Books

Pause and Effect: How to Stop Jumping to Conclusions

A sociologist offers hope for finding better solutions to complex problems by asking better questions about causation.

Cause ... and How It Doesn't Always Equal Effect
Gregory Smithsimon

Melville House

Feb 2018

Other

9/11 was a government conspiracy to push the US into a war with Iraq. America's segregated neighborhoods are the result of white and black preference. Changes in sex education curricula and the rate of condom usage led to a decline in teenage pregnancy.

Sociologist Gregory Smithsimon assesses these and many other causal explanations for crises and cultural trends in circulation in the US in his provocative exploration of the mechanisms behind the stories we tell to make sense of the world. It's odd to hear a sociologist caution against seeking social causes for phenomena, but Smithsimon argues that we should move beyond such argumentative "low-hanging fruit" to assess physical, biological, and spatial influences as well as social ones.

He calls his approach "dynamic causality" and offers Cause as a self-help book for making each of us "a better political citizen". Smithsimon places dynamic causality in contrast with the brand of explanatory narrative people most often embrace: "egocentric causality", the assumption that events are caused by the effect they have on observers—at its simplest, the "they did it just to annoy me" response.

The book is explanatory and strategic. Smithsimon first establishes the essential social nature of human beings by exploring the effects of solitude on people. Truck drivers, pilots, suburban housewives, and prisoners in isolation all exhibit similar reactions to a lack of human contact, even for short periods of time: abnormal brain activity, hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, anger, paranoia, and mood swings.

Despite the value we (at least in the West) place on individuality and rationality, we are fundamentally social beings, and create and understand the world from a social perspective. In addition to needing each other's company to maintain our equilibrium, humans require narratives that explain our world. The problem, Smithsimon argues, is that causal stories tend to oversimplify, moralize, ascribe blame, and identify heroes and villains.

What kinds of causes do we tend to overlook when we reason without considering the limitations Smithsimon has discussed? He explores the diabetes epidemic to explain. Prevalence of the disease has grown in the US and abroad. Weight gain greatly increases a person's chances of developing diabetes, so the proximate cause of the epidemic is that more people around the world are gaining more weight. But what causes weight gain? Egotistical causality blames the victim for lacking self-control. Dynamic causality asks: what is the "risk of risks", or the fundamental cause?

Smithsimon makes a strong case that the weight gain has been caused by economic and nutritional insecurity brought on by the rise of neoliberalism. According to the medical allostasis model, social stress can raise the level of hormones that lead to cravings for foods that make you fat. It's a behavioral adaptation that, evolutionarily speaking, enabled primitive peoples to store energy before periods of scarcity, like winter. Insecurity has made that state permanent for some.

Smithsimon brings dynamic causality to bear on climate change and racial inequality. The stalled debate over climate change derives from asking why (the social, moral story that employs egocentric causality and blame) rather than how (the social and physical mechanisms driving change). Are capitalism and industrialism to blame? All economies have burned carbon fuels.

Better to adopt responses rather than identify and punish culprits. Smithsimon looks not just at curbing use of fossil fuels, but also to anticipating and mitigating the current and future effects of climate on communities through better urban planning or relocation strategies and mutual disaster aid plans developed by communities working together.

When Smithsimon addresses race, the "dynamic" part of dynamic causality becomes clearer. He presents three explanations for the persistence of racial segregation in the US: 1. blacks and whites self-segregate because each group prefers to "live with their own kind" (as one of his students put it); 2. government and business policies and practices such as racially motivated lending restrictions keep blacks out of white-majority neighborhoods; and 3. black Americans choose to live in black-majority neighborhoods because white neighborhoods aren't safe.

Number 1 is untrue, while number 2 is only part of the problem. Number 3 has less traction because it lacks the clear moral dimension of egocentric causality, but has far more explanatory power when you consider recent examples of violence against black citizens.

Smithsimon doesn't address the gun debate, but his book resonates with causal explanations in circulation after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February of this year, which left 17 people dead. The national conversation about how to prevent such tragedies clearly demonstrates the mechanisms Smithsimon reveals in his book, as well as the political motivation that often accompanies egotistical causality.

The shooter is a product of godlessness in American culture. The FBI failed to follow clues. An on-duty deputy refused to act. Stories that provide simple explanations and allow us to blame some individuals and praise others are very attractive. But they serve to distract us from underlying causes that offer more thorough explanations and more promising paths to change.

Dynamic causality lets us take a breath and look more deeply. In the gun debate, students from Parkland and elsewhere seem to be the best practitioners of dynamic causality, assessing their vulnerability in more sophisticated ways than many of the adults weighing in. The adolescents are, as Smithsimon says we should be, "shifting our focus from stories to results." We should listen to them.
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