Friday, October 14, 2011

Confusing Correlation and Causation (Modern India Edition)

See Byzantium Edition
See Greek and Roman Edition

Sometimes you learn something interesting and then you see it everywhere you look.  Earlier, I had remarked upon a theory of evolving culture and belief based off the confusion of correlation with causation.  First I'll provide another anecdote from modern India, and then I'll outline this theory of culture, a theory not meant to exclusively explain all cultural artifacts, but one with some validity.

Source:  Akash Kapur writing in The New Yorker.  October 10, 2011.  "The Shandy: The cost of being a cow broker in rural India." Pages 72-79.

Background:  Ramadas is an Indian cattle broker whose son was killed in a accident while riding is bike.  His family and friends are Hindu, so many might not approve of his job helping to sell cattle.  Varun is his other son and Malligeswari is his wife, and in this New Yorker article, both are suggesting the gods may have killed Ramadas' other son as a punishment for the father's occupation.

   Varun hesitated.  I could see that he was trying to decide whether to say something.  Then he said it: "When my brother had his accident, some relatives said it was because of my father's job.  They said he died because of the work my father did."
   "How did that make you feel?"
   "I felt very bad.  I felt very bad that people were talking that way."
   "But did you believe it?"
   Varun glanced at his father; he looked as if he were asking his father a question.  "Maybe," he said, and he nodded.  "Maybe something in me believed that that was why it happened."
   I asked Malligeswari if she felt the same way.  "I did wonder,"  she said.  "I had to wonder, and sometimes I still wonder if that's why my son died."

Ramadas, the father, is an atheist.  Nevertheless, when his son died he participated in all the religious burial ceremonies.  Not because he "got religion", but because he didn't want people to think he didn't love his son.  The confusion of correlation for causation changes the behavior of even those who were not confused.

Now to an interesting explanation of how assuming correlation is causation gives rise to certain cultural norms.

Theory of Social Norms Derived From Assuming Correlation Implies Causation

  1. Before the modern age, determining what caused tragedies was difficult to decipher.
  2. You cannot live your life without responding to your environment, so when tragedy ensues, one must react.  Thus, better to believe everything in the world happens for a reason, than to believe everything happens for no reason.
  3. Because so much of the world seemed to be a manifestation of a greater power (the tides, the waxing and waning moon, the flirtatious sun, dizzy tornadoes, rotting disease, thriving spring, magical conception and the miracle o birth), it only makes sense that all things are deliberately caused by a greater power.
  4. Consequently, when something bad happens, one should observe what was going on shortly before, and assume that activity elicited punishment from the gods.
  5. Tell the story of your sins and punishment to your children, so they will not suffer like you.  Knowing little else, they believe you willingly.
  6. Thus evolves norms about how people should live.
  7. Because everyone in a village suffers for the sins of the individual (disease and tornadoes are imprecise and reckless) everyone enforces these norms fiercely—not out of hatred, but out of love of their family.
To the extent that tragedies are not punishment from gods, these cultural artifacts are ostensibly irrational, but not necessarily invaluableif they have externalities, such as reinforcing social bonds and encouraging ethical behavior.

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