Correlation vs Causation: Ultimate Guide to Logical Fallacies

Coach Andy
Post by Coach Andy
Correlation vs Causation: Ultimate Guide to Logical Fallacies

What is the correlation vs causation fallacy?

Did you know that ice cream sales and shark attacks are highly correlated? But before you stop buying ice-cream to save yourself from a shark, have a think whether ice cream sales cause shark attacks. Certainly not! This is an example of yet another logical fallacy. As student debaters, it is all too easy to confuse correlation with causation. This fallacy, known as the correlation vs causation fallacy, involves assuming that two variables are related when in fact there is no causal link between them. In this post, we'll look at some examples of this fallacy, how to avoid it, and how to rebut it. Let's go!

What is the difference between correlation and causation?

When two things are correlated, it means that there is some observed relationship between the two - that they seem to be related, for example because they show the same pattern. Causation, on the other hand, means that one thing causes the other thing. This is also known as cause and effect.

It's easy to confuse these two ideas, simply because they both describe situations where things seem to be related to one another. But, from a logic point of view, they are quite different!

Examples of the correlation vs causation fallacy in debates

Let's take the classic example mentioned above of confusing correlation with causation; ice cream sales increase during summer, and so do the number of shark attacks. Therefore they must be related!

Well, they are - indirectly; in the summer, more people are swimming in the sea because it's warmer, which in turn means that shark attacks are more likely than during the winter when beaches are deserted. But, of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that ice cream consumption causes shark attacks! That's common sense.

A more realistic example in debates could be as follows; in the motion THW ban violent video games, a debater might argue that violent video games lead to violence in real life, citing the fact that rates of violent crime and in particular youth crime have increased since the early 1980s, when young people started to play computer games.

Now, this might or might not be true - but it's easy to see that this is just as likely to be strong correlation as causation. Nothing in what the speaker says necessarily implies causation, simply that both have risen over the last 40 years. One might just as easily conclude that some third factor or other event is responsible for the rise in both!

How to avoid making the correlation vs causation fallacy in your arguments

One effective way to avoid this fallacy is to scrutinize the evidence or examples you're using to support your premise. Ask yourself if there's any other explanation for the cases you're citing, and make sure that you explain the clear causal relationship between them.

In any use of examples in debating - especially parliamentary debating - it is imperative that you rely on your logic and reasoning, not on the examples you cite, which should at most be used as illustrations of your argument. As such, try running your argument without the example(s) - just concentrate on explaining the logic properly. If you do that, then you should avoid making the correlation vs causation fallacy, and when you add the example back in, your argument will be all the stronger.

How to rebut the correlation vs causation fallacy when your opponents in a debate make it in their speeches?

In a debate, opponents may use the correlation vs causation fallacy to argue their point. This fallacy assumes that just because two things are correlated, they must be causally related. However, this is not always the case.

To rebut this fallacy, one must demonstrate that there could be other factors contributing to the observed correlation, or that the causality could be inverted. For instance, explain to the judge the relationship between ice cream sales and crime rates is positively correlated, but this does not mean that ice cream consumption causes crime. Rather, you would note it is likely that both eating ice cream and crime rates are driven by a common factor such as hot weather.

Your rebuttal will be much stronger if you do not merely point out the lack of causation in the opponent's argument, but go further and positively explain why their argument's claim of causation is incorrect. Showing how X does not cause Y is a much stronger rebuttal than merely pointing out that the opponent didn't prove that X and Y are causally related.


In conclusion, the correlation vs causation fallacy should be kept in mind whether you’re writing a school essay or, for our purposes, debating in front of a room full of people. By knowing how to spot it and avoiding it in your own arguments, you can take control of the debate in even the most complex topics.

As you enter into higher levels of debate competition, being able to spot this fallacy will also become invaluable for responding to fallacious logic from opponents. Ultimately, learning more about the correlation vs causation fallacy will help you strengthen your persuasive abilities and make better arguments - which is the key to winning more debates!

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Coach Andy
Post by Coach Andy