Causality's Complexities

Two competing conceptions of fallacies are that they are false but popular beliefs and that they are deceptively bad arguments. These we may distinguish as the belief and argument conceptions of fallacies. Academic writers who have given the most attention to the subject of fallacies insist on, or at least prefer, the argument conception of fallacies, but the belief conception is prevalent in popular and non-scholarly discourse. –Hans Hansen, “Fallacies” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2019)

One of the most important lessons I offer students in my English composition and introductory political science courses is an examination of the complexities of causality. Often, with students who are superficially familiar with political, historical, economic, and even contemporary events, there are a few misconceptions concerning the nature of causality and just how causality affects our lives as human beings in complex systems. This lesson inevitably leads to conversations about the spread of communism (or socialism — there’s a difference, people!), the rise of Adolph Hitler, and even modern gun control in the United States. In other words, we arrive at those conversational points that are often repeated by political pundits, news anchors, and demagogues masquerading themselves and their platforms as being for the people.

One of the common fallacies concerning the rise of Adolph Hitler is that he started World War II. Technically, this isn’t correct. Superficially, it is. Hitler rises to power, he invades various former German territories and newfound countries, and, after a bit of ineptitude, the world powers standing by decide to act — sort of. However, if we look deeper, examining the conditions of possibility that led to the Second World War, we find a whole series of events or conditions that led to the conflict. These include the rise of fascism in Europe (a far-right ideology); the rise of Stalinism (a far-left ideology); the conflict between left and right in countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere; the draining of wealth from Europe to the United States, following World War One; the Treaty of Versailles; and even the ineptitude of the League of Nations and the world powers in stopping the war from taking place or spreading.

A political cartoon emphasizing the fear of non-white threats to Australia and New Zealand. (Original Credit: E.F. Hiscocks, 1904).

A similar logical fallacy concerning the nature of the Second World War creeps into conversations with students involving the reasons why the United States and Japan went to war with one another. Although many historians would scoff at a simple answer as to why the Japanese engaged in a protracted conflict with the United States, common answers among my students include Japanese egos were inflated and they believed they could defeat America. Some argue that the Japanese wanted to go to war with the United States because they were allies with the Germans. Again, problematic answers, given the nature of how the United States entered the war, to begin with. This is when I point out the need to remember that the war between Japan and the United States had many conditions of possibility, leading up to the actual fighting between the two empires. Japanese imperialism was inspired, in part, the United States and the rest of the West. Furthermore, Japan (probably) made miscalculations concerning American interests in Asia, which put the two on the path to war, particularly when it came to China. Japan also (likely) believed it could knock out the United States much in the way it had the Russians in 1904-1905, which shocked much, if not all, the western world at the time, including many prominent political leaders in the United States.

Reportage on the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), as reported in the Palestine Daily Herald.

Another famous example that comes to us from history is the Domino Theory, which dominated American foreign and military policies between the 1950s and the 1980s. Domino Theory, a logical fallacy that ignores causality and its complexities, fueled fears concerning the spread of communism throughout the world. To roughly paraphrase the Domino Theory’s mentality, we could say “if one country falls to communism, others will as well.” Thus, the United States engaged in a rather costly series of wars and policies of communist containment, something students may be witnessing with the U.S. military actions and political conflicts concerning terrorism, extremism, and so on. The Cold War-era military conflicts and policies are still haunting American political leaders (and citizens) to this day.

In our politically charged environment, causality’s complexities boggle minds of those students who are entrenched in the poorly constructed political debates. The greatest example of this comes from the gun-control debate, where many conservative students believe (wholeheartedly, I might add) that “liberals” and the “government” are coming for their AR-15s (and other firearms). Students often tell me that the government (with backing from liberal politicians) are going to take away their guns, and this argument always crops up after each (major) mass shooting in the United States. You can almost predict the talking points students offer you. Instead of well-constructed arguments, students present cardboard cutouts that are neither logical nor entirely rational. They fall victim to logical fallacies concerning causality, and they truly believe in the slippery slope arguments coming forth from the gun-control debate. In other words, they believe a ban on AR-15s to be a sort of red herring for a much larger attempt to strip Americans of their Second Amendment rights. All of this comes up despite severe resistance, good lobbying, and Supreme Court rulings that have challenged many important gun-control reforms in the United States.

What can we learn from these lessons in causality?

We learn that people often retreat into poorly constructed arguments, especially when it comes to topics that are politically charged: i.e., the rise of Hitler, gun-control, the spread of communism, etc. Moreover, students are susceptible to these poorly constructed arguments because they are inundated with information sources that aren’t necessarily checking the validity of their claims. Instead, students are often exposed to information sources that should be reviewed and read with a critical lens, something that forces students to consider and even reconsider the oft-used arguments, evidence, and logical reasoning that come with the topics discussed above. Therefore, it is our job, as educators, as parents, and as citizens, to help youth (and even the elderly) avoid misunderstanding the complexities of causality. The consequences of failing to understand how complex causality really is can be seen on our televisions during nightly news broadcasts, in our local and national newspapers, and on blogs, vlogs, social media postings, and the like.

A Wonderful Cartoon Dealing with the Ironies of Imperialism 

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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico