Ignoring a Common Cause

Also Known as: Questionable Cause


This fallacy has the following general structure:

1) A and B are regularly connected (but no third, common cause is looked for).

2) Therefore A is the cause of B.

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one thing causes another simply because they are regularly associated. More formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are regularly connected. Further, the causal conclusion is drawn without considering the possibility that a third factor might be the cause of both A and B.

In many cases, the fallacy is quite evident. For example, if a person claimed that a person’s sneezing was caused by her watery eyes and he simply ignored the fact that the woman was standing in a hay field, he would have fallen prey to the fallacy of ignoring a common cause. In this case, it would be reasonable to conclude that the woman’s sneezing and watering eyes was caused by an allergic reaction of some kind. In other cases, it is not as evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a doctor might find a large amount of bacteria in one of her patients and conclude that the bacteria are the cause of the patient’s illness. However, it might turn out that the bacteria are actually harmless and that a virus is weakening the person, Thus, the viruses would be the actual cause of the illness and growth of the bacteria (the viruses would weaken the ability of the person’s body to resist the growth of the bacteria).

As noted in the discussion of other causal fallacies, causality is a rather difficult matter. However, it is possible to avoid this fallacy by taking due care. In the case of Ignoring a Common Cause, the key to avoiding this fallacy is to be careful to check for other factors that might be the actual cause of both the suspected cause and the suspected effect. If a person fails to check for the possibility of a common cause, then they will commit this fallacy. Thus, it is always a good idea to always ask “could there be a third factor that is actually causing both A and B?”

Example #1

One day Bill wakes up with a fever. A few hours later he finds that his muscles are sore. He concludes that the fever must have caused the soreness. His friend insists that the soreness and the fever are caused by some microbe. Bill laughs at this and insists that if he spends the day in a tub of cold water his soreness will go away.

Example #2

Over the course of several weeks the leaves from the trees along the Wombat river fell into the water. Shortly thereafter, many dead fish were seen floating in the river. When the EPA investigated, the owners of the Wombat River Chemical Company claimed that is it was obvious that the leaves had killed the fish. Many local environmentalists claimed that the chemical plant’s toxic wastes caused both the trees and the fish to die and that the leaves had no real effect on the fish.

Example #3

A thunderstorm wakes Joe up in the middle of the night. He goes downstairs to get some milk to help him get back to sleep. On the way to the refrigerator, he notices that the barometer has fallen a great deal. Joe concludes that the storm caused the barometer to fall. In the morning he tells his wife about his conclusion. She tells him that it was a drop in atmospheric pressure that caused the barometer to drop and the storm.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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