Fallacy of equivocation

“[John Woods] was scheduled to be on the Pan-Am flight that exploded above Lockerbie in 1988 killing all 259 people on board. He cancelled at the last moment and went to an office party instead. […] On September 11, 2001, John left his office in one of the twin towers seconds before the building was struck by a hijacked aircraft. […] Why do some of us seem to be blessed with an extraordinary amount of good luck, while others suffer misfortune after misfortune? According to Anne Watson, co-author of The Book of Luck, published this week, luck doesn’t even exist. “I believe that what we commonly consider to be luck is something that lies within our control,” she says.”
Julia Stuart, the Independent, 23 November 2004

Anne Watson was lucky to have a full page of a national newspaper devoted to her book, but her good fortune did not extend to its being written by someone who was careful to represent its content accurately. That she could be lucky and unlucky at the same time would not surprise her, as she is well aware that we use the one word “luck” to describe a number of different things; a fact Ms Stuart ignored, enabling her to hook her story on the amazing tale of John Woods.

There are many words in our language that have multiple meanings. We commit the fallacy of equivocation when we use one word in two senses as if they had the same sense, and draw unjustified conclusions as a result. To take a somewhat frivolous example, it is like arguing that cheese goes mouldy when it ages, Donald Trump is a big cheese who has aged, and so Donald Trump has gone mouldy. The words may be the same, but a “big cheese” is not a big cheese.

In the same way, there is luck and there is luck. But in this case, the difference is not so glaringly obvious. The luck that Anne Watson writes about concerns people’s perception of their fortune and their tendency to succeed. In other words, it is the feeling we have about ourselves and others that we have had the breaks in life, irrespective of whether the good or bad outcomes are the result of chance, destiny or our own actions.

Watson, like another writer discussed in the article, Richard Wiseman, believes that this kind of luck has very little to do with random chance or the forces of destiny. Rather, people who take a positive attitude, persevere and take responsibility will have more success. They may appear to be lucky, but their “luck” is actually a result of their outlook and behaviour. What we call luck in these cases is just the appearance or perception of luck, what we might call subjective luck.

The crucial point is that this has nothing to do with another kind of luck, call it objective luck: the good or bad consequences of events we have no control over. Neither Wiseman nor Watson is foolish enough to claim that being positive and persistent can protect you against this kind of bad luck, or bring you its good variant. Being a lucky person in the Wiseman/Watson sense does not immunise you against random misfortune. No amount of positive thinking, willingness to learn from mistakes or taking responsibility for their actions could have protected those on the beach at Banda Aceh when the Tsunami struck, on Pam Am Flight 103 on 12 December 1988, or in the World Trade Centre on the morning of 9/11.

What Ms Stuart has done is to ignore this distinction and simply talk about luck simpliciter. Although the content of the piece should make it clear that John Woods’ experience has nothing to do with the theses of Wiseman and Watson, hooking the piece on that story encourages the reader to draw a false inference that commits the fallacy of equivocation: There is “no such thing as luck” (the piece’s headline); John Woods seemed to have been lucky; therefore he wasn’t lucky at all, but the kind of person whose outlook and behaviour make him less likely to suffer from “bad luck”. Once we make the proper distinctions, however, the false inference cannot be made: Subjective luck has nothing to do with objective luck; John Woods was objectively lucky; therefore being the kind of person whose outlook and behaviour make him less likely to suffer from subjective “bad luck” would not have saved him if he had been objectively unlucky.

That, however, would mean there was not justification or rationale for using Woods’ incredible good fortune as a hook for the piece. But as we all know, in journalism, the truth should never get in the way of a good story.

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