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  • It’s a Multi-Multi-Causal World

    Posted by Lucretius on August 3rd, 2020 (All posts by )

    One difference between ideological worldviews and factual worldviews can be found in the depth and (dare I say) diversity of their causal models.

    Consider the fall of Rome, for which professional and armchair historians have identified hundreds of factors, from debasement of the currency to lead poisoning among the Roman elite to wasteful government spending to the decadence of late Roman morals to the rise of Christianity to bad leadership to military overextension (and many others). Was there just one cause? No, there never is.

    In recent times, consider the U.S. housing bubble of the mid-2000s. Was the one true cause artificially low interest rates, financial market deregulation, the emergence of a high-risk secondary market in mortgage-backed securities, government policies that encouraged too many people to become homeowners, greed among potential homeowners, greed among mortgage processors, promotion of get-rich-quick house-flipping schemes in the media? Nope, there was plenty of blame to go around.

    How about police violence? That must all and only be caused by systemic racism, right? Not so fast. Sociologist Randall Collins has identified seven causes: local governments raising money through fines and requiring police to collect those fines, using the police to enforce unpopular regulations, hypocrisy and cynicism among police officers, the inner-city Black code of defying the police and the common practice of resisting arrest (the police don’t like defiance), property destruction provoking the police in certain situations, adrenaline overload among front-line police officers, the fact that police are trained for extreme situations and aren’t trained to defuse such situations, and actual racism among police officers. And there are likely plenty more: qualified immunity laws, the decline of community policing, corruption in police unions, the lack of racial diversity on police forces, the militarization of the police, gang violence, the war on drugs, etc.

    Furthermore, each one of the causes of a complex social phenomenon itself has multiple causes. To take the last-mentioned cause of police violence, i.e. the war on drugs, we could identify the role of “bootleggers and Baptists” in defining the underlying regulations, the attempt by politicians to buy votes by appearing to be tough on crime, the desire for larger budgets and more power on the part of police departments, the misguided tool of asset forfeiture, the moral corruption of too many people seeking oblivion in psychoactive substances, the lack of higher ideals in the culture at large, etc.

    Anyone who says there is just one cause (from the modern-day Maoists who believe that systemic racism suffuses all of society, to the anarchists and some libertarians who see the hand of big government behind every problem in America) has an essentially ideological point of view and is unlikely to be open to persuasion by facts and reasons, at best having their head stuck in the sand and at worst preferring conformity and intimidation.

     

    31 Responses to “It’s a Multi-Multi-Causal World”

    1. Kirk Says:

      Absolutely correct, in all respects.

      However, I think the biggest reason that people do this is that they want a simple targeted solution for things, and something they can single out to blame for it all. It is damn hard to work up a passion for changing thirty interlocking factors, and too hard to maintain hatred for all of them. So, people simplify.

      You see it in just about everything–Health care? Of course we can fix the system resulting from 60-plus years of meddling with it piecemeal, using one great big piece of legislation. That’ll work. Sure.

      Same-same with Prohibition. There are probably as many reasons people abuse alcohol as there are abusers, and we’re just gonna blanket-solution the whole thing by banning it. Reality? Not so simple. There’s more to it all than “Liquor bad…”.

      Simplistic solutions rarely work for complex problems, and until you learn that, you’re a menace to society.

    2. Francis W. Porretto Says:

      Every cause has more than one effect / Every effect has more than one cause. The confirmations are innumerable.

    3. John T Says:

      Spiritual sickness can be assigned as the singular cause we’re looking for, and all of it’s material manifestations appear to us as separate causes.

      Just throwing that out there.

    4. Shirley Says:

      It’s revealing that the “anti-racist” movement rejects consideration of any cause for black underachievement except one: systemic racism. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see that this is ridiculous.

      The newly-hired principal of the local high school is very concerned about the disproportionate number of black students who get suspended, because this is so obviously unfair. But the teachers observe that black students (generally) behave differently from other students. A black student is much more likely than a non-black student to be disruptive in class, to the point that other students suffer from a debased learning environment.

      No teacher would ever publicly challenge the principal’s politically correct assessment, but in private they know she’s got it all backwards as to cause and effect. I wonder whether this kind of disconnect between what we are told by authority figures and what we directly observe might be a very important factor in how people vote this fall.

    5. PubliusII Says:

      Humans cannot deal with complex situations above some particular level (which I don’t know enough to pinpoint!). Also, in multi-causal situations, there’s only so much energy one can put into solutions that branch off in hydra-headed fashion.

      To properly fix such problems amounts to properly fixing everything, and that’s beyond human ability.

      This built-in limitation underscores the need to abandon the search for global solutions to various problems by experts. The best recourse is subsidiarity — pushing all searches for solutions down to the most local levels where those most affected can find solutions that meet their needs, not those of some elite.

    6. David Foster Says:

      As an example: Herman Cain died of Covid-19….but he had previously suffered serious cancer. Would the C19 have been fatal if his system had not been previously weakened by the cancer?

      Probably no way to say in this particular case, or in most other particular cases. But if a multivariate statistical analysis were done of C19 deaths, considering such factors as previous conditions, general health, age, gender, etc, it should be possible to assign weights to the factors *in general*.

    7. The Dark Lord Says:

      “their head stuck in the sand” … hopefully forefully and many times until they stop moving …

    8. Deoxy Says:

      “Was the one true cause artificially low interest rates, financial market deregulation, the emergence of a high-risk secondary market in mortgage-backed securities, government policies that encouraged too many people to become homeowners, greed among potential homeowners, greed among mortgage processors, promotion of get-rich-quick house-flipping schemes in the media?”

      Some of those “causes” are direct results of other things you mentioned as causes, and some of them are eternal and unchangeable (human greed, for instance).

      That still leaves several things (still “multi”), but the list is quite a bit smaller, and quite a bit more concentrated, in terms of what made the situation difference from all the times when we didn’t get a massive housing crash.

      Having “multi cause” doesn’t mean everything that contributed was the “real problem” – usually, there are many contributing factors and a few “primary” factors, things which, had one or two of them been removed, the entire process would have been radically different.

    9. David Foster Says:

      Oversimplification is of course a big thing in politics, but it is particularly a characteristic of ideologically-driven politics. For example, Arthur Koestler’s protagonist in ‘Darkness at Noon’, an Old Bolshevik, speaks of “the necessity to drill every sentence into the masses by vulgarization and endless repetition; what was presented as right must shine like gold, what was presented as wrong must be as black as pitch; political statements had to be coloured like ginger-bread figures at a fair .”

    10. PUE 206 Says:

      People fear multi-causation because it makes problems seemingly intractable.

      If we’re doing Ancient Rome we could also discuss the ennui, fatalism, nihilism and lack of conviction that infects mature late stage prosperous societies. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Hard times create strong men, Strong men create good times, Good times create weak men, Weak men create hard times.

      On police violence and disparate outcomes, fatherhood is seemingly the most important issue for all races. The cyclical nature of men who didn’t have fathers being unwilling to be father to their children. Now the multitude of causal factors for that is a dense enough miasma I certainly can’t see a clear way through.

      It all makes me think of a couple quotes from Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club.

      “I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every Panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species. I wanted to open the dump valves on oil tankers and smother all the French beaches I’d never see. I wanted to breathe smoke.”

      “Shut up! Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen.”

    11. PUE 206 Says:

      Or this more complete quote from the book.
      “What you have to understand, is your father was your model for God. If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and God. What you have to consider is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us. This is not the worst thing that can happen.”

    12. Bob Shmob Says:

      Shirley: “It’s revealing that the ‘anti-racist’ movement rejects consideration of any cause for black underachievement except one: systemic racism. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see that this is ridiculous.”

      No, but you have to be a sociologist–or worship at their alter–to think it is not ridiculous.

    13. MCS Says:

      Shirley,
      That disconnect and others is exactly why public education is circling the drain.

      People successfully deal with complexity every day the exact way we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. No one could possibly hold an entire Gothic cathedral in their heads. The builders broke everything down in finer and finer detail with drawings and patterns until they could set a stone cutter to work building a particular stone to go in a specific place that had to have a specific shape, expressed in a way the stone cutter understood. Want to build an F-35, exact same process.

      If the huge mega-bills that seem to be in fashion were crafted with the same precision and care as the cathedral some would believe that they would have a better chance of working. First, political reality insures that there is no way that all the competing interests could ever be subordinated to achieve some overriding good or even foreseeable result. Second, while a piece of stone will just sit there being chipped away, anything human is going to resist and change and avoid the hammer and chisel.

      When bills were pages instead of thousands of pages, there was some chance that individual legislators and voters could come to some sort of reasoned judgement. This didn’t guarantee a good result but at least made it possible. It made it far easier to fix as well. This is also a major problem for the special interests that actually draft legislation. They alone have the resources to allocate the dozens, even hundreds of lawyers and others to to put together these monstrosities. You can be sure that each word and semicolon has been deployed with care to achieve their goal.

      The Affordable Care Act is a perfect example. It had to be swallowed whole because the process of amending it could not have ended in this century. That it is being amended haphazardly by the courts in ways that come back to bite its drafters is satisfying but hardly helping to ameliorate the damage it’s doing.

    14. PenGun Says:

      “What you have to understand, is your father was your model for God. If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and God. What you have to consider is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us. This is not the worst thing that can happen.”

      Simplistic solutions to complex problems indeed. God is a huge one here. ;)

    15. David Foster Says:

      MCS…”If the huge mega-bills that seem to be in fashion were crafted with the same precision and care as the cathedral some would believe that they would have a better chance of working. First, political reality insures that there is no way that all the competing interests could ever be subordinated to achieve some overriding good or even foreseeable result. Second, while a piece of stone will just sit there being chipped away, anything human is going to resist and change and avoid the hammer and chisel.”

      And, in addition, as the number of moving parts grows, it becomes increasingly difficult even for very smart people–people smarter and with broader experience than most Congresspeople–to really understand how they will interact. That’s why one of the few (unwittingly) insightful things that Nancy Pelosi ever said was, “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s it.”

      My experience is that even for such things as a new organization design or a new compensation plan, there will usually be some surprises as to how it actually works in practice.

    16. David Foster Says:

      Meant to include this link:

      Obamacare, Rose Wilder Lane, and why Nancy Pelosi was sort of right.

    17. PUE 206 Says:

      Simplistic solutions to complex problems indeed. God is a huge one here. ;)

      AGREED!

    18. MCS Says:

      David,
      I’ve been working the last few weeks on a small mechanical device, about the size of my thumb, with a half dozen different parts. I think I’m most of the way there but I’m still having to go back and make corrections. Things like having enough space to turn a screw with a wrench turn out to require major changes and rearrangements.

      No sane person would have believed that the ACA had a snowball’s chance in hell of working. It’s a testament to the uselessness of the GOPe that their champion Mittens thought of it first.

    19. PUE 206 Says:

      I certainly think that cops would be less cynical (or hypocritical) if they weren’t used as bureaucratic apparatchik tools to enforce the rule of petty tyrants.

    20. Doctor Weasel Says:

      Factual/multi-cause vs ideological/single-cause worldviews fit into a larger discussion about mental models that I started here:
      https://doctorweasel.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/mental-models-and-predictions/

      As a follow-up I took a look at predictions by people with bad mental models, to see if any held up
      https://doctorweasel.wordpress.com/2019/06/23/mental-models-and-predictions-net-neutrality/

      https://doctorweasel.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/mental-models-and-predictions-environmental-disasters/

    21. David Foster Says:

      An example of a complex system is the Boeing 737 Max…not nearly as complex as a national healthcare system, though.

      The FAA has finally come out with their proposed list of improvements to this airplane (this is a draft document for public comment, not a formal order yet.) Here are the key points:

      –activate the MCAS action *only* when both angle of attack sensors agree
      –inform the pilots when the AofA sensors are giving meaningfully different data
      –limit the stabilizer action to one per activation; don’t keep doing it over and over like a demonic golem
      –adjust documentation and training to reflect the existence and performance of the system

      That’s pretty much it. One might think that all of this would have been obvious before MCAS was ever deployed…but it wasn’t. That is, it was likely realized that this was all theoretically desirable, but people convinced themselves that serious problems were so rare a possibility that they need not be considered.

      https://www.faa.gov/news/media/attachments/19_035n-R3-8-3-20.pdf

    22. pouncer Says:

      I wouldn’t dare risk having this wonderful website de-platformed by suggesting that the minor rise in average annual global temperatures since 1850 have any other cause, or causes, besides industrial societies’ emissions of carbon dioxide.

    23. OBloodyHell Says:

      Good piece.

    24. Thomas Taylor Says:

      “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival” by Sir John Glubb (1977) sums it all up pretty good. Spoiler; USA is at the end.

    25. Anonymous Says:

      Most discussions of the Fall of Rome leave out disease, which was huge, and if you were forced at gunpoint to pick a single cause, that one wouldn’t be a bad choice. We started thinking about the matter based on sources that preceded germ theory by 1300 years, and even Gibbon was almost a century before it was credited. Historians knew little science (still don’t) and we are only just now getting ahold of that possibility. Please note, I still think it was multi-causal, but part of the reason we have long thought so is that the single biggest cause was invisible to us, so the 3%, 5%, 10% causes we could identify seemed disproportionately large.

      So too with our current situation, and I think the linked article about hatred of the police was excellent, and have posted it on my own site. I think there is one dominant cause, but am willing to shut up about it in order to get at least some absorption of these factors by liberals. We simply aren’t going anywhere until these are addressed, even if only indirectly and deceptively.

      CRISPR is perhaps the most dangerous force on the horizon, and yet may be our only hope. Even worse, we will not use it correctly except by accident, because the powerful will quietly benefit themselves, not society. Pray for fortuitous accidents. Populists will be a frightening force, but Northern European intellectuals will be a worse one, utterly convinced of their righteousness. I have some hope for the Anglosphere, but it is fading.

    26. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      Apologies. That was me above.

    27. Mike K Says:

      The fall of Rome was a conglomeration of events. Disease was part of it but transportation was also a big part. Rome had better sewage treatment than would be seen agains before 1850. Rome had no medical services except the army but they were mostly useless before Pare’ and that only for wounds.

      Mediterranean agriculture was weak and limited population once north Africa was gone. The Sahara was creeping north and reducing the agriculture of north Africa. The cultivation of northern Europe required the mold board plow.

      The Romans achieved a heavy-wheeled mould-board plough in the late 3rd and 4th century AD, for which archaeological evidence appears, for instance, in Roman Britain.[25] The first indisputable appearance after the Roman period is in a northern Italian document of 643.[15]:50 Old words connected with the heavy plough and its use appear in Slavic, suggesting possible early use in that region.[15]:49ff General adoption of the carruca heavy plough in Europe seems to have accompanied adoption of the three-field system in the later 8th and early 9th centuries, leading to improved agricultural productivity per unit of land in northern Europe.[15]:69–78 This was accompanied by larger fields, known variously as carucates, ploughlands, and plough gates.

      The three field crop rotation was also a major advance that might have been the result of the Black Death as it reduced the peasant population. Fewer peasants led to fallow fields, followed by crop rotation.

    28. Mike K Says:

      The true solution of the MCAS problem would be to redesign the wing to accommodate the longer landing gear required for proper location of those high bypass engines. I assume these intellectual maneuvers will result in the next consequence, and it will be ugly.

    29. PenGun Says:

      “the moral corruption of too many people seeking oblivion in psychoactive substances”

      As one who has done a few drugs I can talk to this. I have only used psychedelics myself, but have known many serious drug users, in my time. I have picked burning cigarettes off the naked chests of passed out junkies, stuff is great pain killer alright. My point here is that perhaps the most dangerous drug I have seen in my 74 years is alcohol. Not that many of the others are not more immediately like threatening, but the approved drug of society destroys far more lives, than anything you can get in the alley.

    30. Richard Rostrom Says:

      Collins omits another major factor: institutional corruption within police departments. Not bribe-taking or grafting, but infestatation (particularly at high ranks) with time-servers, ass-kissers, cronies, and pets of politicians. Also (as “Jack Dunphy” has noted WRT the LAPD) the tendency for commanders to be career “house mouses” rather than veteran patrol officers.

      It’s been noted many times after some egregious incident that the officer involved had an extensive record of previous misconduct (drunkenness, domestic violence, credit problems, driving violations, crashes, failing drug tests, losing equipment), but stayed on the force through “political” influence.

    31. MCS Says:

      Being a policeman is like going to work every day with a target on your back. There are enough rules that you probably can’t go an hour without violating one somehow. They aren’t to protect you, or even the public as much as to protect the command and especially the politicians. They are explicitly designed so that anything that goes wrong or looks bad is your fault rather than theirs. Then there are all the unwritten rules.

      In New York City you have a Patrolman’s association, Sargent’s, Lieutenant’s and Captain’s as well. You can be sure that they aren’t evaluated by their membership on the basis of their softball teams. They have one purpose and that’s to keep their members from being fired. So everything gets swept under the rug until it can’t for whatever reason. This is in what is usually considered a well run department.

      I don’t know what the alternative would look like but I don’t think it would be better. I especially don’t think the sort of person able to navigate a system where every word or chance encounter could get you fired without a chance of rebuttal would be an improvement. A department that paused to parse the rule book before every action wouldn’t be very effective either.