Single Factor Fallacy

Some of the responses to my recent blogs illustrate a tendency that illustrates a particularly human foible – the tendency to attribute a problem or a success to a single factor. I recently suggested that there were multiple causal factors lying behind fatal police interactions with young blacks, and a number of individuals basically insisted that the sole or the overwhelming cause was the racist excessive use of force and position by police officers and the policing system. There’s no doubt that in many cases, as in Ferguson particularly, such racist excessive use of force exists.

But there are other factors, also important, that have led to situations such as the Michael Brown and Anthony Robinson cases, and they’re continually minimized or dismissed as self-serving conservative or establishment rhetoric.

Young black males commit over a quarter of all homicides in the United States every year, yet those young black males comprise less than one percent of the population. Young white males also have a much higher homicide rate than the average as well, committing 16% of all homicides, but there are six times as many young white males as young black males. It’s not surprising that black males commit the majority of black homicides [roughly 90%], just as 84% of white homicides are committed by whites, because the vast majority of homicides are committed by people who know the victim.

But cities with primarily black police forces, such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, have only slightly lower murder rates than the ten worst cities in the U.S., with rates well above the national average, and the murder rates in many cities with high percentages of black police officers are among the highest in the country.

Regardless of all the rhetoric, there are a myriad of factors contributing to the higher percentage of blacks being killed by police than racist police officers. Poverty is an enormous contributing factor. So is the prevalence of dysfunctional and single-parent families, as is a bias against education among all too many young black males, as are poor schools in all too many minority communities, not to mention the gang structure in many inner cities and minority communities.

And, just as there isn’t one cause of the problem, there isn’t going to be one single solution, no matter how politically convenient that might be.

8 thoughts on “Single Factor Fallacy”

  1. D Archerd says:

    That makes far too much sense. No news organization will ever cover that view because it can’t compress into a 10-word sound bite.

  2. JakeB says:

    I think this — recognizing that any phenomenon of any complexity is likely to have multiple causes — is possibly the single (!) most important thing to understand in just about any field . . . one of the things I’m most grateful to my stats degree for helping to inculcate in me. The other most important thing, at least with respect to politics & ethics, being that responsibility is not a zero-sum game.

  3. Plovdiv says:

    Who’d a’ thunk it? Common sense actually makes… sense!

    Anyway, another great blog post. Nothing exists or happen in isolation, and there is always more than one cause for everything, although now I think of it that sounds too categorical.

    On a different and much sadder note, have you heard the sad news of Terry Pratchett’s death yesterday? Did you ever read any of his books, or meet him? What are your views on him as a man and author?

    1. I heard about Terry’s death. Obviously, I’m saddened. While I never met him, I have read some of his books. He was as much satirist as novelist, and extremely entertaining, and a great deal of thought obviously lay behind his work. Anyone I know who knew him said that he was charming and a truly good person.

  4. kanonfodder says:

    Your definition of intuition is close, but doesn’t feel quite right. I think you have hit upon the primary contributors, but I can think of personal instances of an “intuitive leap”, that while could be argued into falling into one of your three categories, it feels like some secondary variable of lesser occurrence, but is subtly distinct from the main three.

    Enjoying the book so far. I must enjoy all of your books if I’ve bought them in hard copy and now I’m buying them all for Kindle and rereading them again. Always fun to see what tidbits of wisdom your writings impart when you reread a book five and ten years later.

    1. kanonfodder says:

      I’ve thought about it, been gnawing at the back of my head, why I didn’t fully agree with that definition. Intuition is both a genetic and learned ability in my opinion. It is the “act” of combining: knowledge, judgement, and feelings to have a result greater than the sum of their parts. I’ve met people that were strong in each of the three areas, but just couldn’t put it together. Kind of like “stove piping” for the ABC intelligence agencies. Lots of data, but not collated into a uniform picture.

      My one loose end though is that I actively promote and develop what I term my intuition brain with problems, and how to define that if it is different. I will observe a problem situation, identify as many of the variables as possible, with the stated goal, and just shove it into my back brain, and give it a few days, and something will pop out. It feels like my back brain understands some of the physics on a base level more than I can describe or formulate, but routinely provides a solution or an insight that others haven’t come up with. Is this passive intuition vs active intuition…I don’t know, or something different.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Simple answers make people happy in the short run.

    Unfortunately, most people never look beyond that until they get into a “how the heck did this happen to me” situation.

  6. David says:

    Thank you for this post. This is true in every area of human endeavor. Medical professionals have tried to find a magic bullet forever, but it is interesting that it wasn’t until they started using pharmaceutical ‘cocktails’ that they started having any success with some of the really difficult diseases. Federal-level governments always want to pass blanket-policy laws, and you have probably witnessed the difficulties created by this approach.
    So, it should not surprise us that in the area of social interaction between the various sub-cultures of our great nation are many complex conflicts with no simple answer. Both sides of the argument are right in some of the things they are saying, and both sides are also wrong in other things. Any armed enforcement body must be subject to a higher level of ethical behavior. However, to blame the police is too simple of an answer. To judge an individual’s behavior with statistics about which sub-culture breaks the law the most is to completely misunderstand the problem. How does one change either of the sub-cultures? It would take hundreds of years, the resources of a large nation, and the wisdom and intelligence of a deity.

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