Espen sez, "This is an excellent essay by Jonah Lehrer on the increasing difficulty of finding direct causation in medical (or, indeed, all) research. Highly readable, though I would have liked to see a little more about how to address this problem (i.e., with network analysis tools)."
David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty. Although the scientific process tries to makes sense of problems by isolating every variable—imagining a blood vessel, say, if HDL alone were raised—reality doesn’t work like that. Instead, we live in a world in which everything is knotted together, an impregnable tangle of causes and effects. Even when a system is dissected into its basic parts, those parts are still influenced by a whirligig of forces we can’t understand or haven’t considered or don’t think matter. Hamlet was right: There really are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
This doesn’t mean that nothing can be known or that every causal story is equally problematic. Some explanations clearly work better than others, which is why, thanks largely to improvements in public health, the average lifespan in the developed world continues to increase. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, things like clean water and improved sanitation—and not necessarily advances in medical technology—accounted for at least 25 of the more than 30 years added to the lifespan of Americans during the 20th century.) Although our reliance on statistical correlations has strict constraints—which limit modern research—those correlations have still managed to identify many essential risk factors, such as smoking and bad diets.
Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us
Scientists drilled into the Chixclub crater in the Gulf of Mexico to learn more about the end of the mesozoic era. They learned more than they expected, reports Katherine Kornei in The New York Times. The first day of the Cenozoic was peppered with cataclysms. When the asteroid struck, it temporarily carved a hole 60 […]
Get over it! Despite the mockers and complainers, and even attempts to make it illegal to perambulate while looking at your own damned phone, science concludes that the risks of it are negligible. As part of the mandated study, the DOT conducted an in-depth review of written crash narratives in the city between 2014 and […]
Typically, marine photography is done in rich, saturated color — the better to show off the riot of life beneath the waves. But the photographer Christian Vizl has done it in high-contrast black and white, producing eerily intense ways of re-seeing marine life. You can see the work on his site, and in his new […]
Breaking into the big leagues as a project manager isn’t done overnight, but there are principles that anyone can learn, and they’re applicable to nearly any business. No matter what your field, if there are multiple teams working toward a common goal, you’re going to need a roadmap. The Project Management Professional Certification Training Suite […]
On the one hand, nostalgia is “a corruption of the historical impulse,” according to William Gibson. On the other hand, “Super Mario Bros.” will never not be cool. Luckily, there’s a way to satisfy that retro gaming while still keeping an eye on the future: The GameShell Kit. This thing is simultaneously the last handheld […]
The field of data analytics can get intimidating, even for business professionals who constantly rely on it. But at its heart, its purpose is to simplify. To take mounds of information and distill their insights into a single clear picture. Currently, the go-to software for painting that picture is Tableau. And if you want to […]