Causality

My step-father was a hard-assed, son-of-a-bullrider who derided my degrees in physics.  “I’ll take good old common sense over goddamned book learning any day,” he said with his characteristic tact.  He also believed in alien visitations (not the south-of-the-border kind) and once pointed out to me a graveyard where a little green man was buried.  He spun a yarn about the local sheriff fighting off the FBI and other three letter agencies who wanted to dig up the body.  ‘Even Martians deserve a Christian burial,’ the sheriff supposedly said while facing down Navy Seal Team 6.

Over the years I’ve built up a pretty good bullshit detector, as suggested by Hemingway, so I didn’t give much thought to that good sheriff.  However I’ve always been puzzled, and a bit saddened, at the careless regard most people have for their minds.  It’s a bit like watching someone using a screwdriver to hammer a nail because it is too much trouble to get up and get a hammer.   Sloppy thinking leaves the door open to charlatans and confusion to come in.  More importantly, it prevents us from seeing what truly is.

Consider, for example, this article on UFO sightings, published on the 67th anniversary of the alien crash-landing in Roswell, New Mexico.  (We now know that wreckage was a classified high-altitude Air Force balloon carrying acoustic sensors to detect Soviet nuclear blasts.  The fact that many UFO sightings are near US government test sites such as nearby White Sands should be a major tip off to their origin.)  The article reproduces a plot showing most UFO sightings occurring during peak drinking hours.  Therefore, all UFO sightings are by drunks.  Right?

No.  The author does a good job of pointing out logical shortcomings in the interpretation of the plot.  For example, “[i]t’s plausible that people don’t see UFOs while they’re working or sleeping because … they’re working in-doors and[/or] completely unconscious. What the Economist calls “drinking hours” are also the hours we’re most likely to be outside looking at anything bright contrasting with the dark sky.”  He closes cheekily by noting, “have you considered aliens *choose* to fly over drunk people to destroy witnesses’ credibility?”

I am not arguing for the reality of UFOs.  Having visited the Roswell UFO Museum I don’t even need to turn my bullshit detector on for this subject.  (You guys need to dust your aliens!)  But I do say that all of us need to try engaging our grey matter more effectively.

The data discussed in the article above is an example of mistaking correlation with causality.  Just because two events happen at the same time doesn’t mean one causes the other.  Just because most UFO sightings occur during peaking drinking hours doesn’t mean they are drunken hallucinations.  Another example is the stock market, which has been correlated with everything from sunspots to butter production in Bangladesh to the length of women’s hemlines.  It doesn’t mean that cranking up Bangladesh butter churns is going to drive the stock market.  (There is some evidence of the stock market driving hemlines, but not the other way.)

Here’s another example.  As any hard-assed, son-of-a-bullrider manager knows, it is a waste of time to praise good work but kicking an underperformer’s butt always works.  And they are right, at least to first order.  This is a classic example of regression to the mean where a collection of random events will never stray far from the average of the whole population of events.  An overperforming salesman, by definition, is better than average.  Assuming they are no more skilled than the other salespeople, they will eventually slip back to average with or without your encouragement.  Similarly, an underperformer will probably improve on their own.  A manager who doesn’t understand this fundamental fact can spend his entire career in a fantasy world where he thinks he is pulling levers and pushing buttons but, in fact, is just making noise, a managerial yapping dog.

The world is not what it seems.  It is too easy to fabricate a false reality, complete with apparently supporting evidence.   Eventually this fabrication will shatter on the rocks of reality and we will be left wondering what happened.  Examine life with more rigor, whether it is evidence for UFOs or dubious correlations debunking the same.  And if you want to attract alien visitors, be sure you’re properly buzzed.  And ask for their papers.

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