The Stone Age Hunt for Scapegoats

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

The Stone Age Hunt for Scapegoats

Fallacy of the Single Cause

Chris Matthews is one of MSNBC’s top journalists. In his news show, so-called political experts are wheeled in one after the other and interviewed. I’ve never understood what a political expert is or why such a career is worthwhile. In 2003, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the issue on everybody’s lips. More important than the experts’ answers were Chris Matthews’s questions: “What is the motive behind the war?” “I wanted to know whether 9/11 is the reason, because a lot of people think it’s payback.” “Do you think that the weapons of mass destruction was the reason for this war?” “Why do you think we invaded Iraq? The real reason, not the sales pitch.” And so on.

I can’t abide questions like that anymore. They are symptomatic of the most common of all mental errors, a mistake for which, strangely enough, there is no everyday term. For now, the awkward phrase, the fallacy of the single cause, will have to do.

Five years later, in 2008, panic reigned in the financial markets. Banks caved in and had to be nursed back to health with tax dollars. Investors, politicians, and journalists probed furiously for the root of the crisis: Greenspan’s loose monetary policy? The stupidity of investors? The dubious rating agencies? Corrupt auditors? Bad risk models? Pure greed? Not a single one, and yet every one of these, is the cause.

A balmy Indian summer, a friend’s divorce, the First World War, cancer, a school shooting, the worldwide success of a company, the invention of writing—any clear-thinking person knows that no single factor leads to such events. Rather, there are hundreds, thousands, an infinite number of factors that add up. Still, we keep trying to pin the blame on just one.

“When an apple ripens and falls—what makes it fall? Is it that it is attracted to the ground, is it that the stem withers, is it that the sun has dried it up, that is has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath it wants to eat it? No one thing is the cause.” In this passage from War and Peace, Tolstoy hit the nail on the head.

Suppose you are the product manager for a well-known breakfast cereal brand. You have just launched an organic, low-sugar variety. After a month, it’s painfully clear that the new product is a flop. How do you go about investigating the cause? First, you know that there will never be one sole factor. Take a sheet of paper and sketch out all the potential reasons. Do the same for the reasons behind these reasons. After a while, you will have a network of possible influencing factors. Second, highlight those you can change and delete those you cannot (such as “human nature”). Third, conduct empirical tests by varying the highlighted factors in different markets. This costs time and money, but it’s the only way to escape the swamp of superficial assumptions.

The fallacy of the single cause is as ancient as it is dangerous. We have learned to see people as the “masters of their own destinies.” Aristotle proclaimed this 2,500 years ago. Today we know that it is wrong. The notion of free will is up for debate. Our actions are brought about by the interaction of thousands of factors—from genetic predisposition to upbringing, from education to the concentration of hormones between individual brain cells. Still we hold firmly to the old image of self-governance. This is not only wrong but also morally questionable. As long as we believe in singular reasons, we will always be able to trace triumphs or disasters back to individuals and stamp them “responsible.” The idiotic hunt for a scapegoat goes hand in hand with the exercise of power—a game that people have been playing for thousands of years.

And yet the fallacy of the single cause is so popular that Tracy Chapman was able to build her worldwide success on it. “Give Me One Reason” is the song that secured her success. But hold on—weren’t there a few others, too?