Causal reductionism and causation vs. correlation

Did you know that the more films Nicolas Cage appears in, the more people are likely to drown in their swimming pools?

Or that the more cheese we eat, the more likely we are to die by being tangled in bedsheets?

Or that the more people killed in a year by venomous spiders, the longer the words that win the Scripps National Spelling Bee? Seems weird that the people who come up with the word lists would be paying attention to those sorts of causes of death.

The truth is, they’re not.

And people don’t hate Nicolas Cage movies enough to drown themselves.

And our collective lactose intolerance isn’t a precondition for not being able to untangle ourselves before we suffocate.

These are just weird correlations that have nothing to do with causation.

There’s a logical fallacy called causal reductionism, or the fallacy of the single cause. Put simply:

Once you determine that margarine consumption is correlated with the divorce rate in Maine and not a cause of it, you can start actually looking at causes.

For our purposes, correlation means:

the degree to which two or more attributes or measurements on the same group of elements show a tendency to vary together.

Cause means:

a person or thing that acts, happens, or exists in such a way that some specific thing happens as a result; the producer of an effect

A logical fallacy is an argument that doesn’t hold muster. There are a bunch of them, and causal reductionism is just one.

Logically Fallacious has maybe the most straightforward explanation and examples:

Description: Assuming a single cause or reason when there were actually multiple causes or reasons

But let’s go a little bit deeper, because the real issue here is that we tend to either dumb things down for others, or convince ourselves that things are simpler than they really are.

This description gets closer to the heart of it:

The political arena is rife with this fallacy; complex social problems are often reduced to simple causes: immigrants, taxes, corporations, rich people, poor people, gays and lesbians, Christians, atheists – just to name a few. Our social problems are far too complex to attribute to one cause, though some causes may play a more prominent role than others.

We also like to use this fallacy after things like school shootings, the author notes.

Violent music was the impetus for the Columbine shooting, critics said, and video games for the Sandy Hook shooting.

Is it possible that repeated listening and playing led to some desensitization? Not my field, I don’t want to speculate, but I will say that if these were part of the deal, they weren’t the only causes. They weren’t even the primary causes.

[In fact, most people listen to musical acts like Rammstein, watch Quentin Tarantino movies and play violent video games to blow off steam — to relax — not to gear themselves up to destroy things.]

Violent crime has dropped a bunch in the U.S. in my lifetime. What would you attribute that to? Legal abortion and contraception, so people are having fewer unwanted children? People spending more times playing video games instead of going out to commit crimes? Better services for the poor? Climate change — some days it’s just too uncomfortable to go outside? More empathy in our younger generations? An ability to meet people across cultures on the internet? People too addicted to the internet to bother committing crimes?

It might be some of these along with some other things, but whatever it is, it’s not just one reason.

It’s the same with everything else. There are certainly some simple causal explanations — you don’t just float off the ground because gravity is pulling you toward the earth’s center — but if you’re trying to explain — or better yet, solve — some of the world’s problems, look around at more than just one cause.


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