“Beware!” the professor warned, of the Single Factor Theory!
“What is that, and why should I care?”, I thought.
That was in 1960. I was an 18 year old second year university student, to whom that warning seemed merely of academic interest. I forgot all about it for the next 60 years, until it suddenly popped up in my memory. And now I understand it. Now I care.
Many – if not almost all – of the social, environmental and economic issues facing our societies have multiple, complex causes and effects. Yet we instinctively reject complexity, looking for simple answers to complex questions. Easiest of all is reducing the answer to a single factor. The appeal of the single factor theory is that it reduces everything to a binary choice: the single cause either exists or it doesn’t. Some current examples?
When Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd the single causal factor identified was systemic racism in the police. All police, everywhere, regardless of the individual officer’s race. The proposed solution was to defund the police, not just in Minneapolis, but everywhere. What about the police union contracts? As the Police Chief explained, the contracts made it difficult or impossible for a police force to discipline, or transfer to other duties, police officers like Chauvin, against whom there had already been several complaints. Why should we assume that if George Floyd had not had black skin Derek Chauvin would have behaved differently? And why assume most police officers, including many with black skin, are racists?
The ‘Climate Crisis’
Many governments, including Canada’s, assume that climate change is caused entirely by human activity emitting greenhouse gases (particularly CO2) and that other identifiable causes are insignificant. What about the other causes? The climate impacts of the changes in solar activity levels; sub-oceanic and surface volcanic activity; changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun; cloud formation, El Nino and other factors that may have a significant influence on the climate? To examine, with an open mind, all the potential causes of climate change, and the rate of that change, may lead to abandoning the single factor theory that there is an immediate climate crisis, caused entirely by human activities releasing CO2. And therefore, it would create serious doubt that all will be cured if/when the developed countries ever get to net zero.
Other Examples of Single Factor Theories
- Hitler’s theory that Germany’s problems were caused by the Jews, and would be solved by eliminating all the Jews in his “final solution”;
- The white supremacist theory underlying the former apartheid regime in South Africa
- The “separate but equal” legal theory underlying US school segregation (until set aside by the US Supreme Court in 1954)
- The current claim that all people with white skin are privileged racists, whether they know it or not
- Only “deplorables” would vote for Donald Trump
- If elected, Donald Trump, all by himself, would make America great again
- If women are not represented on corporate boards or university faculties in proportion to their percentage of the population that is only because there are systemic misogynistic barriers excluding them
- Anyone who advocates restricting women who were assigned male identities at birth and whose adult bodies have traditionally been considered male, to have access to women’s shelters, locker rooms, prisons or sports does so because they are transphobic.
- Housing costs in major Canadian cities have become unaffordable because foreigners who don’t live here are buying up houses for speculation and profit.
With a bit of thought you can probably add many more to the above list.
Why are single factor theories dangerous? Because:
- they are usually a distortion of reality
- their simplicity makes them widely appealing compared to more complex, but more reasonable explanations
- they are often used by politicians to win votes by declaring “a war against” or fight against something (e.g., the late US Senator McCarthy’s crusade against alleged Communists in Hollywood; the Vietnam War against communism that ended with the fall of Saigon; the failed US invasion of Cuba, and failed policies for Iraq and Afghanistan; the war on drugs and the war on poverty)
- they are often amplified and exaggerated with manipulative emotional language like “existential crisis”, “emergency”, “threat”, “injustice” “victim”, etc.
- they demand that leaders deliver costly, often ineffective and even inhumane “solutions” – if indeed the situation is really a serious “problem” that requires a “solution”
As a result where there is a real problem that is not exaggerated, these emotional pleas divert attention and resources from comprehensive, cost-effective solutions to costlier and ineffective ones
In future blog posts I will be discussing the policies responding to some of the current hot button single factor theories.