Please Stop Misrepresenting Statistics: Correlation is not causation.

Oh my goodness, I can barely stomach watching the news, or watching social media posts…the statistical fallacies are basically palpable.

Repeat after me: Correlation is not causation. No, really: Correlation is not causation. It may have something causal to it, or it may not. It might have something informative, or it may not.

A disparity in a statistic does not have causal power because mere statistical correlations are not inherently causal at all!

A true statistic does indicate something, but it is not obvious what that something is.

Case 1: 100% of serial killers drink water. Should we infer that water leads to murders, murderers, etc? Why not?

Case 2: If you and Jeff Bezos were in a waiting room for something, the average net worth for those in the at waiting room would be around 50 billion dollars, assuming you are worth around 0 billion. Should we infer that you do, or should have 50 billion dollars? No. But why not?

Case 3: 100% of the top cartel family is wealthy (this cartel derives its income from prostitution, violence, drug trafficking, etc).  Are we justified in concluding that a member in the top cartel derives money from nefarious means? If yes, then why?

Case 4: 30% of group A are incarcerated. This is 10% more than some other class B. Should we infer that there was a miscarriage of justice? If yes, then why?

To talk about these issues meaningfully, we have to distinguish two types of cause: Agent causes, and natural causes (non-agent causes). Agent causes have to do with the choices of free agents (humans with free will). The other type of cause does not have a direct bearing on our choices (at least not in any obvious, direct, and explanatorily rich way). If we make these distinctions, then we can easily tackle these four cases.

In case 1, the difference between serial killers and non-serial killers has relevant relation to whether they drink water (it has to do with a set of actions, pursuits, etc, of different agents, choosing different paths in life).

In case 2, the average wealth of 50 billion dollars has no bearing on your because wealth has nothing to averages. Rather, it would need further information about previous choices, investments, property, etc. Importantly, there is no obvious insight into mere averages, and we are guilty of hasty generalization if we try to sneak in any other ideas without justification.

In case 3, the wealth of a given cartel member is stipulated to be ill-gotten because of the historical provenance of wealth creation. In other words, the fact that money was ill-gotten has nothing do with the numbers and percentage, it has to do with the quality of free will actions on behalf of the agents. The numbers themselves provide no helpful information…because….mere statistical correlations are not necessarily causal, nor even explanatory, without further information.

In case 4, we are not justified in concluding anything about group A or group B at all because none of the relevant information is included. It says nothing about the choices, the laws, the process by which they were incarcerated. The idea that they should be equal in every way is astonishingly naive.

I have many ideas on why some get misled by statistics, but this is a long enough post. Let’s make the world less crazy with fewer fallacies. Please. Seriously. Please.

As a last-minute qualification, the wrinkle is that some correlations might indicate something causal. However, the issue here is that there is a good reason to not jump to conclusions. For instance, taking cyanide does lead to death. But this simple point here is that we are not justified in making an automatic jump between correlation and causation.

For other posts on voting, social media, logic, citizenship, and philosophy.

For a more in-depth look at statistical fallacies go here.

For a good video introduction to statistical fallacies go here, in the context of the social sciences, Jonathan Haidt (start towards the end if you only want the correlation/causation discussion).

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Other Articles from CommonPhilosopher:

Good Philosophy is Servant Philosophy: Mesoteric and Exoteric Philosophy: A mission statement

Here is my understanding of what a good philosophy might look like. Three types of education need to be in view. To see these three, first start with two: Lay philosophy versus Professional philosophy. Professional philosophers operate at a very high level, in the sense that the works that they consume, produce, and engage in, require many years of investment before the works can be understood. Contrast this with what I’d call Lay philosophy, which is basically what one might encounter in a good introductory survey course in philosophy. I say ‘good’ because a good intro course is built in a way to be challenging but still accessible, and the bad course doesn’t actually provide a helpful introduction to philosophy that really helps the student.

If I could rename ‘lay philosophy’ with ‘exoteric’ and ‘professional’ with ‘esoteric’, then we’ll be getting somewhere. I think that philosophy influences people a great deal, but it does so in a very roundabout way. It is like that rudder in a great ship. If you were watching somebody in the depths of a cruise ship, it might appear that they are not doing much (working on machines, servicing them, etc), but this would be a mistake. The whole ship relies on the engineers in the ship. This is an imperfect analogy, but important. Philosophers influence other people in the university, which in turn, educate others, like those in education. So, esoteric philosophy is that hard-to-understand expert philosophy, and exoteric philosophy is for public consumption. ‘Ex’ summons to mind ‘outside,’ and ‘eso’ invokes ‘inside’ or ‘into’. In the middle, is ‘meso’ which simply mean ‘middle.’ As a philosopher, I wish to be a mesoteric philosopher that straddles the esoteric and the exoteric, between the high-level abstruse philosophy and the lower-level introductions to philosophy.

In many ways, I think that the exoteric and mesoteric philosophical levels are more important for society. Consider the political divisions, the crises of education, and so many other issues. Much of these things would be far different if the majority of the populace had access to what I would call good philosophy, that simplifies, unifies, and clarifies, our growing body of human knowledge. That is, in my estimation, philosophers should provide a way to understand how all of the bodies fit together (unifying), while carefully showing how each province of knowledge is different from another (clarifying differences) and simplifies hard-won wisdom into accessible statements that help a people live meaningful, resilient, rewarding lives. (See Adler, Maritain)

In this sense, I think philosophy should be a kind of service to people. But this is an odd position to have for an academic, as most academic, in terms of numbers derived from polling data, don’t like the free market (except for good economists). Free markets are about goods and services, where a person thrives if and only if, a one helps other people thrive, providing them with something that enriches their lives. Additionally, free markets are about rational persuasion and voluntary transaction (if I can’t convince you that my information, services, or products are worth your time and money, then I don’t get your support). I think that philosophy is a great benefit to humanity, to those that get acquainted by it and enrich lives. As such, if I’m ‘market-facing,’ as economists call it, then if I provide a good product (my philosophy), then success will be reflected by my support from voluntary transactions from responsible adults that value what I’m providing. In this case, I desire to occupy a space in the exoteric and mesoteric market space for philosophers (which I’d guess, is not exactly saturated). Contrast this coerced transactions, where a body of persons, assign the worth of somebody’s goods or services, and those goods or services don’t have responsive feedback from the market. Think about the cost of an x-ray or the way a professor is hired. The costs and processes ‘behind the scenes’ aren’t in the open, and the usually the only way things get checked by the public is if something goes terribly wrong (x-ray machine explodes, or professor gets involved in a scandal). However, free-market mechanism directly relates to the product being provided. I will provide some articles on the free market later, but for my present purposes, I think that good philosophy is a great benefit to all, and that it can be defended and promoted in the free market. And this, is basically what my philosophy is about. I’ll provide a bunch of philosophical articles tailor to my audience, which is interested in clarification, simplification, and unity, to their own lives. If you like what you see, you can buy my books later on (you won’t have to buy a $100 book, because the academic superpowers decided that you should add that to your mountain of debt).

So, welcome the I will be improving the site, adding meaningful content, and expanding the media. If you want to support me, you buy amazon through my ‘Patron support’ Amazon swoop. You don’t pay more, but I get a small portion of your purchase. If you like what I write about, then check out my recommendations for books. If want me to address something that you’ve wondered about, add a comment or email me.

Have a great day!

Check out my posts on economics, politics, logic, wine, and even Easter.

Dissecting Anti-Capitalist Bias

A Strange Paradox: How can so many people believe that a political ideal rooted in ‘freedom from coercion’ is somehow tied to injustice, oppression, war, and even prison! This is nuts. But many people believe that non-coercion is somehow deeply tied to coercion.

I often encounter students that equate consumerism, greed, and authority, with ‘capitalism.’ It is an interesting phenomenon. It makes no conceptual sense, in that advocates of free markets are not advocates of any of these things. It does make sense on a practical level though since teachers and professors continue to preach that all the ills of humanity can be captured by the boogeyman: capitalism. It doesn’t survive careful scrutiny, as most vague emotional doctrines don’t stand up to anything. They are like silly putty: they can bounce around, and they can mindlessly copy news articles. Likewise, they become flaccid when you calmly and slowly examine them.

Since free markets require freedom, the level of coercion must be minimal (focused only on acting against violations of natural negative rights). (See Locke, Nozick)

Since free markets do not benefit from strife and instability, free markets are anti-war (wars do not improve the economy if you look at them objectively) (See Rothbard, Rand, Bastiat)

Since free markets encourage investment, saving, and long-term planning, free-market advocates encourage production, building, and cooperation. Yes, a business within any market wants you to buy from them. However, the important thing is this: in a free market (where it is that case that the government does not force you to buy anything, the only tool is persuasion). Assuming that persuasion is better than coercion, then free markets are clearly better than forced, inefficient, centrally planned economies. (See Problems with Central Planning)

Cronyism is ANTI-FREE markets! I’m shouting because I’ve seen too many students equate cronyism, where a certain business gets some special deal with the State, either a subsidy or some cheap loan, etc, think this is capitalism. But this isn’t capitalism. This is cronyism. The very idea that cronyism could be conflated with cronyism, or that fascism could be connected to free-markets, is absolutely insane. This is like saying ‘minimal authority’ is ‘maximally authoritarian.’ Or, ‘coerced markets’ are ‘free markets.’ Seriously, sometimes it is like we live inside of a chapter of 1984. (See Munger, Hayek)

A similar prejudice relates to a bias against profit (See Carter). To combat these prejudices, you can review my advice on avoiding fallacies, critically thinking through conversation, and learn how to refute arguments.

5 Reasons You Should Be A Classical Liberal (American Conservative):

This is a defense of Classical Liberalism, which is the philosophy that gave birth to the United States, and continued to develop it, until now. However, there are many misconceptions. The Classical Liberal (American Conservative) is anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-discrimination, anti-poverty, and anti-coercion:

Anti-racist: The idea that human beings are made in the Image of God is a key idea to conservative American thought. Because there is a higher unity to humanity, the division into race seems strange. Christians, in fact, have been fighting slavery and racism for centuries. But to oppose the divisiveness of tribalism, you need a higher unity. This higher unity is first, a unity of humanity as a whole. A second and more profound unity is the unity of being something that God created. So, we have a shared nature, and we share a creator. 

Anti-fascist: Fascism is a modified form of socialism (see history of Mussolini and Hitler). Fascism is completely antithetical to American Conservatism. Conservatism opposes heavy centralization of State power: Fascism is the strong centralization power (there is more to it, but a necessary condition of Fascism is strong centralization; so, conservatives oppose the necessary conditions of Fascism). It is about as consistent to say that Rambo was pacifist, as an American Conservative is a Fascist. There is a lot of misinformation here, so you’ll need to look at some scholarly articles, specifically on Nozick, Sowell.

Anti-discrimination: I oppose grouping people by class, gender, and religion. To wrestle with demographics you might have to concede that such distinctions exist, however, Conservatives don’t start the analysis of every political discussion with ‘let’s divide everybody up by class, sex, color, etc.’ The fact is, your priorities are far more important.

Anti-poverty: Everybody should help out their community, and Conservative free-market principles have shown to do that the most, in addition to healthy charitable donations. Conservatives are against poverty, and anyone who says otherwise is guilty of slander or libel (not to mention the ad hominem fallacy; for more information on fallacies and policies go here)

Anti-coercion:  Tyranny from the State and violations of rights from other citizens are best illustrated by emphasizing coercion as an evil. Libertarian Conservatives want the least amount of coercion in society, this is why even the government is only licensed to use coercion against those that are guilty of coercion.

Positively, American Conservatism is: 

American Conservatives are proud of the political philosophy that broke away from classism, slavery, monarchy, and tyrannical government. Really, read a bit of history. You’ll have to go through centuries of political history, and the development of political and philosophical thought on law, jurisprudence, reflections on religious liberty, and the tensions between the state and worship.

This doesn’t mean that 1776 was the birth of Utopia. Rather, the Founders of the United States constitution forged the constitution with works like Utopia (that is the book, from Thomas More; I recommend it) in mind, as well the wars that have ravaged Europe, the wars between Protestant and Catholics, and the Freedom for self-determination. Conservatives draw from a rich wellspring of philosophical, political, and literary thought. Without education into these fonts, their vision cannot be grappled with.   

Now, one must consider the implications of this article. If I’ve been honest, that I’m a conservative because of these things, then it would be patently contradictory to equate Conservatism with anything related to the things that I oppose (either I’m wrong, misguided, hold contradictory ideas, etc).

What is a Good Citizen?

What do you think of as a ‘citizen’? A citizen has to be more than merely a ‘responsible voter.’ So, here is my vision of a citizen. A nonpartisan citizenry is capable of understanding the core ideas of their republic. Additionally, such a person would be able to detect fallacious reasoning and calmly question the partisan lines.

Such a citizenry would be able to take a step back, consider the different dimensions of a given policy, and examine these ideas, with and against the parties.

Such a person would be able to criticize both the Republican and Democratic parties. If one supports a given party, then this is a decision based on many factors. The sole factor, however, should not be from a kind of tribalism, that it is your party. Presumably, if it is your party, it is your party because it stands for something that you genuinely endorse.

Further, such virtues as this would be regarded as a common discipline. A free people can reach agreements through rational inquiry and nonviolent cooperation.

See my other articles about voting, social media, and logic, so that this bare vision is fleshed out a bit more. These stand as starting points for the philosophical ideas in practice. There must be something common to our community if we are above superficial divisions of race, sex, religion, and partisanship. Without which there is just the barbaric struggle of will, might, and force.

Here are some other approaches to the question (1, 2)

The Miracles of Easter

Cultures throughout history have celebrated spring. It is about fertility, rebirth, new days after long nights, and the ushering in of life and flowers and hope. Alas, in a culture of surplus information, coupled with a lamentable deficit of substance, it is sad indeed that both Christians and non-Christians often miss the twin points of Easter.

First, the non-Christians were on to something– we mortals live but a time, but we see cycles of rebirth, growth, waning, and waxing. Different myths are often told to explain this wonder. Some may have been stranger than others. But it seems more strange to miss the fact that spring is amazing, wondrous, and magical.

The Christian faith, historically based, is about a person unlike all others, who conquered death, submitted to both death and humiliation for our sins. Not only was He God, but He is the God that comes down to die, is reborn, all for our sakes (like a seed that dies, is planted, and then comes to life). The fact of the seasons is a miracle. The fact of Christ coming into His creation and humbling Himself even unto death is an even greater miracle.

In Good Friday and Easter Resurrection Day, we celebrate the master of both life and death, the architect of the Universe, and the hand of the Creator- who leads by example–the servant King.

In winter, we may be forlorn, and life seems hidden in the cold and dark nights. But seeds that were dead, come to a new life in the spring, and resound with the miracle of life, reborn, and hearkening to us, that in fact, new days are before us, and the Kingdom of Summer may await us.

Christ answers the longing for us to see death being conquered by life. He is the myth that is true. Those that lament that the word Easter is a Germanic word with pagan import miss the point. The people before Christ knew that there was a miracle of the seasons. Of course, they knew about spring! Only foolish people would discount and ignore the miracle of the changing seasons (perhaps our de-cultured situation). Should the early Christians have decided to place their Christian holy day on Easter? How could they not? If you notice the poetry of nature’s seasons, and then you found out that the Poet behind the seasons put himself in the poem…how could you not celebrate Him and his seasons?

Great poem for Easter:

Pre-Political Checklist with Chesterton: A Non-Partisan Primer for Intelligent Citizens

The inspiration for this article is the upcoming election cycle, and the impending and inevitable nonsense that will attend it. Two Chesterton quotes stand out for some helpful guidance. The first quote is this:

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

This is not restricted to political discussion, but generally good advice about evaluating the past.  The second quote is this:

“The men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It’s terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hung today.”

Building on these two quotes, I think three distinctions should be made before you start to think about what to vote for, and who to vote for.

The first distinction separates promises from reality. This should not need mentioning, but from talking with students in the university, watching the news, and observing social media, this clearly is worth mentioning. A politician gains power, and keeps power, by selling a narrative. However, the sale’s pitch and the product, are different things. A pitch for the climate may be bad for the climate. A pitch for safety may make things more dangerous. This is why we want our politicians close: if you have a salesman that never has to explain why they didn’t produce what they promised…why wouldn’t he overpromise and underdeliver (for those unacquainted with good business, it is supposed to be ‘under promise and over deliver’)?

The second distinction separates ‘moral’ issues from the ‘empirical’ issues. Giving a million dollars to an orphanage will have good consequences. But what if I got the money by stealing from the bank (other people’s money)? If we assume government policies are only an empirical matter that can be counted and calculated, this is skipping a rather important aspect of the discussion. Also, going back to the first distinction, we might call the act of stealing from the bank, to ‘reappropriate’ it to the orphans, the ‘Property Preservation Act.’ This doesn’t address the moral issue at all, and simply assumes that the act is just. After all, the politician and his supporters said it was.

The third distinction separates ‘character’ from ‘policy’. This relates to the character of the politician. In a perfect world, we would simply select perfect people, with perfect policies, but alas, we have politicians because we don’t have a perfect world, and we have tons of bad policies because we often don’t know which policies are the best (and we’re gullible). Further, a man with severe character flaws can enact good policy, and a saint can enact bad policies.

This brings us back to the first quote about fences. We are born in a world of institutions, but we have imperfect people, finite resources, and imperfect institutions. However, before you can fix things, you have to understand how things work. To fix a foundation, you need to understand a bit about foundations. To fix a wall, one needs to know a bit about walls. To fix this country, one needs to know how it does work before one fixes it. One needs to be able to make the distinctions listed above, and a bit about history.

If you’re not willing to do this….perhaps you shouldn’t vote. It isn’t a good idea to shoot in the dark.

Boiled Down Points, with Video

  1. Rational action requires knowledge, not gut reactions
  2. Political Action without accountability is a bad thing (though probably common)
  3. Character and Policy are separable things (this isn’t directly to the Chesterton quotes, but related and relevant)
  4. Moral issues and Empirical Issues are different things (also related)
  5. Promises and Actual Effects are different things

Excellent Sites about Chesterton:

Similar Articles on this site:

How to Refute an Argument (and how not to)

What is the difference between an uncritical attack, on the one hand, and a critical refutation, on the other? Understanding what is wrong and right is quite different from feeling comfortable with a given set of ideas and positions (comfort does not necessitate rightness or truth). To this end, to know this difference between actually arguing and refuting, I will briefly explain what a refutation actually is (and isn’t). In the world of information, this is extremely important.

If you want to pinpoint the source of an error in a given argument, you basically have two fronts to consider: (1) the truth of the premises, and (2) the reasoning between the premises that lead to the conclusion (validity). Knowing this, we can also infer how NOT to refute something. That is to say, a true refutation does at least one of the two things we just discussed (or both). A false refutation is something that looks good on a superficial and emotional level, like something substantial is being said but doesn’t survive careful analysis (it isn’t actually substantial; flash without substance).



Some popular fallacies are basically attacks (not on the actual argument, its premises, etc). Ad hominem (latin for ‘against the man’) is popular, which is simply to attack the character of the arguer or the platform that they have. For instance, rather than wrestling with the cited data, the interpretation of the data, or the reasoning, one could attack the style, or appeal to anything else that prevents another person from ‘taking it seriously.’ The ‘it’ here is the argument. The argument is important, the means that the communication is made, verbally, visually, etc, but these things are not important (only important in an auxiliary way).

This can’t be stressed enough. A bad person can make a good argument. A good person can make a bad argument. A smart person can assert something foolish and stupid. A fool can say something brilliant and true. This is why critical thinking and logic are so important. If we can cultivate the ability to reason together, examine arguments, and know what the ‘point’ of the argument is, then we can all jointly get closer to the truth.

With this in mind, if you read something that you think is wrong, the burden is two-fold: showing the falsehood of premises, and/or showing the illicit inference. That’s it.

Contrariwise, a false refutation is precisely when you make an attack that essentially tells yourself and others: ‘don’t wrestle with the premises and reasoning’. That is, a false refutation is an attack on the general credibility of the arguer instead of the argument itself.

There are some some notable things to be said though, regarding credibility of sources. A person known for lying might be lying. True. A news site known for fabricated stories might be fabricating stories. These are things that we should be aware of. However, if we are to be part of the critical discussion of ideas and truth, we have to demonstrate where the arguments go wrong, if we are to understand how to get things right.

In short, critical reasoning is hard, and we should be on our guard to not pretend we are doing it, when in fact, we are just attacking something without examining it carefully. An honest solution is easy. You can say, ‘I don’t know.’ Or, ‘I haven’t examined the studies yet.’ The worst thing that you can do though, is to pretend to think carefully when there was nothing going on but sheer prejudice (‘I don’t like this view, so it must be stupid and wrong’).

So, let’s talk about premises and reasoning because that is what critical thinking requires. It is hard. It is time-consuming. But it is better for everyone.

See also these articles on reasoning and logic:

The Statist Fallacy:

Fallacies come in several varieties, formal and informal.
There are many informal fallacies, and these probably constitute the bulk of our thinking errors, as they allow a person to weigh something too highly. For instance, an attack on a person (ad hominem), moves a person from thinking about a given argument that does not depend on a person at all, to thinking about the speaker (if the guy is racist, bigot, insert anything ‘ist’), then you don’t have to consider their argument. Or, overweighting a group of people, as if something is more likely to be true if a bunch of people says it is (but there is no necessary connection).

Here is a fallacy that I think deserves its own name. This is what I call the ‘Statist fallacy’, it is a form of false dichotomy, where there are only two options: either (1) you support cause ‘x’ and must use the government to implement policy in the causes’ name, or (2) you do not support cause ‘x,’ because government is the only means to effect the policy in question.

Essentially, then, government is the only kind of group-agent/collective that can do the work….for basically everything. Of course, the problem is that it is completely untrue. A person may support a cause, whole-heartedly, and think that the government is not the most efficient mechanism tackle the cause in question. You can have voluntary groups, like private schools, private businesses, church, etc (these are all voluntary; they are not coerced to exist by outside forces, like the government)

Take gun control: there is evidence that having guns actually protects people (society as a whole, and citizens in particular). Additionally, gun rights, as a measure against growing government tyranny, as well as an extension of individual rights to safety and protection. See an article from Huemer here.

Take free markets: someone might believe that there is both a moral and an empirical foundation to valuing and promoting the freemarkets. See here.

Now, with these in mind, the unscrupulous thinker might find it offensive that somebody is advocating for less government intervention in healthcare, gun control, and the free market. This unscrupulous thinker might argue that the person advocating for free markets, gun rights, and less government meddling with healthcare, is arguing these things because he wants more murders, more medical tragedies, and more greed. However, if you’ve read this post, then you would be able to point out that because someone adopts a given policy, this does not mean that they oppose the cause that actually stands behind it (because only the government can solve problems, and if you’re against government doing something, then you must be against the cause too! Monster). That is, there are people that actually believe that people will be happier if there is a free market, more self-reliant people, and that government can often actually make things worse when they are operating outside of their proper sphere. Shocking, I know, but true.

Should you uncritically adopt any position? No. Should you assume that I have done my research and that I am right to support gun rights and free markets? No. Additionally, however, you should not assume that if someone says “I’m not sure the government should do ‘x’, […]” then this person is opposed to a thriving country, more equity, justice for all, etc. Some people believe that the government shouldn’t do something because– historically– there are reasons to believe that the government often does things inefficiently.

Now, it does not follow that because someone has done their research, that they are necessarily right. Nor does it follow that because somebody believes something different than you, that they have bad intentions in their heart. However, it does follow that if you assume the other person has nefarious aims that poison all of their thoughts, and they are, therefore, necessarily wrong and evil, that you will be unable to objectively evaluate what they are saying.