Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies

Faulty Causation Fallacies

How Many Pieces are Needed?
How Many Pieces are Needed?. Dimitri Otis/Stone/Getty

Fallacy Name:
Oversimplification and Exaggeration

Alternative Names:
Fallacy of Reduction

Fallacy of Multiplication

Faulty Causation



The causation fallacies known as oversimplification and exaggeration occur whenever the series of actual causes for an event are either 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 readily fall into the trap of oversimplification if they are not careful.

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, thus helping people to understand an issue rather than confusing them even more. In the process, however, a writer can easily leave out too many details, omitting critical information which needs to be included.

Another important impetus which can lead to oversimplification is the overuse of an important tool in critical thinking: Occam's Razor.

This is the principle of not assuming too many factors or causes for an event than are necessary and is often expressed by saying "the simpler explanation is preferable."

Although it is true that an explanation should be no more complicated than necessary, one must be very careful not to construct an explanation which is less complicated than necessary.

A famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein states, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."


Examples and Discussion of Oversimplification

Here is an example of oversimplification which atheists often hear:

1. School violence has gone up and academic performance has gone down ever since organized prayer was banned at public schools. Therefore, prayer should be reintroduced, resulting in school improvement.

This argument obviously suffers from oversimplification because it assumes that problems in schools (increasing violence, decreasing academic performance) can be attributed to a single cause: the loss of organized, state-mandated prayers. A myriad of other factors in society are completely ignored, as if the social and economic conditions haven't changed in any relevant way.

One way to reveal the problem in the above example is to reword it slightly:

2. 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 there are racists around who would agree with the above, but very few of those who make the argument in #1 will also make the argument in #2 - yet, they are structurally the same.

The reasons for both examples of oversimplification is actually another Causation Fallacy, known as Post Hoc Fallacy.

In the real world, events typically have multiple, intersecting causes which 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 sometimes it can be disastrous. Sadly, politics is one field where oversimplification occurs more often than not.

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

Granted, Clinton may 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.

Once again, there is a wide variety of different factors which can influence the morality of individuals and groups.

Of course, not all examples of oversimplification identify as the cause something which is completely irrelevant:

4. Education today isn't as good as it used to be - obviously, our teachers are not doing their jobs.

5. 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 #4 is a rather harsh statement, it cannot be denied that teacher performance does impact the quality of education which 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.

With #5, it should also be acknowledged that a president does impact the state of the economy, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. However, no single politician can take sole credit (or sole blame) for the state of a multi-trillion dollar economy. A common reason for oversimplification, especially in the political realm, is a personal agenda. It is a very effective means for either taking credit for something (#5) or for placing blame on others (#4).

Religion is also a field where oversimplification fallacies can be readily found. Consider, for example, a response which is heard after anyone survives a major tragedy:

6. She was saved through God's help!

For the purposes of this discussion we should ignore the theological implications of a god who chooses to save some people but not others. The logical problem here is the dismissal of all the other factors which contribute to a person's survival. What about the doctors who perform the life-saving operations? What about the rescue workers who spend insane amounts of time and money in the rescue effort? What about the product manufacturers who made the safety devices (like seat belts) which protect people?

All of these and more are causal factors which contribute to the survival of people in accidents, but they are too often ignored by those who oversimplify the situation and attribute survival to just a single cause: the Will of God.

People also tend to commit the fallacy of oversimplification when they simply don't understand what they are talking about. This is a common occurrence in science debates because so much of the material can be comprehended best only by experts in specialized fields. One place where this is seen quite often are the arguments some creationists offer against evolution. Consider this example, a question which Dr. Kent Hovind uses in an attempt to prove that evolution isn't true and isn't possible:

7. Natural selection only works with the genetic information available and tends only to keep a species stable. How would you explain the increasing complexity in the genetic code that must have occurred if evolution were true?

For someone unfamiliar with evolution, this question may seem reasonable - but its error lies in vastly oversimplifying evolution to the point where it becomes unrecognizable. It is very true that natural selection operates with the genetic information which is available; however, natural selection is not the only process which is involved in evolution. Ignored are such factors as mutation and genetic drift.

By oversimplifying evolution down to just natural selection, however, Hovind is able to portray evolution as a one-dimensional theory which cannot possibly be true. It is in such examples that an oversimplification fallacy can also become a Straw Man Fallacy if a person takes the oversimplified description of a position and then proceeds to criticize it as if it were the genuine position.


Examples and Discussion of Exaggeration

Related to, but much more rare 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 which are ultimately 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 "entities" (causes, factors) which are not specifically necessary

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

8. The rescue workers, doctors and various assistants are all heroes because, with the help of God, they managed to save all of the people involved in that accident.

The role of individuals like doctors and rescue workers is obvious, but the addition of God seems gratuitous. Without an identifiable effect for 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:

9. 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 only end up being masked by additional and irrelevant pseudo-causes. Here, the junk food is an "entity" which is simply not necessary.