I read an editorial, Vaccination Undermined*, with greater interest than I expected to. It gave voice to a conundrum
which has been a personal thorn for some time -- specious correlation
. The idea that we assume that because one thing follows another that the one thing was caused
by the other. This very simple fallacy
, which, in our society, causes a great deal of wasted resources, is one for which we seem to have an inexplicably opaque blind spot.
Some colleagues at work and I played with this problem a few months ago. We considered that one way to address it would be to introduce a catchy saying into the lexicon. Sayings are neat, codified cultural reminders of complex concepts. For example a "big fish in a little pond" is a seven syllable allusion to a rather subtle and involved aspect of status. Another example is how even a single word, less than a saying, schadenfreude, serves the Germans to describe a rather nasty form of quiet pleasure of which we English-speakers are too ashamed to label.
Like the Germans, Rome or the Church, had a means we don't have of reminding itself of this correlation fallacy. (I was interested to note that an episode of The West Wing was dedicated to it. In addition Google finds it 9,270 times. (Interestingly, 'big fish in a little pond' gets only 2,200 hits.))
My friends and I worked away at it for a good 2 minutes.
We didn't do a very good job. "Breast milk isn't mercury" was one alluding to the fact that every single person who starts off life drinking breast milk eventually succumbs to death. The other was "The nose does not cause the tail" derived from this Alan Watts fragment:
"Again, this is a problem which comes from asking the wrong question. Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat."
So I throw down the gauntlet here. Can anyone come up with a cute, English saying to remind us not to assume if A follows B, B caused A?