Experts and Cause-and-Effect

Posted on January 30, 2010 by


Ever since I’ve been arguing on basketball message boards, I’ve always argued about the causes for the Bulls losing games.  However, it seemed like no matter the outcome, message board posters were citing the same exact causes they were citing every single game, though in varying degrees.

This got me interested in the exploring how people determine cause-and-effect.

Donald Shoup, urban planning guru and writer of The High Cost of Free Parking, once said “the problem can’t be defined until the solution is found.”

Basically, I take that to mean that people generally have their solution in mind even before they start to talk about the problem.

From years of observation of these boards, it seems like posters will blame the same reasons they always do when they’re losing.  If they had a preference for defense wins championships-basketball, they will usually cite the shortcomings on defense as the reason for losing.  The solution these posters had in mind would be better defense, and so they defined the problem as “a lack of” defense.

Inversely, if they had a preference for fast-pace scoring basketball and they lost, they usually cited that the team didn’t have enough scoring.  The solution these posters had in mind would be better offense, and so they defined the problem as “a lack of” offense.

Lots of people in the message board space don’t renege on their ideas of causation, and I have the sneaking that people, specifically self-known experts, are like that in general, especially when it comes to politics, and probably science.

Applied to something in real life, it seems like some conservatives will always have a problem with anything Obama does, no matter how much he bends towards their ideals to win their votes.  The solution they have in mind never involved him being in office, and so there’s no way that he can win.

Inversely, the same was true with George W.  The solution for tons of people never involved him being in office, and so there was no way he could win for a lot of us (and yet he did…TWICE.)

What folks don’t realize is that they aren’t really observing cause-and-effect like they think they are.

Taken from Making Truth:  Metaphor in Science by Theodore Brown:

Much of our understanding of causation is metaphorical, not literal.  We don’t really observe cause-and-effect as much as we do.

“The golf ball hit the window and broke it.”  Assuming that you actually observed the golf ball hit the window and broke it, this is a literal causation.

So OK, we don’t observe a lot of cause-and-effect events.

But I think people who believe they are experts think they see a lot more cause-and-effect.

In the sciences, direct causation is even harder to observe, especially if you’re trying to do it with just the naked, raw 5 senses.  We need these extensions of our minds, in the form of technology before we make any more direct observation.  And even that might be imperfect and won’t give us the entire picture.

“Radiation at the resonant frequency puts the electron into the excited state.”

“Neuronal activity can elevate serotonin concentrations.”

“Medication brought her out of her coma.”

You can assume medication did something, but you can’t actually see it doing its work.  Unless you’ve got said patient in some kind of observation tank monitored with all the latest X-ray or nano-imaging technologies that cover the entire body, you can’t really “observe” the medication doing what it does on a molecular level.

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