The Book of Why: How a 'causal revolution' is shaking up science
A much-needed "causal revolution" has arrived in Judea Pearl's 'The Book of Why'. But despite vast improvements over "trad stats", there's cause for concern over logic-losing numbers.
1. The Book of Why brings a “new science” of causes. Judea Pearl’s causology graphically dispels deep-seated statistical confusion (but heterogeneity-hiding abstractions and logic-losing numbers lurk).
2. Pearl updates old correlation-isn’t-causation wisdom with “causal questions can never be answered from data alone.” Sorry, Big Data (and A.I.) fans: “No causes in, no causes out” (Nancy Cartwright).
3. Because many causal processes can produce the same data/stats, it’s evolutionarily fitting that “the bulk of human knowledge is organized around causal, not probabilistic relationships.” Crucially, Pearl grasps that “the grammar of probability [& stats]… is insufficient.”
4. But trad stats isn’t causal “model-free,” it implicitly imposes “causal salad” models—independent factors, jumbled, simple additive effects (widely method-and-tool presumed ... often utterly unrealistic).
6. Paradoxically, precise-seeming numbers can generate logic-fogging forces. The following reminders might counter rote-method-produced logic-losing numbers.
7. Causes of changes in X, need not be causes of X. That’s often obvious in known-causality cases (pills lowering cholesterol aren’t its cause) but routinely obfuscated in analysis-of-variance research. Correlating variation percentages to factor Y often doesn’t “explain” Y’s role (+see “red brake risk”). And stats factor choice can reverse effects (John Ioannidis).
8. Analysis-of-variance training encourages fallacy-of-division miscalculations. Many phenomena are emergently co-caused and resist meaningful decomposition. What % of car speed is “caused’ by engine or fuel? What % of drumming is “caused” by drum or drummer? What % of soup is “caused” by its recipe?
9. Akin to widespread statistical-significance misunderstandings, lax phrasing like “control for” and “held constant” spurs math-plausible but impossible-in-practice manipulations (~“rigor distoris”).
10. Many phenomena aren’t causally monolithic “natural kinds.” They evade classic causal-logic categories like “necessary and sufficient,” by exhibiting “unnecessary and sufficient” cause. They’re multi-etiology/route/recipe mixed bags (see Eiko Fried’s 10,377 paths to Major Depression).
12. Pearl fears trad-stats-centric probability-intoxicated thinking hides its staticness, whereas cause-driven approaches illuminate changing scenarios. Causality always beats stats (which encode unnovel cases). Known causal-composition rules (your system’s syntax) make novel (stats-defying) cases solvable.
13. “Causal revolution” tools overcome severe trad-stats limits, but they retain rush-to-the-numbers risks (is everything relevant squeezable into path-coefficients?) and type-mixing abstractions (e.g., Pearl’s diagram lines treat them equivalently but causes work differently in physics versus social systems).
14. “Cause” is a suitcase concept, requiring a richer causal-role vocabulary. Recall Aristotle’s cause kinds—material, formal, proximate, ultimate. Their qualitative distinctness ensures quantitative incomparability. They resist squashing into a single number (ditto needed Aristotle-extending roles).
15. Causal distance always counts. Intermediate-step unknowns mean iffier logic/numbers (e.g., genes typically exert many-causal-steps-removed highly co-causal effects).
16. Always ask: Is a single causal structure warranted? Or casual stability? Or close-enough causal closure? Are system components (roughly) mono-responsive?
17. Skilled practitioners respect their tools’ limits. A thinking-toolkit of context-matched rule-of-thumb maxims might counter rote-cranked-out methods and heterogeneity-hiding logic-losing numbers.
To create wiser adults, add empathy to the school curriculum.
- Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
- Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
- Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.
- U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
- The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
- The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.
- Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
- Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
- Where's an El Niño when you need one?
Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.
NOAA expects a busy season
According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.
Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.
What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.
This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.
Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:
- The ocean there is warmer than usual.
- There's reduced vertical wind shear.
- Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
- There have been strong West African monsoons this year.
Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:
ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.
First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.
Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.
Image source: NOAA
Batten down the hatches early
If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.
Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."
Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.
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