Why No Single Explanation Fits Any Social Problem

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Have you heard a politician, pastor, or talking head on television tell us the one reason why there’s gun violence or poverty, or why drug addiction exists? Have you ever encounter rhetorical questions like these:

  • Why do 50% of marriages end in divorce?
  • Why is there an opioid abuse epidemic?
  • Why do so many people join gangs in spite of the obvious risks?
  • Why are some people homeless?

Think about recent news and opinion shows. You can probably think of more questions. Simple explanations for those problems are attractive aren’t they?

Once we “know” what causes a problem, we probably form an opinion on what to do about the problem. Lots of politicians, pastors, and talking heads on television and radio like it this way. They’ll happily tell conservatives that the “welfare state” turns lots of people into vagrants and couch sitters. Conservative pastors will tell us our casual acceptance of homosexuality has caused a range of social problems. Simple solutions are attractive, aren’t they?

Marketing practically demands a simple message, repeated often. Acme Sponges Last Longer! Baba Yaga’s Soap is 100% Organic and Cruelty-Free!

People are short on time and energy, so maybe a simple, easy-to-understand message about a social problem just works for them. Poverty leads to drug abuse. Guns lead to more violence. Everyone comes to a discussion of any social issue with ideological biases, untested assumptions, and some rational or irrational fears. When people find a simple “cause” for divorce, or gun violence, or drug abuse that “fits” their worldview, they buy it. In the political realm, this means they vote for policies that match their pet “cause” of a problem.

Simple Explanations and Simple Solutions

The answer to that divorce rate? Jesus. The answer to opioid abuse? Self-control. The answer to gangs? Intact families. That one might need a little explaining. Young people in single-parent families experience poverty, loneliness, lack of support at home, and so on. Those people are vulnerable to being recruited by gangs. Therefore, the solution to gangs is two-parent families.

You can almost bet money that whenever someone says X is the solution to problem Y, that person is somehow invested in X. They may be promoting a company or a book, or they may be committed to promoting a certain belief.

That doesn’t make X bad or useless, but it should make us pause and think — what options are we not thinking about? Would one of those options serve us better?

Let’s go back to divorce. Why would Jesus be the answer to divorce? Religious leaders may promote this idea to keep people “in the fold” or just watching their shows and sending in money. I got the idea of Jesus being the answer to divorce from a 1990s commercial for a church. But, can faith in Jesus really put an end to divorce? This is not a claim you could test. After all, if people who consider themselves Christians do get divorced, what does that tell us Jesus is the solution. Maybe Jesus is not the solution. Maybe people who get divorced were doing something wrong, not being good Christians in other words.

There’s this thing called a ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’ that allows us to write off that line of reasoning about divorce. You can’t just take people who generally act like Christians and consider themselves Christian and say they aren’t “real” Christians because they got divorced, cheated on their spouses, lied on their resumes, and so on.

A logical fallacy like that one makes it easy to defend an overly simplistic view of how to solve a social problem. Anyone selling an overly simplistic solution to gun violence, divorce, or any other problem might just be selling an overly simplistic conclusion about what’s wrong.

The divorce rate is so high because many people don’t have Jesus in their lives. The solution, logically, is for people to form a right relationship with Jesus. If gun ownership is a sign of low self-esteem, at least in men, then the solution is…unclear. Maybe taxpayers should pay for Viagra or penis enlargement? Maybe health insurance companies could give away self-help books?

I don’t know if the issues touched on here have a one-dimensional solution that no one has thought of. Maybe they do, but probably they don’t.

Next time I’ll stick with this theme of one-dimensional thinking and look at the saying “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”

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Chester Davis

Chester Davis

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Sociologist, blogger, and sci-fi writer who cares about sociological thinking, science fiction, sustainability, social change, and nonprofits