Saturday, August 17, 2019 | ePaper
Danger of searching facts
What caused Trump to win the 2016 election? Was it economic anxiety? Racism? Sexism? Russian hacking? Immigration? Political correctness? Implicit in questions like these is the idea that complex events like the 2016 election have only one cause. When headlines say that "A new study reveals the real reason Obama voters switched to Trump," there is an assumption that the switch to Trump had one true cause, and once this cause is identified, there is no need to look for other potential causes. This tendency to assume complex events had only one cause is sometimes called "the fallacy of the single cause."
Research suggests that people tend to prefer simple, single-cause explanations to more complex ones. One study led by UC Berkeley Psychologist Tania Lombrozo found that study participants are more likely to believe that two symptoms are caused by one disease rather than by two separate diseases - even if participants are shown information suggesting that the second explanation is more probable. Even young children prefer one-cause explanation: When shown a toy with a light turning on and a fan spinning, children are more likely to think these effects come from a common cause rather than two independent causes.
Perhaps our prototypical understanding of causality only consists of one cause and one effect. This is what cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues in his classic book Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff believes that our understanding of causality is rooted in our understanding of the physical world. We learn about causality from a young age through our experience of manipulating objects: If we drop something, it falls, and if we hit something, it moves.
It makes sense for this prototypical idea of causality to be linear and consist of one cause and one effect because this is typically how physical causality works. However, this conception of causality fails to explain more complex issues, such as global warming, poverty, or the results of the 2016 election. To understand issues like these, Lakoff argues that we need to think in terms of "systemic causation," which involves multiple interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes. However, Lakoff acknowledges that thinking this way does not come naturally to us and is typically harder to communicate with our language.
We might also find simple explanations attractive. In his book Factfulness, Hans Reisling says that we find simple ideas alluring because we like feeling like we really know and understand something. But this can lead us to engage in what Reisling calls the "Single Perspective Instinct," or the tendency to think there is a single cause behind complex problems that can be solved with a single solution.
Things are often much more complex than we'd like to believe and complex systemic issues are unlikely to have only one cause. So, instead of asking questions like "what caused Trump to win the 2016 election?" we can ask questions that emphasize the causal complexity of the world around us, like "what were some of the factors that caused Trump to win the 2016 election?"
(Steve Rathje is a Ph.D. student in Psychology at Cambridge University, where he is studying as a Gates Cambridge Scholar).