Fallacy #12: Correlation Implies Causation

The correlation implies causation fallacy (also called cum hoc ergo propter hoc: “with this, therefore because of this”) is an assumption that one thing caused the other, because there is a connection between them.

We covered some of the basics of this in Fallacy #3, the questionable cause. Nonetheless, confusing correlation with causation is very common, and so I want to give it some space of its own.

Most typically, correlation implying causation is used to shill for governments or other organs of a long standing (status quo) system. The typical argument goes something like this:

Bob: Our democracy is not something to be worshiped. I’m not sure I want to support it at all.

Alice: So, you want to go back to the old days, when babies were lucky to survive four years!?

What Alice is doing here is implying causation to a government, or model of government. She’s claiming that it caused a drop in infant mortality simply by its presence. It didn’t, of course; it was thousands of doctors, nurses, researchers and others – over centuries – who finally overcame infant mortality.

Alice’s assumption, moreover, is delivered with an accusation: that Bob is endorsing infant deaths. In effect, he is being given a choice: Either endorse the state or endorse dead babies. And this is not too stark a rendering of Bob’s choice; the emotional impact Alice produces is precisely that.

Alice may simply be repeating what she’s heard other people say to win arguments, but that changes nothing about the impact of her words. Furthermore, her words carry an implied threat: that she is able to tell other people about this, turning them rabidly against Bob. And if others are standing around listening, Alice isn’t threatening at all, but actively calling Bob a monster and turning people against him.

Alice, then, has weaponized the correlation implying causation fallacy, and used it to injure Bob.

This, by the way, is one of the primary tools of totalitarian regimes. We can use the famous Reichstag fire as an example:

In early 1933 Adolph Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. (At the time it was a fairly minor position, answerable to the President and responsible to the parliament.) Just a few weeks later, a fire was started at the Reichstag, the German parliament building, causing serious damage.

A communist was blamed for the fire, perhaps rightly and perhaps not. Immediately a correlation was made between a “communist threat” to the German state and the fire. A Reichstag Fire Decree followed almost immediately, suspending freedom of expression and the secrecy of the mail and telephone calls, among other things. Publications not considered friendly to the cause were removed from circulation.

The communists were the party in parliament that most obstructed the Nazis, of course.

Capitalizing on fear and rhetoric, an Enabling Act was passed less than a month later, effectively making Hitler the dictator of Germany.

All of this was based upon the assumption that the communists of Germany, collectively, were attacking ordinary Germans and all they held dear. The man blamed for setting the fire was all but certainly acting alone, but that didn’t matter in the storm of emotion. The communists were demonized, becoming non-persons, and were expelled both formally and informally.

And so we see that implying causation from correlation can have massive consequences. And bear in mind that this was no worse than what Alice did to Bob, save that the role of Alice was played by newspapers, radio stations and politicians.

How The Trick Works

This trick works because of several factors:

    • Fear. Whether it be fear of ridicule, violence, loss of reputation or whatever, fear makes humans functionally stupid.
    • Pattern recognition. Humans are exceptionally good at seeing patterns. And so, seeing one thing leading into another comes very easily to us. If this process is helped along by pointing to a conclusion, and then if reason is displaced with strong emotions, it’s very easy for us to see the mandated conclusion and to refrain from questioning it.
    • Time pressures. The emotional pressures applied in cases like we’ve covered usually involve time pressures, along the lines of, “Make a decision right now, or we’ll know that you favor dead babies.”
    • Cultured sociopathy. What I call cultured sociopathy (some academics refer to something similar as acquired sociopathy) is when we become sociopathic in certain areas of life. In other words, we learn to displace, ignore or subdue empathy in certain situations. In these areas, we become sociopathic. (This is a larger subject than we’ll cover here, but you can read more about it in FMP #25.) So, when Alice launches her attack at Bob, she may be sociopathic at that moment.

When slapped with some of all of the above, the easiest thing to do, by far, is simply to go along with it. That would have been the case for Bob, and it was clearly the case for the Germans of 1933.

What To Keep In Mind

This fallacy can arrive in situations that are either highly charged or not. If not, dealing with it is simple. You’d say something like, “How exactly did you reach your conclusion, Alice? It seems to me that a piece may be missing.” If Alice doesn’t freak out at that point, the two of you will have no problem identifying the truth of her statement, or the lack thereof.

If the situation is emotionally charged, however, you’ll need to buy some time. As usual, something along the lines of, “Wait, please, I don’t think I understand what you’ve said. Are you saying that…?”

This method of buying time works very well on an individual level. Emotions will still fly, but they tend to wane, especially if you are calm and start dissecting facts rather than responding with opposing emotions.

In the case of mass applications of this fallacy – as the case of the Reichstag fire – things become more complicated, as millions of people may be involved, all of them feeding on “authoritative” news sources speaking from the same script. Most people, seeing this, either comply or simply pull back, rightly feeling threatened.

If free and open speech is not present and strongly protected, the mass application of the correlation/causation fallacy can only be confronted on the personal level, and that with both difficulty and risk. This is the real reason why free speech must be held sacrosanct.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg