In the field of logic, fallacies are arguments that seem valid but have a bias that completely cancels out their content .

They are often used in debates and discussions, with or without awareness. Both their identification and their refutation depend on the expertise and experience of the recipient.

In this article we will address the sniper’s fallacy, as it is one of the most common. It can be presented especially in the context of predicting the future or making decisions.

What is the sniper’s fallacy?

The Sniper Fallacy, also known as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, describes a reasoning that ignores any suggestive evidence that an idea is wrong, to emphasize that information that seems to support it. Sometimes reality is deformed to this end, interpreting it in a disfigured way to approximate what is intended .

In this way, almost any information can be susceptible to attempts of manipulation to adapt to particular ideas or theses, establishing forced coincidences. This is a cognitive bias associated with apophenia, which consists of the erroneous perception of logical or regular patterns where there is really only randomness (for example a series of random numbers where a progressive or multiplicative order is inferred when this is not the case).

This fallacy implies a devaluation of all the information that disagrees with the issue we wish to convince, as well as a magnification of the importance of the one that claims it. An example could be found in the way in which star constellations are interpreted, since it involves drawing a succession of imaginary lines to link stars whose position is absolutely random, deliberately ignoring the heavenly bodies that could distort the figure sought.

The curious name of the fallacy obeys a metaphor about shooting accuracy . It describes an idle man practicing shooting from an elevated position against a barn of his property, forming at the end a network of holes without order or sense. In order to reduce the nonsense and to be able to consider himself as a great sniper, the intrepid gentleman would draw some targets in the back where the bullet holes are, simulating a deceptive skill with his weapon.

Five examples of the sniper’s fallacy

In order to clarify the concept of the sniper’s fallacy, there is nothing better than the use of some simple examples . These examples are intended to illustrate what this bias is and how it is explained.

1. The Soothsayer

Let us imagine a fortune teller, wrapped in his aura of mystery and predicting from his pulpit a series of sinister predictions for the future. Since he is a prolific prophet, throughout his life he produced thousands of texts in which he included copious information regarding the places and moments in which all those mournful events would occur, leaving for posterity a legacy of intense fear and uncertainty.

His work was so extensive that it not only occupied dozens of dusty volumes in a dark and inhospitable library, but also dealt with all kinds of calamities in the most diverse places imaginable. It generated such a wealth of information that there was room in it for almost anything. In this way, the course of time allowed him to get a percentage of his predictions right, which could be explained without any problem by alluding to the laws of probability.

However, given the fascination of his figure and the severity with which he used to aim his words, there were many who interpreted such successes as an irrefutable sign of his visionary capacity. What they did not notice, however, was the thousands of unwise volumes that remained forever amidst clouds of dust and mouse droppings.

2. A man looking for love

Once upon a time there was a man thirsting to find his better half, his other half . He had looked for her in the most remote places, but every woman he could meet seemed inappropriate in some way. He was a very demanding man, so much so that he began to think that nowhere in the world was there anyone who could satisfy his love expectations. So he felt a little bit embarrassed and hopeless.

One afternoon, while walking through the center of the city, he came across a luminous sign that read: “marriage agency”. He was surprised that he had never seen it before, for the thick layer of dust and cobwebs that covered it screamed loudly that it had been there for a long time, so he considered it a sign of fate. He pressed the bell button and someone opened the ramshackle door without asking.

After a series of formalities, and after leaving a substantial amount of money there, he completed a very brief form in which he inquired about his personal tastes and asked about his physical appearance. Size and weight, little else. He returned the papers and was promised that he would hear about a perfect match in a few days. A month passed, however, until a surprise phone call made his heart skip a beat: they had found the perfect woman.

They were put in touch and met at a centrally located Italian restaurant. Apparently, according to the information available to the agency, he was someone with whom they agreed on all the parameters: he liked the cinema and walks on the beach at sunset, and was a couple of centimetres shorter than him. His heart was pounding. What he didn’t know at the time was that, after crossing a couple of sentences with that lady, he would discover that he liked her even less than those he had been able to meet by chance.

3. A premonitory dream

A woman woke up, startled, at three in the morning. She had dreamed of a certain John, or so she thought she heard, who was chasing her through the dark streets of an unknown city. Her voice burst out of the walls, rumbling in the narrow space that separated them. It seemed that her legs did not respond, as if a rubber band pulled from her waist to the shadow that stalked her: “Juan, Juaaaan…” she whispered, louder and louder.

The thing is, he couldn’t sleep all night. He saw the sun rise, and for some reason he was terrified that that dream was a warning that something horrible was about to happen. She got up, called one of her best friends and told her that she needed to talk to her about what happened. Since she was an attentive girl, she answered that she would wait for her in the usual cafeteria at the usual time .

After frolicking a few more hours in the sheets, he decided to start the grooming routine. She covered the dark circles under her eyes with powdered makeup, untangled her hair, and dressed herself without thinking too much about what she would wear. Her friend showed up on time, as usual, but was surprised to see that she was accompanied by someone she did not know. It was her new partner, a boy she had met on a recent trip and had talked about at another time.

Turns out that kid’s name was Jaime. Con "J", just like the man in that dream. It was just then that an unbearable chill ran through his body, and a cold sweat soaked his forehead: he concluded that it was a premonitory dream, and that perhaps his best friend might be in grave danger.

4. An absent-minded researcher

One morning, our absent-minded researcher woke up feeling unhappy . He had been thinking for a long time that he was not entirely happy, and he was anxious to find a way to feel happy. He didn’t know where to start, so he turned to science, which was what he was best at. In his first research he discovered the island of Okinawa, which seemed to be the place where the happiest people lived.

He spent all morning reading about it. It was one of the regions where more century-old people had registered. A long and happy life: there could be nothing better. Among all those pages on Asian anthropology, which were a collection of dozens of thoughtful investigations into the island customs of traditional Japan, one detail particularly caught his attention: tea. It turns out that these people drank a lot of green tea, to the point that most of them drank infusions (made from the plant’s powder) absolutely every day.

So, neither short nor lazy, he shot out to the nearest supermarket and loaded the shopping cart with boxes and crates of green tea, until he left that place without stock. On his way out, he asked one of the stockists if they still had a little more in store. He was convinced that he had finally discovered the source of eternal happiness.

5. The lucky number

A young girl is going to take her driving test. She feels nervous, and for some strange reason thinks about her lucky number: four.

He rushes to the cupboard where he kept the board games, finds a dusty Parcheesi and picks up a green cup and a dice. In order to feel more calm, she decides to try if a number appears in a roll, as it would be the sign that everything would be fine. So she puts the dice in the bucket, shakes it well and throws.

The die rolls, makes a caper and displays the number six . He stares at it and decides that it’s not a valid roll, because he stood there in a slightly strange way (or so he wanted to think), so he decides to try again. For this second time, the number two appears. Finally! She thinks… And that’s because six plus two is eight, but if that sum is divided by the total number of tries it took (two), it’s definitely a four. Now you’re talking: Eat the world!

Have you noticed?

Up to this point, this article contains 1725 words. However, the word "dust" has been present in all the examples given (it has appeared five times), and although it represents only 0.003% of the text, it would be possible to think that it has special relevance.

A fallacy of the sniper would be to suspect that everything written here is really about dust , thus avoiding the 1720 words that have nothing to do with it.

Bibliographic references:

  • Comesaña, Juan Manuel (2001). Lógica informal, falacias y argumentos filosóficos. Buenos Aires: Eudeba.
  • Damer, E. (2005). Attacking Faulty Reasoning. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • .

  • D. H. Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, Harper Torchbooks, 1970.
  • Walton, Douglas (1992). The Place of Emotion in Argument. The Pennsylvania State University Press.