Saturday, 8 December 2012

Faulty logic - confusing correlation with causation

I want to start this post by saying two things:
  1. It is sad when a good person decides to commit suicide
  2. It is even sadder anyone writing on a subject like this MUST add this kind of disclaimers in the hope the message of the writing isn't distorted because we are unable to listen to each other without suspecting/blaming the other of pure evilness/lack of compassion.
 Imagine you are working in an office with other colleagues and one of them makes a print screen of your desktop screen and then displays it full-screen on your computer. You struggle a little and get frustrated when nothing works, the colleagues laugh at your expense. Pretty childish, but no harm, right? You laugh it off.

 Imagine a similar scenario, but your shoelaces are tied to the desk without your notice, and the colleagues tied your laces so you can't stand, so the risk of injury is null. You stumble a little when you want to leave the desk. Again, childish, funny, but no harm, right? Again, you laugh it off.

 Imagine even a scenario where you are the target of a prank that doesn't injure you physically, but it happens in front of an audience of 100 people. You might feel ashamed, embarrassed, depending on the prank. But that would go away with time, with your laughs or by leaving that audience, right?

 So now imagine you are just a person that unknowingly contributed to the success of a harmless prank in which somebody was duped into thinking they were talking to a very public figure about some unimportant and inconsequential stuff related to their job. You'd brush it off, wouldn't you? Most likely, you'd probably laugh at the prank and you wouldn't think the pranksters should be prosecuted or fired. Even if the famous public figure would be upset, taking into account the fact that the things discussed were inconsequential, you wouldn't worry about it. I wouldn't worry even if that famous person was my direct boss and I was the one talking about my boss.

 At least, that's how I am thinking, but for some reason, many people don't think this way. And yes, I am talking about the recent sad news about the apparent suicide of a nurse who was involved in the care of the person called Kate Middleton.

 I don't want to talk about names, or man-made titles, man-made concepts, or how some people forget that even the most influential people in the world are still a member of this same species that all of us are. I don't even want to talk about this particular sad situation, I just want to talk about the totally irrational reaction many people had to it.

 Everybody knows that jokes are a matter of taste. What I might consider funny, some people would take offence at, but, generally speaking, there's an area of jokes that even kids would consider funny. Also, if we are honest to ourselves, a joke is not funnier or less funnier if from the total of people in the room instead of 2 people not liking it, 5 people don't. Not even if some of them are so offended by the joke they leave the room. The joke is equally funny or in poor taste with 2 or with 100 people in the room.

 And there's the issue of confusing correlation with causation. If I tell somebody some good news about my aunt and the next day that somebody happens to had bought a car, it doesn't mean my good news made that person decide they want to buy a car. It could be, but it's not necessary, it could be a coincidence.

 The same happens in the sad case of the nurse. She decided to take her life, as far as it seems. But that's the extent to which we know anything about the situation. We don't know if the suicide had anything to do with the prank or not. Just the fact that it happened the next day doesn't mean AT ALL the prank call is the cause of the suicide. It doesn't even mean that is "the straw that broke the camel's back", it might be totally unrelated. Or it might not. Taking into account the inconsequential and harmless nature of the call, it seems even less likely. Yet, I might be mistaken.

 What I am sure of now is that jumping to the conclusion that the prank call had anything to do with the death, is wrong, as it is jumping to the opposing conclusion. I am also sure that in the absence of other information, the latter, the lack of connection, is more likely, because we know that such drastic sad decisions are not generally caused by trivial stuff.

 Time proximity doesn't prove causation. Geographical proximity doesn't either. There needs to be a lot more into it than simple temporal sequence.

 Which gets me to the second part of irrational reactions: terminating the show and twitter accounts of the two pranksters. What the hell? Talk about hypersensitivity and paranoid reactions! Are we this blind and willing to blame the least insignificant thing for the gravest consequences that we forget how we all make decisions and how to use our brains, as soon as some tragedy happens?

 Imagine some person who thinks the 21st of December 2012 will bring the end of the earth. Imagine that person taking as a serious declaration the obvious joke from the Australian prime-minister Julia Gillard, and would end their lives to avoid the mayhem, panic and violence they think would follow the 21st of December. I wonder, would as many people blame Julia Gillard for the suicide? I doubt it. And the irony is that for such an hypothetical case, there would be a stronger case for causation than what we now know about the previous case.

 I still wonder,  when will we learn to think a little more rationally than the people walking the Earth 100.000 years ago?


Anonymous said...

Coincidence usually don't happen, by definition.
Correlation doesn't prove anything but in most cases it's the only tool we've got to guess the causes.

eddyp said...

@Anonymous: Wrong. Coincidence is what seems unlikely to happen to an individual.

Let's assume the chance of winning the lottery after somebody in your family dies is 1 in one billion. That is for a single individual.

But there are 7 billion people on this Earth, so it is a certainty that given the previous chances there are 7 people for which this happens.

It doesn't mean that "God took the dear relative and gave money instead", that's stupid. It just happened to be this way.