reaction. While filming Twilight Zone: The Movie, star Vic Morrow was killed in a freak helicopter accident.

For some people, such eerie coincidences suggest evil supernatural forces at work. But that conclusion is not warranted. As I explained on camera, picture a 2×2 square with four cells. Cell 1 contains Cursed Horror Movies (Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Crow, Twilight Zone: The Movie). Cell 2 contains Cursed Nonhorror Movies (Superman, The Wizard of Oz, Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now). Cell 3 contains Noncursed Horror Movies (It, The Ring, The Sixth Sense, The Shining). Cell 4 contains Noncursed, Nonhorror Movies (The Godfather, Star Wars, Casablanca, Citizen Kane). When they are put into this perspective, it is clear that those seeing supernatural intervention are remembering only the horror movies that seemed cursed and forgetting all the other possibilities.

Call it the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions, or the failure to note instances that do not support the generalization. In cell 1, for example, Halloween is not included, because there are no “curse” stories associated with it; its star, Jamie Lee Curtis, went on to a successful motion picture career, and the film launched a franchise in the horror genre. In cell 2, no one attributes evil forces at work on the California highway where James Dean lost his life after making Rebel Without a Cause. In cell 3, spine-chilling films like The Shining should be loaded with curses, but it isn’t.

The psychology underlying the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions is confirmation bias, where once one commits to a belief, the tendency is to look for and find only confirming examples while ignoring those that disconfirm. This is very common with paranormal claims. People grasp at predictions by psychics or astrologers when they come true, but what about all the predictions that did not come true or major events that nobody predicted? In the realm of faith, cancers that go into remission after intercessory prayer are often considered religious miracles, but what about the cancers that disappeared without faith-based intervention or the cancer patients who were prayed for but died? Divine providence is often adduced when a few faithful people survive a disaster, but all the religious folks who died and atheists who lived are expediently ignored.

The problem is rampant not just with paranormal and supernatural claims. Claims of medical cures associated with this or that alternative treatment modality typically exclude cases where treated patients were not cured or were cured but possibly by other means. Crime waves are often linked to economic downturns, but this hypothesis is gainsaid by counterexamples, such as the relatively low crime rates during the 1930s depression and the 2008–2010 recession. Excluded exceptions test the rule. Without them, science reverts to subjective speculation.

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2 Comments to “The Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions”

  1. L Kirk Hagen Says:

    Good points often overlooked, Mike! I’ve noticed as well (I know, I am reporting anecdotes) that people tend to classify coincidences as (1) sheer luck, (2) due to some cause one is overlooking, or (3) the supernatural.

    Personal coincidence 1: During my college years, I briefly dated two women who had the same first name, were the same age, same ethnicity (not mine), and were both from El Paso, Texas. I was not living in Texas at the time, and had met them through separate circles of friends years apart. Common reaction when I tell this story: So what? If anything, people are surprised that I dated anyone at all in college, and leave it at that.

    Personal coincidence 2: Twice in my life I have, at a restaurant, bitten into food in which a twist-tie was embedded. The occasions happened years apart in different cities: Common reaction: You need to eat at better restaurants. In other words, seemingly unusual events actually shared a causal explanation, namely my fondness for dives.

    Personal coincidence 3: Twice in my life, my car has been struck on a freeway by debris that had fallen from trucks in front of me. Both times, it was a large chunk of foam rubber. No damage done. Again, these happened years apart, and on different freeways. Common reaction: Someone (God, I assume) was looking out for you!

    The obvious difference is that flying debris on a freeway is potentially a matter of life and death. The other two coincidences are inconsequential. People tend to look for supernatural explanations to coincidences when the stakes are high, regardless of the odds or causes. “Linda Blair hurt her back when she was thrown around on her bed.” Forget the broken rigging. She was demon-possessed, and demons make really bad things happen. French author Molière died on stage from hemoptysis while performing the lead role in play he himself had written, coincidentally titled “The Hypochondriac.” How weird is that? But it was a comedy. No ghosts or demons in the plot, and no one read anything otherworldly into his death.

  2. Kathryn Kemp Says:

    Visiting other cities (Baltimore, London) I ran into persons I knew from Atlanta. However, both were history professionals (so was I) and we were in history museums. What are the odds? I suspect this is like the well-known coincidental birthdays in a group phenomenon.

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