The Complexity of Causation

In these times of ever greater technological sophistication there is a presumption that complexity and erudition will lead to true knowledge about the way things work, will identify unequivocally what causes what.

Michael Scriven has written a very nice piece on the logic of causation–a more complex and sophisticated notion for sure, but not because of the use of complex methods like randomized clinical trials. Indeed, Scriven describes the rather ordinary notion of observation as key to discerning causation. He reminds us that even preschoolers, in some contexts, know perfectly well what can cause what.

While Scriven does not speculate about why there is such romanticism about experimental design, this seems worthy of analysis. One side of globalism is the invocation of elite authorities to determine what is right and good. The economic (and therefore political and cultural) imperative is used to justify the few making decisions for the many. (If you can stand it, read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat to get a sense of this thinking.) Suggesting that believable causal claims ensue from only RCTs suggests only a special class of people with the knowledge, ways and means to do this sort of research have knowledge worthy of being shared. While Scriven calls for cooperation among the camps of causation warriors, logic alone is unlikely to win the day.

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