Monday, August 13, 2012

Single Cause

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Reductive fallacy; over-simplification; Over-generalisation

Single Cause cartoon


Single cause fallacies occur when a person assumes that there is only one cause of a complex problem. For example, an advocate might solely attribute youth homelessness to child abuse within dysfunctional families. Other advocates might attribute it to unemployment. Still others might attribute it to lack of discipline in schools and the home. It is unlikely that only one of these factors is involved, and the solution of such a complex problem requires looking beyond simple causes, no matter how dear to the heart of the particular advocate a particular cause may be.


Nelly Impacted-Molar is giving a lecture to adult students enrolled in a community-based self-development program on substance abuse. She answers a question from Jake Loosely. Jake has just asked her why some drinkers become alcoholics or problem drinkers and some don’t. She states: “The only reason a social drinker progresses from occasional drinking to full-blown alcoholism is low self esteem. This is why alcohol is such a problem in remote rural communities. These communities suffer from collective low self esteem brought about by poverty and isolation.”


It may or may not be the case that low self-esteem increases the likelihood of problem drinking, but Nelly is claiming it is the sole reason for the problem. This is unlikely since alcoholics are present in all strata of society and exhibit all levels of personal achievement. She doesn’t cite research to back her claim and her audience is likely to have anecdotal knowledge about cases of alcoholism that don’t fit her sweeping claim of a single cause.

In such circumstances, the audience is entitled to be skeptical, to challenge her statement and to insist on hearing evidence that supports her view. Note the particular words she uses in her statement — “the only reason” — indicate clearly that her error is the single cause fallacy, or over-simplification. However, in this example the single cause fallacy is likely to be further compounded with yet another fallacy – false cause; correlation error. It may well be possible for example, that low self-esteem is a consequence of alcoholism rather than one of the causes.

Nelly’s error is not a trivial one. If she were to undertake a community based program to address alcoholism in an isolated and impoverished rural setting, and if she makes the wrong assumption about the cause of alcoholism, her remedial program might compound the problem, rather than address it effectively.

The single cause fallacy is widespread and commonplace. The single cause of this is due to a tendency of people to latch on to relatively straightforward solutions to problems, even if the problem is complex.

On further consideration, other factors may be at work. Over generalisation, in particular, extrapolating one’s own personal experience as a universal experience, can lead to making a single cause fallacy. It is also easier to fool ourselves into believing that we comprehend a complex problem if it is artificially stripped of its complexities. Unfortunately, to pretend a complex problem is simple is delusional – a retreat from reality rather than an engagement with reality. Seekers after truth will seek the truth, in all its messy complexity. They will metaphorically roll up their sleeves and do what is necessary to address the problem, no matter how complex or difficult it may be.