Sunday, January 3, 2016

Correlation vs. Causation

NOTE: I am trying to fix the links in a number of old posts, and have reproduced a number of essays from my now defunct blog in order to allow myself to create working links to them.

It is a topic which has been discussed ad nauseam, but so many still fail to grasp it that I feel the need to repeat it one more time: Correlation is not the same as causation.

Let me start with a controversial topic, and one on which my position may put off some of my readers. There is no proof that pornography causes rape or any other bad behaviors.

Let us look at the evidence as usually presented. Almost always it takes the form of case studies. Case after case is presented showing that this or that sexual predator had read pornographic magazines, watched pornographic movies, etc. long before he started his career as a rapist. From this the conclusion is drawn that it was this stream of sexual material which drove him to rape. And, on the surface, this seems a plausible argument. After all, if in case after case someone who reads and watches pornography goes on to rape then is it not likely that the pornography caused the rapes?

But there is a completely different interpretation which fits the facts just as well. Perhaps those who are destined to become rapists have some of those traits already prior to becoming a rapist. Perhaps that hyper-sexual personality which leads them to rape also leads them to have an inordinate interest in pornography. In other words, perhaps the interest in pornography is just another symptom of the same underlying personality which led to the rapes. So, rather than causing the rapes, perhaps the pornography is just another symptom.

The same arguments are often used for violence. And again, perhaps rather than violent video games and media causing violent children, perhaps violent children are drawn to such entertainment. In other words: correlation may exist without any causation. Or, perhaps the correlated events are both caused by another, unexamined cause, and are not in a cause and effect relationship with one another. Maybe what appears to be a cause and effect relationship is simply coincidence, or, at most, is really a pair of effect from a separate cause.

So, why bring all of this up? Surely it isn't just to make a cursory and weak argument about whether pornography causes rapes or violent video games cause violence.

No, I bring this up because I have started to see more and more often the use of correlation as a substitute for causation. Or the use of correlation to support implausible arguments, rather than looking for true causality.

Three related statements show this very well. Often you will hear all of these statements, or at least two of the three, coming form the same speaker. Which makes sense, as they all rely upon the same logic, but that logic, as I will show, confuses correlation and causality. (The logic is also largely based upon propaganda spread by various Islamic and pro-communist groups in the mid 20th century, but, though interesting, that fact is not relevant here.)

The arguments are as follows:

1. Terrorism/violence/hatred of the US arose because the US became involved in foreign affairs.
2. Islamic nations hate us because of our support for Israel
3. Islamic terrorism/middle eastern violence in general exists only because of Israel
All three of these are plausible on the surface, but that plausibility is based almost entirely upon the confusion of correlation with causation. As The state of Israel was founded in the 1948 and Arab violence arose in the 1940's the two must be related. Likewise, as the US became a major player on the world stage following World War II and most violence directed toward the US came following World War II the two must be related.

But those assumptions are wrong.

First, let us examine non-Arab terrorism and violence.

Why did violence, especially violence directed toward the US arise after World War II? The answer is not "because the US began to interfere in the affairs of other nations." If anything , it is the opposite. The main source of most political turmoil in the post war era was related to communist groups in various nations. Even most of the "anticolonial" uprisings of the era were partly communist backed.

Which helps explain why the the era following World War II saw such an explosion of terrorism. It was not the US or the remnants of various colonial powers which spurred the various uprisings. Comintern, though founded earlier, really came into its own following the war. With a third or more of Europe to provide a buffer against invasion, the Soviet Union felt little fear in providing support to communist terrorists, or even creating communist fronts where none had previously existed. It was largely the cushion of eastern Europe, insulating the USSR from retribution, that allowed terrorism to thrive after World War II.

True, much terrorism was directed at the US, but only because the US made so many efforts to stop SOVIET intervention. It was not US intervention that spurred this terrorism, but US reaction to Soviet intervention. Yet, somehow, the communist sympathizers managed to paint communist rebels, acting as agents for the soviets, as a reaction to US intervention. And to this day many believe that US intervention caused the uprisings of the second half of the 20th Century. In fact, much of Ron Paul's base still buys into the communist propaganda view that only isolationism will save the US from foreign hatred.

Now let us look at Arab/Islamic terrorism.

Again, the rise of Arab terrorism took place after World War II, and has been popularly blame don the foundation of Israel. But that is far from the truth. Yes, Israel has provided a convenient rallying point, and has given the terrorists a focus and excuse. But just as our troops in Saudi Arabia did not create bin Ladin, being mere pretext, had Israel never existed, we would still suffer from Arab terrorism, they would simply find another pretext.

So why did Islamic terrorism arise so strongly in the 1940's and 1950's?

There are three factors. First, the British and French protectorates in the former Ottoman Empire largely disappeared in that period. Without occupying forces to contain nationalist violence, the terrorist nationalist forces were free to run wild. Second, nationalism had been encouraged by Nazi agents during the war, leaving a militant Islamic-nationalist core around which future terrorist groups could form. Third, from the 1950's through the 1970's oil rose in importance to the world, giving the Arab states both unlimited wealth to fund terrorism and a feeling of power over the West which encouraged rogue states to sponsor terrorists in their jihad against the West.

So, while Israel and the US would become the focus of this violence, neither is the cause. Rather nationalism, islamic bigotry, and a feeling of envy toward the west spur these nations to fight. The issue of Israel is merely a convenient pretext.

Of course, this hardly scratches the surface of the ways correlation and causation are confused and lead to bad conclusions. However, as Ron Paul has made isolation popular once more, at least among a certain population, I felt this was the best topic to use as an illustration.

If time permits, I may revisit this topic, and show the many other ways in which correlation replaces true evidence in many popular fallacies.

NOTE (Jan 21, 2008):

I know that this essay lacks some of the detail I would normally include. It is mostly complete, but I would have preferred a bit more supporting evidence and a slightly more complete analysis of the communist involvement in most of the major uprisings in the post-war world. Also a lot more on the origins of the Islamic terrorist movements of the 20th century.

However, as it was sitting in the hopper for quite a few days, I decided it was better to get even an imperfect document published, rather than let it wait around longer until it was perfect. So I decided to wrap this up with less than ideal documentation, intending to come back at a later date and write a more elaborate explanation.

As one of my current projects is writing an analysis of the state of Israel vs. the Palestinian Authority, I may be able to delve into the origins of Arab/Islamic terrorism in that essay. If not, perhaps in a separate work.

In any case, please be aware that I know I could use some more citations in this essay, and the explanation could be a bit more fleshed out, errors I intend to correct as time allows.

Thanks for being patient with me.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/01/21.

NOTE: This essay was posted twice, once on April 8, 2011 and once on January 3, 2016.

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