What goes wrong with our reasoning when we think backward from effects to causes, connecting events in ways that mislead us into inferring unsupported and often unsupportable causal accounts, those that on closer examination just ain't so?
Here we have a closely related group of mistakes in reasoning, quite common, quite normal, but nonetheless leading us to make erroneous connections between events.
The first shall be…
…The Post Hoc Fallacy:
Also called in the Latin, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, (“after this, so because of this”)t has a very simple form, when events follow each other in time:
Y occurred before Z. What comes before causes what follows. So Y must have caused Z.
I wanted to get revenge on someone, so I danced around my kitchen table, said a few profound-sounding nonsense words, sacrificed one of my gerbils, and a week later this guy I really hate was injured in an accident. The ritual must have worked like it was supposed to!
I had the flu, so I took some homeopathic remedy I got at the pharmacy and a few days later my flu went away. Seems to me that the remedy cured my flu.
There is also….
Confusing association with causation:
Also known by the Latin Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, so because of this”), this fallacy also has a rather basic, though subtly different construction from the previous fallacy:
X is found with Y. Things found together are connected. So X caused Y.
Some examples follow:
I got a really good test score while wearing my propeller beanie, So I think that wearing a propeller beanie improves test scores!
My horoscope forecast a rough day for me during the conjunction of Pluto and Jupiter with the center of our galaxy, and it was in fact very stressful and hectic. So the cosmic conjunction must have been responsible for my bad day.
These fallacies have resulted in much in the way of superstition and magical thinking throughout human history, including the present day, forcing upon some the thankless task of social damage-control.
There is, too…
…The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:
Here one falsely assumes causes in random data patterns, giving them any relationship or meaning one wants to see, often unconsciously, frequently done in some paranormal research with the misuse of statistical methods, like interpreting statistical artifacts and anomalies as scientifically important evidence for the paranormal.
The fallacy takes its name from an imaginary gunman who randomly fires his pistol at the side of a barn while nobody’s looking, and then paints bullseyes around the holes so that he can boast of his skill.
So too, we have…
…The Wrong Direction fallacy:
This one would be claims like:
Tooth cavities cause overeating of sweets and sugary drinks!
Some forms of sterility in men cause ionizing radiation exposure!
Next up is…
…The Complex Cause Fallacy:
When one assumes only one out of a set of causes at the cost of the others, inferring causation only partially true, like:
I think that children’s reading ability just comes from getting older…
…when it is actually caused by both that and education as they mature.
The Joint Cause Fallacy:
in which one assumes causation between a set of things, when they are all caused by the same thing. For example:
Children’s math ability comes from their shoe size!
This claim despite the fact that both are caused by the development of children as they physically mature, grow, and learn.
And finally, there’s…
…The Regression Fallacy:
Inferring causes other than the tendency for extremes of chance to wander ever closer to a statistical average. A good example would be a chess-player who has strings of wins and losses in matches but overall comes out average over time, but feeling as if he is winning, or losing, in ‘streaks,’ a belief in the ‘hot hand,’ as it is known in sports superstitions.
Related to this is the Denial of Causation, such as when the fossil fuel industry dismisses anthropogenic global warming, with one among many spurious claims from their advocates being:
The world’s getting hotter each year, but it’s the sun, stupid! Human causation is impossible and presumptuous to even consider!
That despite obvious clear indications of reduced solar activity from observatories over decades. But mentioning that fact makes the discussion quickly devolve into one of silly Evil Conspiracies to Fudge the Data and Hoax the World to Wreck the Economy by Liberal Scientists™ or some such foolishness.
The HIV virus doesn’t cause AIDS. There’s no connection between HIV in the blood of those with the disease and immune deficiency. AIDS is just caused by lifestyle and/or diet.
Cue rants on Big Pharma Shills™ and conspiracies of evil doctors. Be those as they may, however,
It’s easily possible for any causal thinking to be spurious, but science offers methods to make correct inferences. Important in such arguments is taking into account any conceivable, testable alternative hypotheses that could be implicated in the actual cause of a given event. Untestable hypotheses of course, needn’t be considered as they are scientifically uninteresting. They are worse than wrong, and not even wrong.