First thing you have to know is that Patrick and I completely disagreed about this article.
So, anyway, Daniel Engber has declared war on “Correlation doesn’t imply causation,” calling it The Internet Blowhard’s Favorite Phrase. He’s wrong. Blowhards have entire suites of favorite phrases, which is useful insofar as it lets us spot them quickly and classify them according to type. “Correlation doesn’t imply causation” is only one of them, and it’s also used by smart, thoughtful, engaged commenters who are acting in good faith.
What’s really going on is that there’s a large population of demi-trolls on the internet who aren’t all that smart, and don’t have much to say that’s original or interesting, but who passionately want people to pay attention to them and act like their opinions are worth something. Mind the gap.*
This means they’re always in the market for universally applicable arguments. When they find one, they make excessive use of it. Some of them have discovered that causality is very hard to demonstrate. I wouldn’t say they understand the principles involved. They just know that people who do understand causality will stop in their tracks if you invoke it.
Some of their other all-purpose arguments and comments:
(Not a complete list.)It’s a slippery slope.
You’re arguing from emotion.
The internet changes everything.
I challenge you to prove me wrong.
I’m not going to do your research for you.
You wouldn’t react with this much hostility if I wasn’t right.
If you cared about this as much as I do, you’d be saying the same thing.
The ultimate in insanity is to keep doing the same things while expecting different results.
There’s an even easier way to spot Engber’s bête noire, Zyxwvutsr, as a demi-troll. Note this paragraph from one of Zyxwvutsr’s comments:
Engber … correctly noted that risky behavior causes bad health, but failed again to break out of the standard liberal paradigm that says the poor are not responsible for their own plight. He does this by citing a paper that “low income, education, powerlessness, discrimination, and social exclusion” cause risky behavior rather than the other way around.Stop and ask yourself: is there such a thing as a “standard liberal paradigm that says the poor are not responsible for their own plight”? There is not; so QED, you’ve got a troll or demi-troll using “wrong things liberals think, which I just invented on the spot or am parroting from some right-wing source” as an all-purpose argument.
Pinky swear: a whole lot of what appears to be right-wing grassroots argument online is actually doofs like Zyxwvutsr using “wrong things I fantasize liberals doing” as an all-purpose fill-in. Guys like him are generally clueless about what centrists, liberals, and leftists actually think, and their own ideologies are an incoherent patchwork of borrowed opinions. The one thing they’re sure about is that being a right-winger means they’re right — and they desperately want to be right, even if they’re not sure what they’re right about.*
So how do you deal with them? My favorite method is to calmly engage with the factual content of their comments. Correlation isn’t an on/off leap of faith; it’s a technique for assessing data. Talk about what it’s doing in this case.
One of the cute things about trolls and demi-trolls is that most of them have difficulty unpacking, extending, or modifying their sacred opinions. If you put them in a position where respect is clearly available, but the price is that they have to actually know and understand what they’re talking about, they’ll often just evaporate.
Is this a guaranteed technique? It is not. It’s merely a good one. But it sure as hell beats taking up arms against “correlation is not causality.”
(Note: a sketchy draft of this post accidentally went live a couple of mornings ago, then got taken down. Apologies to anyone who was confused by that.)
Comment #20, from James Moar:
“It’s a slippery slope”
Well, you’ve got to remember that if you use a slippery-slope argument once, you’ll end up using it for absolutely everything.