Correlation and Causation

Years of reading through and listening to debates on the internet and in other spaces is enough to make me yearn for mandatory courses in basic logic. In particular, it seems most people do not have even a remedial understanding of the difference between correlation and causation.

Enter President Barack Obama, who delivered remarks today at the National Prayer Breakfast. Meandering and condescending are but two of the words that come to mind after listening to this address. At one point the president lectures the audience on humility. Yes, Barack Obama was prodding his audience to be more humble. I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute and have you pause and reflect. Maybe you’ll even think about another concept: irony.

And no doubt many of you will need to take blood pressure medication after reading this part of the speech:

And this is the loving message of His Holiness, Pope Francis.  And like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable; to walk with The Lord and ask “Who am I to judge?”

But that’s not what caught my attention, nor is it the part of the speech that has gotten or will get the most attention. After some discussion of the events taking place in the Middle East and in Paris, and the dangers of theocracy, he intones:

 Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Yes, of course he went there, would you expect anything less? Now many will rightfully complain that he is dredging up events that occurred centuries ago in order to morally equivocate, and that is indeed happening. We’ve all heard this song before, and we have naturally become somewhat inured to it.

Without jumping into the Crusades and Inquisition and why using even these centuries-old examples is flawed, let’s look at the more recent American examples, and let’s talk a bit about cause and effect.

President Obama is, essentially, comparing Christians justifying slavery to Islamic terrorists burning people alive. He is saying, “You see, Christians did some terrible things in the name of religion, just like these people.” Again, let’s ignore that we’re talking about something that took place two centuries ago rather than two minutes ago, and explore the inadequacy of this analogy.

The thugs in ISIL, the theocrats in Iran, the butchers in France: all of these groups are comprised of individuals acting in the name of their interpretation of Islam. Granting for the sake of argument that they are all acting in a way that is contrary to the true meaning of Islam, however that is supposed to be defined, they are clearly and unmistakably acting in accordance with their religious dictates. Put more bluntly: their interpretation of their religion is causing them to behave in a specific manner.

Now let’s look at slavery and Jim Crow. Yes, it’s true that some defenders of each would use the Bible to defend these practices; however, did anyone ever pick up a Bible and, “Gee whiz, God is really talking to me, I’m gonna go buy me a slave.” To put it another way, slave holders and, subsequently, practitioners of Jim Crow acted on purely, dare I say, secular reasoning to engage in their behavior. Christianity did not cause them to own slaves, nor did it cause southern politicians to enact Jim Crow laws. The Bible was used as an ex post fact rationalization for what they did.

Some may try to argue that this is a distinction without a difference, and to them I’d suggest that they still do not understand the difference between correlation and causation. Take away the Bible and you’d still have slavery in the southern parts of the United States. Christian beliefs did not inspire slaveholding – economic self-interest did that, and the latter also largely explains Jim Crow (plus a whole lot of irrational racism that didn’t have a whole lot to do with the Bible and Christianity).

Take away the religious motivation and do we have gunmen killing members of the press? Do we have the beheadings? Contra the ramblings of certain atheists, not all or even most violence throughout history has been “inspired” by religion, but the maniacs in ISIL are undoubtedly acting upon religious motivations. It isn’t some ex post fact rationalization for their behavior; no, it is the primary cause of the behavior.

Much of President Obama’s address is an exercise in moral equivalency with some vague platitudes thrown in, so about what one would expect from him. Failures in logic are just a little bit of icing on the cake.

Incidentally, Noah Rothman at Hot Air makes a good point:

It’s strange that so few see the contradiction inherent in this assertion. The president, and many of his allies on the left, frequently trip over themselves to emphasize – correctly, as it happens – that ISIS’s acts of brutality are not archetypical Islamic behavior. The insurgency’s most recent atrocity, the immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot, is apparently a violation of Islamic norms according to even Koranic scholars in the Middle East.

But to assert this and in the same breath suggest that Christianity was also a violent, expansionist religion a mere 800 years ago is a contradiction. Why make this comparison if ISIS is not representative of Islam? Isn’t the concession in this claim that those who commit acts of violence in the name of their religion, regardless of whether those acts are supported by a majority of coreligionists, are representative of their faith? Therefore, by perfunctorily nodding in the direction of a moral equivalency between Christian and Islamic violence, isn’t the president invalidating his own claim that ISIS, Boko Haram, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Sayyaf, and a host of other fundamentalist Islamic terror groups are agents of a violent strain of the Islamic faith?

Civil Dialogue Between a Darwin Evolutionist and Natural Law Theorist

On Blogging Heads TV, Robert Wright discusses how we reason about the human good with Robert P. George of Princeton University, a leading scholar of modern natural law theory (with whom readers are no doubt familiar).

Subjects discussed:

  • Chapter 1: Natural law vs. utilitarianism (12:01)
  • Chapter 2: Why exactly is friendship good? (14:03)
  • Chapter 3: Euthanasia and human dignity (7:22)
  • Chapter 4: Natural law and conservativism (5:02)
  • Chapter 5: What can be done in the name of the greater good? (12:28)
  • Chapter 6: Just war theory (6:17)

Robert Wright is the author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and The Evolution of God.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law and Clash Of Orthodoxies: Law Religion & Morality In Crisis.

I’ve watched a few episodes of ‘BloggingHeads’ — video debates between leading bloggers/authors — but this was the first with Dr. George, who is very adept at getting right to the point and crystallizing the respective positions of each side. Likewise this may serve as a good introduction to viewers who aren’t generally accustomed to analyzing moral situations from a (Catholic) natural law perspective.

Science and Technology in World History

Technological history is a unique point of view that always caught my eye.  David Deming of the American Thinker gives us a brief synopsis of his latest contribution in this genre.  Keep in mind how integral Christianity was to the recovery of Europe after the barbarian invasions and the safekeeping of knowledge by the monastic system that allowed Europe to recover and blossom into what we now call Western Civilization:

Both Greece and Rome made significant contributions to Western Civilization.  Greek knowledge was ascendant in philosophy, physics, chemistry, medicine, and mathematics for nearly two thousand years.  The Romans did not have the Greek temperament for philosophy and science, but they had a genius for law and civil administration.  The Romans were also great engineers and builders.  They invented concrete, perfected the arch, and constructed roads and bridges that remain in use today.  But neither the Greeks nor the Romans had much appreciation for technology.  As documented in my book, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 2, the technological society that transformed the world was conceived by Europeans during the Middle Ages.

Greeks and Romans were notorious in their disdain for technology.  Aristotle noted that to be engaged in the mechanical arts was “illiberal and irksome.”  Seneca infamously characterized invention as something fit only for “the meanest slaves.”  The Roman Emperor Vespasian rejected technological innovation for fear it would lead to unemployment.

Greek and Roman economies were built on slavery.  Strabo described the slave market at Delos as capable of handling the sale of 10,000 slaves a day.  With an abundant supply of manual labor, the Romans had little incentive to develop artificial or mechanical power sources. Technical occupations such as blacksmithing came to be associated with the lower classes.

Continue reading

Why the Fiscal Lunacy?

One of my favorite living historians is Victor Davis Hanson.  I have read every book he has written and most of his articles.  Trained as a classicist and historian of antiquity, he has written on a broad range of topics, from the hoplites of ancient Greece, ancient Greek agriculture, a searching examination of the Peloponnesian War, the farming crisis of the 80’s, the history of warfare and culture, the teaching of the classics and the debacle of our non-policy on immigration, and I have been astonished at how skillfully this man writes and with what intelligence, and very dry humor, he cuts to the essence of whatever subject he addresses.  He moonlights as a pundit on current events and in that capacity I have found a recent column of his intriguing on the question of just why the Obama administration is hellbent on compiling such huge annual deficits.  Here is a portion of the column:

We are going to pile up another $3 trillion in national debt in just the first two years of the Obama administration. If the annual deficit should sink below $1.5 trillion, it will be called fiscal sobriety.

Why, when we owe $12 trillion, would the Obama administration set out budgets that will ensure our collective debt climbs to $20 trillion? Why are we borrowing more money, when Medicare, Social Security, the Postal Service, Amtrak, etc. are all insolvent as it is?

What is the logic behind something so clearly unhinged?

I present seven alternative reasons — some overlapping — why the present government is hell-bent on doubling the national debt in eight years. Either one, or all, or some, or none, of the below explain Obama’s peculiar frenzied spending.

1) Absolutely moral and necessary?

The country is in need of massive more entitlements for our destitute and near to poor. Government is not big, but indeed too small to meet its moral obligations. Deficits are merely record-keeping. Throwing trillions into the economy will also help us all recover, by getting us moving again and inflating the currency. And we can pay the interest easily over the next 50 years. Just think another World War II era — all the time.

So big spending and borrowing are genuine efforts of true believers to make us safe, secure, and happy.

2) “Gorge the beast”

The spending per se is not so important, as the idea of deficits in general will ensure higher taxes. Nationalized health care, cap and trade, new initiatives in education, more stimulus — all that and more is less important than the fact that huge defects will require huge new taxes, primarily from the upper-classes. I see no reason why the total bite from state income, federal income, payroll, and health care taxes cannot soon in theory climb to 70% of some incomes (e.g., 10% state, 15.3% FICA, 40% federal, 3-5% health care). In other words, “redistributive change” is the primary goal. This aim is premised on the notion that income is a construct, if not unfairly calibrated, then at least capriciously determined — requiring the more intelligent in the technocracy to even out things and ensure an equality of result. After all, why should the leisured hedge-funder make all that more after taxes than the more noble waitress?

So big spending and borrowing mean big deficits, and that means taxing the greedy and giving their ill-gotten gains to the needy.

3) Big Brother?

Or does rampant borrowing for government spending reflect our despair over the inability of millions to know what is best for themselves? For democracy to work, all of us must fully participate. But because of endemic racism, sexism, class bias, and historical prejudices, millions of Americans do not have access to adequate education and enlightenment. Therefore, a particular technocratic class, with requisite skill and singular humanity, has taken it upon themselves to ensure everyone gets a fair shake — if only government at last has the adequate resources to fix things. If it proves problematic for one to register and vote, then there will be a program to make 100% participation possible. If some of us are too heavy and too chair-bound, we can be taught what and how to eat. If some of us do not study, we can adjust academic standards accordingly. In one does something unwise, like buying a plasma TV rather than a catastrophic health care plan, then we still can ensure he is covered. In other words, an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-moral guardian class requires resources to finish the promise of participatory America. After all, why would we allow the concrete contractor to “keep” 70% of his income only to blow it on worthless things like jet skis or a Hummer in his garage or a fountain in his yard — when a far wiser, more ethical someone like Van Jones could far more logically put that now wasted capital to use for the betterment of the far more needy?

Continue reading

More Than Intentions

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek makes a good point which is too often glossed over in political debate:

Writing about health-care, Paul Krugman asserts that “conservatives … don’t want Americans to have universal coverage” (”The Defining Moment,” Oct. 30).

Among the earliest lessons that I teach my freshman economics students are (1) intentions are not results, and (2) to oppose a government program is not necessarily to object to the intentions stated by that program’s advocates.

Paul Krugman obviously teaches his students differently, for he clearly believes that (1) if government intends for Americans to have universal health coverage, then the result will be that Americans actually get universal health coverage, and (2) anyone who opposes a government program promising universal health coverage is a person who objects to Americans actually getting universal health coverage.

This is perhaps the most common fallacy of all in political argument for people to follow the form: I support bill/candidate X because I think it will have good result Y. You don’t support X. Therefore you don’t care about Y. Continue reading

Colbert On Obama's Tortured Reasoning

The Pandora’s box that President Obama has opened with the release of the torture memo’s has caused quite a stir in the Catholic blogosphere.  Nonetheless the stealth Catholic, comedian Stephen Colbert, has geniusely made a humorous rendition of the logic floating around Washington on the torture controversy.  Biretta tip to Mark Shea.

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.2419680&w=425&h=350&fv=autoPlay%3Dfalse]

more about “Colbert: The Word – Stressed Position“, posted with vodpod
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