Cause: . . . And How It Doesn't Always Equal Effect

Cause: . . . And How It Doesn't Always Equal Effect

by Gregory Smithsimon


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612196763
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 02/13/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 820,178
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Gregory Smithsimon is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and the City University Graduate Center. He is the author of September 12: Community and Neighborhood Recovery at Ground Zero. (New York University Press; 2011), and co-author, with Benjamin Shepard, of The Beach Beneath the Streets: Exclusion, Control, and Play in Public Space. (SUNY Press, 2011). He is an editor of the new online journal Metropolitics, and has written for the Village Voice, Dissent, and In These Times, and the Daily News. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Cause introduction:

The sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote that we explain social facts with other social facts. Why did the most recent recession occur? Because of housing speculation. Why did housing prices inflate in a bubble? Because mortgage funds were lent in risky ways. Why did that happen? Because financial regulations had been loosened, mortgages were chopped up, resold, overrated by rating agencies and insured in unsustainable insurance schemes, and waves of capital flowed into the mortgage market seeking what seemed to be guaranteed high returns. And so on.

But this kind of reasoning often misleads both sociologists and the general public. It examines only one form of causality—proximate human actions—as causes of significant events in human history. The problem is not that social facts don’t cause other social facts. The problem is that, in our hubris and because of the limitations of our cognition, we too often make decisions as if only social facts can explain other social facts.

It is tempting to say that sociologists simply make the same disciplinary error that most other professions make: to a carpenter everything looks like a nail, so to a psychologist every conflict seems to have a psychological explanation, to a geneticist every human fault has a genetic basis, to an economist every action has an economically rational explanation.

But it isn’t just a shortcoming of social scientists, or even of professionals generally, to explain social facts with reference to the field they know best. Often, we mistake complex conflicts for purely social ones. Take the case of Andrew Speaker.1 In May 2007, he was diagnosed with a difficult-to-treat form of tuberculosis. Health department officials in Georgia warned him not to travel, for fear it could infect others. But Speaker and his father—both lawyers—attended health department meetings. They pressed the department on whether they were banning him from traveling. And because officials did not know if they had authority to issue such a prohibition, they said no. Speaker took that admission as a victory, moved up the date of his departure, and flew to Europe. He spent time in Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Canada. Of course, viruses operate unaware of such legalist arguments, and Speaker was eventually quarantined and had a section of his lung removed in the treatment of his disease. Sure, he won his social battle with the Georgia state health officials. But the real battle was with tuberculosis. Although there do not appear to have been any further cases in any of those four countries, Speaker should have made his choice based not on the first battle but on the second.

We often think like Speaker—at our peril.

Think of global warming and its widespread, devastating consequences. Climate change deniers often ignore the science behind the phenomenon. To them it’s a political battle (between those who seek environmental regulation, and those who oppose it) not a scientific one. To the nonregulators, climate change has little to do with the nonhuman, nonsocial, empirical question of whether the Earth is actually getting warmer. Unfortunately, it is. But rather than accept this thoroughly nonsocial reality of the physical world (and then fight over the political question of what response would serve them best), climate deniers couch the debate in purely social terms: the presumed political biases of the climate scientists, the economic disadvantages of imposing restrictions on emissions, the way climate change policies fit into preexisting differences between political parties.

When prescientific people experienced a natural disaster—a drought, a flood, a hurricane, they asked why it had happened. To answer, they engaged in the same sort of exercise we do today, seeking to explain social facts with other social facts: people are starving during the drought, so it must be the result of people’s behavior before the drought. Communities were destroyed during a hurricane, so the community must have done something sinful to attract that hurricane. The notion that human behavior has the power to rend the skies and shake the earth is meaningful enough to us that even some modern religious figures blame wayward human conduct for disasters, including the flooding of New Orleans, Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac in New York, and earthquakes from Japan to Haiti to Virginia. This kind of absurd social explanation reflects how particularly human, and specifically flawed, is the very question of Why? When we ask why we are not asking for the physical mechanism, which we can often determine, but a personal or moral justification, which is rarely available.

This use of why sends us down a dead end. When we explain why climate change is occurring, the ensuing argument is about the moral judgment implicit in the explanation that modern capitalism has ruined the planet. The fight is less about parts per million in the atmosphere than about an intangible sense of why.

Why is a question that we have the grammar to construct, but it is a question without an answer. This morning my daughter asked me where she could find her birth certificate. I told her it was in a bin in the basement. Why? she asked. How could I answer? Mechanistically, the certificate was sitting in a bin, which, when we moved, got put in the basement, and that particular bin, owing to its size and the fact that it contained nothing we needed very often, had not been moved upstairs. That, however, is a meaningless answer. What she meant, and what I understood was, The basement is dirty so I was hoping my birth certificate was stored in a bedroom closet or a drawer; I’m frustrated and unhappy that I have to go down to that dirty, dusty basement to get it. Why are you making me go down there? It’s your fault. I could offer my sympathy that she had to do an unpleasant task; I could apologize for not bringing upstairs something that I might have foreseen she might need. But it was meaningless to explain why an inanimate object was sitting where it had been left. Why, like its existential and theological cousins, “Why are we here?” and “Why me?,” are not questions to be investigated but shouts to the heavens. As we’ll see, we want only certain kinds of answers, narrow answers, and what’s missing from those answers shortchanges us in comprehension and overpays in frustration. Our mistaken answers to why repeatedly hobble our understandings of social and natural causation.

Throughout Cause I argue that we, as humans, misunderstand causality in several key ways, and that if we can recognize our limitations, we can also see that world more clearly.

One crucial limitation is that we often create causal stories under conditions of fear. That’s because we’re mortal and life is short; racing through life, trying to survive, to raise children, to care for those we love, to make the world a better place, to enjoy as many of its fruits as we have time to. It is as if life were lived rushing through a train station we had never been to before, trying to find our platform while also looking for a good meal, a nice drink, a close friend, and keeping sight of our children, our spouse, our friends and family also running through the crowd. Causal explanations are like the mental map we make of the train station as we race through it. The map would be provisional and incomplete, but it would help us get where we need to go. If we made it on time, we would feel that our mapmaking skills worked well enough.

But our on-the-fly impressions of the workings of those larger social and natural systems are not reality itself. And although we have no choice but to rush through, at our less-than-century-lifetime speed, we do have enough time to enhance our understanding of the world and its systems of cause and effect.

In addition to the existential fears that color our explanations, racial fears, terrorism, climate change, natural disasters, teen pregnancy, crime waves, and reactionary fears of women, people of color, the poor and working classes all factor into and distort the stories we tell to such a degree that we often embrace misleading ideas about who human beings are, and what we really need. Causal explanations and fear can feed off of one another to disastrous effect.

In the first section of the book, I consider who we are as people: deeply social creatures, for whom making up stories to explain the world is so instinctive that we are essentially narrative-making machines. Rather than ideal, rational actors, we are social animals who have evolved to have a particular set of social needs and understandings. Here I consider what race means to measure the power of social meaning: how what we collectively believe can shape what we do, and how a concept like race is a very powerful (and very misleading) story. Who we are is tied up with the kinds of stories we tell about the world; in the final chapter in this section, I look at those stories—from movie morals to murder alibis we hear in court—to see how, on closer inspection, our explanatory stories often make much less sense than we imagine. We have evolved to recognize certain kinds of explanations and causality, but are unable to see other kinds. Because certain causes matter to us and others don’t, we often shape satisfactory explanations in our minds when real world facts don’t actually support them. We are hardwired to ask Why?, but it often produces unhelpful answers.

In Part Two, I consider the kinds of explanations that we leave out when we focus on the low-hanging fruit of social causes. For instance, the space around us matters in ways we don’t always recognize: how we build our communities, after all, influences who we bump into during the day, and who is segregated from whom. There are reasons that all of our twenty-first-century global cities are located on major waterways, after all, and reasons that, even in an Internet age, people still pay more to locate their homes and businesses in crowded city centers. Likewise, biology and social stress interact in ways we don’t recognize. To take one example, medical researchers have attributed the rise in obesity to many causes—poor diet, lack of exercise, even the temperature of our homes. But we forget the role of social stress on our body: people are adapted to put on weight in periods of uncertainty about food supplies. Can economic uncertainty lead to physical health problems? Our bodies respond to social stresses in predictable, but rarely considered, ways. Our world is shaped not just by social causes, but by physical, biological, and spatial developments we attribute uneven significance to.

Finally, in part three, I build on these discussions of how humans (often wrongly) determine cause and effect to explain how we might become better at it, and therefore better equipped to handle the great problems of our time. Whether to consider climate change as a natural or social problem, how to confront terrorism, what to expect as US political parties undergo a seismic shift; a clearer understanding of causality can be applied to our most urgent contemporary problems.

I conclude by proposing that we embrace what I call dynamic causality. Dynamic causality recognizes the limitations of our own ability to explain situations: that we are social, that we overemphasize social causes and social knowledge, and that we underplay physical, biological, and natural influences. Dynamic causality recognizes both the inherent uncertainty of the world in which we must make decisions and our ability to improve those decisions. It rejects simplistic explanations and lets us use insights from the social sciences to better understand how we can act on urgent issues like global warming, racism, healthcare, and community building. It moves us from a static understanding of how things are to a more useful understanding of how we can bring about change.

One advantage of dynamic causality is that it can help all of us recognize that simply identifying the rigid structural factors that make our political world the way it is does not tell us much about how such a structural situation can be changed. Outcomes are dynamic, involve many variables, and can go in unexpected directions. I aim to show that there are both more opportunities for change than we think, and more changes going on right now than we are aware of.

This book aims to tweak the formula of the how-to book: not to be a better employee, but a better political citizen, considering how we, as people, think, in order to make better decisions about the big political crises we all face together. We are entering a period of unprecedented political turmoil, when the political parties, traditions, and truisms that have served us for several decades no longer explain our world or our political options. We’ll have to take sides and make decisions. To do so, we have to see a little more of the world as it is, and see through what people’s stories make it out to be.

Table of Contents

Introduction: causality vii

Part 1 Who We Are and The Stories We Tell: How We Think About Causes

1 Individuals are not rational 3

2 We are narrative-making machines 29

3 What race will the white minority be? 43

4 Victor and victim 73

5 Egocentric causality 85

Part 2 The Causes We Don't See

8 Beyond social facts: space 97

7 Allostasis or, does ronald reagan cause diabetes? 121

8 Pregnant in philadelphia? don't worry 137

Part 3 Think Better

9 What we know, we know socially 169

10 A black republican president? party realignments 183

11 Social class and conspiracy theories that work 203

12 Ticking time bomb 225

Conclusion: dynamic causality 245

Acknowledgments 271

Endnotes 273

Index 295

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