The Verbal Cheap Shot Artist Part 7: The Fallacy of the Single Cause

This is part seven of a 12 week series where, on Mondays, I  explore the tactics of verbal cheap shot artists – people who can’t, or won’t use valid arguments to present their case, but instead resort to verbal cheap shots. To make sure you don’t miss a single article, be sure and sign up for my RSS feed or subscribe by email (both are free!). Check out my other articles in the Verbal Cheap Shots category.

Sometimes knows as causal oversimplification, the fallacy of the single cause is a logical fallacy of causation occurring when the verbal cheap shot artist assumes that there is one, simple cause of an outcome when in reality it may have been caused by a number of only jointly sufficient causes.

Causal oversimplification is a specific kind of false dilemma where conjoined possibilities are ignored. In other words, the possible causes are assumed to be “A or B or C or D” when “A and B and C but not D” or “A and B and D but not C” are not taken into consideration.

A singular outcome can be dependent on a multitude of inputs

Inputs cause outcomes and there are many inputs into even the simplest of outcomes.

Often after a tragedy people ask, “What was the cause of this?” Whether referring to a train derailment, an airline crash, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a project failure, a terrorist attack, or getting fired, using such language implies that there is one cause, when instead there were a large number of contributing factors.

For example, after a school shooting, pundits debate whether it was caused by:

  • The shooter’s parents
  • Too much homework
  • Not enough homework
  • TV violence
  • Violent video games
  • Stress on students
  • Hollywood
  • The accessibility of guns
  • Plastic water drinking bottles
  • Electromagnetic radiation
  • Metal tooth fillings
  • A poor self image

In fact many different causes (including some of those and many more) may all have necessarily contributed to the tragedy.

Another example”: the near collapse of our economy in the fall of 2008. Some attribute the myriad of financial transactions that made up the near tragedy to a single emotion: greed. Yeah, that really helps clear things up doesn’t it? The real reasons for the economic meltdown are as numerous as the number of bank collapses from 2007 through 2009. Greed was just one of hundreds of reasons.

One of our country’s most recent large scale tragedies, the September 11, 2001 attacks is another topic the regularly invokes this fallacy. Anyone who attributes those well-planned attacks to a single issue or cause is guilty of causal oversimplification. And anyone who attributes the collapse of the Twin Towers to a single cause is also guilty.

The world is too complex for a single cause

We live in a very complex world and different forces are always at work, trying to oversimplify things. While there may be a single cause for a car crash (driving under the influence, text messaging, fog), rarely is just one factor by itself the singular cause. Airlines have discovered that the average crash involves SEVEN different small events that, on their own, would have caused no harm, but taken together, cause the crash.

Don’t fall for the single cause fallacy. Always ask, “What else is there to this?” and you’ll be well on your way to discovering the real reasons behind the outcome.

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