Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Lecture 11 in the course "Argumentation" that I'm listening to as I commute is titled, Moving from Cause to Effect. During an argument you might try to prove B by claiming A is true and that A causes B. This is perfectly valid if A really does cause B but often we're wrong. It could be that A is just a sign  for B. For example a Robin is correlated with Spring but not the cause. It would be wrong to claim spring is occurring in December just because I see a robin. Professor Zarefsky gives five common ways that Cause is misapplied.

1. Has a Correlation been confused with a Cause?
A robin is a sign or correlated with Spring

2. Is there a common cause behind A & B?
Perhaps C causes both A & B so it would be wrong to claim A causes B. It's popular to say guns cause crime but actually criminals cause crime and might use a gun (or a knife, or ...)

3. Post Hoc Fallacy - did B just happen to occur after A?
An example given was a tax cut passed by congress and soon thereafter tax revenue declined. See, we told you so said the opponents, a tax cut caused less taxes gathered. Post Hoc replied the other side, the tax law has not yet gone into effect so it could not have effected revenue, there must be some other cause.

4. Have Cause & Effect been reversed?
Instead of guns causing crime it may be that an upsurge in gun sales is a result of people wanting protection from an increase in local crimes and muggings.

5. Are there significant intervening or counteracting causes?
Reality is rarely as simple as A -> B. Typically there are many different causes for B as well as some causes that mute or cancel B.  'A' might also have many side effects other than B. An example given was that companies want to make the most profit but also have to obey laws and regulations such as environment, equal opportunity, etc. One might argue, Joe can't be incompetent because his company has not fired him. But the company may be afraid of a lawsuit and keeps paying Joe even though he is a waste of money.

Bottom Line

Interesting how something as simple a concept as cause and effect can actually be quite tricky to get right.

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