A single cause is identified when the effect is actually caused by a number of interacting objects or events. The result is oversimplification or reductionism. A variation of this fallacy is the feedback loop, where the effect is itself a part of the cause. Many of the intractable disagreements we have debated for generations are so difficult because it is so difficult to isolate the relevant or primary causes of an effect.
It’s the president’s fault
A widespread version of this fallacy is seen in arguments that blame individual figures for broad historical events, for example, ‘Eisenhower caused America to be involved in the Vietnam War.’ Such a claim ignores the cold war ethos, the long history of colonialism in Southeast Asia, and a multitude of other factors. When you reduce a complex sequence of events to a simple and single cause — or assign a simple effect to a complex cause — you will virtually always be wrong.Rosenwasser and Stephen, Writing Analytically, p. 142.
Who or what caused the Challenger failure?
The disaster could have been avoided. The issues with the O-Rings were well known by the engineering team working on the SRB, but attempts to notify the management had been constantly held back. The phenomenon of abnormal O-Ring erosion had been observed in previous flights. Instead of requesting an investigation, NASA Management ignored the problem and chose instead to increase the tolerance.Siddharth Raval, “Challenger: A Management Failure” at Space Safety Magazine (September 8, 2014).
Solving poverty in the developing world
“When considering a whole country and a five year period … In Tanzania, several hundred specific interventions have been recorded in areas as different as basic education, electoral processes, or port infrastructure. Funds have been disbursed through five distinct channels, from integrated support to the national budget to subsidizing local non-governmental organizations. No doubt the subject of the evaluation was complicated. ¶ Some cause-and-effect chains were simple in the sense that they were short and linear. For instance, … the building of a consistent road network with the assumption that the rural population would get a faster and cheaper access to basic services, which in turn would reduce rural poverty. ¶ However, a majority of cause-and-effect chains were complex. For instance, it was assumed that the [European Commission] could coordinate with other donors in developing a harmonized dialogue with the government on road policy, with the expected consequences that this policy be reformed, sustainable financial resources be devoted to road maintenance, local authorities benefit from a substantial part of these resources, they are responsive to the needs of the poorest rural areas, they manage to properly maintain the rural road network, the access to basic services is facilitated in remote rural areas, and rural poverty is eventually reduced. In this case, the chain of causes and effects is to only long, but is also complex in the sense that it involves causality loops, for example, interactions between the Government and development partners, interactions between the Government and local authorities, responsiveness of local authorities to the population needs, etc.Toulemonde, Carpenter, and Raffier, “Coping with the Evaluability Barrier” in Evaluating the Complex, p. 123.
On the fall of the Roman Empire
[A] great classicist, J.B. Bury … eliminated depopulation, the Christian religion, and the fiscal system as causes of the dismemberment of the Roman empire. ‘If these or any of them were responsible for [the Empire’s] dismemberment by the barbarians in the West, it may be asked how it was that in the East, where the same causes operated, the Empire survived much longer intact and united.’ But this is a mistake. The three causal elements which Bury rejects may have interacted with each other, and with still other elements, in such a way as to produce very different results in the West and the East.Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, p. 179.
On the complex cause of the complex First World War
A complex cause may have a complex effect (e.g. German militarism, British jingoism, naval arms race, colonial rivalry, economics and nationalistic tensions plus other incalculable factors led to (complex effect) the first World War), as argued by James Joll (1984) in The Origins of the First World War.Cockcroft and Cockcroft, Persuading People, p. 123.
On attributing deaths to COVID
Infection by the new corona virus strain SARS-CoV-2 and its related syndrome COVID-19 has been associated with more than two million deaths worldwide. Patients of higher age and with preexisting chronic health conditions are at an increased risk of fatal disease outcome. However, detailed information on causes of death and the contribution of pre-existing health conditions to death yet is missing, which can be reliably established by autopsy only.Sefer Elezkurtaj, et al, “Causes of death and comorbidities in hospitalized patients with COVID-19” in Nature (February 19, 2021)
Show that all of the causes, and not just the one mentioned, are required to produce the effect. Identify instances where with different secondary causes, the supposed, primary cause is not followed by the effect.
On knowing only fragments of a causal network, and a proposal for quantifying complex causes:
Our knowledge of a complex set of regularities is often highly incomplete: What we know are small fragments of only some complex causes of a causal network. How can we use incomplete knowledge and even partially wrong beliefs for explaining and predicting events? How can we revise an incorrect hypothesis? How can we generate a better one?
The proposes account is based on two main ideas: uniformity and relevance. A complex cause is represented by a conjunction (“and”); alternative causes by a disjunction of conjunctions (“or”); a causal factor by a part of conjunction, and an inhibiting causal factor by a negation (“not”). The idea of relevance is implemented via the notion of minimality. Each complex cause has to be minimal, i.e. no part of it is sufficient. This ensures that every factor that is part of the complex cause plays an indispensable part in bringing about the effect. A complex cause is also called a minimal sufficient condition. Note that a cause factor is normally neither sufficient (since it is only a part of a complex cause) nor necessary (since there may be complex causes of which it is no part) for the effect. Moreover, the disjunction of the minimal sufficient conditions is also required to be minimal: no part of it is necessary. This prevents redundant complex causes. We call a minimal necessary disjunction of minimal sufficient conjunctions a minimal theory. The presence of a complex cause is assumed to be sufficient for bringing about the effect, and the effect does not occur without one of its causes. This formal representation is very suitable for a computational representation and treatment of causal reasoning.Dennis Dieks, Explanation, Prediction, and Confirmation, pp. 172-3
On necessary versus sufficient conditions
A necessary condition of an event is one that must be present in order for the event to occur; without the necessary condition, the event cannot occur. On the other hand, an event will occur in the presence of a sufficient condition. Confusing necessary and sufficient conditions may lead to the erroneous belief that the presence of a necessary condition is all that is needed for a condition to occur. Some explanations of the the cause of stuttering, for example, suggest that a genetic predisposition to stutter is a necessary condition for the disorder to develop. The genetic predisposition, however, may not be sufficient; it may be that one or more other conditions are also required. If that is the case, then not every individual with a genetic or constitutional predisposition to stutter will stutter, if the other conditions are not present. On the other hand, if the predisposition is necessary, then no one who does not have it will stutter, despite the presence of those other conditions.”Packman & Attanasio, Theoretical Issues in Stuttering, p. 14.