Point Lookout An email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
Point Lookout, a free weekly email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
July 11, 2001 Volume 1, Issue 28
 
Recommend this issue to a friend
Join the Friends of Point Lookout
HTML to link to this article…
Archive: By Topic    By Date
Links to Related Articles
Sign Up for A Tip A Day!
Create a perpetual bookmark to the current issue Bookmark and Share
Tweet this! | Follow @RickBrenner Random Article

The Fallacy of the False Cause

by

Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.

Ginny was getting pretty steamed. "We tried code inspections back in Release 5, and you know what happened then. Everything slowed down, we got nothing done, everyone got into fights, and Morgan left the group. If we have to do inspections, you can count me out." Ginny's argument, in essence, was that since some unpleasant events happened shortly after inspections began, the code inspections caused them.

Arguments based on
the Fallacy of the False Cause
lead organizations
to make costly errors
Although her argument is convincing to many, it doesn't prove her case. It's an example of a rhetorical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc — Latin for after this, therefore because of this. Ginny argues that since the unpleasant events followed the adoption of code inspections, the code inspections caused the problems, and therefore all code inspections, of any kind whatever, are bad.

A more convincing argument would exclude other possible causes. For example, were the inspections run badly? Were people inadequately trained? Were inspections introduced when people were too busy to learn how to do inspections?

The Post Hoc fallacy is a special case of a more general type of fallacy — the fallacy of the false cause. In Post Hoc, the apparent causal connection relates to the timing of the two events. But connections can also be unrelated to timing:

All of the projects Gerhard has managed in the past few years have been late and over budget. Since people now believe that Gerhard was the cause of the overruns, he can no longer get assignments as a project lead. Nobody seems to remember that each of Gerhard's project sponsors had either reduced his budget or expanded requirements so many times that no project manager would have had much of a chance to perform well.

Good news/bad news

Gerhard's management skill was the most obvious factor common to the failed projects, but it wasn't the cause. In this case, faulty reasoning damages a career and deprives the company of a skilled manager.

How can you spot this kind of error in the heat of debate? The fallacy of the false cause might be lurking if the argument states that:

Since A was present when B occurred, then A was the cause. Or Since A preceded B, A caused B.

To respond to arguments that use this fallacy, use examples in which A was present, but B wasn't. Your debate partner might not be convinced, but it's your best shot.

Educate your colleagues about the Fallacy of the False Cause. When we understand how much it can cost, and when we understand how to avoid it, we can save much pain and frustration. Perhaps Will Rogers said it best:

It's not what we don't know that hurts; it's what we know that ain't so.

Go to top  Top  Next issue: Look Before You Leap  Next Issue
Bookmark and Share


Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as or as . You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles
More articles on Emotions at Work:
Hula HoopingStay in Your Own Hula Hoop
Do you tend to commit to too many tasks? Are you one who spends too much energy meeting the needs of others — so much that your own needs go unmet? Here's how a hula-hoop can help.

An elevatorDemanding Forgiveness
Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.

The unappreciative bossThe Unappreciative Boss
Do you work for a boss who doesn't appreciate you? Do you feel ignored or excessively criticized? If you do, life can be a misery, if you make it so. Or you can work around it. It's up to you to choose.

Carrot and stickIrrational Self-Interest
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?

Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satelliteHandling Heat: Part II
Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.

See also Emotions at Work, Critical Thinking and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact me for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
ThereThe Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
LeadiManaging Virtual Meetings for Real Resultsng or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Organizational Politics for People Who Hate Politics
Have Organizational Politics for People Who Hate Politicsyou ever felt powerless to implement an important new idea? Have you ever been "blind-sided" at a meeting? Have you ever lost two good employees because you could find no way to keep them from attacking each other? These are some of the issues of organizational politics. Many of us have become enmeshed in them from time to time, but we've also known some people who seem to be able to engage and prosper. How is that done? We'll inventory the challenges of organizational politics, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees learn concrete techniques for dealing with the problems that arise in workplace politics, while keeping their integrity intact. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Workplace Conflict Awareness Month KitIn April, increase awareness of conflict in the workplace, and learn how to convert destructive conflict to creative conflict. Order the Workplace Conflict Awareness Month Kit by 30 Apr 2013, New York time, at the special price of and save USD 10.00! Check it out!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
SSL