Fallacy #3: Questionable Cause

The questionable cause fallacy (also called causal fallacy or false cause) is a very common error, and one that is used to sway a lot of minds. This fallacy says that because two things appear together, one was caused by the other.

The questionable cause works very well for things people are prepared to believe or eager to believe… things they are already leaning toward or that will match feelings they already have.

It works like this:

A group of people has been oppressed or abused over a long period of time. Then, some promoter comes along who says, “Look, there is something about all the people who oppress you: They all have X.” Whereupon the oppressed agree. The promoter goes on, “You see, X is the problem, we must eliminate it!”

The questionable cause fallacy says that since one thing is seen with another, it is responsible for the other. That’s wrong, of course; because they appear together doesn’t mean one causes the other. For example:

    • All bakeries are hot places, but that doesn’t mean that heat produces bread. (Heat is merely one element of bread-making.)
    • Poor people don’t have money, but that doesn’t mean that giving them money will eliminate poverty. (Poor people are often poor for reasons, such as drug addiction and bad behavior; giving such people money doesn’t actually help.)
    • People who drink heavily have higher rates of mental disorders, but that doesn’t mean that drinking ruins people’s minds. (People with disorders often use liquor to feel better.)

The great, historical example of the questionable cause fallacy is Marxism. Karl Marx (and others) told the oppressed of Europe to notice that their oppressors were all rich. Then they argued that property and ownership were the big problem, that money was evil, and that if they freed themselves from property ownership they’d never be oppressed again.

Anyone who has been taught history knows that Marx’s ideas were horribly wrong (they led to at least a hundred million untimely deaths). In fact, anyone who understood and considered the questionable cause fallacy would have seen that they were wrong.

Here’s why Marx’s argument was a very bad one:

The oppressors of the Europeans (particularly the Eastern Europeans) were indeed rich, but they were rich for a reason: The were an aristocracy, a class empowered by law. Serfdom ended only in 1861 in Russia, and not much earlier in several other countries. And even then, the aristocracy remained, and retained ownership of their lands. These people were made rich by laws. That was the real problem.

The aristocrats still owning everything came from a belief that the few should rule the many; it was not a problem with money itself, or with ownership itself.

As a result of this fallacy, Marx said the state should become the sole owner of everything. Rather than eliminating the problem of the few ruling over the many, Marx supercharged it. Tragedy followed.

How The Trick Works

The questionable cause fallacy, like the others we’ve covered, is easy to spot once you know and remember what to look for. But even people who haven’t been taught this fallacy could see through it, if they thought about it for a minute or two. The fallacy works, then, by getting people to not look at it and not think about it.

Fundamentally, a questionable cause fallacy works because its conclusion is something that people want to be true.

So, then, if the conclusion of the fallacy is something that fits their view of the world, that gives direction and meaning to their feelings, that promises them something they’ve always wanted… people will skip right past critical thinking and grab on to it.

This, of course, is precisely what happened to the oppressed people of Eastern Europe:

    • Many of them were desperate to escape the poverty unfairly imposed upon them, and so they grabbed the promises without examining them.
    • Others wanted to be heroic in some way – in any way – and this seemed to be just what they wanted. And so they took it, uncritically.
    • Others felt a deep lack of meaning in their lives, and found it in joining the vanguard of human progress. Becoming part of a great historical movement gave them importance, and nothing except joining was required. And so they joined, uncritically.

Unaddressed and unfulfilled motivations are very powerful things, and unless people are able to examine ideas, it’s all too easy for these motivations to drag people into dangerous errors. Reason is either bypassed or dragged along for the ride.

Even once people do start thinking about the fallacious argument they accepted, it’s hard for them to pull away: they’d have to give up meaning and purpose in their lives, with little chance to find it again… or at least they feel that way.

And so this fallacy does work. There are many applications of it, however, ranging from the almost trivial to the horrendous ones like Marxism.

One trivial example would be the computer owner that calls support and says that he or she wants a certain program removed, because it makes another program crash… they tried five times, and every time both programs run at the same time, the other program crashes. But removing the program isn’t really the problem; the problem is not enough memory. The computer has other programs that would cause the same error and crash. The fix is to install more memory.

A more serious example is this one:

Some bad person is found to have used bitcoin. People then conclude the bitcoin currency must be bad. (Bitcoin causes evil.)

The truth, of course is that criminal intents and acts are the problem, not the tools. After all, every drug dealer and hit man uses dollars, the supposedly good currency.

What To Keep In Mind

The solution to the questionable cause fallacy is two-fold:

  1. To remember that conclusions shouldn’t be taken from fast, thin arguments.
  2. To notice when you want things so much that you push reason aside. We’ve all done this, but if we pay attention, we can feel the process within ourselves. And so we can learn to identify it before it goes too far, and can learn to stop it.

Wanting something too much is a problem for us, and very often pulls us into the opposite of what we want, as it did the poor Europeans who wanted to believe Marx’s false promises.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg