Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies

Faulty Causation Fallacies

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A fallacy is a flaw in reasoning based on opinion, misunderstanding, or intentional misdirection that invalidates an argument. The most common kind of fallacy is probably the logical fallacy, which describes a conclusion to an argument that does not follow logically from the assertion or assertions that precede it. Other causation fallacies include those of oversimplification and exaggeration.

Oversimplification and exaggeration occur when actual causes of an event are reduced or multiplied to the point where connections between causes and effects are blurred or buried. 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," oversimplification is common. 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 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 contributing factor 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. They must look at all angles and complexities of an issue before settling on the simplest explanation.

Examples of Oversimplification

Here is an example of oversimplification:

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

This argument exhibits oversimplification because it assumes 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, including social and economic conditions that may contribute to a child's mental health, are ignored.

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 people would agree with the first statement, but few who would make the first would also make the second. The latter claim is one of opinion and racist in nature, whereas the first is much less controversial and may be statistically accurate. 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 and Discourse

In the real world, occurrences typically have multiple intersecting causes that together produce the events we see. Often, however, such complexities are difficult to understand, and the unfortunate result is that we simplify things. Politics is a field in which oversimplification occurs often. 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.

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 an entire nation. A wide variety of factors can influence morality, which is subjective to begin with.

Here are two more examples of oversimplifying an effect to a single cause:

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 students receive. Thus, if someone feels that a child's education is in some way unsatisfactory, they may look to their teachers. 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. 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

Trauma is another area 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 fact that some people wearing seat belts survive serious accidents while others do not. The logical problem here is the dismissal of all 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 accident survival, but they can be ignored by those who oversimplify the situation and attribute survival solely to the use of a seat belt. In this case, Occum's Razor may not work—the simplest explanation may not be the best. Seat belts do increase car crash survival rates, but they are not the only reason people survive.

Oversimplification in Science

People also commit the fallacy of oversimplification in science. This is a common occurrence in scientific debates because much of the material can be comprehended only by experts in specialized fields. For example, former President Donald Trump has been termed a climate change denier. He once said the following:

"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 unusual times and in unusual places; ignored are such factors as the general warming of the Earth and melting of ice caps.

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. In this case, Occam's Razor again does not work. The fact that the Earth still gets cold does not mean that it is not getting warmer overall.

Examples of Exaggeration

Related to the fallacy of oversimplification is the fallacy of exaggeration. 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 refrain from adding unnecessary "entities" (causes, factors) to an explanation.

See the following example:

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 piece of lifesaving equipment" seems like a gratuitous plug for a City Council expenditure that may or may not have been necessary. Without an identifiable effect of this, the inclusion qualifies as an exaggeration fallacy.

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

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 simply not necessary.

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Cline, Austin. "Oversimplification and Exaggeration Fallacies." ThoughtCo, Jun. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/oversimplification-and-exaggeration-fallacies-3968441. Cline, Austin. (2021, June 26). 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 August 1, 2021).