Episode 16: A Cat’s Cause

Episode 16: A Cat's Cause

It was a dark and stormy night.  Lightning flashes illuminated a bleak picture to which booming thunder provided the soundtrack.  The power was out, you see, and I couldn’t watch other people play games on YouTube.  I screamed silently (didn’t want to wake the wife) in rage at such an unfair situation.  I had so looked forward to seeing my favorite player finally reach the last and most difficult level of “Smash all the Things 3: The Smashening” on it’s most brutal difficulty level.  What was I to do, then, except crawl off to bed, surf the web on my phone for a while (I have wireless), fall asleep and hope for power in the morning.  A terrible fate.

As I crept through my darkened abode with only the punctuated flashes of lightning to guide me I headed for the stairs and started up.  One stair, two, three … I was going to make it.  Until, suddenly, MREOEWWWW as the cat hidden in the darkness on the stairs took umbrage at my passage and leapt away leaving me to stagger and fall.  Down I went, ramming one knee hard into the unforgiving wood of the stair tread.  Fortunately, I caught the railing and avoided further trouble, but the damage was done.  I had a slightly bruised knee.  And it was all because of the cat.

With most things in my life, there is probably more to it than that.  I’d had a drink (or more) and was perhaps not overly stable as I made my ascension.  I was grumbling about the lack of power and in spite didn’t want to use the insanely powerful light on my phone (seriously, how are the lights on these phones so good?).  I might have been wearing diving flippers (don’t ask).  If all these other things happened and yet I only mentioned the one, what did I do?  I made a “single cause fallacy”. 

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What is this thing that I did?  It’s when a single cause is given for something, even though several causes might exist.  In my case, while the cat may have been the final straw in my stumbling, it’s quite obvious all the other things were likely causes too.  Why would I only list the one cause when there were many – well maybe I didn’t want to admit the whole 'half blind drunk wearing flippers' part, so I just said it was the cat.

This also goes by the name of “causal reductionism” or “reduction fallacy”.  Some of it’s primary uses (when not done by mistake) are to over simplify something quite complex or to hide other causes (and therefore steer someone towards a cause).  Let’s look at some examples.

Self-driving cars are a regular item these days (all hail our new robot overlords) and any time there is a problem with one, it’s bound to make the headlines.  Have you ever noticed that sometimes the cause given is oddly specific and seems to stand alone?  You might see something like “The crash occurred because the software couldn’t tell the difference between a person and phone booth”.  Here we see just one cause and strangely specific one at that.  Is it possible that other factors were at play, such as speed of vehicle, time of day, weather, actions of persons involved, other parts of the software, etc?  These are complex systems operating in complex environments.  Saying there is only one cause is greatly simplifying what happened.

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Using one cause to hide others is exactly what I did earlier.  This is the bread and butter of politics.  You’ll often hear that the reason we don’t all have flying cars is because the republicrats put all the money into making minibars for tanks.  We’re now all wondering what kinds of drinks they’ll stock in these and not if there are other valid reasons.  Perhaps there wasn’t enough support for flying cars in the last spending bill or the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has a lot of problems to work out or that many people just couldn’t handle the extra controls of a flying car yet (meaning we’d need self-flying cars!).  By not mentioning these other causes (or hiding them) we’re led to wonder more about a battle ready speak easy than we are the possibly more important reasons.

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Whenever you see just one cause listed always ask yourself if there are other causes.  Most often there are, you just weren’t given them.  Look at what the other causes could be and see if something was over simplified and hidden.  It’s one more way to keep thinking critically about all the things around you.  The cats will thank you.  But keep an eye them, they’re still up to something.