View RSS Feed

Memories of the 28th Century

On Causation

Rating: 4 votes, 5.00 average.
Sometimes I get the impression that most people donít understand causation, as in every event is caused by something(s) that came before; things donít just happen without anything causing them. Something causes something else to happen, and that cause was caused by something else entirely. For example, when one drops a piece of lead from oneís hand, it falls; the effect is falling, and there are at least two causes that team up to produce the effect: dropping the piece of metal and gravity, and if you release something in a place where there is no gravity, then it will not fall.

This example is very basic, but it is not complete as I wrote it, because it would require me to write volumes to completely explain what is going on, but my simple explanation is adequate, if one understands a little about mass and gravity, but people didnít have those understandings until a few hundred years ago, so the matter of things falling when dropped was a mystery to them; it simply happened. But they had a simplified chain of causation. Rather than referring to gravity, they could simply say that things fall to the Earth when dropped.

Along with a cause there is the matter of timing. Causes come before effects. This is what the ďArrow of TimeĒ points out. Most people have a general understanding of the Arrow of Time, but they may have a hard time explaining it. Watching movie backwards shows clearly that most human activity operates in a definite direction, but on the atomic level all processes are reversible, and the theories do not generally distinguish the direction of time. On the atomic scale events can happen in either direction, and the energy requirements are the same. Thus, the Arrow of Time only applies to macro scale things, and maybe not to all of those.

Another important matter is exactly what the case is. There can be, and usually are, multiple causes for a given effect, and there can be multiple effects from a single cause, and some of those effects may look like causes. Unless we look carefully we canít tell what caused what. We also have to remember that correlation does not demonstrate causation. Just because two things are related in some way does not mean that one causes the other. This has created many misunderstandings among people who donít think carefully. A famous example of such mistaking correlation for causation is the matter of serum cholesterol and arteriosclerosis. Cholesterol is present in the arteries and the plaques of arteriosclerosis are made of cholesterol, so some people decided that excessive amounts of cholesterol must have caused the plaques to form. On the surface that makes some sense, but it ignores the rest of the world. Cholesterol is a component in all human cells, and it is involved in the transport of some hormones and other chemicals, and it is a necessary precursor of a number of hormones and other complicated chemicals, so it is constantly moving through the blood in varying amounts, depending on how much is needed. And that simplistic reasoning doesnít address the important question of what is making the cholesterol stick into plaques. There are a number of thing, bacteria, viruses, etc., that make cholesterol form plaques, and those things are not related to the amount of serum cholesterol.

Even though scientists are supposed to be trained to look for causes, for several decades high serum cholesterol was thought to cause arteriosclerosis.

Another famous mistake in determining cause and effect has been with atmospheric carbon dioxide causing global climate change. Some people insist that higher levels of carbon dioxide have caused global climate change, because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has warmed the atmosphere. There are problems with that, because carbon dioxide is barely a greenhouse gas, and it appears that the warming preceded the rise in carbon dioxide levels, and that additional increases in carbon dioxide have not caused the predicted warming. This is heretical to many people who have accepted the orthodox opinions, but there has been a major trend that has been widely ignored. In the far North there are extensive swamps, muskeg bogs, wet tundra, etc. that has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age. For hundreds of years, much of this land had been permafrost which prevented the release of carbon dioxide as vegetable matter decomposed, and the coolness slowed decomposition, but in the last few decades some of the permafrost has melted in Summer, and decomposition has been going much faster, so huge amounts of carbon dioxide have been released from areas that had produced no carbon dioxide for a long time. So the warming caused the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, rather than the other way around.

Cause and effect are essentially simple, but ignoring relevant facts can make even something as simple as cause and effect into quicksand. Things are much simpler, if one determines in advance what one will pay attention to, and that is what the IPCC has done. Even people who are trying very hard to produce real science can and do make mistakes. Whenever we are looking for useful information we should look at what may be considered obvious, because the obvious may be blinding us to the actual facts. The only prejudices that we should have when we are looking for knowledge is the prejudice toward objectively looking at the facts, even if the facts are not what we expected them to be.