The false cause fallacy is an argument where a false or incorrect cause is given for the conclusion of an argument.
Causation (X happens because Y happened) is an important part of the way we prove things. It plays an important part in the way we form our arguments.
For example, when I say: “I fell because you pushed me” I am stating that the cause of me falling over is the fact that a person pushed me.
But if the cause is wrong, then we’ve made a fallacy. For example, you might say: “I fell because the wind pushed me”, when really fell because you tripped but didn’t want to admit it.
Simple False Cause Fallacy Examples
- The current president caused high inflation – Usually, inflation is caused by global forces and not the current president’s policies. Nevertheless, the opposition party will lean into this false cause fallacy because it serves their needs.
- The rooster’s call is what causes the sun to rise – This is post hoc ergo propter hoc. Roosters don’t cause the sun rise. Rather, the sun rise causes the roosters to crow.
- A black cat caused your bad luck – A superstitious person sees a black cat on the way to work, then has a terrible day. They rely on their superstition and blame the cat for their bad luck (see also: illusory correlation examples).
- A four-leaf clover led to good luck – A superstitious person keeps a four-leaf clover in her wallet. Whenever something good happens, she quietly feels so glad she has the clover in her pocket.
- Prayer found you the parking spot – Growing up, my aunt would always make me pray for a parking spot when we were driving around the parking lot. When we found a spot, she would always thank Jesus.
The false cause fallacy is an informal logical fallacy and we will be looking at the two most common forms this fallacy can take. They both fall under the banner of the popular saying: “correlation is not causation”.
In other words, two things happening during a similar time or two things being related to each other does not mean that one causes the other to happen.
The first is called post hoc ergo propter hoc. In post hoc ergo propter hoc the false reason for a cause is the sequence in which things happen.
It has the structure: X causes Y because X happened before Y.
The event that happened before is presumed to cause the next event just because it happened before and not for any other reason.
The second form of this fallacy is called cum hoc ergo propter hoc. It has the structure: X causes Y, because X and Y happened at the same time.
Two things can happen at the same time and yet there can be no valid reason for one to have caused the other.
It can be coincidence or there can be a separate cause that was not mentioned in the argument. Therefore, two things happening at the same time is not enough of a reason for one to have caused the other.
‘Post hoc Ergo Propter Hoc‘ False Cause Examples
1. The Rooster’s Call
Claire owns chickens on her property. Every morning Claire’s rooster wakes her up just before dawn arrives.
It happens like clockwork and Claire starts to believe that it is the rooster which causes the sun to rise. The rooster finishes its crowing just as the first rays of light appear.
Even though Claire has a very punctual rooster and she observes the situation correctly she is not considering all the facts. It is obviously the earth spinning on its axis which causes the day and night cycle.
Claire is just focusing on the fact that the rooster crows before the sun comes up as a cause for the sun rising. This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
We all know that spring follows winter and summer follows after spring.
This sequence of events and the warming temperature from winter to spring to summer if taken in isolation could lead a person to conclude that the warming temperature in spring causes the warmer temperature in summer.
This would be a post hoc ergo propter hoc. Yes, it is true that in spring the temperature warms up and this happens before the warmer temperatures in summer.
However, because one comes before the other does not mean that spring causes summer to happen. This line of thinking would be a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
In reality, it’s the rotation of the earth that causes summer to arrive.
Xavier walks into the kitchen. As he does so he bumps into the kitchen table and causes a mug to fall to the floor and shatter.
In exasperation he bends down to pick up the pieces of the mug and as he does so a loud boom of thunder happens overhead and a storm begins.
Despite himself he can’t help feeling that he somehow caused the storm by bumping into the table and shattering the mug.
Something about the sound of the mug shattering and then the peal of thunder makes such a strong impression.
Xavier’s suspicions are understandable, as the mug does just shatter just before the first peal of thunder.
However, it is clear that this is just a coincidence and the real cause of the thunder is the weather conditions. Xavier is committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
An article in a cheap magazine has the title: “the panda’s will save us!”. In the article, it makes the claim that just after the panda bear population started declining we saw a rise in global warming.
The article draws the conclusion that there must be something about pandas which combats global warming and we should therefore save them.
The article is committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy by thinking that the panda population starting to decline triggered the beginning of global warming. The two events are linked by the sequence in which they happened but this does not establish a cause.
Reginald is painting a wall on a construction site. As he works he notices a small shape dart underneath his ladder.
In shock he sees it was a black cat. In the next second rubble from higher up on the construction site falls and barely misses him.
Reginald believes that black cats are bad luck and that the black cat caused the rubble to almost hit him as that is what happened just before the rubble fell.
Despite the fact that black cats have a long association with bringing bad luck, the sequence of events in this scenario is the only evidence Reginald has for the cat causing the rubble to fall. There is no evidence that the cat caused any rubble to fall.
Related: Circular Reasoning Fallacy Examples
‘cum hoc ergo propter hoc‘ False Cause Examples
1. “Don’t eat that!”
Two passengers on a train are about to eat their lunch. One person begins to eat first and as they take their first bite the train goes into a tunnel and it goes pitch black.
The one passenger shouts a warning to the other: “Don’t eat that! It will make you go blind!”.
In this scenario the passenger taking their first bite of food and the train going into the tunnel happen at the same time. The passenger therefore concludes that the food caused him to lose vision.
The real cause of him losing vision was the train going into the tunnel which he did not realize was happening and so he thought it was his lunch, simply because he happened to be eating his lunch at that time. This is a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
2. Sick day
Natalia is a very sceptical person. She thinks to herself that if hospitals really made people better they wouldn’t always be full of sick people.
She concludes that since hospitals are always full of sick people it must be the hospitals who are making people sick.
Natalia is committing the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy as she is using the correlation between hospitals and sick people to come to the conclusion that hospitals are causing people to be sick.
This is obviously false. Sick people are in the hospital because they need to be treated for their illnesses
Every weekday John eats his lunch at the same table in the office. For some time during lunch he begins to have a pain in his lower back.
It happens consistently every lunch. John concludes that something in his lunch must be causing the pain in his lower back, as it happens every time he sits down to eat.
John is concluding that the lunch is causing his back pain because the two events happen at the same time.
He is not considering any other reason for how or why food could cause back pain and therefore he is committing the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
4. Email problems
In the company that Sheryl works for, all work emails must be sent off by 1 pm.
After she is finished sending off the emails she is very hungry. She thinks to herself that those emails were really hard work and she worked up a real hunger typing them up.
Sheryl is committing the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy as she thinks the emails made her hungry simply because she happened to be working on them when she became hungry.
There is no other good reason for why they would make her hungry. It is obvious that it is lunch time and that is why she is hungry, regardless of what specific task she might be doing.
5. The numbers don’t lie
A study finds that people who don’t go outside often tend to be less motivated.
The study concludes that not going outside leads people to be less motivated due to a lack of sunshine and exercise.
The study is committing the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. They based their conclusion on the fact that a lack of motivation and not going outside occurred at the same time in their study. However, it ignored other more legitimate causes.
People who are depressed tend to go out less and be less motivated. Depression explains both factors in the study much better and is a more convincing cause for why people are less motivated.
Recognizing false cause fallacies all depend on understanding the true cause of an event or argument. As we have seen in the examples above, just because two events or ideas are related does not mean that one is a good cause for the other.
Often in false cause fallacies the two events or ideas just happen to occur around the same time and they have independent causes, or they are caused by a third hidden event that is not mentioned in the argument.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]