Mormons are often accused of having simple answers to life’s questions, answers that don’t hold up to scrutiny or that don’t fit all scenarios. “Correlation does not imply causation” (cum hoc non propter hoc, Latin meaning “with this, not because of this”) is a phrase used in statistical analysis to emphasize that correlation between two variables (a tendency to occur simultaneously or in proximity to each other) does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. For example:
- Observation: Large fires correlate with larger numbers of fire fighters.
- Wrong Conclusion: Fire fighters cause fires to be bigger.
- Observation: As ice cream sales increase, so do drowning deaths.
- Wrong Conclusion: Ice cream causes drowning.
- Observation: People who sleep with their shoes on often awake with a headache.
- Wrong Conclusion: Sleeping with your shoes on causes headache. (Who sleeps with their shoes on? Drunk people!)
For any two correlated events A and B, the following relationships are possible:
- A causes B.
- B causes A.
- A and B are consequences of a common cause, but do not cause each other.
- There is no connection between A and B, the correlation is coincidental or the connection is too complex to be understood without a much larger sample size.
- A and B both cause each other. For example, the relationship between predators and prey creates a self-reinforcing system.
Let me give a few examples related to Mormonism:
- Observation: Utah has a high rate of prescription anti-depressants.
- Conclusion: Mormonism causes depression.
Other factors: Unlike most Americans, Mormons are less likely to self-medicate through alcohol, and far more likely to rely on a doctor’s care. Genetics can also play a role in depression as can factors like post-partum (and Utah has a high birth rate due to a younger, more married population).
- Observation: Utah has the highest rate of paid online pornography subscriptions.
- Conclusion: Mormonism (particularly sexual repression) causes people to become secret porn freaks.
Other factors: Due to social stigma, Mormons may be less likely to buy print pornography. They also may be less sophisticated about porn and believe they have to pay for it rather than just downloading it for free like everyone else. And most people who view porn are considered normal and would not consider themselves addicts.
- Observation: Utah has higher than average divorce rates.
- Conclusion: Mormon marriages are not strong.
Other factors: Mormons don’t cohabitate; they marry. You don’t get divorced if you cohabitate; you just move out. Also, Utahns marry at a younger age than national average, and younger marriages correlate with higher divorce rates.
Causation confusion–or causefusion for short–is any misunderstanding about the causes of complex events. Causefusion is a cognition trap that leads us to oversimplify, often at our peril.*
Our Reductionist Minds
The simple fact (you can see the reductionist thinking already) is that everyone simplifies the world around them, nearly all the time. If we didn’t, we would be unable to process the complex world around us and function in our daily lives. We’d spend so much time second guessing and generating alternate scenarios that we wouldn’t be able to do simple things like order food or cross the street.
No one should be blamed for not knowing the causes of complex events or processes. On the other hand, everyone should be held accountable for assuming certainty about causation when causation cannot be proven. Whenever we cannot be sure about the root causes of events or processes, we have to admit it and embrace uncertainty.*
Of course, in real life, we sometimes simplify wrongly, we overlook or ignore symptoms we should consider, and there are consequences. We ignore the cook’s hacking cough and get sick. We ignore the blind spot behind the open car door and have an accident. We think we are merely tired when we are actually sick.
The correlation between depression and chemical imbalance in the brain. Which came first?
What if the chemical imbalance in the brain is not the cause but the consequence of our depression? What if a person first is wounded by some external experience, becomes depressed as a result, and the brain’s chemistry then reflects the depressed state?*
How do we avoid confusing causation with correlation?
Those physicians who escaped causefusion exhibited empathy for their patients. They spent appropriate amounts of time with them. They asked probing questions. They listened to what their patients had to say. And once they did these things, their imaginations were activated. They then arrived at possible alternative solutions based on more sensible diagnoses of cause and effect.*
What about self-fulfilling prophecies? We often say “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but the truth is closer to “I see what I already believe.” I have sometimes heard this one:
- Observation: Utah has a higher life expectancy than most Americans.
- Conclusion: The Word of Wisdom prolongs life.
Contradictory information: The longest life expectancy in the world is in Okinawa (much longer than Utah), one of the highest tea-drinking populations in the world. They also drink plenty of alcohol. Other lifestyle factors (being physically active, having a low stress lifestyle) also contribute to their health as do genetic factors.
What about our own role in creating causation? If you are a police officer and you expect minority races to be criminals, you may in fact cause criminal behavior in those groups (resisting arrest, fleeing the scene, being uncooperative witnesses) by targeting and antagonizing people of the races you mistrust. Does that mean that they were inherently untrustworthy or that you contributed to the cause? So here’s a Mormon version of that:
- Observation: People who leave the church sin (violate the Mormon rules).
- Mormon Conclusion: People leave the church so they can sin.
- Ex-Mormon Conclusion: People who leave the church don’t define their morality by the Mormon code of behavior. They behave like “normal” moral people, drinking alcohol and coffee.
In this case, there is a third cause: whatever caused them to disbelieve in the church’s authority is the same thing that caused them to reevaluate their future moral choices.
- Observation: Some people who leave the church are hostile toward church members.
- Mormon Conclusion: They know what they are doing is wrong, so being around church members is uncomfortable. They were offended because they are thin-skinned.
- Ex-Mormon Conclusion: Some church members are judgmental and hostile toward those who have left or think differently.
This is an example of a self-sustaining system: A causes B, and B causes A.
Obviously, Mormons didn’t invent “causefusion,” nor did ex-Mormons. What’s your experience?
- What examples of causefusion have you heard at church or in the bloggernacle?
- What do you say when someone confuses causation with correlation?
- How do you avoid doing this yourself? Are you successful?
*Causefusion is discussed in depth in Blunder: When Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Quotations are from that book.