A golf ball sails across the fairway. A loaf of bread rests upon the cutting board in two neat halves. A balloon explodes as a child inflates it. Each of these scenarios suggests an obvious cause: A golfer has swung a club at the ball, a baker has applied a bread knife to the loaf, the child has exhaled more air than the balloon’s capacity. The sailing ball, divided loaf, and exploding balloon are therefore the effects of their respective causes. All of this is so clear that it hardly warrants discussion. Yet the fundamental concept of cause and effect is often frustratingly elusive. At the risk of appearing smugly metacognitive, I ask the question, What is the cause of this misunderstanding?
Part of the problem rests in the brain’s unceasing habit of inferring information regardless of the quantity or quality of the data it receives. Our minds are constantly mulling over sensory intake with a silent hmmm… and very often proposing unsolicited hypotheses preceded by maybe because… This phenomenon exhibits itself regularly in my elementary classroom, where I need only ask for the cause of, say, a fictional character’s sudden wealth, and all at once a couple dozen young brains start churning. Some hands go up much too early in a competitive impulse. Should I call on one of the first volunteers, the odds are good that the chosen student will not have thought through the problem for the best answer. I can always tell this when a child starts to answer a question that requires a definitive cause by using the words Maybe because…, often said with interrogative intonation. In fact, so pervasive did this response become last year that I banned the phrase maybe because from our classroom whenever a clearly identifiable cause was readily available.
“Don’t say ‘maybe,'” I’d insist, “find the cause, and then you’ll know.”
But resisting an impulsively formed hypothesis is not the only challenge for young minds struggling to master cause and effect. A significant pitfall exists among the thorny vines of our English language, and it appears as the deceptively innocuous word why. The word why is a problem because not only is it the most natural way in which we begin questions seeking causation, it is also the standard first word of queries about purpose. Sometimes a child will not perceive the difference and give a philosophical answer to a straightforward question. Thus, when asked, “Why does it rain?” a student might reasonably respond, “So plants will grow” or “So that we can enjoy rainbows,” omitting any causal reference to the water cycle. This only makes matters more confusing, as plant growth and rainbows are indeed a part of the causal chain that starts with water vapor condensation, yet neither explains the origin of rain but rather identifies one of its indirect effects.
The confusion of causation for purpose and vice-versa is exacerbated by the manner in which the natural world is customarily explained, even by reputable scientists. For example, the blunt teeth of an herbivorous dinosaur might be described as “designed for eating plants.” Well, not quite, at least not according to an evolutionary point of view. The species in question did not possess big molars because they were destined to eat plants; rather, they ate plants because they happened to have evolved big molars and a suitably efficient digestive system. Likewise, bees do not pollinate flowers out of altruistic concern for landscaping aesthetics; we merely happen to enjoy the end result. Nor does the free exchange of respiratory waste products between plants and animals, though unarguably convenient for us, occur for the sake of our convenience.
A third stumbling block impeding universal understanding of cause and effect is the classical logical fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or “after the fact, therefore because of the fact.” I once used this common error to great effect with my own children when they were young enough to desire rides on the penny mechanical horses found near supermarket exits. One day, I wondered just how long a ride my daughter was getting for her penny, so I started my watch chronometer as the coin dropped. It turned out that the ride was calibrated to last exactly one minute. The next time we visited the store, I again started my chronometer upon the coin drop. At fifty seconds, I casually asked my daughter, “Do you want me to stop the horse?” She answered affirmatively, and with 0:58 displayed on my chronometer, I thrust my open palms before the wild eyes of her plastic steed and commanded it to stop, whereupon the minute was up and the ride was over. Both of my daughters, at around the same age, believed that their father was some sort of mystical mechanical horse whisperer. After all, the horse always stopped right after I told it to stop.
It seems laughable that a sophisticated mind would fall for such a fallacy, but that is the intellectual price we pay for the brain’s relentless search for patterns and causation. The first time I apparently commanded the horsey ride to stop, it was surprising to my daughters, and they might have held on to some doubt as to whether my incredible power was even possible. But when it happened reliably again and again, the phenomenon appeared to be confirmed. It is not unlike the behavior of lab rats that are rewarded with a treat after pressing a lever. If no treat appears after the next few lever depressions, the rat will abandon the device. However, if the treats are withdrawn only after a rat has been repeatedly rewarded for pressing the lever, it will go on pressing it indefinitely. After all, a treat always used to come out when the lever was pressed.
Unfortunately, in our desperate race to cure social ills by determining and eradicating their causes (and, conversely, our desire to promote positive developments by determining and fostering their causes), our society consistently falls for this distortion of cause and effect. Perhaps there is a significant fluctuation in the standardized test scores of an elementary school. Why? Well, what happened that year that was different from the previous year? Any number of things might have changed: a new principal, a different textbook series, an emphasis on phonics, a new piece of technology for the classrooms,a novel professional development program, a rearranged class schedule, a chronically malfunctioning copier, more rainy days than usual, fewer rainy days than usual, younger teachers, more experienced teachers, a lack of supplies, an abundance of volunteers, exciting field trips, unnerving lockdowns, etc. Whether the scores went up or down, there would appear to be a correlation between any of the above factors and the test results. Of course, correlation is not causation, a maxim we would be wise to remember.
So what is the cause of this misunderstanding of cause and effect ? It is due to ambiguous semantics and logical fallacy. And now that I’ve magnanimously determined the cause of this social ill, we can all go about the dirty work of eradicating it.