I get a letter, written by someone I don’t know, which says that something good or bad will happen to me depending on what I do with the letter, and IT’S TRUE because that’s what happened to other people I don’t know. What incontrovertible evidence! With what authority the writer awes us into belief by the fact of the letter’s existence! Who would make up something like this? For those with weak faith, the gracious author may add authority upon authority by appending a name to the end of the letter: the ultimate sign and seal of authenticity. How could anyone not be convinced?! Mark Twain would roll his eyes and hand me a copy of his review of the Book of Mormon.

This kind of chain letter uses emotional blackmail, for no purpose beyond titillating the author’s imagination. Invariably, the letter states that if you do forward the letter you will receive good luck of some kind. Conversely if you don’t forward the letter you will experience bad luck, which again is unspecified.

What authority and evidence does the chain letter adduce that good or bad will happen to us? All they do is tell of the experience of past chain mail makers or breakers [1]. So-and-so forwarded the letter and three days later won Lotto. Perhaps they did: the exponential number of people who get and forward the letter means that it’s possible that someone who forwarded the letter did have some good luck. Even so, if they won the lottery, what division – the sixth? What did they win – $20? But still, the letter was right … all hail the chain letter! And over the next twelve months they spend $5,000 trying to win the first division prize.

On the flip side, the letter may also mention people who broke the chain and the next day their hermit crab was antisocial or their Venus flytrap turned vegan and cannibalised the lobelias. One execrable instance of this pointless activity asserted that a man broke the chain and his son died.

There are two major problems with chain letters’ evidence – apart from the fact that you can’t check up that evidence because they give no names. The first is the logic that connects what a person does with the chain letter and what happens to them just afterwards. Just because two events – in this case, acting on the letter and a result – happen close in time and space doesn’t mean they have a cause-and-effect relationship. Anyway, in a few days we experience thousands of events: some are large (going to work, buying a car), some are small (tying our shoes, turning the TV on). Which one is the letter responsible for?! One that we usually don’t experience and that we define as good or bad.

About two hundred years ago, philosopher David Hume considered the illogic of inferring causes from effects. More recently, in one episode of The Simpsons Lisa points out the same fact to Homer: ‘You might as well say that this rock [she picks up one at random] keeps away tigers.’ Her point is that to assert a cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of the rock and the paucity of tigers is specious. There are more likely reasons than a rock for the lack of tigers in Springfield: America lacks indigenous tigers; those that are in America are kept in zoos; there has never before been a rock found that, by its mere presence, repelled tigers (but this doesn’t mean there isn’t, or can’t be, such a rock).

Homer: ‘Lisa, I’d like to buy your rock.’

This area of evidence raises another problem with chain letters. Unless the whole ‘chain mail and luck’ idea is false – No! Could it be?! – the creator of the letter couldn’t have put this evidence in, as the events happened after the letter started to circulate. So someone else added the information … by whose authority? Their own or the original writer’s? If their own, where did they get it from? Did their changes alter the ability of the chain letter to bring good or back luck? Did they let the original writer know; who authorised them to include the evidence? Or did the writer retool the letter and send it out again? Or is the text of the chain letter irrelevant, and it’s the actual creation – or severance – of the chain that matters? Or could the power be magic paper and/ or ink? Where then do chain emails get their power to bless or curse? Does a witch or warlock intone a hex or blessing on the whole endeavour, so neither the text nor the form of the letter really matter?

Again we ask: Where’s the evidence? To prove that chain letters work, we’d need to chase up every person who received the letter, find out what they did with it and if anything good or bad happened to them shortly after – and crucially, determine if the letter was responsible for that good or bad event. And how are we going to do that if we don’t know the source of the good or bad luck? The letter, after all, is just the means, not the source, of the luck.

This would be a key question if chain letters actually worked – what is the authority behind chain letters? If they can bring good or bad luck, who or what is the source of that luck? A leprechaun? Hardly: leprechauns are Irish and the Irish brought us Guinness … and alluring colleens with lustrous tresses and mellifluous accents [2]. Is the power some indifferent, karmic quid pro quo, and just passing on the letter gets you a tick but not passing on the letter gets you a cross? Or is the power a particular and petty, but intransigent demi-deity who has nothing better to do than award people, not on the basis of moral behaviour, but on their response to a carrot-and-stick communiqué? We don’t know. We just don’t know.

The only real power chain letters have is superstition. The promises of reward and punishment appeal to our fear and our greed. They aren’t based on anything real. Accident; coincidence, circumstance: this is the ‘evidence’ that gives verisimilitude to a chain letter; that ‘proves’ a cause-and-effect relationship between an action or object (or objects) and a later event. Actions such as not opening umbrellas indoors, crossing knives, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, crossing the path of a black cat … and so on, ad nauseum.

Superstition gives an effluvium of the supernatural: certain actions or objects done in our dimension affect the otherworld, summoning or repelling it. For example, myths say that demons can’t cross over water and are repulsed by salt. In a world where we implicitly trust the laws of nature (which aren’t laws as such, but inferences drawn from experiences that are almost invariable) we still want to believe there’s more out there than only natural processes. It’s only human but by making a false connection between the letter and some result we wrongly conclude that, because we can’t see a natural connection, there must be a supernatural one. That conclusion might be valid if there was a definite cause-and-effect relationship between the letter and a later event, but as such a relationship doesn’t exist, there is no cause [3].

And there’s a third problem: motivation. Does motivation count, or is what you do with the letter all that matters [4]? What happens if you pass on the letter, not to get something for yourself and to ‘bless’ the recipients you send it to, but through fear; wanting to avoid something bad happening to you? If so, then the does the good of sending the letter balance your negative motivation, so you get neither good nor bad luck, or only a little good luck – or a little bad luck if you’ve waited too long? Or what if you intend to send the letter, but forget? Does the good intention cancel out the inaction caused by forgetfulness?

What have we found so far? There’s no trustworthy evidence that chain letters work because there is no testable (or observable) cause-and-effect relationship between the letter and any event that happens afterwards. The closest you could come to a causal relationship is that, going to throw the letter in the bin, you fall off your chair; but unless this sort of event happened to everyone who got rid of the letter, it’s more logical to put it down to clumsiness or a rickety chair or a slippery floor. That’s a long haul from saying there’s a supernatural power behind the letter.

So what should we do to people who waste our time and damage our equanimity with these egregious publications? That I’ll leave to you.

[1] Of course I don’t believe that such ‘experience’ or ‘evidence’ described in the letter is real. I would normally enclose these ‘not!’ words in inverted commas but there are so many that I’ve not bothered.
[2] Guinness tastes like liquid Vegemite, except it isn’t as salty.
[3] I say ‘might be’ because there may be a connection that we don’t see or although
[4] This is like the argument over the efficacy of the sacraments in the Christian church: are they efficacious just because the sacrament is made or is their efficacy dependent on the adequacy (holiness) of the worker?

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle.