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The word or phrase (I prefer a word but a phrase will certainly do) I am looking for would describe someone who reacts without thinking and thus attacks something which is not the true source of the problem.

For example, there was a recent news story about a girl who dies from a heart attach shortly after drinking an energy drink, and in the news story her mom claims (without evidence) that her daughter's death was the result of drinking the energy drink. In the comments to the story, many people claimed that they also were sure her death was caused by energy drinks and that energy drinks should be banned. Now if we suppose for the sake of argument that the energy drink did not cause her cardiac arrest, what would we call these people calling for a major economic action without just cause to do so?

I think overreact may not be the best word here because I intend to convey that a person is not just overreacting but is also reacting towards the wrong thing.

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I’m not sure what I’d call them (except idiots), but I’d call what they do knee-jerk reactions. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 18 at 18:22

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

"Scapegoating" describes the action of the mother and the commenters, as in:

"The crowd "scapegoated" the energy drink for the girl's death, barring any factual evidence to prove that claim."

From Google Dictionary:

noun: scapegoat; plural noun: scapegoats

  1. (in the Bible) a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16). A person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.

synonyms: whipping boy; more informal: fall guy, patsy

"find yourself another scapegoat"

verb: scapegoat; 3rd person present: scapegoats; past tense: scapegoated; past participle: scapegoated; gerund or present participle: scapegoating

  1. make a scapegoat of.
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Scapegoating is not a 'overreaction' as much as it is a planned conduct to sidestep any suspicion or blame. The scapegoating plan or action if often a proactive strategic maneuver, or conspiratorial plan, and not necessarily an emotional singular or crowd reaction. –  Third News Jun 23 at 23:40
    
@ThirdNews, in the 1st definition of the noun "scapegoat", it includes "especially for reasons of expediency." While a well-thought out, tactically crafted scapegoating campaign is one way to go about it, crowds and knee-jerk public opinion can and do employ scapegoating, IMO. –  Kristina Lopez Jun 24 at 19:17

Barking up the wrong tree is used in this sense as an idiomatic phrase.

To do, believe, or pursue something wrong or inappropriate; to take the wrong approach; to follow a false lead; to blame or rebuke the wrong person

Explanation behind the phrase:

An allusion to a situation in which a hunting dog mistakenly identifies the tree up which it has chased an animal and positions itself at the base of another tree, barking upward at the branches.

Examples:

  • Jason was barking up the wrong tree when he said I was the one that ate his cookies after he left the room; it was actually his dog, Max!

  • After investigating the crime rates in my neighborhood, I apparently was barking up the wrong tree when I claimed they had gotten better.


Also, cry foul is used in this sense.

Protest strongly about a real or imagined wrong or injustice:

An example from a technology news:

When Ubuntu released Unity Scopes, a very large and very vocal group from the Linux community cried foul, that Scopes was an invasion of privacy, was insecure, and would probably steal their identity...

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The practice of someone who reacts without thinking and thus attacks something which is not the true source of the problem is using a fallacy, or an argument that uses poor reasoning. A paralogist is a person who makes an argument violating principles of valid reasoning

In your case, it is the correlation does not equal causation argument:

Correlation does not equal causation Correlation does not imply causation is a fallacy where two things that correlate are mistaken to be in a cause and effect relationship. There might or might not be a causal relationship present. If there is a cause and effect relationship it might be reversed or there might be no causal relationship at all among the subjects.

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I think that the behaviour shown by people with respect to the drink ( and presumably to the drink producer) can be defined as a biased or prejudiced attitude whose intent is to find quickly and easily someone or something responsible for the heart attack without proper verification.

Biased attitude:

mental disposition, tendency or inclination, esp an irrational preference or prejudice

Such attitude is often self-referential and gives easily rise to overreactions in that those who are convinced of their own reasons will behave emotionally rather than rationally.

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Of course, modern capitalism would immediately grind to a screeching halt if we went around banning products that are harmful or lethal to consumers, and the end of the Cold War showed that God Herself endorses modern capitalism without the slightest reservation.

But for those lacking that level of corporate enlightenment, for whom the banning of lethally dangerous though profitable products might not seem an overreaction at all, the problem you are pointing to is less a matter of overreaction than of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. So perhaps “post hoc reasoner” (or something of that sort) is the phrase you are looking for.

In any case, I do not think it possible to overreact rightly.

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