Confusing Cause and Effect




Also Known as: Questionable Cause, Reversing Causation


Confusing Cause and Effect is a fallacy that has the following form:


Premise 1: A and B regularly occur together (and the possibility that B causes A is not considered).

Conclusion:  Therefore, A is the cause of B.


This fallacy requires that there not be a common cause that causes both A and B. See Ignoring a Common Cause. To be a true case of confusing cause and effect B must cause A.

This fallacy is committed when it is inferred that one thing must cause another just because the two occur together. More formally, this fallacy involves drawing the conclusion that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are in regular conjunction (and there is not a common cause that is the cause of A and B). The mistake being made is that the causal conclusion is being drawn without adequate justification. When B is the cause of A causation has been erroneously reversed.

Sometimes the fallacy will be obvious. For example, a person might claim that the flu was caused by a person getting a fever. But the fallacy is not always evident. Causal reasoning can be difficult when it is not evident what is the cause and what is the effect. For example, a difficult child might be the cause of the parents being short tempered or the short temper of the parents might be the cause of the child being difficult.

The challenge in sorting out cause and effect is especially problematic in cases involving feedback. For example, the parents’ temper might cause the child to become difficult, and the child’s behavior could worsen the parents’ temper. Determining which was the initial cause in such cases can prove challenging.

To determine that the fallacy has been committed, it must be shown that the causal conclusion has not been adequately supported and the person committing the fallacy has confused the actual cause with the effect. Showing that the fallacy has been committed will require determining the cause and effect.

Another thing that makes causal reasoning difficult is that people have different conceptions of cause and matters can be clouded by emotions and values. For example, some claim violent media must be censored because it causes people to like violence. Some respond that there is violence in media because people like violence. In this case, it is not obvious what the cause is, and the issue is clouded because it is an emotional and political matter.

All causal fallacies involve an error in causal reasoning. However, this fallacy differs from the other causal fallacies in terms of the error in reasoning being made. In the case of a Post Hoc fallacy, the error is that a person is accepting that A is the cause of B simply because A occurs before B. In the case of the Fallacy of Ignoring a Common Cause A is taken to be the cause of B when there is, in fact, a third factor that is the cause of both A and B. For more information, see the other causal fallacies in this book.


Defense: While causal reasoning can be difficult, many errors can be avoided with due care and careful testing procedures. This is because this fallacy occurs because the conclusion is drawn without due care. One way to avoid the fallacy is to pay careful attention to the temporal sequence of events. Since (outside of science fiction), effects do not generally precede their causes, if A occurs after B, then A (usually) cannot be the cause of B.


Example #1:

Bill and Joe are having a debate about music and moral decay:

Bill: ‘” It seems clear to me that this new music is causing the youth to become corrupt.”

Joe: ‘What do you mean?”

Bill: “This rap stuff is always telling the kids to kill cops, do drugs, and abuse women. That is all bad and the kids today shouldn’t be doing that sort of stuff. We ought to ban that music!”

Joe: “So, you think that getting rid of the rap music would solve the drug, violence, and sexism problems in the US?”

Bill: “Well, it wouldn’t get rid of it all, but it would take care of a lot of it.”

Joe: “Don’t you think that most of the rap singers sing about that sort of stuff because that is what is really going on these days? I mean, people often sing about the conditions of their time, just like the people did in the sixties. But then I suppose that you think that people were against the war and into drugs just because they listened to Dylan and Baez.”

Bill: “Well…”

Joe: “Well, it seems to me that the main cause of the content of the rap music is the pre-existing social conditions. If there weren’t all these problems, the rap singers probably wouldn’t be singing about them. I also think that if the social conditions were great, kids could listen to the music all day and not be affected.”

Joe: ‘Well, I still think the rap music causes the problems. You can’t argue against the fact that social ills really picked up at the same time rap music got started.”


Example #2:

It is claimed by some people that severe illness is caused by depression and anger. After all, people who are severely ill are very often depressed and angry. Thus, it follows that the cause of severe illness is the depression and anger. So, a good and cheerful attitude is key to staying healthy. You’d be happier and prettier if you smiled more.


Example #3:

Bill sets out several plates with bread on them. After a couple days, he notices that the bread has mold growing all over it. Bill concludes that the mold was produced by the bread going bad. When Bill tells his mother about his experiment, she tells him that the mold was the cause of the bread going bad and that he better clean up the mess if he wants to get his allowance this week.

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More