Fallacious Argument of the Month: the confusion of cause and effect

Fallacious Argument of the Month for OctoberTo do my part to improve argument and discourse everywhere, each month I feature a different fallacious argument.  I launched the series in July with the straw man; discussed the false analogy in August; and in September explored the misused ellipsis.

Today I take great pleasure in introducing you to October’s Fallacious Argument of the Month, the confusion of cause and effect.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A guy walks into a bar, sits down, and orders a beer. As he waits for his beer, he claps his hands together again and again, loudly and insistently. Annoyed, the bartender asks, “Hey, pal, what’s up with the hand clapping?” The guy says, “It scares the elephants away.” “But,” says the bartender, “there aren’t any elephants around here.” The guy replies, “See? It’s working!”

It’s easy enough to snicker at the beer drinker’s logic. But unfortunately this confusion between cause and effect is no laughing matter. It’s a persistently occurring phenomenon. All too often, people readily assume that when Event B follows Event A, it must be because A caused B.

The confusion of cause and effect is often used for political purposes to manipulate public opinion by exploiting prejudice or fear. It has been used to attribute blame for a host of social ills to purported causes that have included feminism, video games, atheism, and the internet. But it is also often the product of careless or exploitative journalism.  For example, when British schoolgirl Natalie Morton died unexpectedly from an undiagnosed malignant tumor shortly after she had received a vaccination to prevent cervical cancer, some media rushed to report that it was the vaccine that killed her, fueling public anxiety.

These false connections flourish best in the presence of closed minds and foregone conclusions.  They persist only because countering them demands hard work – a willingness to discard assumptions and dig deep for the facts.

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