Monday, September 27, 2010

CAUSE AND EFFECT - Which Is Which?

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Dear BrainTrainers:

If we agree with the proposition that every effect is the result of a cause, and further, that 1) every effect is preceded by a cause and 2) there are occasionally what appear to be infinitely iterative (i.e., back and forth) chains of causes and effects, how can we identify which agent is the cause and which is the effect if we begin our observation after the chain has already begun?

This might seem like a revisitation of the "chicken and egg" conundrum, or of the famous hillbilly family feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys (no one seems to remember which family started the feud, or what the initial offense was), but it bears serious thought.

How do we identify which observed agent is the cause and which is the effect? How can we test this to verify our theory? How do we eliminate absolute correlations between events where there is no actual causality? For example:

Some time ago, when I thought that I was reasonably intelligent (sidebar: the more that I learn, the more acutely I perceive the vastness of all that I do not know, and of all that remains to be learned), I told a friend that "smoking marajuana leads to heroin addiction." He immediately, without flinching, put me in my place by stating "Well, then...every serial killer drank milk as a child, so that must mean that drinking milk, while young, leads to one's becoming a murderer." I felt awfully stupid.

Today, because I've had so many years to sharpen my skills as a smartass, my response to his response would have been, "That makes sense. Most cereal killers drown their quarry in milk." But I didn't understand about homonyms back then. Darn.

Have you ever wished that you could go back in time and say all of the witty things that you didn't think to say until after the opportunity had passed?

Back to the subject, how do you identify which is the cause and which is the effect if you've only begun observing the chain of  back-and-forth events sometime after the beginning?


Douglas Castle

Tags, Labels, Key Terms and Other Stuff Relating to This Postcause vs effect relationships, correlation does not imply causality, cereal killers should be treated more leniently than serial killers, Braintenance, chicken-and-egg, Famous Family Feuds, the real McCoy, Mac n' cheese, Mac n' me, lactose intolerance, excessive alliteration, bad puns, TNNWC, Harlan,

We're so sorry, Uncle Albert...

Douglas Castle
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