Causes, The Fallacy of

The fallacy that an event that follows another event was therefore caused by it. Among the crimes against the logic of causes, we have the cases of . . .

1. . . . claimed credit. Example: “The high quality of research at our top universities is a tribute to the success of this Government’s education policy.”

2. . . . looking no further. The immediate cause is taken to be a complete explanation. Example: “The train was late because the driver didn’t turn up.” Contrast with the Five Whys, which dig through layers of explanation.

3. . . . the invisible shadow. The use of imaginary history—what didn’t happen—to bear out your interpretation of what did happen. An argument based on the invisible shadow might claim, for instance, that:

a. we would be in dire straits if it had not been for the National Health Service—no doubt we would be facing a distressing catalogue of high costs, long waiting times, bureaucracy, errors, sloppy cleaning and infections if it had not been there to eliminate these problems, and if the former system had had sixty more years to adapt and develop; or

b. what peace and quiet we would now be enjoying in the Middle East if only Saddam Hussein and the Taliban had been left in power.

4. . . . confusion between cause and effect. Example: “We both have to have full-time jobs to pay for the large mortgage we need.” But mortgages are large because so many households have two full-time earners. The interaction of cause and effect may make it impossible to identify a single cause. A normality emerges which reinforces itself.

5. . . . correlation. When two trends move in the same direction, one may be supposed to cause the other, but it may be the other way round, or both may be the effects of a common cause, or they may be substantially unrelated to each other.

But the chief form of this fallacy is Post hoc propter hoc (“after it, therefore because of it”). Along with its variant Cum hoc propter hoc (“along with it, therefore because of it”), its potential to mislead is well-established. The absence of war between the nations of Western Europe since 1945 has been credited to the European Union project—but there was no reason to expect a war between European nations during that period. Governments habitually claim credit for good economic performance, and blame the problems on factors outside their control. And misfortune is flattered with more meaning than it deserves: unwelcome events through the ages have become bearable and understandable when someone has been found to blame.

Systems resist straightforward analysis in terms of cause and effect. This is because the effect is an outcome not just of the particular event which might seem to be the cause, but of the whole complex potential of the system to react in a certain way. The idea of cause-and-effect therefore gives way to a sequence of influence → response → influence, stretching back far into the non-obvious: the white billiard ball moved in that direction because I struck it with my red ball, because I had decided to play billiards that evening, because I wanted to be out of my house, because I had had a quarrel with my lover, because she didn’t want to spend the weekend with me in Scunthorpe. Taiichi Ohno, president of Toyota and pioneer of lean thinking, instituted the Five Whys, a discipline for understanding the root cause of errors. It is an approach which not only makes it hard to sustain the idea of blame —that useful short cut through causes that you have not yet understood—but it disconcertingly manages to involve you: just five steps—five whys—away from the problem is often enough to establish you, if not as a cause, at least as an accomplice.

But there is a deeper meaning here. Even if real, more complex, meanings for cause and effect are acknowledged, the whole notion of cause becomes difficult to sustain. Shortages are both the cause and effect of hoarding. Loving is a cause and effect of being loved. The hunting of prey by its predator is not only a necessary cause of the population of the prey being sustained, protecting its ecosystem and its food resource and selecting for the survival of the healthiest animals; it is also the effect of—enabled by—the maintenance of the prey’s large and healthy population. For our own society, hunting has presented it with the task of having to think about natural systems and about the value of hunting to sustaining healthy fox and deer populations—along with their habitats, the wild animals and plants that depend on them, and the living rural communities that depend on the hunt. But the thinking has degraded to compassion. Compassion without understanding is cruel.

Here is a test of having begun to understand and tolerate the paradox and mild complexities of an easily-understood system. If the conclusions you have drawn about it are obvious and self-evident, you probably haven’t.C63


Related entries:

Choice, Systems Thinking, Special Pleading.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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