Tag Archives: Simplifying Skepticism

Simplifying Skepticism: Correlation vs Causation

23 Dec
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by Benjamen Johnson

A few days ago I pondered:

…how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

To address this issue, I started by giving a simple analogy of anomaly hunting that related it to a jigsaw puzzle. Continuing on that track, today I thought I’d present one of the best (and most entertaining) examples on TV about the correlation equals causation fallacy.

First a bit of background: Ned Flanders panics because he sees a bear on the street. So the whole town overreacts and demands the city to do something about it. They over-respond to the townspeople’s concerns in classic fashion by creating the Bear Patrol. The scene starts with homer outside proudly watching the bear patrol canvas the city.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s spacious[sic] reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

— Quoted from the Simpsons Archive [Much Apu About Nothing]

I don’t think I could come up with a better example and I’m not the only person who’s used this to demonstrate that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Criticalthinking.org.uk uses it as an example in a course on critical thinking: The Unofficial Guide to OCR A-Level Critical Thinking.

I think I’m going to watch this episode this afternoon with my kids.

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Simple Skepticism: Anomaly Hunting

19 Dec
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by Benjamen Johnson

Yesterday I listened to the latest For Good Reason podcast, where D. J. Grothe was interviewing A. J. Mass, author of How Fantasy Sports Explains the World. While following AJ explain how fantasy sports and skepticism intersect, it really hit home to me that unless you can simplify the tools of skepticism and relate them in a way someone can apply them to their own life, their eyes will glaze over until you start talking about something they do care about.

This lead me to thinking, how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

I’ll start with anomaly hunting, but first some guidelines:

  • Rather than use definitions, I’ll use try to use analogies.
  • I’ll pick topics and examples from everyday life, not skepticism topics like ghosts and conspiracies.
  • I’ll try not to condescend to my audience, I want the explanation to be simple yet universal. It should apply to a seven or seventy year old.
  • I’m not looking for an analogy that correlates 100%, just something good enough to get the point across — it is an analogy after all.

So here’s my example for anomaly hunting:

Imagine you are putting together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle of a yellow happy face. You place the last piece and you discover there’s still a piece missing. You look at the incomplete puzzle and conclude that since it’s missing part of its smile it can’t possibly be a happy face, it’s a sad face. Even though all the rest of the mouth pieces form a smile, you are convinced that if you find the missing piece, you’ll prove your theory that it is a sad face.

It sounds absurd when you put it this way, but then again if you step back and take a look at the anomalies that some people pick to support their theories, they are no less absurd. All the rest of the pieces of the puzzle point to one conclusion, but they ignore them and concentrate on the one piece that is a mystery.

I know it’s not perfect, but again my goal in this exercise is to get the general concept across.