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.
I find the rhetoric CES use in promoting seminary and institute to be full of this kind of confused reasoning, and it drives me nuts.
It all seems to be along the lines of A. students who take seminary excel at school, so B. if you take seminary you WILL excel at school’
It completely disregards that students who are finding school to be tough going, are more likely to drop seminary (particularly in areas where seminary is extra-curricular) simply because they need to devote more energy to school, even if they then still achieve lower school grades than the higher achieving seminary students. It also disregards the very many students who don’t take seminary at all, and do very well in school thank you very much.
The line of resoning also fails to consider that a poor home environment not conducive to academic study, may well also not support seminary study.
The belief of many, in the CES reasoning results in: successful students attributing their success to their participation in seminary (ouch); less academic students struggling with both and failing seminary attributing their failure to some lack of worthiness or effort on their part in seminary (big ouch). The other biggie from my observation is that successful seminary students can be very cliquey, and see themselves as the worthy elite (which CES does nothing to discourage), and look down on those who don’t participate. That was your first question.
What do I say or do – I try to point out the false reasoning whenever I hear it – and my general dissatisfaction with CES (this issue is only the start, but the only one relevant to the OP).
How do I avoid it, am I successful?
Well, I try to put myself in the other shoes and consider an alternative viewpoint. I do tend to be suspicious of cause-effect scenarios anyway. As to my success I have no idea. I hope I’m successful, but undoubtedly have biases and blindspots…
While I agree with the idea that Mormon culture is definitely not immune from causation fallacies, I do think it’s worth identifying relationships in data- not necessarily to point out causation, but to start the discussion and start examining if there is indeed a cause for the correlation. For instance, I really do believe depression is a very serious issue in the church (moreso than in certain secular circles), and I do believe, at least from my own experience, that a lot of that depression is caused by cultural (and sometimes doctrinal) mormonism. “Be ye therefore perfect” is a tall order, as is “be a stay-at-home mom to lots of kids; this will FULFILL you!” Add to it the implied obligation to be or at least appear happy (“men are that they might have joy”) and you have a lot of people feeling broken.
I also absolutely believe that pornography addiction is a much bigger issue within the church than without. Not pornography itself, but addiction. We have assigned so much power and shame to it and we talk about it ALL THE TIME- psychologically speaking, it’s the perfect storm for setting up addiction. My non-mormon guy friends in high school? Sure they looked at porn. It didn’t rule their lives. It didn’t alter how they viewed themselves. They didn’t base day-to-day decisions on it. The idea that they couldn’t control themselves wasn’t an issue and didn’t guide their choices. My mormon guy friends? Each had an intense addiction; for one, it nearly broke him (became suicidal). They felt helpless and it forever altered the way they viewed themselves. Sadly, most of them had no idea that every single other guy they knew was going through the exact same thing.
And I HATE porn. I’m not pro-porn. But we have to change the way we discuss it and stop making it sound like an unconquerable foe of great power and shame. It may or may not be causation (personally I think it is) but there is definitely a link.
Basically correlation doesn’t equal causation- but that doesn’t mean correlated items are NOT tied to each other. Just that correlation alone isn’t enough to go off of. And if the “causefusions” around porn and depression get people in the church talking about those issues and realizing a different approach may be in order, then the church may be better for it.
Just wanted to add that Utah does not equal Mormon.
Actually, the mountain west has increased depression related to day light cycles. Utah is well evaluated in that context where it comes out ahead in a number of markers (eg Montana’s suicide rate, etc.).
I have to add I almost got run over in the parking lot 30 minutes ago as I opened my door. Great example Hawk.
Is “the mountain west has increased depression related to day light cycles” not just another form of correlation!=causation?
Obviously there are a billion factors behind something like depression. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about the factors we can control
I appreciate the original posting — we do tend to over-simplify the answers, and we also sometimes tend to over-complicate the questions — a good reminder to think a little more carefully…
Re: light cycles in the intermountain west
Wouldn’t the availability of light be roughly equivalent at similar longitudes all around the globe? Wouldn’t you, then, have reason to expect similar suicide rates In the Midwest and on the East coast and so on, if light were the operative variable?
Alice, it has to do with mountains cutting off the light sooner, creating a shorter light cycle at the same longitude/latitude. In Texas we have longer days than they get to the West of here with mountains that cut off the light sooner.
Alice – it also differs based on where you are in the time zone, so both longitude and latitude; however, I’m not sure I think UT anti-depressant rates are due to sun deprivation. That is common in Seattle and London from what I read.
Wouldn’t the depression rate be comparable to Colorado then?
Got me. Stephen’s point would be no because they are on the other side of the Rockies (dawn’s early light is not blocked). I would theorize that the lower Mormon population means more self-medicating through alcohol. But who knows?
I agree with you on principle, but in your first batch of examples related to Mormonism, most of the “other factors” you listed are things that are caused by Mormonism and/or Mormon culture. So you’re more analyzing how Mormonism caused the observed phenomenon rather than explaining that the phenomenon might have been caused by something else entirely.
The example in the comments about mountain light-cycles affecting depression is a better example of an unrelated alternate explanation.