Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Confusing Correlation and Causation (Byzantium Edition)

Here is a recent narrative about confusing correlation and causation in the Dark Ages I have presented to my regression class.

These examples, silly as they may seem, serve as stark reminders to our ignorant past, and the myriad ways we allowed the universe to deceive us.  Looking back at human history, however rational an individual human may seem, the masses of humans kill each other and throw their families into misery for no good reason.  We create wars and strife over what should be trivial concerns.  When correlation was confused with causation, the consequence was the shedding of human blood.  This is illustrated best in religion.  
The word “Trinity” is not once mentioned in the Christian Bible.  Nevertheless, it is one of the more important Christian doctrines.  At the core of Christian belief is the idea that “God” is comprised of the father (the Hebrew God), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.  Though Jesus certainly claimed to be the son of God, and remarks of the Holy Spirit are made in the Bible, at no place does God explain the essence of the Trinity.  Was Jesus an actual human, and if so, how could he also be God?  If Jesus was human, does that mean he carries original sin within his flesh?  Was Jesus perhaps a demigod: half man, half God?
If God never took the time to explain the Trinity, then surely humans should not fear their lack of understanding, and surely humans would not be punished if the Trinity remained a mystery.  Nope.  People feared that if they worshiped the wrong way they would be punished.  Consequently, when a flood, tornado, or disease struck, Christians evaluated their style of worship to see where they erred, because natural disasters were thought to only occur as punishment for sin (remember Noah).  Even today, people like Pat Robertson believe disasters like hurricanes are caused by sin like being gay (I’m not kidding...Google it).
Most people today do not believe that natural disasters are punishment for sin, but they were correlated with certain things in the past, and the correlation was confused with causation with horrid consequence.  When Rome was sacked by barbarians, perhaps it was due to their misconceptions of the Trinity, suggested the Byzantium Empire.  When Byzantium found itself surrounded by Muslims, the Pope suggested it their doctrine at fault.
Consider also the Iconoclastic Controversy within in the Byzantium Empire, where those against praying before icons—before icons, not to iconsargued against those who did.  The arguments in favor or against the praying before icons was based on observed correlations, as the historian Kenneth W. Harl states, “I’ve always been of the opinion, and again I can’t prove it, because we don’t have the evidence, that in the dark age crisis, if you had prayed to the saints—to the icons in your town—and the Arabs had sacked your town, you probably would question the validity of this type of worship.  On the other hand, if you were lucky to be in Thessalonica or Odessa and you had paraded your icon around and the invaders left, well then you were probably inclined to see that the icons worked.  And it probably came down to such considerations for many people in dark age.”
People slaughtered each other over the Iconoclastic Controversy, and a Catholic Pope even excommunicated a Byzantium Emperor over this seemingly silly debate.  And the reason is that the ignorance pervading the dark ages caused people to confuse correlation and causation, making the tiniest and abstract disagreement a cause for murder.

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