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Concussions, Climate, and Cause/Effect

August 4, 2016

Let’s try a thought experiment. Please read the following statement then continue on for some questions.

“That may or may not prove to be true, but we can’t say for sure as there is not a clear scientific link between X and Y.”

Take a moment to ponder.

Now, what did you fill in for X and Y?

If you’ve read any of my previous work, you may be thinking that it has something to do with global climate change, and you wouldn’t be wrong. We’ve seen a variety of arguments made by politicians and other public figures who have argued that there is no clear link between X (where X is some factor like rising sea levels, drastic temperature changes, increases in violent storms, etc.) and Y (where Y is always climate change or global warming). I’ve discussed this in a previous article, so I don’t want to get into it again.

What I do want to talk about is concussions.

Recently, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman waived away fears over C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) by stating that there was no link between X (professional hockey) and Y (concussions). If you’re thinking, hey that sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of the NFL, which is like the NHL but with less ice and more teeth. They’ve had their own ongoing discussions over C.T.E., which have become so pervasive that Will Smith made a movie about it and fans have called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation (this just being one of many reasons for fans displeasure with the league and Goodell).

Comparisons between sports aside, what is interesting from a rhetorical perspective is the argumentative pattern used in the denial. On its face, “X does not equal Y” is based upon the philosophical pair of cause and effect: X does not cause effect Y. A slightly deeper dig reveals that what Bettman is suggesting is that Senator Blumenthal (who wrote a letter to the commissioner requesting answers) is guilty of using a rhetorical fallacy. This fallacy, it seems, is based upon the interpretation that Blumenthal’s line of inquiry is based upon a post hoc ergo propter hoc strategy, where a connection is assumed based upon a faulty linear cause/effect timeline. In other words, Bettman is arguing that just because X happened before Y, it doesn’t mean that X caused Y (here X being hip checks, head shots, slashing, high sticking, fighting, and generally “playing hockey,” and Y being C.T.E.).

In suggesting (or implying) the use of the post hoc fallacy, Bettman manages to shift the burden away from the NHL (and especially from himself as commissioner) and onto our much belabored field of scientific experts. Whereas arguments about climate change must be proven beyond a doubt by climate scientists, arguments about C.T.E. must be proven by neurologists. However, the basic facts remain the same: scientific experts are simultaneously burdened with proving a link and discouraged to attempt to do so because of the near impossibility of proving anything absolutely.

This cause/effect argument is an old one, but it is interesting to see it taking on new forms and in unexpected places. Who would have thought that the same argumentative strategies used in the storied halls of congress would be put into practice in the slightly malodorous locker rooms of athletics? Probably we should have seen this coming. Certainly Gary Bettman did. And why not, when it has worked so many times before?

The NHL certainly has its own set of image problems. See for example the arrest record of the Hart Trophy winner, the award given to the league’s Most Valuable Player. But there also seems to be an opportunity here that the NHL might capitalize on. Why not be the first professional sports league to step forward and acknowledge the dangers of C.T.E.? Well, money, of course. But in the long run, might it be more cost-effective to bite the bullet now? If the league were to pay up for players involved in a class action law suit, put in place neurologist-approved methods of concussion protection, and move on with a safer league (both bodily and monetarily), they might actually help improve the public image of the sport by beginning to heal hockey’s perpetual black eye.

If you want to know more:

  • There is a good discussion of C.T.E. from a hockey perspective here
  • More on the NFL’s troubles can be found here, and the New York Times fascinating article on the link between C.T.E. and tobacco is here
  • Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca talk about cause/effect arguments in The New Rhetoric
  • The post hoc fallacy and others are discussed in The Harper & Row Rhetoric by Wayne Booth and Marshall Gregory
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2016 8:32 pm

    Great post! The NHL really needs to get their act together about this concussion/head hitting and player safety.

    • August 5, 2016 1:20 pm

      Thanks for the reading, and I certainly agree. As a hockey player myself, I love the game and I’m afraid what could happen if the league doesn’t smarten up about player safety and, possibly just as important, transparency.

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