Monday, 16 February 2015

Correlation is Not Causality

One of the issues I have with religion is the one-sided nature of how they attribute human behaviour.

So, for example if a man spends his life doing good deeds, that's because of his faith.

But if he does bad things, that's down to him. Nothing do do with his religion.

And we've all heard it, haven't we? Let's face it. I even agree that religion is often simply used as an excuse for bad behaviour, when it was simply a personal choice.

We are constantly being told, for example, that there is no connection between Islam and terrorism, and I agree. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and openly condemn terrorist actions. And when these discussions turn on Christians and expose their terrorism, we are assured that they were not doing it from any Biblical reason. We are told, categorically, it is a perversion of the religion, not a part of it.

Up to a point, I agree. Up to a point. Every human has the choice to be good or bad, to behave kindly and fairly or not. With obvious exceptions such as being kidnapped to fight, or drafted into a war (same thing) we always have the option to say "This is wrong, I won't do it". Even if it's done in a weasel way, such as the pacifist who tells you to move out of the way fast, because he's going to shoot, there are many options even in extreme situations.

Of course it's also alleged that misinterpretation of holy teachings can be to blame, and there remains in any case the impact of suggestion. It's really not hard for a mentally unstable person to be negatively influenced by religion, just as he could be negatively influenced by anything.

But let's accept for the moment the argument that religion has NOTHING to do with bad behaviour, not even from peer pressure, cultural pressure, warped preachers, or sensationalist media. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that every human is fully capable of understanding ancient texts, that they all meant well anyway, that he knows exactly what is expected of him, and that any act of human unkindness was 100% his choice.

Why doesn't it work the other way around?

Why is it that if I devote my life to charity, somebody will ask me about my faith? Why would it be assumed that I can't decide to do that for myself?

Many's the time, in fact, that by way of thank you, when I've helped a stranger, I've been told I'm a good Christian woman. The person saying it isn't trying to be exclusive, they've been taught, and they then assume, that any ethical act is caused by religion.

If you question people on this topic, most of them, at least these days will say that of course they know that people of all religions, and none at all, are capable of being good people. Nevertheless the association prevails.

And the reasoning behind this? Either they, or somebody they know, used to be a bad person, found religion, and became a good person.

I must be honest, this scares me a bit. What is wrong with these people? Are they latent psychopaths? It's not like we don't know right from wrong. Even if they had bad parents there are plenty of other clues along the way.

There was a boy at school who used to bully my son. Right from a very young age this kid was a bad'un. Not surprisingly he's now in jail. I don't know if he's been diagnosed with anything, but clearly he didn't learn from repeated disciplinary action or whatever went on as he grew up and I don't expect being imprisoned will do anything to help either. I have very little faith in the system there. When he comes out, even if he keeps himself out of trouble and stays out, I fully expect him to remain an arsehole for the rest of his life. I know that's pessimistic, but there it is.

If he were to get some sort of help, psychological counselling, whatever is possible, maybe it could make a difference. Or maybe he's just a faulty unit, nothing can be done. If he were a dog we'd put him down. We don't kill people for being faulty, but we do leave them out in society, which is just as bad, because they harm others. In my opinion unrepairable humans should spend their lives locked up, given useful work to do.

If he "found God" and started being a pillar of the community, I wouldn't trust him. Sorry. It wouldn't impress me at all. There are far too many religious people, even clergy, behaving just as badly as him. If he's capable of harming others, then he's capable, and whatever veneer of ethics religion were to give him could be easily chipped.

There are plenty of people who want to be good, try to be good, and just can't keep it up. They backslide. Why? External stimuli? There are many explanations here but it certainly goes to show that the "new you" isn't quite such a fixture.

So, I have discussed this with religious people many times and I always get the same answer. That bad people can be miraculously and permanently changed - cured, in fact - by their new found faith. I've even had people tell me it happened to them. I can't call them liars, so what explanation do I have?

Firstly, in less extreme cases, and in people who were good anyway, I believe, firmly that quite often, if not most of the time, people who have a natural urge to do good deeds, charity or whatever, turn to the church as a convenient vehicle for this. I've met these people. The spiritual aspect of the religion isn't really their objective at all, or they simply see it manifesting as activism or the need to help others.

I can't possibly object to this. These are fine people, and the world needs as many of them as it can get. So long as they don't spoil it by spouting negative doctrine, they have my support, and my admiration.

Did religion make them this way? No. It's who they are. They were born and/or raised ethical people, and they just also happen to be religious, as a separate aspect of their personality, or, in fact, more of a cultural thing quite often. They know nothing of theology, and don't care. That's not what they are in it for.

Then there are those who have a strong sense of duty. They were were raised in a religious environment and were taught that you must be charitable. It's not that they are scared not to do it (although that may apply to a few) it's just habit, normal, and let's be honest....seen by others. There would be talk and shame if it wasn't done. Sometimes they are good people, and sometimes, well, sometimes they are the ones whose bad behaviour is excused as "but she's got a heart of gold really". You know somebody like that, I'm sure. The stereotypical older lady who causes trouble all the time with gossip and attitude, but can always be relied upon to help out in the community when called upon. They may be selfless, or their motives may be otherwise. In the end people leave them to get on with it because "stuff gets done".

Did religion make them "good"? No. You could get exactly the same sort of behaviour, from exactly the same sort of person, outside a religious environment. Sometimes ego makes them do it. Sometimes they need a hobby. But really behind it all is that's just all they know.

But there's also the common causal variable, or third factor. This is the one that trips up even the best scientists.

You cannot possibly have missed the debate on vaccinations and autism. Even when it was conclusively proven scientifically that vaccinations were not the cause of autism, many people still believed they were, based on data. People whose entire scientific understanding was what they learned in school, had this idea that charts couldn't lie.

So when they saw this:

There was no talking them out of it.

It is a pretty compelling chart. Until you see this one:

In fact I've seen charts that by tight correlation can "prove" that autism is caused by a rise in daffodil sales.

Correlation is not causality. Obesity and earlier death correlates well, and there everyone, doctors included, until fairly recently, believed that being obese is the cause of earlier deaths. But it's not. There is a third reason, in this case the same thing that causes people to become obese (sitting on their arses eating junk food) is what kills them. Lack of exercise and poor nutrition.

In the daffodils and autism, there is no link at all, it's a complete coincidence.

In the vaccinations and autism, it's more to do with better health care leading to both more vaccinations and better diagnosis and reporting of autism cases. So the third factor is actually a good thing, but it was misunderstood.

In the organic food chart, it is suspected by some that parents are reacting to children's behavioural issues by offering healthier food. In other words, the rise in autism diagnoses are driving the sales, but it could just as easily be another example of the third factor, or even coincidence.

Those are your choices, coincidence, a third factor, and a reverse causation to that implied.

In what other area of life do we see this? Politics.

I lean to the left politically. Americans call me a liberal, and that's not completely wrong, but it would be more accurate to say socialist. The American Democratic party is not a socialist party, it's actually right of centre.

The reason I lean to the left is that I see socialism as fairer and kinder. That, of course, is a matter of considerable debate, but it is my view.

Does this mean that all socialists are fair and kind? No.

Does it mean kind and fair people naturally gravitate towards socialism? No.

Does it mean socialism makes people fair and kind. NO.

No it doesn't. Because people are who they are. If they discover a new ideology, they may take on board ideas they hadn't previously had, or they may be persuaded by certain arguments. It changes them, certainly, but it isn't the cause of the change. The cause of the change is wisdom, realisation. It's an inside job.

For most of us these realisations come slowly, one at a time. Small epiphanies. They come from meeting people who are different to ourselves, from various life experiences, including bad ones. Sometimes they come from reading books, and not holy ones either. We learn all the time and sometimes light bulbs go on. It's not that we were stupid before, it's that we just never had the opportunity to see things "that way" before.

Life throws things at you. Lessons, in fact. You can ignore them, or you can benefit from them, and if you choose to learn, it does change you. The more you get, the more you change.

I am quite certain that if these new ideas and changes all came from meeting highly intelligent religious teachers it would be construed as religion changing the person, but I think that's a stretch. There is the known phenomenon, after all, of "when the student is ready, the teacher appears". If it really were as easy it's made out to be, that all people have to do is "hear the word", then everyone would be affected by it, and clearly we are not.

People sometimes do wake up and see the error of their ways. Thankfully.

I've said it before, and I'll say it for evermore:

If religion is what stops you from killing people, then go to church. I'll take you there myself if necessary. Tie you to the bloody altar......... Seriously, if religion is what prevents you from being bad, keep it up. If you really need to be reminded every Sunday not to be an arsehole then don't miss a single week. Go twice. What works works.

But before you INSIST that when a person in your religion, who does something very bad, is not being a "True X" (please read the "No True Scotsman" fallacy), or that their religion was in no way responsible for their actions, you might want to consider the possibility that the good behaviour of the followers is more to do with personality/guilt/convenience/habit/duty/aha moments than anything spiritual.

EDIT: First bloody person to read this saw the autism rise chart and helpfully told me it was wrong. I know. I was curious to see if you were paying attention. I guess you're too clever for me. Here's the actual correlation chart:

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