THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 26

Subject:  Fallacy of the Single Cause – “Give Me One Reason”

Event:  Tracy Chapman wins Best Rock Song, 1997 

What song won the Grammy for Best Rock song on this day in 1997?  The answer to this question has a single right answer:  “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman.

File:Tracy Chapman - Give Me One Reason.jpg
Front cover of CD “Give Me One Reason” (Wikimedia Commons)

Simple factual questions like this have a single right answer; however, life is full of questions that are much more complex, such as the following ones:

-Why did Rome fall?

-Why did a serial killer like Ted Bundy become such an evil person?

-Why has there been an increase in the number of school shootings over the past 20 years in the United States?

Despite the fact that these questions cannot be answered with a single, straightforward reason, we nevertheless instinctively tend to oversimplify our complex world by satisfying ourselves with a single root cause.  

As Tracy Chapman reminds us, we are too often fixated and satisfied with “one reason” or cause when we should realize that most “effects” come about from multiple “causes.”  In the world of logic, this error is known as the fallacy of the single cause (also known as causal reductionism or causal oversimplification).

One classic example of where the fallacy of the single cause might have come into play is the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995. On September 28, 1995, Simpson’s trial was finally wrapping up after 11 months.  Of the millions of words presented to the jury, it was just seven words proclaimed on that September day that stood out.  Defense Attorney Jonny Cochran was speaking to the jury about a key piece of evidence, a pair of gloves found at the scene of the crime.  Earlier in the trial when the prosecution requested that Simpson put on the gloves, it appeared that the gloves were too small for Simpson’s hands.  Cochran was reminding the jury of this fact during his closing argument, saying “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”  A few days later, as the entire nation watched, the jury announced their verdict:  not guilty.

Jurors might have looked at the whole range of evidence and testimony that was presented to them over the eleven months of the trial; nevertheless, Cochran’s closing argument opened the door for them to acquit Simpson based on a single reason: the glove didn’t fit (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What does the fallacy of the single cause tell us about how our thinking can go wrong?

Challenge – When Less is Not More:  What is an example of a complex question that people might try to oversimplify by identifying a single cause?  Explain why the question is too complex to be answered with a single cause.

Sources:

1-Dobelli, Rolf.  The Art of Thinking Clearly New York:  Harper Paperback, 2014. 

February 26: Kernel Sentence Day

On this 26th day of the second month, it makes sense to use the most fundamental tool of literacy, the 26 letters of the alphabet, to create the most fundamental construction of English syntax, the two-word kernel sentence.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King asks readers to explore this challenge by combining subjects and predicates to form the most basic simple sentences:

Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.  These are all perfect sentences.  Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.  Simple sentences provide a path you can follow in the tangles of rhetoric – all those restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, those modifying phrases, those appositives, and compound-complex sentences.  If you start to freak out at the sight of such unmapped territory (unmapped by you, at least), just remind yourself that rocks explode, Jane transmits, mountains float, and plums deify.”

As King confirms the essential core elements of each English sentence is its kernel – the subject-noun and predicate-verb.  

Today’s Challenge:  Alliterative Abecedarian

What are some possible subjects (nouns) of sentences and some possible predicates (verbs)?   Brainstorm a list of subjects, alphabetically from A to Z.  Then, do the same thing with predicates, listing verbs from A to Z.  Finally, follow Stephen King’s advice and combine your subjects and predicates to form two-word alliterative kernel sentences, like the following examples:

Ants annihilate.

Buses bypass.

Cats caterwaul.

Dandruff defaces.

Ears eavesdrop.

Flamingos flock.

Quotation of the Day:  The way you live your day is a sentence in the story of your life. Each day you make the choice whether the sentence ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. -Steve Maraboli