Cum hoc ergo propter hoc: It ain’t necessarily so

Over the past week, I have received two unrelated emails which remind me how easy it is to accept unconfirmed but accepted ‘truths’ and how easily we can confuse cause and effect.

The first email asked for my view as a former theatrical ‘lovie’ on whether a strong amateur operatic group would be wise to perform Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess in 2015. A little confused I asked the sender why they were doubtful?

Porgy and Best Soundtrack

Porgy and Best Soundtrack

In their reply to me the author alleged that during their lifetimes the Gershwins had undervalued black performers, apparently supported a ‘blackface’ performance in Copenhagen and had offended Sammy Davis Jnr who refused to sing on the subsequent cast recordings. This so surprised me I called them and it was clear this was a genuinely held belief.

A quick and unscientific straw poll of colleagues produced two common themes (from those who knew anything of the opera). These were that the show ‘had no popular or well known numbers’ and secondly that ‘it’s rarely performed as it needs so many deep bass voices.’ Similarly, many (although not all) of the email authors views were repeated. Rarely had my gob been so smacked !

For the record I felt I had to put an alternative view of some of these beliefs and hold it up as an example of just how easily a belief can progress to an urban myth and then accepted truth. I spent some time researching the claims, none of which seem to hold water

During their lifetimes the Gershwins had undervalued black performers, apparently supporting a ‘blackface’ performance in Copenhagen and had offended Sammy Davis Jnr who refused to sing on the subsequent cast recordings.

In fact both George and Ira Gershwin were strong supporters of black performers. Indeed, apart from some very minor speaking roles this is an all black cast. Further the Gershwins personally insisted on the principal roles being played by black actors as part of the conditions of the production license. Finally, they consistently resisted the move to a ‘balanced ethnicity’ cast and a white recasting requested by the South African national opera during apartheid. Hardly the acts of someone undervaluing black performers.

As to the ‘blackface’ (non-black performers made up to appear to appear to be black) performance in Copenhagen this did take place in 1943. However, this was under Nazi rule and was an unlicensed production. For fairly obvious reasons the Jewish Gershwins had no part in the production.

It is also true that Sammy Davis Jnr didn’t feature on the film version soundtrack. However, this wasn’t due to a disagreement with the Gershwins but rather a contractual limitation between the film record company and the label to which he was signed at the time.

The show ‘had no popular or well known numbers’ and secondly that ‘it’s rarely performed as it needs so many deep bass voices.’

In fact there is only one bass part in the production with the rest being balanced across the usual vocal ranges. A charitable explanation may be a confusion with ‘Showboat’. However, it may equally speak to a stereotypical view that any black male voice must be a basso profundo.

As to popular or well known numbers, this is subjective. However, if you have heard of ‘Summertime’,  ‘I loves you Porgy’, ‘Bess you is my woman now’ or ‘I got plenty o nuttin’ then you may disagree.

So this experience put me on guard for the rest of the week . How easy it is for accepted truths to grow up with no real basis in fact.

Then today the second email apparently unrelated triggered a link to be formed in my mind at least. A friend had commented that they were feeling a little flat and down. As someone who struggles with aspects of their identity this anxiety had been seen as being caused by challenges they had faced earlier in the month.

Today’s email was brilliant in its simplicity. ‘Don’t necessarily link one with the other – we all feel flat from time to time – it’s part of the human function’. So simple, so obviously true, but so easy to forget !

Researchers and philosophers recognise this as the Cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That is to say, it is easy to fall into the belief that because B happened at the same time or after A, that the first event caused the second. To quote Gershwin (again from Porgy and Bess) ‘It ain’t necessarily so’