Fallacy of the single cause

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The fallacy of the single cause, also known as complex cause, causal oversimplification, causal reductionism, and reduction fallacy,[1] is a fallacy of questionable cause that occurs when it is assumed that there is a single, simple cause of an outcome when in reality it may have been caused by a number of only jointly sufficient causes.

It can be logically reduced to: " X caused Y; therefore, X was the only cause of Y" (although A,B,C...etc. also contributed to Y.)[1]

Causal oversimplification is a specific kind of false dilemma where conjoint possibilities are ignored. In other words, the possible causes are assumed to be "A or B or C" when "A and B and C" or "A and B and not C" (etc.) are not taken into consideration.


After any given tragedy, a search for one ultimate cause, i.e. straw that broke the camel's back, is underway. Such language implies that there is only a single clearly identifiable cause, when instead there were probably a large number of underlying contributing factors. However, having produced a list of several such factors, it may be worthwhile to look for the strongest of them, or a single cause underlying several of them. A need for simplification may be perceived in order to make the explanation of the tragedy immediately operational, so that responsible authorities can be seen to have taken action.

For instance, after a school shooting, editorialists debate whether it was caused by the shooter's parents, violence in media, stress on students, or the accessibility of guns. In fact, many different causes—including some of those—may all have contributed. Similarly, some branches of entertainment industry might claim that peer-to-peer file sharing is the sole cause of a loss in profit whereas other factors, such as emergence of new forms of entertainment, shifting preferences, satiety and economic depression are all likely to be major factors.

A notable scientific example of what can happen when this kind of fallacy is identified and resolved is the development in economics of the Coase theorem.

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  1. ^ a b "Causal Reductionism". Retrieved 6 October 2012.