Confusing Cause and Effect

Confusing cause and effect is one of the most common logical fallacies. It's a principal component of most propaganda. It's also known as the correlation/causation error, Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc or the false cause fallacy.

False Cause

This fallacy states:

If X happens and Y occurs, you can conclude that X is the cause of Y.

My knee aches just before it rains, therefore the ache in my knee is the cause of the rain. It is consistent, repeatable, and accurate therefore it must be true.

Causal fallacies occur because of scientific ignorance (although in many cases, the fallacy is intentionally misleading). The assumption is that two correlated phenomena have a causal relationship. This fallacy occurs when we assume that because two things have either a positive relationship (the more it rains, the more your knee aches) or a negative relationship (The more you watch tv, the less you exercise) that this means that one thing is the CAUSE of the other. This is not necessarily true, for while correlation is a necessary condition for causality, it is not a sufficient reason for a causality.

Here are some more examples:

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani prominently featured one such myth in his speech Oct. 20 to a group of social conservatives. The former New York City mayor stated that "we increased adoption by 133% over the eight years before I came into office. And we found that abortions went down by 18% during that period of time. I believe we can do that in the United States."
But Giuliani's implied causality between these two statistics is unsupportable for this simple reason: The increases he cites were in the rate of adoptions of children out of New York City's foster care system, not in the rate at which women were continuing unwanted pregnancies and placing their infants for adoption rather than having abortions. Nothing in the data he cites indicates that there was any significant increase in the city's newborn relinquishment rate while he was mayor.

Rudy Giuliani is veritable fountain of causal logical fallacies. Here's another one:


"My chance of surviving prostate cancer, and thank God I was cured of it, in the United States, 82%," Rudy says. "My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England, only 44% under socialized medicine. You and I should be making the decisions about what kind of health care we get with our doctors, not with a government bureaucrat."

Here, Giuliani implies there's a direct causal relationship between the prostate cancer survival rate and socialized medicine. Ridiculous. To add further insult to injury, the statistics Giuliani cited are patently false.

In the spirit of Giuliani-logic, I'd like to present my own creative interpretation of cause and effect:

Rudi Giuliani was mayor of New York City on 9/11/2001. The World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11/2001. If Rudi Giuliani had not been the mayor of New York city, it would not have been attacked. Isn't it time you re-thought what was Giuliani's real role in the terrorist attacks?


More examples:

  • Mao Tse Tung and Josef Stalin were atheist, therefore all atheists are immoral, genocidal dictators.
  • Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin wore mustaches, therefore all people who wear mustaches are immoral, genocidal dictators.

Slippery Slope

Another popularly known fallacy, this is actually an offshoot of the false cause fallacy. It occurs when an arguer claims one event must lead to a successive chain of less desirable consequences -without offering any other proof.

Example: "If we vote for Clinton, a known pot smoker, soon the whole Whitehouse will be filled with drug addicts."

"Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war. I think that would be a terrible mistake for us."
    - Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking about the choice Americans would soon make in the presidential election at a Des Moines, Iowa campaign appearance on September 7, 2004

Last updated by Nelson Feb 12, 2009.

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