The Director of STATS.org, a professor of mathematical sciences, wrote in Causation vs Correlation, how journalists and others have the problem of how one establishes causality – and avoid misleading the public.
Though a controlled study?
Say for example you give one set of people Apples and the other group something that seems superficially like apples.
If all the Apples group got Dyspepsia and the control group didn’t, we’d have a jolly good excuse to believe Apples cause Dyspepsia.
But what if Apples cause Burping which causes Collywobbles which then causes Dyspepsia… and yet if you could prevent B or C in the chain, then D didn’t happen? Where exactly has your A “causes” D gone now? Is it now wrong? What if B and C can never be prevented? Would A cause D after all? What if B and C could be prevented but it never happens naturally and no-one knows how to do it and won’t until 2099? Now not even Uzoma’s clever comment that “x causes y if the lagged values of x improve the predictability of the current value of y”, seems totally reliable.
The confused sadness we feel at this point is called philosophy. But the more we ponder it, the more interesting and entertaining it becomes. One cause of philosophy is when concepts we thought were single identical blocks, turn out to come in different kinds. When your concept of X differs from ours, you can have a war. Even if everyone agreed (never happens), you may realise a concept contains moving or separable parts. You can then get a multi-sided war in your own mind, since our knowledge is in the form of networks of nested rules, and some rules want to stay the same and others want to change. It’s mainly conscientious thoughtful people this seriously affects, though it may throw anyone into doubt, some way down the line, if they remember the confusion, and have to make a serious decision.
Sometimes it helps to see exactly what is happening, even if on lifting the lid or getting out and looking underneath, the picture becomes complex. I find it helpful to reveal the view that knowledge is a system of models that enable us to predict the future, and predict our best actions to ensure individual and multi-generational survival, and their proxy: happiness. This makes things easier because it explodes the whole trouble-making concept of “cause”. It’s not about a real “truth”. It’s about strategies that people, animals, plants and other agents can do or should do to choose their best behaviour.
When an atom bomb explodes, the “unavoidability” of the sequence of events it follows is only the one we impose. Every sub-atomic particle is working out its own salvation on its own with no memory of what happened in the past and no sense of individual or group duty. The fact that airborne nuclear explosions always seem to cause a mushroom cloud, is just the way it always turns out, and always comes as a complete surprise to all the particles involved. The rule, and the fact, are concepts created by us. Facts, rules and truths are only psychological entities that nature has allowed us to create and use, to help us survive. They’re not really even engineering or scientific entities. Truth is like the image formed in a camera. It does depend on the outside world but it wouldn’t happen at all without the camera. If so, it wouldn’t be easy for entities like us to tell the difference between the concepts of absolute truth, and a subconscious mental process that gives us the feeling of a real thing out there in the world, like a (potentially erroneous) visual image.
That ridiculous mush now gives us a sound foundation on which we can build our truth/causality/etc processing machine plant, because it has dissolved the concepts of absolute truth/causality/etc. Now we only need to find handy rules by which we can create models or rules to deal with our observations and other aspects of the world. The first gift it delivers is the answer to why no-one has ever been able to nail truth, causality, the best way to establish a fact, etc. A truth is a model of a bit of the world we are prepared to rely on. It doesn’t make sense without the rest of our model of the world, and our bits of model change over time and differ from others’.
So we only have to make up some handy rules on how best to do scientific experiments, given limits on time, expense, and reliability requirements. We don’t have to find and prove strategies that ensure we’re doing the best possible thing. When people give up on finding an absolutely perfect strategy, it’s not a failing. There is no perfect strategy.
Nonetheless the rumour that there are cells in a rat’s brain that fire when it thinks it has learned a causality, are justifiable. It may certainly feel it has established a causality, and that process will no doubt help ratdome survive. We may well have somewhat similar cells. When they fire in our brain or in a rat’s it doesn’t need to mean an absolute truth has been discovered, and that doesn’t matter. It helps us survive, or the process does in the long run. We are prepared to treat it as a truth. It works. It will never be perfect and it doesn’t matter.
This is a disruptive idea worth billions. There is a rumour that facts can only be produced through a somewhat secretive process controlled until recently by publishing companies, and involving subjective unpaid opinions of unelected individuals whose expertise is arbitrarily accepted. Those individuals are/were social contacts of workers in those companies, but it so happens that the proportion of them that are saints is exactly the same as the proportion that are perfect philosophers. If the process is valid that proportion is 100%. It has a lot in common with selecting a pope, and this is because they are both typical power-brokering behaviours of humans. The extent to which the publishing industry has been imposing this process and its justification on the fact creation industry, is not widely known, but it wouldn’t be if it were done well. It has been done well enough for people to believe the necessity for the publishing industry is a fact and always has been, although the deception and its name have only been around since the 1970’s. It has been done so well that this process is believed by some to be the sine qua non of science. It has been done so well that another definition of science, the careful execution of controlled experiments, has repeatedly determined that the publisher-intimate process is perhaps the most corrupted and corrupting currently accepted process science has ever studied, and actively works against the best new scientific theories… and yet, it is either the foundation of science, or an essential pillar of it.
How weird it would be if science violated its own principles! How unusual it would be for people not to think things through for themselves, and not to ask awkward questions. If you could see through all this, and even worse, could tell that you had to satisfy managers whom you knew also knew it but followed it regardless, it would be like living in The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984.