virus: Martyrdom and the fallacy of the single cause

Kevin M O'Connor (
Mon, 28 Oct 1996 15:53:42 EST

On Fri, 25 Oct 1996 13:56:21 -0500 David Leeper <>

>The question I'm asking is would the martyrdom meme have any effect if
>situation of these
>people were not desperate? If the answer is "No", then the martyrdom
>is not what is
>affecting people, but rather it's the desperation of the situation.
>"Martyrdom", then, becomes
>an attractive wrapper around the truth.

David, are you familiar with the fallacy of the single cause? People
commit this fallacy when they attribute phenomena with a number of
causal factors to a single cause. When Pat Robertson and his ilk
attribute every ill in American society to the break-down of the family
unit, they ignore numerous other relevant causal factors.

I heard a news story recently (on NPR of course) that someone has turned
up evidence that some cigarette manufacturer had collected research
findings on possible genetic predispositions to cancer. It was news
because it puts the cigarette companies in a tough situation legally, but
that's not what is relevant here. Suppose there is a cancer gene (I'm
not claiming there is such a gene, just assume there is for the sake of
argument) and suppose that some individual who carries the gene also
smokes for 30 years and dies of lung cancer. Let us also suppose that
the genetic predisposition in and of itself would not have been
sufficient to cause this person to develop the cancer. If we accept your
reasoning in the quoted paragraph, then the cancer gene, in spite of any
clinical evidence to the contrary, does not exist. The gene wouldn't
have led to cancer in a non-smoker, and so by your reasoning, it played
no role in causing the cancer.

What is far more relevant to people's actions than the desperation of
their situation is their perception of that desperation. An appalling
percentage of the world's population lives under conditions that I would
describe as desperate. If living under such conditions were enough, i.e.
if the desperation of the situation were THE cause of suicide bombings,
then we should hear a continuous series of explosions. We do not hear
the explosions because desperation, in and of itself, is not sufficient
to cause people to act contrary to their genetic inclination for

Sure, the Palestinians have it bad. They have been deprived of their
political autonomy and are subjects of a government in which they are not
represented. But for the most part, they aren't starving. They're not
dropping dead from disentary. Lot's of people are, but they aren't the
ones turning themselves into human bombs. The people who actually perform
the suicide missions are not the ones living under the most desperate
conditions. They are the ones who have been convinced that it's the best
thing to do. I find it hard to believe that you don't see a memetic
process at work there.

>Everyone, consciously or unconsciously, tries to present their
>situation in
>an attractive light.
>But the words we use are often not true, and we often don't even know

What impact did you intend this statement to make?

Take care. -KMO