Confusing Cause and Effect

Related To: Questionable Cause

Confusing Cause and Effect is a fallacy that has the following general form:

  1. A and B regularly occur together.
  2. Therefore A is the cause of B.

This fallacy requires that there is not, in fact, a common cause that actually causes both A and B.

This fallacy is committed when a person assumes that one event must cause another just because the events occur together. More formally, this fallacy involves drawing the conclusion that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are in regular conjunction (and there is not a common cause that is actually the cause of A and B). The mistake being made is that the causal conclusion is being drawn without adequate justification.

In some cases it will be evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a person might claim that an illness was caused by a person getting a fever. In this case, it would be quite clear that the fever was caused by illness and not the other way around. In other cases, the fallacy is not always evident. One factor that makes causal reasoning quite difficult is that it is not always evident what is the cause and what is the effect. For example, a problem child might be the cause of the parents being short tempered or the short temper of the parents might be the cause of the child being problematic. The difficulty is increased by the fact that some situations might involve feedback. For example, the parents' temper might cause the child to become problematic and the child's behavior could worsen the parents' temper. In such cases it could be rather difficult to sort out what caused what in the first place.

In order to determine that the fallacy has been committed, it must be shown that the causal conclusion has not been adequately supported and that the person committing the fallacy has confused the actual cause with the effect. Showing that the fallacy has been committed will typically involve determining the actual cause and the actual effect. In some cases, as noted above, this can be quite easy. In other cases it will be difficult. In some cases, it might be almost impossible. Another thing that makes causal reasoning difficult is that people often have very different conceptions of cause and, in some cases, the issues are clouded by emotions and ideologies. For example, people often claim violence on TV and in movies must be censored because it causes people to like violence. Other people claim that there is violence on TV and in movies because people like violence. In this case, it is not obvious what the cause really is and the issue is clouded by the fact that emotions often run high on this issue.

While causal reasoning can be difficult, many errors can be avoided with due care and careful testing procedures. This is due to the fact that the fallacy arises because the conclusion is drawn without due care. One way to avoid the fallacy is to pay careful attention to the temporal sequence of events. Since (outside of Star Trek), effects do not generally precede their causes, if A occurs after B, then A cannot be the cause of B. However, these methods go beyond the scope of this program.

All causal fallacies involve an error in causal reasoning. However, this fallacy differs from the other causal fallacies in terms of the error in reasoning being made. In the case of a Post Hoc fallacy, the error is that a person is accepting that A is the cause of B simply because A occurs before B. In the case of the Fallacy of Ignoring a Common Cause A is taken to be the cause of B when there is, in fact, a third factor that is the cause of both A and B. For more information, see the relevant entries in this program.
Examples of Confusing Cause and Effect

  1. Bill and Joe are having a debate about music and moral decay:
    Bill: "It seems clear to me that this new music is causing the youth to become corrupt."
    Joe: "What do you mean?"
    Bill: "This rap stuff is always telling the kids to kill cops, do drugs, and abuse women. That is all bad and the kids today shouldn't be doing that sort of stuff. We ought to ban that music!"
    Joe: "So, you think that getting rid of the rap music would solve the drug, violence and sexism problems in the US?"
    Bill: "Well, it wouldn't get rid of it all, but it would take care of a lot of it."
    Joe: "Don't you think that most of the rap singers sing about that sort of stuff because that is what is really going on these days? I mean, people often sing about the conditions of their time, just like the people did in the sixties. But then I suppose that you think that people were against the war and into drugs just because they listened to Dylan and Baez."
    Bill: "Well..."
    Joe: "Well, it seems to me that the main cause of the content of the rap music is the pre-existing social conditions. If there weren't all these problems, the rap singers probably wouldn't be singing about them. I also think that if the social conditions were great, kids could listen to the music all day and not be affected."
    Bill: "Well, I still think the rap music causes the problems. You can't argue against the fact that social ills really picked up at the same time rap music got started."
  2. It is claimed by some people that severe illness is caused by depression and anger. After all, people who are severely ill are very often depressed and angry. Thus, it follows that the cause of severe illness actually is the depression and anger. So, a good and cheerful attitude is key to staying healthy.
  3. Bill sets out several plates with bread on them. After a couple days, he notices that the bread has mold growing all over it. Bill concludes that the mold was produced by the bread going bad. When Bill tells his mother about his experiment, she tells him that the mold was the cause of the bread going bad and that he better clean up the mess if he wants to get his allowance this week.