Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.

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7 Comments

Filed under politics, public policy, science, society, technology

7 responses to “Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

  1. Georges

    When I cite the difference between correlation and causality, I use it exactly the opposite way:if some action is correlated with danger, even without any known or suspected causality, this action must be avoided. Until one knows where the correlation comes from, correlation is as important as causality for security processes..

  2. One of the stupidest, partisan articles I have ever read. One can easily read between the lines of this foolish author to find a deep hatred of the GOP and any conservative media at all. The author admits correlation is not causation, but that it means we must look deeper. But claims then that any person who yells “but correlation is not causation” is some type of ignorant fool simply for saying these things WITHOUT mentioning that the whole reason fox-watchers say this is because morons like this author MAKE CLAIMS OF CAUSE FROM CORRELATION without ANY EVIDENCE! Seriously, this is the equivalent of setting a house on fire, and then yelling loudly, “oh yeah, what the hell is wrong with people who start houses on fire, we need to stop them!” I understand you may be upset when people make a claim of correlation for something you BELIEVE to be a causal force, but if that is the case, show us your hard work in proving the cause, then. The burden of proof is on YOU WHO MAKES A CLAIM, not those who dismiss you.

    • Georges

      In short, what GOP replies is very simple: We have GOP inspired truths, all our lies are OUR truths and whoever contests them is stupid, scientists arte all liars because they show what is and not what WE tell.

    • Roger Thatcher

      You haven’t actually read the article, have you?

      The important bit you missed, is how to use the rule correctly, as a scientist would, and not be an idiot who spouts the phrase mindlessly.

  3. lkasjdflkafj

    There was a book many years ago called, “The Bell Curve” which was infamous because it showed a correlation between intelligence and certain social trends (and went on to suggest certain social policies that were very unpopular among liberals). Much as this article condemns the right, the left is also guilty of dismissing evidence (the safety of GMOs and vaccinations, the necessity of nuclear power, etc.). The phrase “correlation isn’t causation” is not a recent phenomenon of the right. It is a direct consequence of the over emphasis of individual freedom (e.g. “I can believe what ever I want.”) in American society. We need less freedom and individuality if we are going to accept the conclusions of experts in their fields. Unfortunately, I don’t see anybody in politics discussing this point (and never will as it will be seen as “anti-American” by just about everybody.

  4. Pretty much everything being committed by the right was pioneered by the left, and that includes denying correlation and causateion. It’s a virtual mantra in the social sciences. Bad effects from using pot? Correlation isn’t causation, man.

  5. Jay

    Brin employs a very broad brush here. Writing as a conservative who has nonetheless managed to have scientific papers published in the fields of biology and ethology, I freely admit to harboring antipathy toward many in today’s academia. Why? Look at the antics at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, or the clowns at Berkeley in California, where a now-former “professor” joined an “Antifa” display dressed in black and masked – proceeded to open a man’s head with a bicycle lock and then tried to scurry away. He was caught, and now has a date in court. And then there’s the “professor” who claims that “Jingle Bells” is a racist song. To say nothing of all of the students who demand “safe spaces”, segregated housing, etc. Suspicion and distrust, I believe, have been well-earned at universities today.

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