The topic of causation is anything but simple, and cognitive linguist George Lakoff has for years been describing and propagating the phrase “systemic causation.”
Here’s Lakoff in a new post, linking Sandy to climate change:
Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy – and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.
Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.
There is a difference between systemic and direct causation. Punching someone in the nose is direct causation. Throwing a rock through a window is direct causation. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation. Any application of force to something or someone that always produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation. When causation is direct, the word cause is unproblematic.
Systemic causation, because it is less obvious, is more important to understand. A systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require some special conditions. It may be indirect, working through a network of more direct causes. It may be probabilistic, occurring with a significantly high probability. It may require a feedback mechanism. In general, causation in ecosystems, biological systems, economic systems, and social systems tends not to be direct, but is no less causal. And because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled.
Above all, it requires a name: systemic causation.
This concept has of course been central to systems thinking, though more obliquely presented in, say, causal loop diagrams. So I wondered about responses to Lakoff from people in the field. Here are two:
- Linda Booth Sweeney praises Lakoff’s use of the phrase in an earlier article, The Obama Code, and uses a “fixes that fail” story to illustrate how a misplaced emphasis on direct causation can have unintended consequences.
- Don Mikulecky has a presentation on Robert Rosen and George Lakoff: The Role of Causality in Complex Systems, finding their views consistent and complementary.
- Interestingly — no reference to Lakoff in this one — L. Michael Hall has a post on The Non-Aristotelian Systemic Thinking about “Causation” in Complex Systems, using “causation” with quotation marks and tracing our understandings of its systemic nature to Alfred Korzybski.
Meanwhile, as to the probabilistic nature of causal links between climate change and Sandy, Andy Revkin finds (perhaps unsurprisingly) a lot of back and forth among scientists and other knowledgeable parties. His posts are: The #Frankenstorm in Climate Context and Two Views of a Superstorm in Climate Context.