printer friendly, larger print version


This fallacy has the following general form:
A and B are associated on a regular basis.
Therefore A is the cause of B.

The general idea behind this fallacy is that it is an error in reasoning to conclude that one thing causes another simply because the two are associated on a regular basis. More formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the cause of B simply because they are associated on a regular basis. The error being made is that a causal conclusion is being drawn from inadequate evidence.

The Questionable Cause Fallacy is actually a general type of fallacy. Any causal fallacy that involves an error in a reasoning due to a failure to adequately investigate the suspected cause is a fallacy of this type. Thus, fallacies like Post Hoc and Confusing Cause and Effect are specific examples of the general Questionable Cause Fallacy.

Causal reasoning can be quite difficult since causation is a rather complex philosophic issue. The complexity of causation is briefly discussed in the context of the specific versions of this fallacy.

The key to avoiding the Questionable Cause fallacy is to take due care in drawing causal conclusions. This requires taking steps to adequately investigate the phenomena in question as well using the proper methods of careful investigation.

Description of Ignoring a Common Cause
This fallacy has the following general structure:
A and B are regularly connected (but no third, common cause is looked for).
Therefore A is the cause of B.

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one thing causes another simply because they are regularly associated. More formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are regularly connected. Further, the causal conclusion is drawn without considering the possibility that a third factor might be the cause of both A and B.

In many cases, the fallacy is quite evident. For example, if a person claimed that a person's sneezing was caused by her watery eyes and he simply ignored the fact that the woman was standing in a hay field, he would have fallen prey to the fallacy of ignoring a common cause. In this case, it would be reasonable to conclude that the woman's sneezing and watering eyes was caused by an allergic reaction of some kind. In other cases, it is not as evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a doctor might find a large amount of bacteria in one of her patients and conclude that the bacteria are the cause of the patient's illness. However, it might turn out that the bacteria are actually harmless and that a virus is weakening the person, Thus, the viruses would be the actual cause of the illness and growth of the bacteria (the viruses would weaken the ability of the person's body to resist the growth of the bacteria).

As noted in the discussion of other causal fallacies, causality is a rather difficult matter. However, it is possible to avoid this fallacy by taking due care. In the case of Ignoring a Common Cause, the key to avoiding this fallacy is to be careful to check for other factors that might be the actual cause of both the suspected cause and the suspected effect. If a person fails to check for the possibility of a common cause, then they will commit this fallacy. Thus, it is always a good idea to always ask "could there be a third factor that is actually causing both A and B?"

Examples of Ignoring a Common Cause

One day Bill wakes up with a fever. A few hours later he finds red spots on his skin. he concludes that the fever must have caused the red spots. His friend insists that the spots and the fever are caused by some microbe. Bill laughs at this and insists that if he spends the day in a tub of cold water his spots will go away.

Over the course of several weeks the needles from the pine trees along the Wombat river fell into the water. Shortly thereafter, many dead fish washed up on the river banks. When the EPA investigated, the owners of the Wombat River Chemical Company claimed that is it was obvious that the pine needles had killed the fish. Many local environmentalists claimed that the chemical plant's toxic wastes caused both the trees and the fish to die and that the pine needles had no real effect on the fish.

A thunderstorm wakes Joe up in the middle of the night. He goes downstairs to get some milk to help him get back to sleep. On the way to the refrigerator, he notices that the barometer has fallen a great deal. Joe concludes that the storm caused the barometer to fall. In the morning he tells his wife about his conclusion. She tells him that it was a drop in atmospheric pressure that caused the barometer to drop and the storm.


Joe gets a chain letter that threatens him with dire consequences if he breaks the chain. He laughs at it and throws it in the garbage. On his way to work he slips and breaks his leg. When he gets back from the hospital he sends out 200 copies of the chain letter, hoping to avoid further accidents.

When investigating a small pond a group of graduate students found that there was a severe drop in the fish population. Further investigation revealed that the fishes' food supply had also been severely reduced. At first the students believed that the lack of food was killing the fish, but then they realized they had to find what was causing the decline in the food supply. The students suspected acid rain was the cause of both the reduction in the fish population as well as the food supply. However, the local business council insisted that it was just the lack of food that caused the reduction in the fish population. Most of the townspeople agreed with this conclusion since it seemed pretty obvious that a lack of food would cause fish to die.

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,