(about patterns, causality, and observational overconfidence)
During our time as a species, our ability to generalize has enabled us to survive, and has made us pretty great. We have developed the ability to correctly deduce outcomes by observing patterns of events. It’s how we successfully hunted deer, canned tomatoes, and created Prozac. But it has made us cocky. I was reminded of this recently when I found a Moleskine journal near a trash can in Goodale Park.
The orange Moleskine wrapper, as usual, declared, “The legendary journal of Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin.”
The implication of that message is clear: if I use this journal, I will write or draw like these famous people. It is an inference; the journal is the link between me and greatness. It’s also an intentional obfuscation of correlation and causation. It’s designed to make me unconsciously believe that in the future, Hemingway’s journal and my journal will both be filled with literary amazingness.
I recently experienced a couple of my own real-life examples of the correlation/causation myth. For instance, I use an electric burr grinder to prepare my coffee beans, and it’s plugged into the same outlet as my coffee maker.
The grinding timer has no “off” switch, and a few days ago the beans were ground, but the grinder kept whirring away annoyingly. I reached behind the coffee pot, pulled the plug, and as expected, the grinder stopped. But later, when I tried to brew coffee, nothing happened. In my attempt to turn the grinder off, I had actually unplugged the coffee maker by mistake, but I had done so at the same instant that the grinding timer stopped, leading me to believe that the plug was connected to the grinder.
When two events occur sequentially like this, I am inclined to believe that the events are linked. Temporal relationship is an inference, like the Moleskine message. The correlation of unplugging a cord and the grinder stopping implies a causal relationship. I believed erroneously that I caused the grinder to stop by pulling the power cord for the coffee maker.
Similarly, while drilling a pilot hole in a stud to hang a kitchen cabinet, I plunged my drill through the wall and instantaneously the lights in the adjacent dining room turned off. Since I knew that I had stapled the wire for the 3-way dining room circuit to that stud, I was certain that I had accidentally missed the stud and drilled through the wire.
I tore through the drywall to repair the wire, but found that I had completely missed the wire! Confused, I plodded through the other possible solutions, eventually discovering that the ridiculously simple culprit was a bad light switch. It coincidentally died when I drilled, and because I was certain of my correlation/causation reasoning, I created a lot of extra work.
Observational overconfidence is classically revealed in the history of scarecrows. They work, but not because they look like us. They scare crows because they smell like us. But the correlated evidence also supports the former belief: Farmer Fred noticed that crows flew away when he walked into his corn field, so he set out to mimic the experience. He picked out some old clothes, but didn’t bother to wash them before making them into a scarecrow, so his odor stayed on them.
As his odor wore off, Fred assumed that the crows became accustomed to the appearance of the scarecrow. He made a new one, using another set of clothes from his rag box, smelling like fresh Farmer Fred. The crows were scared, and so it appeared [wrongly] that the visual change made the difference. And in this same way, we are duped all the time.
In 1504, Christopher Columbus was stranded on Jamaica. The Jamaicans were abused by Columbus’s crew, and understandably refused to share their food and other supplies. Columbus needed their supplies. He also knew about an upcoming lunar eclipse, so he cleverly claimed that God was angry, and threatened to take away their moon if the Jamaicans didn’t share their food.
When they ignored him, and the moon punishment appeared on cue, the Jamaicans believed the causal relationship, and begged for Columbus to ask God to return the moon. The moon “returned”, and the cruel crew got their food.
We believe that we understand our world because our physical experience of the observable universe appears to support our explanations. But we forget that events can result from many possible “causes”, like smell, appearance, accidents, or the natural motion of celestial bodies. When I happen to observe one of these, I confidently call it “the cause”. A correlation may suggest a causal relationship. It never guarantees it. And yet, the Hemingway Causeway remains a tempting road. I still dream big when I write in my Moleskine.