So a friend sent this article from Wired.com yesterday. On the plus side, it’s fantastic whenever topics such as causality make it into the popular media. For one, it makes my job look at least somewhat sexier and seemingly somewhat more relevant (just go with it). The downside, however, is that many times the simplifications that go into such a piece are typically deal-breakers and, well, oversimplifications.
Sadly, however, I have many points of dispute with the piece, including:
(1) The title is just silly, right? How is it a failure of “Science” if many (or even all) of our causal hypotheses turn out to be wrong? Is this a complaint that “science is hard”? Because that’s certainly true, but let’s not forget that it’s the same set of methodological practices that allow one to empirically reject bad causal hypotheses that allowed one to initially formulate those hypotheses in the first place. So, contra the author, it was the failure of those hypotheses (those reductionist hypotheses, note) and not a failure of science that is to be blamed.
(2) The author seems to burden “Science” with a particular interpretation of causation. But there’s two problems here; first, it’s a narrowly reductionistic and linear-style interpretation of causality he/she has assumed applies to the whole realm of scientific research; second, causal talk has not really been welcome in fundamental physics for around 100-150 years. Now, I disagree with the absence of causal talk in physics for many reasons, but it’s a gross error to generalize across disciplines and assert that this interpretation of causation holds across them all.
(3) This narrow interpretation of science, what the author rightly calls “reductionistic” is one and only one of many possible ways of conceiving of causality (and for discovering it via causal hypotheses testing). There are many proponents of causation in science who would flat-out deny that it works in the way suggested by reductionist approaches.
Anyway, feel free to read the article and argue with me.
Now the other bit of news. A few of us here at The Modern Dilettante have decided to initiate a new element to the blog; namely, a critical commentary on a series of texts, the first of which is called Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference. We’re hoping to begin this commentary in the next week, so feel free to chime in or just follow along. We will try to keep the more technical and mathematical elements to the bare minimum and will focus instead on providing a clear and concise commentary (but it is a math book, after all).
But here’s a question. Since thinking critically about causation began with Hume…
…should we start there with an introduction to his thinking on the matter? It’s still highly relevant and every serious treatment of causality mentions his name in the first or second sentence of their work.