The PlayPump Fallacy

From Tim Hartford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure*

PlayPump is a water system designed as a merry go-round to encourage kids to use it. A few years ago it was implemented in African villages that struggled to get water. Here’s the idea: “As the children play, the roundabout spins, and the pump fills a large tank that can be tapped as needed. The PlayPump removes the need both for unreliable electrical pumps and for hours of labor from hardworking women: clean water simply appears as a byproduct of innocent play.”

Hartford goes on to outline why this is not exactly true. According to a 2007 UNICEF report, the PlayPump was plagued by a number of failures–including the untenable amount of hours kids would need to play on it in order to receive ample water. Interestingly, however, Westerners got the impression that PlayPump was working wonders. Why? “Each time I’ve visited a PlayPump,” says Owen Scott, a Canadian engineer, “I’ve always found the same scene: a group of women and children struggling to spin it by hand so they can draw water…. [But] as soon as the foreigner with a camera comes out.. kids get excited. And when they get excited, they start playing. Within five minutes, the things looks like crazy success.”

Call this the PlayPump Fallacy: Each observation confirms the theory, but each observation illustrates the opposite of reality. 

Challenge for readers: Is there a proper term for this fallacy??? And could you direct me towards examples in ancient or contemporary literature??? 


* I know this is a bullshit title generated by a publisher to sell books, but it’s critical to remember that an essential feature of natural selection is that success always starts with success. That is, genes that survive get selected and passed on. This became apparent to me after reading Rafe Sagarin’s Learning From the Octopus.

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