Magazine article The Spectator

When Several Things Go Wrong at Once, We Rarely Consider That It May Be a Coincidence

Magazine article The Spectator

When Several Things Go Wrong at Once, We Rarely Consider That It May Be a Coincidence

Article excerpt

I turned to this week's press coverage of the latest pre-Budget economic forecasts only after a punishing battle with my motorcar. A morning's home car mechanics left me bruised, cut, frustrated and covered in diesel, but - as it turned out - philosophically refreshed for the debate about Britain's economic future.

I drive a grey 1999 Vauxhall Brava pick-up truck: a useful if charmless workhorse, and until recently a trusty companion. But on leaving the truck near the railway station I accidentally locked the steering column lock, then found myself unable to unjam it, despite ten minutes' violent wiggling with the ignition key and the wheel. On returning to the parked vehicle I tried another key and finally, with a bang and jolt, disengaged the lock.

But when I turned on the ignition, the red light indicating excess of moisture in the fuel tank, which had just come on earlier, was unlit. Then I noticed that the ignition light hadn't come on either. Yet the engine started. As I drove off, I realised that the speedometer wasn't working. . .

and it dawned on me that many of the indicators on the dashboard had failed.

Everything else was functioning normally.

But on Monday I had the time to give the vehicle a going-over. Thinking of the steering column as a sort of neck, with both nerves and muscles running up it, I started to hypothesise on what might have gone wrong. Had my violent wrestling with the steering wheel trapped or cut some wires? Or was there a fuse that controlled both the dashboard instruments and the locking mechanism? And was the malfunction the reason for that earlier red light - apparently indicating moisture in the fuel tank, but perhaps itself a malfunctioning signal? These speculations (you will immediately have noted) hung upon the unspoken premise that a single cause was to blame for various problems, but as they had all occurred without warning and at the same time, this seemed a reasonable assumption.

The assumption was wrong. The problem with the jamming steering column lock has not recurred, and I could find nothing wrong.

Finally, locating the fuse box, I found a fuse controlling the dashboard instruments and it had indeed blown. Once I'd replaced it, they all worked again. Whereupon I realised that the fuel moisture indicator was still on, and that this was due to fuel moisture.

I won't bore you with all the interim mechanics, but take you straight to the conclusions. The fuel moisture indicator problem arose because the filler cap wasn't rainproof.

The steering lock jam (and un-jamming) was quite unconnected with the electrics. And the fuse that had blown had blown coincidentally with my other problems, but was wholly unrelated to any of them. Each problem had a separate cause and a separate remedy.

When multiple problems beset us at the same time, and especially when they're in the same field, human beings are psychologically reluctant to posit multiple causes. Even when problems hit us from different fields - a 'run of bad luck' - we have to fight the thought that a broken mirror, a spell, or the concurrence of Jupiter with Venus might be to blame.

We are even more reluctant to posit multiple causes to a single problem. Contemporaneity seems to us compelling evidence for linkage. Journalists fall gratefully but lazily upon phrases like 'in the wake of. . .

', 'after', 'as' and 'at the same time' - as suggesting, without the need for proof, that events are part of the same story. …

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