Courtesy of xkcd

Not hardly, but one would be shocked by this fact if they were to take a critical look into the average human’s beliefs. I would like to think the following definition unnecessary, but clearly it is not, so I give it. Correlation is a correlational relationship between two events while causation is a causal relationship between two events. Simple, no? “How could anyone mistake them,” you ask. There are many ways.

One may see correlation in coincidence and causation where there is not even correlation. Skinner’s famous “Superstitious Pigeons” experiment of 1948 purported to show that pigeons developed superstitious behaviors in the following circumstance: a food pellet was released randomly into a cage and whatever the pigeons were doing when it was released they would repeat, finally inventing complex ritual dances to get the pellet to drop. Whether this experiment was valid, the conclusion has been strongly supported by further study of dopamine in the human brain. Reward pathways using dopamine as a neurotransmitter will respond to positive or negative events in an effort to predict outcomes based on preceding events. The reward pathways construct elaborate connections, even connections on other connections. This is the basis of operant conditioning (Pavlov’s dogs). An evolutionary mechanism to predict future events can deceive the unaware into all kinds of nonsensical traditions. Note that this implies someone praying for a heavenly favor is psychologically equivalent to a flying rat with a brain like a Jolly Rancher flapping its wings frantically for a food pellet.

A given correlational relationship between two events may be understood as causation when they share a cause in reality. The United States has a capitalist economy which economists tell us is based on entrepreneurship and innovation. The government seeks to improve the economy at its fundamental level by promoting these two principles with such legislative measures as tax cuts, deregulation, and subsidies. Despite these efforts, the US economy experiences periodic recessions for which the fixative measures are of dubious efficacy. Economists largely attribute them to the natural cycle of business, but perhaps the problem merits a closer examination. When a recession is detected, the immediate response is to decrease taxes and increase short-term government spending. However, ten to fifteen years later the same crisis arises requiring more of the same ineffective fixes. The question is why they are ineffective for more than a decade. Very few citizens are entrepreneurs and innovators: the majority are simply employees of the handful of employers. The majority are not manual laborers as would be true in an underdeveloped country. In fact, in America unskilled labor jobs are in large supply and low demand and are therefore filled mainly by immigrants. The rest of the job positions require education and training to even be considered as an applicant. From where do these entrepreneurs and innovators come who supposedly drive our economy? Why, they are the highest performing tier of the educated and skilled. Here, then, is the problem: economists have postulated certain principles as the root cause of a strong economy when in fact they are merely correlated because both they and the economy are predicated on an intelligent, skilled population. We see now that the remedies for the previous recession include cuts to education and job training which ten to fifteen years later, when the underserved people attempt to enter the workforce, precipitate a recession.

Causation may also be mistaken for correlation. A noted theoretical physicist (Paul Davies in The Mind of God) observed how perfect were the symmetries and balance of forces in our physical world. The slightest difference would have led to a universe which was incapable of human life like our own. Surely, he concluded, that of the infinite possibilities this one was chosen was proof that a divine being exists. He interpreted the data as a correlation between the existence of the universe and the existence of a god. Now suppose these symmetries did not exist and the universe was not stable. We would not exist to observe it. There is a tautology, known as the “anthropomorphic principle,” that a stable universe will always be observed because it must be stable to be observed. Thus we see that it is the existence of the universe which causes the existence of the idea of a god: a causal, not merely correlational, relationship.

Our last example is of a causal relationship being understood in the wrong direction. In the last 40 years much psychological research has examined the relationship between academic success and self-concept. While the more cautious scientists hedge their conclusions with conditionals, education policy has taken the firm stance that higher self-esteem causes better academic performance. Not surprisingly this has failed spectacularly to improve scholastic aptitude: test scores in all areas seeing a steady decline as more classroom time is spent stroking the egos of adolescents and less on actual instruction. That’s not entirely true, there is one area where scores have increased to the point where America is the clear world leader: self-esteem. As should be instantly clear, it is consistent achievement which promotes confidence, not the reverse. This one mistake is costing our nation respect and our children their future.

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