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