Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies

Faulty Causation Fallacies

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A fallacy is an error in reasoning. Merriam-Webster describes a fallacy as "a false or mistaken idea, opinion...(or a) flaw or defect in (an) argument." There are different kinds of fallacies. For example, probably the most common is the logical fallacy, where you have an argument that leads to a conclusion that doesn't follow logically from the assertion or assertions that preceded it. But, there are other kinds of fallacies, particularly oversimplification and exaggeration fallacies.

The causation fallacies known as oversimplification and exaggeration—also called the fallacy of reduction or multiplication—occur when the series of actual causes for an event is reduced or multiplied to the point where there is no longer a genuine, causal connection between the alleged causes and the actual effect. In other words, multiple causes are reduced to just one or a few (oversimplification) or a couple of causes are multiplied into many (exaggeration).

Also known as the "reductive fallacy" because it involves reducing the number of causes, oversimplification seems to occur more often, perhaps because there are so many ostensibly good reasons for simplifying things. Well-intentioned writers and speakers can fall into the trap of oversimplification if they are not careful.

Why Oversimplification Happens

One impetus for simplification is the basic advice given to all who want to improve their writing style: Don't get bogged down in details. Good writing needs to be clear and precise, helping people to understand an issue rather than confusing them. In the process, however, a writer can leave out too many details, omitting critical information that should be included.

Another impetus that can lead to oversimplification is the overuse of an important tool in critical thinking called Occam's Razor, a principle that states that the simplest explanation that fits the data is the preferable one.

The problem is that the simplest explanation might not always be the right one: Though it is true that an explanation should be no more complicated than necessary, it is important not to construct an explanation that is less complicated than necessary. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein states, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

A writer creating an argument can assume that based on Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation is likely true, but they must not assume that is always the case. A writer must look at all angles of an issue—even the more complex possibilities—before settling on the simplest explanation. Oversimplification, as the word implies, can lead to an oversimplification fallacy.

Examples of Oversimplification

Here is an example of oversimplification that atheists often hear:

School violence has gone up and academic performance has gone down since video games featuring violence where introduced. Therefore, video games with violence should be banned, resulting in school improvement.

This argument suffers from oversimplification because it assumes that problems in schools (increasing violence, decreasing academic performance) can be attributed to a single cause: the time young people spend playing video games that feature violence. Myriad other factors are ignored as if social and economic conditions have not changed in any relevant way.

One way to reveal the problem in the above example is to change the apparent cause:

School violence has gone up and academic performance has gone down ever since racial segregation was banned. Therefore, segregation should be reintroduced, resulting in school improvement.

Presumably, some racists would agree with that statement, but few of those who make the first argument would also make the second, yet they are structurally the same. Both examples of oversimplification actually illustrate another causation fallacy, known as post hoc fallacy: Because an event occurred before another, then the first event caused the other.

Oversimplification in Politics

In the real world, events typically have multiple intersecting causes that together produce the events we see. Often, however, such complexities are difficult to understand and even more difficult to change; the unfortunate result is that we simplify things. Sometimes that isn't so bad, but it can be disastrous. Politics is a field in which oversimplification occurs more often than not. Take this example:

The nation's current lack of moral standards was caused by the poor example set by Bill Clinton when he was president.

Granted, Clinton might not have set the best example imaginable, but it isn't reasonable to argue that his example is responsible for the morality of the entire nation. A wide variety of factors can influence the morality of individuals and groups. Not all examples of oversimplification identify as the cause of something completely irrelevant. Here are two examples:

Education today isn't as good as it used to be. Obviously, our teachers are not doing their jobs.
Since the new president took office, the economy has been improving. Obviously he is doing a good job and is an asset to the nation.

Although the first is a harsh statement, it cannot be denied that teacher performance impacts the quality of education that students receive. Thus, if their education isn't very good, one place to look is teacher performance. However, it is a fallacy of oversimplification to suggest that teachers are the sole or even primary cause.

Regarding the second statement, it is true that a president impacts the state of the economy, for better or worse. However, no single politician can take sole credit or blame for the state of a multitrillion-dollar economy. A common reason for oversimplification, especially in the political realm, is a personal agenda. It is a very effective means of either taking credit for something or for blaming it on others.

Oversimplification in Trauma

Religion is another field in which oversimplification fallacies can be readily found. Consider, for example, a response heard after someone survives a major car accident:

She was saved solely because she wore a seat belt.

For the purposes of this discussion, we should not ignore the implications of the fact that some people wearing seat belts survive serious accidents, but others do not. The logical problem here is the dismissal of all the other factors that contribute to a person's survival. What about doctors who perform life-saving operations? What about rescue workers who work tirelessly in the rescue effort? What about product manufacturers who make safety devices, such as damage-resistant automobiles, in addition to seat belts?

All these and more are causal factors that contribute to the survival of people in accidents, but they can be ignored by those who oversimplify the situation and attribute survival solely to the use of a seat belt when there are a number of other factors at play. In this case, Occum's Razor may not work—the simplest explanation may not be the best, albeit that seat belts do increase car crash survival rates.

Oversimplification in Science

People also commit the fallacy of oversimplification in the area of science. This is a common occurrence in scientific debates because much of the material can be comprehended only by experts in specialized fields. One place where this often is seen is arguments where some people disagree with the theory of climate change. For example, former President Donald Trump is what has been termed a climate change denier. At one point, he said:

"Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee—I'm in Los Angeles and it's freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!"

To someone unfamiliar with climate change, this statement may seem reasonable. Its error lies in oversimplifying one particular weather incident and generalizing it to the whole. It is true that there are ice storms on the planet and that they have occurred at times in areas where they are uncommon. Ignored are such factors as the general warming of the Earth, melting of the ice caps, and other factors.

By oversimplifying climate change to a single factor, such as an ice storm in Texas, a person who denies climate change ignores a plethora of evidence to the contrary, even though that evidence may be complex at times. In this case, Occam's Razor again does not work: Just because an ice storm occurs in one area more generally given to warm weather, does not mean that the Earth is not warming as a whole.

Examples of Exaggeration

Related to but rarer than the fallacy of oversimplification is the fallacy of exaggeration. Mirror images of each other, an exaggeration fallacy is committed when an argument tries to include additional causal influences that may be irrelevant to the matter at hand. We can say that committing a fallacy of exaggeration is a consequence of failing to heed Occam's Razor, which states that we should prefer the simpler explanation and refrain from adding unnecessary "entities" (causes, factors).

A good example is one that is related to one of those used above:

The rescue workers, doctors, and various assistants are all heroes because, with the help of the new, multimillion-dollar piece of lifesaving equipment purchased by the city, they managed to save all the people involved in that accident.

The role of individuals such as doctors and rescue workers is obvious, but the addition of the "multimillion-dollar life-saving device purchased by the city" seems gratuitous—a plug for a City Council expenditure which may or may not have been necessary. Without an identifiable effect of which can be said to be necessarily responsible, the inclusion qualifies as an exaggeration fallacy.

Other instances of this fallacy can be found in the legal profession, for example:

My client killed Joe Smith, but the cause for his violent behavior was a life of eating Twinkies and other junk food, which impaired his judgment.

There is no clear link between junk food and violent behavior, but there are other identifiable causes for it. The addition of junk food to that list of causes constitutes a fallacy of exaggeration because the real causes end up being masked by additional and irrelevant pseudo-causes. Here, junk food is an "entity" that is simply not necessary.

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Cline, Austin. "Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies." ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2021, thoughtco.com/oversimplification-and-exaggeration-fallacies-3968441. Cline, Austin. (2021, April 18). Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oversimplification-and-exaggeration-fallacies-3968441 Cline, Austin. "Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oversimplification-and-exaggeration-fallacies-3968441 (accessed May 6, 2021).