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On Correlation Vs. Causation, Or Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Become Illinois Politicians…

June 29th, 2011 · 18 Comments
Fun With Data · Just For Fun

If you haven’t already, you can read my correlation does not imply causation, uh, rant here. The general idea is that, just because you see that events A and B go together, you cannot conclude that event A causes event B. You can only conclude this if you rule out two other possibilities, namely that event B causes event A or that an outside event C causes both events A and B. Otherwise you can run into such absurd logic as the following:

Technically, I suppose I can’t rule out the notion that the logic is correct- maybe there is something about the political process in Illinois that turns people on to criminal behavior. Nonetheless, I can’t conclude that that is what is going on unless I can rule out the possibility that either people become politicians because they exhibit criminal behavior (and need to figure out how to cover it up?) or that some biological or environmental trait leads people to being both politicians and criminals.

If this really is more concentrated in Illinois than elsewhere (I was born in the land of Jim Traficant, so I am not a good judge of this), then perhaps it’s something in the water or the deep dish pizzas or something.

Tags: Fun With Data · Just For Fun

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Viktor // Jun 29, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    While it is true that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It is a bit of a problem that I know of no sound system that implies causality, regardless of information available. We can’t even trust the (philosophical) induction principle.

  • 2 econgirl // Jun 29, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Well, causation is what controlled experiments and the scientific method attempt to establish- if you’ve only changed one thing between your control and your experimental group and get a different result, then it stands to reason that that one factor caused the change in result.

    Economists try to look at natural experience to make a similar sort of inference, but in general it is very difficult to determine causation based on observational data.

  • 3 Viktor // Jun 29, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    What you are saying here is that given that you only changed A, and that change to A correlates with B, A causes B.

    That is how people do it, but it isn’t very satisfactory from a philosophical point of view. What happens is that you try to control all the variables that you think may change the results. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an unobserved C that changes the results.

    It is perhaps a bit nit-picky, of course I agree that it stands to reason! We can’t seriously question that, say, slashing someone with a knife causes bleeding wounds. But that is just common sense, there is no real logical basis for ruling out that both are caused by say “god enjoying both shivs and blood”.

  • 4 econgirl // Jun 29, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    You mean like this? 🙂

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1994#comic

  • 5 Punditus Maximus // Jul 2, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    I used to think that correlation equaled causation, but then I took a stats class, so now I’m not sure.

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    The second option would explain all of the zombie brides. =P

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