The Reductive Fallacy

  • Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Austria-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and started World War One. (1914-1918)
  • The Illuminati orchestrated the French Revolution (1789).
  • COVID-19 is a conspiracy facilitated by a secret society determined to create a “New Order.” 

What do these claims have in common?  For starters, they all identify a cause of a major event – a war, a revolution, and a pandemic.  They also commit the “reductive fallacy,” what David Hackett Fischer describes in Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970), as a causal explanation that “reduces complexity to simplicity, or diversity to uniformity.” (172)  

Our first example states that Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip’s assassination of the Archduke caused World War One. This event contributed to the ensuing war, but many other factors were at play.  The Archduke’s murder, for instance, must be considered in the context of the longstanding and growing tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.  Also relevant is Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary.  Austria-Hungary would not risk Great Power (mainly Russian) retaliation without Germany’s backing.  Historians identify many other factors, including imperial rivalry, nationalism, militarism and various economic factors.  Political leaders, we cannot forget, could have made different decisions after the assassination.   In short, Princip’s actions did not initiate an irreversible course and cannot be identified as the cause of World War One.  

Reductive explanations reflect particular historical contexts.  When the Black Death (1347-51) spread through Europe, killing 50% of Europe’s population, many of the continent’s predominantly Christian population saw the plague as God’s punishment for sin.   Only centuries later did we learn that fleas, infected by rats’ blood, carried the disease.  Other causes for its pervasive spread include dense urban population, growing trade, and famine. However, when most people interpreted events as the expression of God’s will, the Black Death as divine punishment made sense.   

Conspiracy Theories. Conspiracy theorists are especially prone to committing the reductive fallacy.  These days some have reduced COVID-19’s conception, global spread, government-mandated lockdowns, masks and vaccinations as the workings of an elite group striving to bring about the “Great Reset” and a “New World Order.” Besides failing to present compelling evidence, the assertion that an elite group could manage the innumerable variables to pull off such a feat is untenable.  Such theories, however, offer a very appealing simplistic version of how pandemics begin and play out—reducing complexity to simplicity. 

COVID-19, of course, is not the first pandemic to attract reductive explanations and conspiracy theories.  Some insisted that widespread deaths resulted from Jews poisoning wells during the Black Death.  Again, reducing a complex series of events to the doings of a particular group.   Somehow, these accusers overlooked that Jews were also dying in astounding numbers

Conclusion. All in all, the reductive fallacy reflects a failure to appreciate the complexity of events.  As Peter Stearns and Marc Collins point out, the problem is that “most major developments respond to several factors, that is to multiple causations.” (34). Why does this happen?   The reasons, of course, are complex.  There is certainly an appeal to reductive explanations.  We like to “know” what is happening.  There is particular security or comfort in this.  However, as the abovementioned conspiracy examples indicate, reductive thinking can be misleading, divisive and dangerous. 

Selected Bibliography

Fischer, David Hackett. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Perennial, 1970.

Collins, Marc and Peter N. Stearns.  Why Study History? London: London Publishing Partnership, 2020.