Nathan Richardson

Down syndrome does not cause a learning disability. If you don’t believe me, keep reading.

Once upon a time, there was a scientist who studied children and their biological and cognitive development. He met all kinds of children and became acquainted with a variety of personalities, body types, and abilities. Over the course of his travels and studies, he noticed one pattern in particular. He met several children who had similar characteristics: they had learning difficulties, accompanied by some unique facial features (slanted, Asian-looking eyes and enlarged tongue) and medical problems later in life (heart defects, thyroid complications).1 He wrote down the pattern of characteristics he was noticing:

The scientist was fond of these children and wanted to help make their lives better, perhaps by identifying and addressing the condition earlier in life or by preventing it altogether in the future with other children. He assumed that because there was such a high degree of similar characteristics among this group of people, the phenomenon might be an effect of some unknown cause:

He was very curious about what it was that caused this phenomenon:

Resolving a widespread and little-understood condition is a big task, and as with many scientific pursuits, it was not to be accomplished by just one person or within just one lifetime. So the scientist discussed it with other scholars far and wide. In talking about the condition, he found it useful (as do most scholars) to give that collection of characteristics a label. After all, it’s inefficient to invite people to an Annual Conference on The-phenomenon-of-having-learning-difficulties-accompanied-by-unique-facial-features-such-as-slanted-eyes-as-well-as-medical problems-such-as-heart-defects. So they labeled the phenomenon to save on ink cartridges:

Having a label made it easier to go about discussing and sharing information about their common pursuit. He and many other scientists then devoted hours and years of study to understanding and addressing the phenomenon. A large part of their study was aimed at discovering what caused the phenomenon. That was their main goal.

An Odd Turn of Events

Up to this point, this story is a true, if simplified, version of real events. However, imagine how silly it would seem if the following happened.

A man named, oh, Norman came along and asked the scientists what they were studying. They said, “Children with Down syndrome.”

Norman asked, “What’s Down syndrome?”

They told him, “It’s when a person has learning difficulties, slanted eyes, heart defects,” and described the other characteristics.

Norman nodded. “I see. So children who have those characteristics have Down syndrome?”

“Correct. We’re trying to understand why they have these characteristics.”

Norman replied, “Well, that’s simple. It’s because they have Down syndrome.”

The scientists blinked. “Well, what we mean is, we want to know what causes these characteristics.”

Norman shook his head patiently. “Down syndrome causes it, silly.”

Some scientists smiled politely while others just looked confused. Norman walked away shaking his head. “I don’t see why these scientists get so many research grants when their question has already been answered. We know perfectly well what causes those characteristics—Down syndrome does.”

The Nominal Fallacy

What Norman just did is commit a logical fallacy. This particular fallacy is called the nominal fallacy.2 (That’s why I called him Norman—because it kind of sounds like nominal. I know, gimmicky.) Norman observed a phenomenon, gave it a label, and then began to treat the label as though it were the cause:

The nominal fallacy is “the mistake of assuming that because we have given a name to something, therefore we have explained it.”2 In other words, talking as though the label were the cause.

To say that “Down syndrome” causes children to have the aforementioned list of medical conditions is about as accurate, insightful, and useful as saying that rain causes water droplets to fall from the sky. Rain does not make water fall from the sky; rain is water falling from the sky. What causes rain is another question entirely. Likewise, Down syndrome does not cause that list of conditions; Down syndrome is that list of conditions. What causes Down syndrome is another question.

Jeff Robinson, a psychologist, explains the nominal fallacy by giving another common example:

If I let go of this pen, what will happen? It will fall. Why? Gravity. People say gravity; the pen falls because of gravity. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know why the pen falls; all we know is that things that are unsupported fall. Gravity is one of the four fundamental physical forces of the universe that explain everything else, but nothing explains them. We just know that everything that is unsupported falls, and we call that fact gravity. We label the fact that things fall gravity. Now I like that: one of the things that influences our life the most is gravity—it influences me every single day of my life—and we don’t know why it happens. I think that’s wonderful, wonderful. We tend to think the world’s pretty explained. We label it and call it gravity, and then we do an interesting thing: we talk about it as though we have explained it. So why does the pen fall? Well, because of gravity. Well, how do you know there’s gravity? Well, because things fall. What makes them fall? Well, gravity.

Do you see it just goes in a circle? It doesn’t really add any information. We do that all the time in our society, in our culture: talk about things, label them, and then describe them as having acted as a result of the label.2

The first time I read this talk, I understood the fallacy Dr. Robinson describes but I completely disbelieved that gravity was a good example of it. I thought, “No, gravity is an entity, a force that causes things. Everyone knows that.” The fact that I misunderstood gravity shows how deeply ingrained the nominal fallacy can be in our view of the world.

Problems Caused by the Fallacy

Jeff discussed this fallacy in his article Gravity Made It Happen. Like him, I am not claiming that this is a widespread mistake made by scientists everywhere. I think, though, that many laymen make this mistake. And in some fields of study, it may be widespread.

The nominal fallacy might seem obvious and comical in the Down syndrome example; I intended it to be transparent like that, so as to be quickly grasped. But as I’ve learned about this fallacy, I’ve been surprised at how thoroughly entrenched it can sometimes be in the way we conceive of and talk about certain phenomena. I hope to elaborate in future articles, but some labels that I think many people sometimes mistakenly use as causative explanations include the following (readers are free to list other examples in the comments section):

  • luck
  • entropy
  • gravity
  • grammar rules
  • depravity
  • instincts
  • work ethic
  • temper
  • self-esteem
  • autism
  • anorexia
  • homosexuality

There are at least two negative effects of making this mistake. First, it leads to a poor understanding of the phenomenon in question. This can, of course, lead to both mild and terrible outcomes, depending on what phenomenon we’re talking about. Second, it leads to complacency about pursuing a better understanding. If we think we already understand the cause of a phenomenon, then we stop studying it as we should; we don’t seek what we’ve already found.

The Right Approach

Using the story as an example, if the scientists in question had listened to Norman the Nomological Fallacist, they would have believed his schema and thought, “Well, we’ve solved the cause. All that’s left is to figure out how to deal with it when it happens.” In contrast, if they were to refuse to accept Norman’s complacency, recognizing the fallacy as an explanation that really explains nothing, they would continue their search, eventually discovering the cause of Down syndrome: an extra copy of genetic material on the twenty-first human chromosome, during conception. Having found the cause, they can now devote their efforts more effectively to preventing or managing the condition:

The purpose of this post was to clearly explain and illustrate the nominal fallacy, sometimes known as the nominalistic fallacy or the nomological fallacy. Why bother focusing on this particular fallacy on a site about the restored gospel? It is an incredibly frequent error that we often make, and it relates directly to many conversations about the gospel and living the commandments. In future articles, I plan to show how the nominal fallacy can actually lead us to deny certain core doctrines like agency. But even speaking generally, my hope is that by making explicit this logical error, we can all avoid making it in the future. Of course, if you find yourself making this mistake and someone calls you on it, just tell them that the nominal fallacy made you do it.



Notes

I apologize that some of the graphics are blurry. I can’t for the life of me figure out what setting I need to change to make them appear sharp. If anyone out there is a graphics wiz, please email me or let me know in the comments!

1. “Down Syndrome—Symptoms,” WebMD, accessed 2 Apr. 2010.

2. Jeffrey Robinson, “Homosexuality: What Works and What Doesn’t Work,” presentation given 6 Oct. 2002, TheGuardrail.com, accessed 13 Apr. 2010.