A Single Cause For Everything

Our society loves to pin each problem on one cause. The most recent example is Elliot Rodger. Some say he was a misogynist (Huff Post) and others that he was mentally insane (TIME). Others blame the system instead, claiming that he was operating under a grander systematic male privilege (Salon) or that therapists and law enforcement are inadequate to detect signs mental illness (Slate). And here is yet another pair of conflicting reports in the misogyny (Washington Post) vs mental illness (National Review) debate. Despite the variety of voices in the debate, they all seem to agree on one thing: their reason is the only reason.

The title of the TIME article says blatantly, “Misogyny Didn’t Turn Elliot Rodger Into a Killer,” and the first sentence reads, “Yes, Elliot Rodger was a misogynist — but blaming a cultural hatred for women for his actions loses sight of the real reason why isolated, mentally ill young men turn to mass murder.”

Besides this acknowledgement, the articles all present evidence that furthers their own theories while not considering evidence that might support other theories. It’s very difficult to dig up an article that discusses, for instance, with nuance how much of it was caused by misogyny and how much by mental illness, or how the two factors behave in tandem. (Or whether there is a third factor: this article (Salon) talks about the role of race in Rodger’s motives.)

In case you’ve already made your mind on which side of the misogyny vs mental illness debate you fall on, here is a simpler, non-politically-charged example. Suppose we want a theory to predict where there is snow and where there isn’t snow. The first theory I’ll propose is the latitude theory: higher latitudes are colder and should thus have more snow (assuming we’re in the Northern hemisphere).  If this theory were completely true, the snow distribution might look something like this.

latitude-us-map

Everywhere north of the latitude line, there is snow, and everywhere south, there is no snow. Clearly this isn’t true.

Here is another theory: water proximity theory. Snow needs water to freeze, so snow will form near bodies of water. If this theory were completely true, then we should only find snow near water. Clearly this isn’t true either.

Here is an actual picture of snow cover from NASA:

snowcover

And here is an animated gif of world snow cover:

Earth-satellite-snow

As one can see, neither theory is true as an absolute statement. The correct way to think of these theories is as probabilistic theories. That is, the more north you go, the higher the chance you will encounter snow. The same goes for being near bodies of water, to a lesser extent. Even then, snow cover cannot be explained as a combination of these two factors alone: mountainous regions have more snowfall as well.

The debates in our current-day media are akin to one side saying that latitude determines everything and the other side that proximity to water determines everything. Neither side is willing to look rationally at the cold facts around them.

History is another subject where it is more clear that everything has multiple causes. In just less than two months from today, it will have been 100 years since the beginning of World War I. One might argue that the cause of WWI was the assassination of an archduke, but this simplistic explanation misses all the political tensions and alliances at the time. Similarly, one could argue that it was purely due to the political landscape and that war would have broken out regardless of the assassination. Both causes were necessary to an extent. If Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in a less tense time, war might have been averted. Similarly, if no assassination had occurred, the great powers might not have had a proper excuse to actually go to war.

So why can’t we use scientific or historical reasoning on sociological issues?

Religion is a great example of this single-cause mentality. The honor killing of Pakistani woman Farzana Parveen last week was unanimously condemned in the US, similarly to the Elliot Rodger shooting. However, whenever someone tried to posit a cause that could have contributed to the honor killing, the other side would knock it down, saying it couldn’t be the right cause, and they give examples. For instance, if you go to the comment section of any major news story about this event, you’ll invariably find that someone criticizes Islam for condoning honor killings and promoting misogyny, and then someone else responds by pointing out that honor killings sometimes happen in other cultures (e.g. Hindu) as well.

Both sides make decent points but such conversations are useless since they are both saying true things but ignoring what the other side is saying. Just as “more north = more snow” is not always true, it is also not false. So sure, Islam might not be the only reason that honor killings occur so much in Pakistan, but it’s a pretty strong factor. Just because a cause is not the only cause does not mean that it is not a cause at all.

With religion in general, people very often make absurdly simplistic statements themselves and assume other people’s views of religion are absurdly simplistic (perhaps by projection). This might also be reflected in the general media and American culture as a whole. We love simple answers to complex problems. I’m not advocating that we personally conduct full academic research for every problem we face, but we are clearly too far on the simplistic side. The problem is that we’re thinking too little, not too much.

Elliot Rodger’s event, just like any other event, has a variety of causes. Both misogyny and ill-handling of mental illness are to blame. Snow cover depends on several conditions. World War I had a complex background, as do honor killings and suicide bombings.

Solutions to oversimplification of causes?

  • Prefer depth of news, not breadth. Instead of gaining a superficial understanding of many stories, try to understand one story really well. Read 10 different articles on Elliot Rodger and look at the issue from all sides.
  • Look at the statistics yourself. Numbers don’t oversimplify themselves.
  • Acquire more information. Have an opinion on Russia’s involvement with Ukraine? See if your opinion changes if you read up on past involvements.
  • Read the comments section of the article. While 90% of it may be trash, someone might point out something worthwhile.

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