A Socially Responsible Method of Announcing Associations

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AG was involved in a discussion regarding the use of causal language in associational studies (one discussion among many, it should be noted.) The gist of his point was that we as scientists shouldn't use causal language if the analysis isn't causal in nature, like how a regression analysis yields partial correlations.

The trouble is, causal claims have an order to them (like "aliens cause cancer"), and so do most if not all human sentences ("I like ice cream"). It's all too tempting to read a non-directional association claim as if it were so -- my (least) favourite was a radio blowhard who said that in teens, cellphone use was linked with sexual activity, and without skipping a beat angrily proclaimed that giving kids a cell phone was tantamount to exposing them to STDs. Even the use of language like "linked" can be gently ignored by the professional reader if the word order is there.

So here's a modest proposal: when possible, beat back the causal assumption by presenting an associational idea in the order least likely to be given a causal interpretation by a layperson or radio host.

Trying it this way, a random Google News headline reads: "Prolonged Use of Pacifier Linked to Speech Problems" and strongly implies a cause and effect relationship, despite the (weak) disclaimer from the quoted authors. Reverse that and you've got "Speech Problems linked to Prolonged Use of Pacifier" which is less insinuating, at least to me.

P.S. Yes, it's tantamount to underselling your own research, but your scientific soul will be cleaner for it, and in the end I think the trend would have some small payoff to society.

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How to think about how to think about causality from Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science on October 29, 2009 8:30 AM

In suggesting "a socially responsible method of announcing associations," AT points out that, as much as we try to be rigorous about causal inference, assumptions slip in through our language: The trouble is, causal claims have an order to them... Read More

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