Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Language of Causation

One of the great verbal tricksters in English is the word cause, especially when used as a noun with the definite article the, as in a sentence like (1), which is clearly false.

(1) Smoking is the cause of lung cancer.
Even occurrences of the indefinite article a when it occurs in a sentence like (2) are problematic. This sentence suggests that smoking all by itself can cause cancer which is surely false..
(2) Smoking is a cause of cancer.
The same is true of generic verb occurrences of cause, as in (3).
(3) Smoking causes lung cancer.
If you are head of a tobacco company being sued you will want people to make claims like (1),(2), and (3) since none of them stands any chance of being true. Though they are used very frequently, such claims as these are very easily falsified because every event or state of affairs will normally have multiple causes. In the case of smoking, ones genetic make up has a bearing on whether or not a person will get lung cancer. Environmental factors are likely to play a role as well.

What makes generic claims so tricky is that we readily assent to a claim like (4) even though we know that more than half of the lion population, namely the females and the cubs, don't have manes.

(4) Lions have manes.
Similarly, even though (3) makes the very strong claim that smoking alone can cause cancer, it is consistent with some people being life-long smokers and never contracting lung cancer. That is, it is consistent with (6).
(6) Smoking doesn't always cause lung cancer.
This is the beauty of generic claims -- they make very strong (because highly general) claims but they aren't falsified by counterexamples. They live a good life, as the lives of propositions go.

I ran across a number of claims containing "not the cause of" such as

(7) HIV Is Not the Cause of AIDS
(8) Cosmic Rays Are Not the Cause of Climate Change, Scientists Say
(9) Income inequality is not the cause of this nation's social problems.
(10) Gun ownership is not the cause of America's high murder rate.
The last two come from the same web site and are quite comical. Only an idiot would claim that income inequality is THE cause of the nation's social problems or even worse that gun ownership is THE cause of America's high murder rate. Obviously, for a murder to occur, the gun owner will have to load the gun, take the safety off, point it accurately at the intended victim, and pull the trigger and do all of this with the intent to kill (at least for first degree murder) so we know that gun ownership simpliciter does not cause murder. Moreover, there are causes of murder not involving guns such as strangling someone with ones hands or using a garrote or knifing someone to death (cf the O. J. Simpson murder trial) or running them over with a car or whacking them with a baseball bat and etc.

The eighth claim is more interesting. The claim at issue is this one

In July 2003, astrophysicist Nir Shaviv and geologist Jan Veizer wrote in GSA Today that they had established a correlation between cosmic rays and temperature evolution over hundreds of millions of years. They also claimed that current global warming is not primarily caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide. Their findings have been widely reported in international news media.
Notice first that (8) is actually the headline for a news release and was almost surely composed by a PR guy/gal, not an actual scientist. Moreover, the passage quoted does not provide support for the idea that cosmic rays are THE cause of climate change. All the scientists seem to have established, if they established anything, was "a correlation between cosmic rays and temperature evolution over hundreds of millions of years. [emphasis added]" I don't know whether these scientists said anything like "current global warming is not primarily caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide [emphasis added]" but this kind of claim is of interest as well. Scientists who ought to know better say things like "the primary reason for X is Y" or "the real reason for X is Y." I suspect I have used both in the past. These are naughty claims. When you have a set of causes of some event Y, how do you establish one of them as the primary one? [At this point I might have gone into Aristotle's four causes but I have been warned against having overlong blogs.]

As sentient beings who are proud of our mental possessions, we tend to attach great importance to our decisions and actions as event movers and shakers. But there are always other factors. When, as in the case of cosmic rays, there are no human sentient beings involved religious people will sometimes evoke God's choosing to subject us to his/her wrath by, say, raining cosmic rays onto us. Jerry Falwell once said, for instance, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Who knew? I thought it was a virus. We have to expect that from God, I suppose, for as Archibald McLeish wrote in his play JB "If God is God, God is not good. If God is good, God is not God."

Right now, plaintiff's lawyers are going after Merck and its product, Vioxx. In this and in all other liability cases, I suspect, the issue of who caused what and the relative importance of different causes lie at the heart of the suit. I picked up the following collection of sentences from the article linked to the title of this blog. There is not just the headline (11), but also (12)-(17), for you to entertain yourself with.

(11) Cardiologist: Vioxx did not cause postal worker's heart attack.
(12) A postal worker who suffered a heart attack had a buildup of plaque in his arteries that was not caused by the since-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx,...
(13) ...only minimal plaque buildup is needed to cause the "small, modest" heart attack...
(14) Humeston, 60, is suing Vioxx maker Merck & Co., blaming his heart attack on intermittent use of the drug over two months.
(15) The plaque broke off, causing Humeston's heart attack, he said.
(16) ... Tyberg testified that Vioxx does not cause plaque buildup.
(17) "Did Mr. Humeston have sufficient plaque in his arteries to cause a heart attack?" Sullivan asked.
This gives you a taste of how loosely "cause" and what we might call "causal words" such as "blame," as in "X blames Y on Z," were used in the article and in court. Not a single one of these uses is intellectually respectable. Even (15) doesn't attribute the attack to what Aristotle might have called "the final cause" -- that would have been, the obstruction of blood flow. It could be that narrowed arteries at the point the clot lodged itself played a role as well. Perhaps the best guidance for us is to drop the word "cause" from our vocabularies. The chances are that nothing good will come from their use.

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Blogger The MetaKong said...

I'm falling in love with you, language guy.


P. I don't want to have your babies though. Great post; just one question?whadya do bout foke like me dat like ta dice n slice!chopchop!language for the sake of (work with me here, you're a ripe potato):


For the love of wordplay.



3:04 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Sean, slicing and dicing the language is good for fun and, if Joyce made any money from "Ulysses", profit.

j_g, I just turned down a few thousand bucks when I decided not to help a lawyer working for a company trying to defend a false advertising claim by claiming that the claim the firm he was representing had made was literally true. I decided that while I could honestly defend what was said, it went against my view that the literal truth of an advertising claim is of little value in evaluating it. What it implies to consumers is much more important.

Copernicus: in empirical science, one tries to prove that this or that is a factor in causing some result. This permits one to say thing that in the absence of oxygen, striking a match will not cause it to catch fire. The goal is to isolate all the relevant factors. Statistically based claims such as the ones that ended up nailing the cigarette companies basically involved showing that there was a significant difference in the number of deaths of people of a certain age range between groups of smokers and nonsmokers where the groups met conditions for statistical significance. Though I believe statistically significant claims are worthy ones a lot of mischief can be done with them.


7:05 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I am sorry about your father. The bad thing about "cause" from the plaintiff's side is how hard it is to prove that the defendant's product or action was a -- not the, for that would be too hard -- sine qua non.

Your response to alka-seltzer's ad is hilarious.

Years ago, the Lennox air conditioning company ran a radio ad I was listening to just as I was turning left off Olentangy Road to go on campus and could see the Lennox manufacturing company looking under a 315 bridge. It sounded like "We offer the most inconvenience and quality." Neither the ad copy writer nor anyone else with the ad company seems ever to have read it out loud to a focus group. Even so, we expect ads to say favorable things about products so even that might not have helped.

10:11 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

L. Guy, tho you didn,t answer my qestion directly (about the word, several) & I said I would never look at your blog again. Not having anything else to do I read this post. Hurrah! my question has been answered. It is the idea that the word was meant to be vague. (I now don't think the dumb bastard knew how many times He'd been over). Not being an intellectual or anything like that, I still get bugged when people use words with no real logic behind them. I guess that is why religion generally bugs the hell out of me(& politics, Arggh!) You have showed me something about myself that will be of benifit in the future. Regarding the rest of your blog, My head started to hurt & I'd already been to the big Dictionary 3 times so I'll pass on the rest of the post.

10:49 AM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

For all those looking for a way to keep tabs on their spelling and vocabulary, try a program called iFinger 2.1. You can download it from Download.com. It's a taskbar dictionary that, when you highlight a word and press Ctrl-F11, brings up its definition and usage. Spybot and Adware found no malicious programs or files after install either, it's safe!



12:48 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and etc" should be "etc"

8:23 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I want to take a moment to tell you why I like your site. being a hillbilly w/no education to speak of, (barly made it through 8th grade then went to a Caholic reform school where there was no education to speak of) I've always been interested in cranial pursuits. That's probabaly a horrible sentence, but if I worried about my grammer & spelling I'd have to be silent. Your site is a good way for me to educate myself & get a look at what you academic types are like.
Also, I can't resist getting envolved in a good argument(debate). After all we are known to feud over anything. One reason I had trouble in school was we had to move all the time because my father would always start a feud w/the neighbors & we'd get kicked out. So, I think I have a bit of it in me. Hopefully in a constructive way.
Also your site is a good way to meet other people. It is easy to decide whether or not I'd like some people by the comments they make to you. I do not like to talk to religiuos(sp)people, Esp.fundamental Christians. I'm sure at some point I'll offend them or visa versa.
Anyway, there you go.
Looking forward to your new posts.

10:31 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

You have once again inspired me to write a post, this time about the legal view of causation. You're probably already aware of it, but your readers may not be.

10:38 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

j-g, thanks for the typical christian answer. They all say that. & if you are such a great Christian, why are you being mean to kelly. Jesus wouldn't be mean to Kelly.

10:55 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Whoops! See, I can't help it.

10:59 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:16 AM

Blogger uglygirl said...

j_g, perhaps those persons you spoke of are called Humans, or let me take a step forward and say, "good humans", and they can be christians or "heathens". I am an idol-worshipping hindu from india, and believe in being nice to people for the heck of it. and personally, since conversion seems to be a part of the missionary, i dont thinkof that word in as good a way as you seem to do. I dont believe in religion per se, but have a problem with the ones which seem to exclude some and include some others. Hinduism with all its evils, doesn't say anything about preaching it to others and converting them.
And i am comfortable with that.

9:20 AM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I think the analysis in this post is very interesting, but become skeptical when someone mentions "the literal truth" of a statement.

In a discussion on "speach act theory," Stanley Fish offers a rebuttal to Searle's claim that a question like "can you reach the salt?" has 1) the literal meaning "are you capable of reaching the salt?" and 2) the non-literal meaning "would you pass me the salt?" He argues that the statement has only one meaning, and that this meaning depends on context, so that at the dinner table it probably means 2) and in the supermarket (if the salt is on a high shelf) may mean 1).

Likewise I don't think we should be too critical of certain rather unscientific uses of "cause." You mention that in advertising "the literal truth of an advertising claim is of little value in evaluating it." I think what should be said is that the real truth-value of the statement is most important, given the context in which the statement is received, i.e. the non-academic context of the living rooms of sleepy tv watchers.

In non-technical contexts, the statements "smoking causes cancer" or "smoking kills" are very well formulated, and are more likely to be interpreted as "smoking increases the risk of getting cancer," than this more scientific formulation itself. The first two would certainly be more effective at saving lives, if they were printed on cigarette cartons.

9:25 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Jesus wouldn't be mean to me (he likes my tattoos), but I don't think J_g was being mean to me either.

Does my site really have that effect? I thought white text on a black background was supposed to be easier on the eyes than the reverse.

9:44 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I hope it is not rude to use L.guy's site to talk to other people. (Iam new to blog ettiquite)
Kelly, as much as I hate to admit it, the christian person is right. A black background is great for grapics & photos but not writting.
Christian lady, sorry about flying off the handle, but I did warn you.

9:53 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

P.S. Ugly girl, I take off my hat to you or bow and scrape my head on the floor, whatever turns you on. thanks, Shona.

9:57 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Hey, back to the post: 'The language of Causation'
This is a word that bugs me, 'believe'. Why? Because people are always implying that belief is fact. They want you to believe that believing in a religion means that they think it is true. Believing some thing does not make it fact, not even to the person saying it. Belief is faith not factual. I know this sounds like splitting hairs, but, It takes as much faith for an atheist to not believe in God as it does for the religious to believe in him.
Think about it.
You are only a side of the same coin.

10:14 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

ARGH! The head that was scraping the floor is now banging its self bloody in frustration.

11:46 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

l>t, the conditions for felicitous use of "believe" and "know" are very different. Both require evidence, but normally "know" provides evidence amounting to certainty, i.e., higher than "beyond any reasonable doubt."

Jurors, for instance, do not have to certify that they know the defendant did the bad thing but just that they believe that he did it beyond any reasonable doubt, which is, of course, way stronger than saying just that they think or believe that he did it.

3:27 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

In regards to LG's last comment, that's exactly the reason Nicole Simpson's family could still sue OJ on the theory that he caused Nicole's death. In the criminal trial, nothing was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This doesn't prevent them from trying to prove the exact same facts by a preponderance of the evidence. The latter standard just means a more than 50% chance of truth.

Of course, when you switch it around you are barred. For example, assume X sues Y, arguing that Y burned his house down. X loses (failing to prove it by a preponderance of the evidence). If the government attempts to prosecute Y on the same facts, they will lose at the pleading stage. If you can't prove something by a preponderance, then you can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. This is basically a judicial efficiency concern.
The above concept is called collateral estoppel.

Of course, there are some requirements to satisfy here to ensure that X and Y aren't in it together to defraud the insurance company, but those are the basics.

5:29 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Cause is a tricky word alright. It seems to me that it is useful in all its meanings (the big Dictionary gives 7 as a noun, plus; efficient cause, final cause, formal cause, etc. plus; as a conj., v.t. & v.i. Plus all the words before and after w/cause in them. Our complex minds demand more of some words then others. It makes me think that if I have to go to court, I'll take my dictionary. But of course that's what lawyers are for, to define cause. Philosophers can jack you around w/words, but they are easier to pin down then lawyers

10:29 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

By the way, thanks to j_g for letting me know about my template. I've changed it. Let me know what you think.

2:17 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Hi again, I'm afraid I didn't express myself very well in my last post, and would like to try again, after thinking about it a bit and reading LG’s post and website dedicated to the meaning of meaning.

I guess what I see as the problem with making a distinction between literal meaning and context-dependent meaning, is that language always appears in a context, so that there is no obviously correct way of determining the literal or context-independent meaning of a phrase. It is clear, from what I understand, that the phrase “The HIV virus does not cause AIDS” would be interpreted much differently in a court of law than it would be in a brothel in Thailand.

It seems to me that the idea that literal meaning exists is intuitive, that everybody senses that somehow “can you reach the salt?” has a basic meaning: and that it asks about the hearer’s ability. But how do we arrive at this common sense and how do we know it is correct?

4:52 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

That reminds me of a teacher I had in second grade. If you asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?" (& I think every kid in the room did it at least once)
She would stare you down & say, "I don't know, can you, CAN you?"
Then make the poor little tyke struggle to figure out what was wrong. It still makes me shiver.

6:30 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

What I said about dropping "cause" from our vocabularies was somewhat tongue in cheek. The reality is that it is sometimes very, very difficult to defend statements like "A caused B." There are obviously some easy cases such as when the husband leaves a stove top burner on leading to a ruined pot, the wife can legitimately claim that it was the husband's fault. What annoys me are uses such as one reads on sports boards that this or that person or play caused a defeat. That is never a defensible claim since in, say, the average sports contest there are a multiplicity of plays, all of which play a role in the ultimate outcome. The claim that this or that side of a war "started" the war (another causal claim) may ignore provocations by the other side. Possibly the other side "started" the war by putting the invader in an untenable position.

l>t, you are posting a lot as if this is a chat room. I don't want you to stop posting but please try to limit yourself to substantive contributions such as your last one. Your teacher was an idiot imposing an interpretation on "can" and "may" that was never operative in English. It was a totally made up distinction. I don't know how old you are but I am 67 and we got the same treatment when I was a kid.

Le vent fripon, you are right that one cannot defend the claim that conventional or literal meaning is fully independent of context. However, the distinction I made in "The Meaning of Meaning" between conventional meaning and utterance (spoken or written or signed) significance requires that there be some aspect of meaning (conventional) that is invariant. But the elements of context relevant to conventional meaning are different from those that determine an utterance's significance in a particular context. Your claim that "`The HIV virus does not cause AIDS' would be interpreted much differently in a court of law than it would be in a brothel in Thailand." is true but what varies is the contextual significance. What changes are the standards of proof for the causal claim which in turn varies as to the different needs/goals of the speaker. In both cases, the conventional meaning of "cause" is the same -- it is the significance of the utterance that varies.

9:06 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

But, L.Guy you blog 'causes' me to act up.
Seriously tho, point taken.
This post is making me think about why I am uncomfortable around preachers and lawyers. Like you said, 'It is the significance of the utterance.' & I know you can't base everything on truth or logic. i think of Pilate washing his hands and saying,"What is truth?"
I find it hard to reconcile what seems like contradiction to me.
I must clarify, I'm not uncomfortable around preachers & lawyers all the time.

12:13 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Whoah! What happened? Wasn't there another post ahead of this one? Where'd it go?

9:05 AM


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