Texas sharpshooter advertising

In 1894, London had 11,000 horse-drawn Hansom cabs and thousands of omnibuses.

Each omnibus needed 12 horses a day, so that made around 50,000 horses on London’s streets.

And that was just for transport, there were also ten of thousands of horses and carts delivering beer, fruit, veg, milk, bread, furniture, and everything else.

Each horse produced 15-30 pounds of dung a day plus at least a quart of urine, all filling up London’s streets.

You can see why, in 1894, The Times predicted: "In fifty years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure."

Because the car hadn’t been invented yet, and the future must be an extension of the present, so we can only predict what will happen based on what we know.

This is known as "The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy".

It’s based on the Texan who wants to be known as a crack shot with a gun.

He gets out both pistols and begins blasting away at the side of his barn.

The bullets go everywhere, but some of the holes are naturally clustered together.

So he gets a paintbrush and paints a target around the cluster, which makes him look like a pretty good shot, it looks like he hit the target quite a few times.

We do this a lot, seeking patterns is a natural function of the mind.

We make the facts fit the thinking, which is the way conspiracy theories work.

You can see this in any conspiracy theory.

The Kennedy assassination: fuzzy, blurry photos are interpreted as snipers behind a fence. The 9/11 attacks: puffs of dust are interpreted as pre-placed demolition charges.

Paul McCartney is dead, because he had no shoes on in the Abbey Road cover photo.

One of the most enduring examples of the Texas Sharp Shooter fallacy is Nostradamus.

Written 500 years ago, his inscrutable verse has been interpreted over the years.

He is believed to have predicted many events throughout history, for instance:

"Beasts wild with hunger shall cross the rivers:

Most of the fighting shall be done by Hister,

It shall result in the great one being dragged in an iron cage,

While the Rhine child of Germany will observe."

It’s pretty obvious that he must be referring to World War Two.

"Hister" must mean Hitler, especially as he talks of "the Rhine Child of Germany".

Well, yes, it looks like that, interpreted from our time.

But that’s drawing a target round the bullet holes, making his verse fit our knowledge.

Because, in fact, in Nostradamus’s time "Hister" was the name of the river Danube.

One of the rivers he refers to in the previous line.

But our minds simply override that and relate everything to our current experience.

Which is where we mistake subjectivity for objectivity.

We assume what we are thinking is the only way to interpret the facts.

We don’t investigate facts, we start with an end point and draw it around what fits.

Whether that’s research results: we listen for the responses that confirm our opinions.

Or media choices: we want online to work so we quote vanity metrics: "likes" and "shares".

Or, against all evidence, we believe we must have an influencer-advertising strategy.

An Instagram strategy, a Facebook strategy, a Twitter strategy, a strategy for every single form of new media, we must have it simply because we must have it.

Whatever we want, we only interpret the data that fits our preference.

We must make the facts fit the conclusion we want.

So we paint a target around the bullet holes.

That’s a lot easier than actually using our brains to hit the target.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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