06 February 2012

Clues and Conclusions

A few weeks ago, when Joe Paterno died three months after leaving his job, several news commentators remarked how often people who work into old age die fairly soon after quitting work. Clearly, the inference was that stopping work led to their deaths. I propose that many times, the cause and effect are reversed. Some people won’t stop until working is totally beyond their health and strength. Rather than retirement causing the decline, the person’s decline forces them to finally quit work.
Paterno doesn't exactly fit this scenario because he was fired and forced to leave his job. One announcer drew the conclusion that being fired from his position CAUSED his cancer. I don't believe that! Had Paterno not been involved in the Penn State scandal, he would have eventually grown too old, too tired, too ill and his physical condition would have forced retirement. I think that he would have held out until his demise was near. Regardless, my sympathies are with the Paterno family.

As readers, we don’t always accept the cause and effect situations in stories and books. As writers, we must remain aware that for cause and effect to work in plots, it must be genuinely a cause and effect situation.

A hundred years ago, when I was a college undergraduate, I learned a classic example of misinterpretation of cause and effect. Statistics showed that crime rates in New York City rocketed during summer months. The sale of ice cream rose significantly there during the hot months also. Therefore, can we conclude that eating ice cream makes people commit crimes?

Of course not! More probable is that hot weather (especially back before air conditioning became common) led to more people being out and about to commit crimes or that tempers flared more often when one is hot and uncomfortable. People who are miserably hot are shorter-tempered. People also ate more ice cream when the weather was hot. Increased crime and eating ice cream weren’t an example of cause and effect. They were both effects of the cause—in this case, hotter weather.
A similar lesson in logic is that if A is true and B is true, then C is true. Classic example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, therefore C – All dogs are vertebrates. This is true.
Faulty reasoning example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, then C – all vertebrates are dogs. Unfortunately, this kind of faulty reasoning sometimes shows up in mysteries, where we’re more familiar with calling cause and effect, as well as logic, clues and conclusions.

Here are three short mystery/brain teasers. No, I didn't create them. They remind me of those amazing flash fiction mysteries that John Floyd has in Women's World. I always try to solve John's before tipping the mag upside down to read the solution. These were emailed to me by my fantasy writer friend Nynaeve.

Study Carefully...the clues are so blatant you will be kicking
yourself if you miss them!

The answers are at the bottom but don't look until you are sure you have all three right
I missed one, but I won't tell you which it is because I'm embarrassed.)

Mystery one

A man was found murdered Sunday morning.
His wife immediately called the police.
The police questioned the wife and staff and got these answers:

The wife said she was sleeping.
The cook was preparing breakfast.
The gardener was gathering vegetables.
The maid was getting the mail.
The butler was polishing shoes in the pantry.

The police instantly arrested the murderer.
Who did it and how did they know?

Mystery two

A man walks into his bathroom and shoots himself right between the
eyes using a real gun with real bullets.

He walks out alive, with no blood anywhere and no, he didn't miss and
he wasn't Superman or any other crusader wearing a cape.

How did he do this?

Mystery three

Old Mr. Teddy was found dead in his study by Mr. Fiend.
Mr. Fiend recounted his dismal discovery to the police:

"I was walking by Mr. Teddy's house when I thought I would just pop in
for a visit. I noticed his study light was on and I decided to peek in
from the outside to see if he was in there.

There was frost on the window, so I had to wipe it away to see inside.
That is when I saw his body. So I kicked in the front door to confirm my
suspicions of foul play.

I called the police immediately afterward."

The officer immediately arrested Mr. Fiend for the murder of Mr.Teddy.

How did he know Mr. Fiend was lying?


1. It was the Maid. She said she was getting the mail but there is no
mail delivery on Sunday.

2. He shot his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

3. Frost forms inside of the window, not the outside. So Mr. Fiend
could not have wiped it off to discover Mr. Teddy's body.

How did you do? Did you get them all correct
Until we meet again. . . take care of YOU!


  1. My friend Thrush attended Penn State and knew Paterno enough to wave at during walks. He's devastated by events and furious with Sandusky. Paterno was a beloved figure on Penn's campus.

    Fran, I love those little quick puzzles. I should mention RT Lawton is almost as prolific a WW contributor as John!

  2. Hi Fran,
    I agree, cause and effect are often confused with simple correlations and coincidences. Of course there's more crime in hot season - more people are away on holiday.

    Great little puzzles. Got any more?

  3. I'm with Leigh and Mira--I love these little puzzles! (I got two of them, but didn't think about the reflection in the mirror.)

    Thank you, Fran, for the kind words. Those Woman's World mysteries are fun to write--and a lot easier to dream up than the romances are.

  4. I'm relieved to say I got all three without peeking! And I've gotta ask: was your friend's name Nynaeve before Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was published?

  5. Pleased to report I got all three.

    Remember the one about the airplane that crashes precisely on the boarder between two countries. The question then posed is "where did they bury the survivors?"

    And how about this one: There are five presidents of the United States who are not buried in U.S. soil. Can you name them?

    In law circles faulty reasoning has its own Latin phrase: post hoc propter hoc. If after, because.

  6. By the way, remember the great short story "August Heat" by W. F. Harvey? For those thinking of hot weather and crime who have, perhaps, not read the story -- here it is in pdf.:


  7. Having just retired I certainly hope that it does not follow that I must soon die. This would be dissapointing. Robin (my dear wife and "She Who Walks In Beauty") may have other thoughts.

    I was able to correctly deduce the solutions to the three mysteries, but must confess that in one case my logic was faulty despite my having gotten it right.

  8. Well, I'm with John -- overlooked the reflection. lol

    And "A deft flick of the pen!" to RT & John for landing in WW (I've tried, but failed -- more than once) as well as to YOU, Fran -- for this wonderful way to start the week!


  9. Dale,

    I puzzled over your president question, finally concluding that those presidents who were not buried in US soil were encrypted, (Grant, for instance). Then my wife comes in the room, reads the question and says: "There are five who aren't dead yet."

    I told her to go do the dishes and leave these problems to the pros.

  10. I meant to say "entombed". I don't know how one could be encrypted, but I guess anything is possible in politics.

  11. Got 2 correct. Not fond of puzzles because I'm louse at solving them, which is why I don't match wits with the detective when I read.

  12. Thanks for all the comments. The one I missed was the third one with the frost, especially embarrassing since when I taught elementary science, we spent a lot of time on evaporation, frost, etc.
    My friend Nynaeve has been Nynaeve since she was my first visually impaired student way back in the eighties. She's also a lot like Jane in my Callie books.

  13. Herschel and his wife cracked me up.

  14. The blog cut off the URL address of the story Dale tried to post, W.F.Harvey's August Heat, a PDF file:



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