Effect & Cause

by Paul Niquette
Adapted from 101 Words I Don't Use.
Copyright ©1996 Sophisticated:The Magazine. All rights reserved.

Effects are all around us. Right from the git-go, you observe -- you experience -- effects. That part is easy.
  • Light is an effect; so is darkness;
  • Noise and silence, heat and chill -- these are all effects;
  • Falling and pain are effects;
  • Laughter is an effect; so is crying.
You might go through a whole life simply enjoying or suffering from effects.

Soon enough, though, you begin searching out 'causes' and the trouble begins. Not just for you, either. For anybody who cares. Especially scientists. That's what scientists do mostly: Figure out causes. Hard work, if you do it right.

cause: That which produces an effect
result, or consequence; the person, event, or 
condition responsible for an action or result. 
-- some dictionary; I forget which.

Wind, for example, is an effect. What is its cause? Pressure, you say: There's more atmospheric pressure right here than over there. That will do for some. But pressure is an effect, is it not? Come on, then, what is the cause of pressure? Gravity, of course. But gravity is everywhere -- certainly both here and there. What causes the difference? Well, maybe there's simply more air piled up right here than over there, and... never mind what causes that. Let's change the subject.

"The wind bloweth where it listeth."
-- the Bible; I forget where.

The word 'cause' gets bandied about rather carelessly, I think. A sophisticated person might take pains with the word -- and, alas, might give pains, too. Friends yawn, associates wince, and family members nod knowingly whenever I affirm my version of "The Canons of Evidence and Proposition."

"Correlation is a necessary but not sufficient condition to establish a cause. It is incumbent upon the framer of an hypothesis to put forward the unifying account: A closely reasoned chain of arguments supported by objective evidence, linking an observed effect to its nominated cause."
-- Paul Niquette; I forget when.

A mouthful, to be sure, a heavily freighted paragraph. Still, I have not yet found a conciser way to demand rigor and rationality -- vital concepts, which ramify to many realms of thought.

orrelations are all around us.

  • What are statistics?
  • What are cures?
  • What are polls?
  • What are economics?
From earliest childhood on, we instinctively "make the connection." As adults, many of us have become habituated by correlations and therefore susceptible to various fallacies. {SideBar}

This one is perhaps the most common...

post hoc ergo propter hoc [New Latin after this, therefore because of this] (1704) 1: relating to or being the fallacy of arguing from temporal sequence to a causal relation 2: formulated after the fact <a post hoc rationalization>
-- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Event A occurs, then event B. About all we can be sure of is, since A occurred first, B cannot be its cause. The sophisticated person will not forget that there may well have been some other event C that caused B, and if C occurred early enough, it may have also been the cause of A, which would then explain the correlation between A and B.

We will soon celebrate the Tricentennial of the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy (2004). If genuine meanings can be derived from First Principles, then untangling causes and effects should make some difference -- improving thereby the quality of thinking on the part of policy makers and the electorate.

A friend wrote that post hoc ergo propter hoc is not always bad, arguing that such fallacies (a) can be fun, (b) make people feel good, (c) sell products; and (d) help our economy. Which got me to thinking: it is our thinking which may need help more than our economy, the latter being an effect for which the former is at least one cause?

The temptation to draw cause-effect conclusions from correlations can be irresistible.

Economic Theory and So Forth

The 'dismal science,' it has been called by some -- the 'one-digit discipline,' by others. "Lay ten economists end to end," wags like to say, "and they all point in different directions." Another version: "If you want five opinions, ask four economists."  Not to be critical -- all right, to be critical -- it does seem that economists are vulnerable as hell in the cause-effect department.

    During The Great Oil Embargo of 1973, I read what seemed like an economic obviosity: That it was the devaluation of dollars against the supply-limited, demand-driven cost of petroleum that caused the price of gold to go up. At about the same time, however, I heard another economist say right out loud that the price of gold was skyrocketing and that caused the inflation of other commodities, including petroleum.
n all fairness, there was a graph published about the same time that showed the upward movement in gold prices preceding that for petroleum. The explanation is elementary: People do the buying and the selling and people make predictions. Or know something. Anyone who has been witness to -- or victim of -- the paradoxical way stock markets 'discount' good or bad news will have acquired a first-hand experience with -- well, 'news'.

In economics at any given time, one might be treated to diametrically opposite theories about...

  • taxes and spending,
  • supply-side versus demand-side,
  • tariffs and trade,
  • monetary and fiscal policy.
Which is not to say that other disciplines don't get a little squishy around the edges when illuminated under the Klieg lights of sophisticated inquiry. Take sociology: Causes and effects get all tangled up, whatever the topic...
  • family problems and stress,
  • fidelity and divorce,
  • drug abuse and education,
  • welfare and poverty, oh right...
  • economics and crime.
Not surprising, really. The struggle to answer questions relevant to our most vexing social problems invariably will embrace economic issues. In making public policy, the visually impaired must seek guidance from the retinally challenged.
It has become fashionable, for example, to express the view that governmental assistance programs are not valid remedies for their recipients -- that after decades of The War on Poverty, liberal policy makers have been defeated and their discredited policies must be abandoned. Thus, there is the widely held perception that welfare causes poverty. Huh?

Similarly, one often hears that prohibition caused bootlegging, so then anti-drug laws cause crime. Yet, one might suppose that some were prevented from drinking when booze was illegal and that there are people who do not do drugs today merely because they are law-abiders. Surely there is some connection between violence in the media and crime in the streets, but what is it? and how strong? Likewise for pornography and rape.

There can be no doubt that welfare programs have been abused by lazy or undeserving persons. There is plenty of evidence, too, that irresponsible parenting has become a correlate of expenditures for social assistance. Might it be possible, however, that, despite these disappointments, horrendous consequences of poverty have been averted? -- that hidden underneath a condemned cause is a highly desired effect?

Observations about child behavior seem to be correlated with rising divorce rates. That may not come as a surprise to most readers. But what about remarriage? There are effects, surely correlated with prospective causes too controversial -- too politically incorrect -- to name.  After 30 years of conventional wisdom GAGADTKWSMWLWUMP (go ahead and get a divorce; the kids will suffer more while living with unhappily married parents) the statistical results from some Government-sponsored study I heard about on the radio go like this...

Let the academic performance of a child living in a two-parent family be characterized statistically by the numerical value 1.

  • The corresponding number for a child living in a single-parent household is 2/3rds.
  • The corresponding number for a child living in a two-parent family following remarrage is -- take a seated position -- 1/3rd.
Let the negative deportment of a child living in a two-parent family be characterized statistically by the numerical value -1.
  • The corresponding number for a child living in a single-parent household is -4/3rds (one-third more truancy, for example).
  • The corresponding number for a child living in a two-parent family following remarrage is -3 (three times more truancy).
Gasp, if you know how.  All right, so let us get to work finding the causes of these undesired effects.  Careful observers, whatever their ideological persuasion, might be well advised to watch out for retrospcctive sentences that end with the word 'work', as in, "[This or that] program did not work." More insight into causes and effects will surely result by appending almost any English expression to such statements...
  • ...did not work well.
  • ...did not work as well as [some other].
  • ...did not work as well as expected.
  • ...did not work as well as hoped.
  • ...did not work in its traditional form.
  • ...did not work as the result of [unforeseen factors].
  • ...did not work because of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
The same suggestion is offered for prospective sentences, "...will not work."

Figuring out causes ought to enable us to get the effects we seek. That's what I think. That's what I hope.

Frog"Jump-a, frog," spoke Giuseppe d'Salerno to the specimen on his workbench. In one leap, the amphibian reached a distance of 40 centimeters, which the Scientist from Sicily documented in his laboratory notebook. 

Giuseppe anesthetized one of the frog's legs and amputated it. "Jump-a, frog," he said. The distance reached was less this time, and the ever observant man of science recorded the data: "Frog with three legs jumps 30 centimeters."

The frog was subjected to a second surgical procedure and the experiment repeated: "Jump-a, frog." As expected, the poor creature's leap was shortened. "Frog with two legs jumps 20 centimeters," jotted d'Salerno.

Excited now, the scientist hastened to take off another appendage. "Jump-a, frog," said he, beaming. "Frog with one leg, jumps 10 centimeters!" he scrawled.

In his final experiment, after relieving the wretched amphibian of its last limb, Giuseppe d'Salerno observed no response. "Jump-a, frog! Jump-a, frog!" he commanded again and again. 

At last, he took pen in hand. "Frog with zero legs -- deaf." 


All fictitious names and national origins in Sophisticated: The Magazine are chosen for dramatic effect with no intention to disparage any person or culture; furthermore, no animals were endangered or injured in the preparation of this narrative.