False Cause Fallacy | Examples & Definition

Reasoning updated on  May 27, 2024 5 min read

A false cause fallacy occurs when an argument assumes a causal relationship without sufficient evidence. The term represents a category of errors related to unmerited assumptions about cause and effect.

False cause fallacy example
A podcast host lists successful entrepreneurs who wake up at 4 a.m. and concludes that anyone who starts waking up early will become more successful in business.

False cause fallacies can lead to misguided beliefs, decisions, and actions, so it’s important to know how to identify and analyze fallacies of causation.

What is a false cause fallacy?

The false cause fallacy is a general term for the error of attributing causality without adequate supporting evidence.

False cause fallacies are also known by the names questionable cause, faulty causality, and non causa pro causa (a Latin phrase that means “non-cause for cause”).

As a type of informal logical fallacy, false cause fallacies are said to render an argument unsound and represent content-level errors rather than structural errors.

The false cause fallacy is an umbrella concept, representing all the fallacies whose main error relates to attributing causality. When spoken of as a category, they are often called causal fallacies, in contrast to other general categories such as fallacies of relevance and fallacies of ambiguity.

What are different types of false cause fallacies?

False cause fallacies can be divided into several specific types of errors. They all involve faulty reasoning about cause-and-effect relationships between events or phenomena.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy

The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, derived from the Latin phrase “after this, therefore because of this,” involves attributing causation based solely on the order of events.

Post hoc fallacies specifically posit that an earlier event must be the cause of a subsequent event.

Post hoc fallacy example
An op-ed article attributes a country’s economic downturn solely to the recent election of a new political leader, ignoring important factors such as global economic trends and the effects of the previous administration’s policies.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc

The cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, based on the Latin for “with this, therefore because of this,” is the error of assuming that two events or phenomena that occur at the same time must have a cause-and-effect relationship.

Like the post hoc fallacy, the cum hoc fallacy is focused on timing. However, post hoc fallacies involve events that occur one after another, whereas cum hoc fallacies relate to concurrent events.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy example
A study finds that there is a correlation between organic food consumption and lower incidences of disease. Media reports claim, based on this study, that organic food consumption directly results in improved health.

This assumption overlooks the likelihood that consumers of organic food likely also partake in additional health-promoting practices, such as eating nutrient-rich foods and exercising, contributing to their overall well-being.

Correlation–Causation Fallacy

Correlation–causation fallacies involve assuming that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between variables based solely on a correlation in the data.
The correlation–causation fallacy encompasses the post hoc and cum hoc fallacies, but it also includes fallacies that aren’t focused on the timing of events.

Correlation–causation fallacy example
A medical journal reports that Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Japan is also known for high rates of green tea consumption compared to most nations. A student writes an essay arguing, based solely on this correlation, that consuming green tea directly results in increased life expectancy without considering other factors such as overall diet, healthcare systems, genetic factors, or lifestyle choices that might contribute to longevity.

Oversimplification fallacy

An argument that commits the oversimplification fallacy (or fallacy of the single cause) makes an unmerited claim that an event or phenomenon has just one specific cause, overlooking the complexity of the issue.

Examples of the oversimplification fallacy can often be seen in discussions of health and disease. Illnesses that may have many contributing causes are often mistakenly attributed to a single factor, which may or may not be one of the disease’s actual causes.

Oversimplification fallacy example
“Patients with diabetes are advised to eat low-sugar diets to manage their blood sugar levels and avoid insulin spikes. Eating sugar clearly causes diabetes.”

While excessive sugar consumption and other dietary choices can contribute to Type 2 diabetes risk, it’s a complex disease with multiple contributing factors, including genetics, overall diet, and exercise. Further, Type 1 diabetes risk is unrelated to diet. This argument oversimplifies the causes of a complex illness.

False cause fallacy examples

Examples of the false cause fallacy can be found in many contexts, including media reports, advertising, political arguments, social media debates, and faulty interpretations of scientific research.

False cause fallacy example in media
A news commentator reports, “A recent study has shown that people who drink one glass of red wine a day tend to live longer than those who don’t. Be sure to drink your wine, everyone.”

This example demonstrates the correlation-causation fallacy, a specific type of false cause fallacy.

The news commentator assumes that the study proves red wine’s direct impact on longevity. However, this interpretation wrongly infers causality from mere correlation, ignoring factors such as genetics, lifestyle, diet, and socioeconomic status.

The assumption that red wine leads to a long life also overlooks alcohol’s potential adverse health effects (e.g., addiction, liver disease, cancer). In health contexts, mistaking correlation for causation can be dangerously misleading.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Rhetoric

Commonly confused words

Fallacies

Symbolism

Possum vs opossum

Straw man fallacy

Play on words

Weather vs whether

Post hoc fallacy

Juxtaposition

Inter vs intra

Fallacy of composition

Paronomasia

To vs too

Tu quoque fallacy

Allusion

Subjective vs objective

Either-or fallacy


Frequently asked questions about false cause fallacy

How can I identify a false cause fallacy in an argument?

To identify a false cause fallacy, look for the following mistakes in an argument:

  • Unsubstantiated causal claim: Assess whether the argument asserts a cause-and-effect relationship without providing adequate evidence to support the claim.
  • Ignoring other possible causes: Observe whether the argument overlooks or dismisses other plausible explanations for the observed outcome.
  • Correlation or timing assumed to prove causality: Beware of conclusions based solely on correlations or the order of events, which aren’t sufficient to prove causation.

What’s the difference between correlation and causation?

In the correlation–causation fallacy, a perceived similarity or relationship between two variables is wrongly assumed to imply a cause-and-effect relationship. It’s important to understand the differences between correlation and causation:

  • Correlation: variables change together or share common characteristics
  • Causation: one variable, event, or phenomenon directly leads to another

The maxim “correlation does not imply causation” is often used to rebut the correlation–causation fallacy. Observing a similarity or relationship between two variables does not necessarily indicate a causal link.

What are some examples of false cause fallacy?

False cause fallacies assume a causal relationship between events, as demonstrated in the following examples:

  • A manager attributes a company’s profit increase to a new marketing campaign while ignoring market trends.
  • The principal of a high school credits a new textbook for improved student grades while disregarding the impact of a new tutoring program.
  • A city’s mayor takes credit for a reduction in crime, attributing it to increased policing, while overlooking the benefits of new community initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty and improving education.

There are several types of false cause fallacies that have specific names, including the post hoc fallacy and the cum hoc fallacy.





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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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