Correlation is Not Causation, BUT…

cartoon by xkcd, of course

It’s often been said that the truth is the first casualty of war, and perhaps that could be said of culture wars as well. Right-wingers, libertarians and others who are wildly distrustful of government, regulation and anything they don’t completely understand (which includes anything to do with complexity or science), quickly glommed onto disgruntled “experts” and charlatans who seeded doubt about every finding and recommendation of public health experts during CoVid-19, for example, essentially sabotaging disease management, and likely causing untold millions of unnecessary deaths and shortening the healthy lives of millions more.

The challenge of trying to keep ahead of luddite misinformation is compounded by two factors: The fact that sciences and scientific knowledge are never static, exact or certain; and the fact that the hubris of claims in some pseudosciences (which include all of the so-called ‘social sciences’) has led people to be suspicious of all scientific findings.

We should never mistake the ever-changing popular consensus of opinion of ‘social science’ professionals, whether that be in papers by historians, books by philosophers, legal arguments and supporting evidence in courts, ‘race science’ claims by eugenicists, or psychiatrists in the constantly-rewritten DSM, with actual science, such as that established in the table of elements or surgical manuals. As we used to know when we read op-eds, but seem to have forgotten, opinions are not facts.

The art of medicine uncomfortably straddles these two domains. Some things about the body and disease we know reliably well, while other things (such as the role and impact of viruses) we are only just beginning to get a handle on. So it was not hard for skeptics to instil doubts about whether public health experts knew what we were facing, and therefore could be trusted with their recommendations, when CoVid-19 exploded onto the scene.

Even three years later, facts that were well-established early-on in the pandemic (such as that the disease was spread primarily by airborne transmission and hence masks were a more effective preventative than surface cleaning or ‘social distancing’), are still being challenged.

Some of these challenges even come from inside the public health community: Both the CDC and WHO, for example, perhaps due to severe understaffing, incompetent management and/or internal ego battles, were criminally slow to acknowledge its airborne transmissibility. Other challenges have come from career denialists who simply can’t absorb how a disease could quite naturally defeat our best efforts to control it at every turn. And still other challenges to evidence-based regulation have come from ‘militias’, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and other extremist anti-government groups who refuse to accept any restrictions on their ‘personal’ freedoms, even at the cost of inflicting massive collective suffering.

One of the arguments that’s often trotted out by those challenging evidence-based information is that “correlation is not causation”. That observation is correct: Just because there is a strong statistical correlation between two variables doesn’t necessarily mean that one ’caused’ the other. The more complex the system, moreover, the less likely that there is a causal connection, since the number of variables that could also explain the correlation can be infinitely high.

But that is why in science we use the term “the preponderance of available evidence”. That is why we use the scientific method, which begins with a hypothesis that is disprovable and then applies a rigorous process to see if evidence can be found that supports or disproves it. Only if sufficient evidence has been examined to support the hypothesis, and none has been found that disproves it, and even then only when it has been subjected to an unbiased and un-politicized peer review, can it then be considered a valid theory — until some further evidence is revealed to disprove it, requiring a new hypothesis to be tested and a new theory to be promulgated.

No such process is or will ever be possible when it comes to the pseudosciences and ‘social sciences’, where theories are of necessity just unprovable opinions on which little or no reliance should ever be placed. Witch-burnings, state executions, eugenics experiments, and lobotomies are four of the more ghastly results of placing such unwarranted reliance on these opinions.

But when it comes to the airborne transmission of CoVid-19, for example, while there may be opinions denying it, it has never been factually disproven with real evidence, and there are mountains of data and studies that support it. In other words, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports it, and hence supports the wearing of masks to mitigate the risks of its transmission.

Of course we cannot apply the scientific method with complete rigour to this very complex situation, and that’s all the leeway that absolutists and malcontents need, especially when social media give them access to a befuddled and badly-educated citizenry conditioned to be skeptical of anything from a ‘government’ source.

And yes, many public health organizations screwed up badly in their CoVid-19 disease management work. That doesn’t mean we should disregard them. It means we should equip them with the resources, and competent management, to do their jobs better.

I’ve used CoVid-19 as the example in this article, but I could just have easily used the climate catastrophe, or the viability and risks of vaccines, or flat earth theory for that matter.

So, yes, correlation is not causation. But when the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports a theory that mandates urgent and drastic action to avert a disaster — such the wearing of masks during a virulent pandemic, or getting vaccines to reduce the risk and severity of disease, or bringing about the rapid de-growth of industrial civilization to prevent its disastrous collapse — it is not reasonable skepticism, but sheer folly, to do otherwise.

Tragically, it is not human nature to accept theories or evidence that run counter to what we want to believe. We have all been conditioned to believe certain things about ourselves, our culture, human nature, and our world.

Our zeal to deny ‘inconvenient’ truths supported by overwhelming evidence, when those truths challenge and undermine our conditioning, is perfectly understandable.

And so is the accelerating, commensurate global collapse of our ecological, economic, political and social systems that is, uh, “strongly correlated with” this collective disbelief and denial.

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13 Responses to Correlation is Not Causation, BUT…

  1. Dollyboy says:

    Here’s 78 mask studies that do not suggest mask wearing works:

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Well, 12 studies actually, not 78. And here’s Cochrane’s devastated apology for this completely flawed “study”:

    There have been hundreds if not thousands of articles refuting this one single study, which reads like it was written by a 12-year-old. But believe what you want to believe.

  3. Benn says:

    I read Steve Kirsch’s substack article that had the headline “CDC admits masks don’t work!” with a link to what he was referring to. I read the article, in which the CDC said some masks work better than others: a bit of cloth is not as good as an n95 mask, which is probably not 100% effective, but better than nothing.
    I then realised that Mr Kirsch is actually a frightened little boy trapped inside a shell made from American exceptionalism and Lone Hero cultural conditioning.
    I then went into the garden and weeded my onions, while I still can.
    Give it a million years and the mother trees will be back, or something similar. We won’t be around.

  4. realist says:

    There are criminal imbeciles because imbecility does not remove criminal responsibility only (genuine) insanity does.

  5. ronald young says:

    I’ve long been a fan of yours – by far and away the most thoughtful of bloggers.
    I pride myself on my “open mind” – although I do realise that I am as guilty as anyone of confirmation bias. On the Covid issue, I have followed Dr John Campbell whose daily videos I and so many others found so helpful during the pandemic.
    However, some of his recent posts have caused me deep concern. Since the beginning of this year, he has given airtime to some very dubious characters – Neil Oliver , right-wing European MPs and a UK MP voicing anti-vaccine views.

    Campbell has become a famous character whose channel is favourite view of many Americans. I would welcome your views on this

  6. Bogwood says:

    Longterm fan, agree not the most nuanced post. Anti-vax for instance is pejorative and almost meaningless. There are 3-4 common vaccines with strong support, many others less so. Including the Covid vax with suspect initial “research”. Should not have been mandated on such thin evidence.
    We wore masks in our operating rooms for the last 40 years mostly because they worked poorly. Casual chatting was common. Infections could be serotyped to the patients own flora. N95s would not be tolerated.
    We have been waiting for “better people” for 5000 years, less top down control seems more achievable .
    Complexity theory might be over-rated. The planet is infected by humans. The virus was a feature not a “bug”. Simple.

  7. JuanitoViejo says:

    Prompt to ChatGPT: Write a dialog between Jack Nicholson and Pontius Pilate on epistemology. Hot aerosols are permitted, but no spittle.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Ronald, I think the wikipedia page on John Campbell gets it about right. It sounds as if John started out with good intentions but later became overly enamoured of his own celebrity and started playing to the crowd. A shame, but people will believe what they want to believe. And there will always be someone ready to make a buck by telling them what they want to believe is the truth.

    I suspect massive fame or wealth can corrupt or derange just about anyone.

  9. Beetle says:

    At least Dr Campbell doesn’t censor his comment section.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Only the third time in over 20 years of blogging I’ve chosen to delete comments. I think that’s a pretty good record. My readers don’t want to read harangues asking the same already-answered question over and over again, any more than I do. And I presume you’re used to this kind of trolling, Dollyboy, since I note this new alias is the same IP address as Dollyboy’s. Please stop.

  11. Benn says:

    I might need another bag of popcorn.

    Deny, deflect, distort, dismiss, all the way up the ladder of inference.
    Rationalising, not rational, as Erik Michaels once put it.

    I think we are not evolved for this, which is why we are all acting weirdly and are so f-cking miserable.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Yep, Benn. When I picture us as apes dressing up in funny suits, driving cars, and going to “work”, the image I get is indeed weird and miserable. Who’da ever thought our species would evolve to become this?

    I’d ask for my popcorn vegan, but the last time I wrote about that subject I really got into trouble.

  13. willem says:

    I’ve been following your posts for awhile now, and although I don’t agree with all of your positions, I’ve found enough that was at least arguable to stay on board. That being said, this is one of the most subjective of your posts I’ve ever read. Once I see you trot out, in the very first paragraph, the tired trope that tries to tie mistrust in science and lack of ability to understand complex topics to “right-wingers, libertarians and others who are wildly distrustful of government,” I know there won’t be much more worth reading.

    Understanding science, complex issues, and what is going on in the world are not the exclusive preserve of any particular political persuasion.

    There is so much in this piece that is either still wide open to debate or even provably wrong that I won’t even try to start on it.

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