A Short Explanation of Blame and Causation

The patient, Bob, died due to severe internal bleeding, loss of consciousness following a blunt force trauma. Bob died because he was hit by a car when he ran over the bridge from behind a wall into the cross-street. John was guilty of negligent homicide because he was drunk when he hit Bob while driving. John ran over Bob because when Bob ran into the street, he couldn’t hit the brakes in time.

Multiple Choice Questions:

  1. Why did Bob die?
    A) The laws of physics
    B) John’s wife left him and he’s been depressed
    C) Policy makers have failed to expedite to adoption of self-driving cars
    D) It was karma for ignoring a drowning child in the river
  2. Why did the writer propose different explanations for Bob’s death?
    A) To illustrate the meaningless of causation in a complex world
    B) He wasn’t sure which was correct
    C) He was being paid by the word
    D) Meaning is tied to purely subjective interpretation, so any one explanation can be correct for the reader

So how do explanations compete for the title of “cause” in informal discussion? It should be clear that “cause” is a meaningful term; we can define it rigorously, but its meaning depends on context. Medically, the first sentence is sufficient; “almost all transportation fatalities… result from blunt force trauma.” This is a form of disguised query, and once we know the goal of the discussion, whether legal, moral, or religious, we can attribute cause. The cause is unclear only because informal discussion and made-up context-less quotations don’t have clear definitions of goals or model levels.

But dependence on goals or model levels needn’t make causes unclear; context and thought can reveal that the author wished to illustrate the reasonableness of varying explanations. If the question is legal, the correct model is different than if the question is religious, or medical.

Blame is not a useful concept in most discussions. Instead, the question is what causal mechanism is relevant for imposing the desired state of the world. If you can get regulators to approve model cars, answer C is relevant, and if you can change human biology, answer A becomes critical instead.

What question we are trying to answer itself the disguised query in many discussions; we incorrectly assume the meaning of cause in a given situation is a single similarity cluster. Instead, the meaning of cause is a set of different causal models depending on the purpose of discussion. In John’s trial, all four of the answers to the first question are irrelevant to the jury’s deliberations of guilt. In rehabilitating John, his depression and his feelings about Bob and the drowning child may be critical. In each case, there is a concrete decision to be made. In one case, the implications of physics on medicine is irrelevant, legal culpability is critical. In the other, technological policy is irrelevant, but self-imposed moral blame is critical.

And hopefully that explanation dissolves the earlier questions.


Goodhart’s law, Changing Wikipedia, and the Hawthorne Effect

I’ve been interested in Goodhart’s law for a long time, and in the past couple years even wrote a few articles about it. So I’ve left a column on Tweetdeck running with a search for Goodhart’s law, to see how it is used and discussed.

If you’re not familiar, the popular paraphrase of Goodhart’s law is “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” This quote bothered me for a long time, since it is a significant generalization of Goodhart’s original phrasing, “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” This was confusing until I saw a tweet saying that the popular paraphrase is known as “Strathern’s Variation,” and I found that others had noted the same thing. This prompted me to investigate.

Digging through the Wikipedia edit history, I found a reference to Strathern that had since been edited out, citing a 2007 publication, “Wireless Communications: The Future.” This wasn’t available online, and I was fairly sure I had seen the quote before then anyways. Digging, I found the origninal source; a 1997 paper by Strathern. So on August 4th, I edited Wikipedia to include the fact that the frequently quoted paraphrase of Goodhart’s law is actually hers, and added a link.

From August 1st-4th, I count 14 mentions of the term “Goodharts Law” on Twitter. That’s probably par for the course; it gets mentioned around 100 times a month. But before August, I can find 1 time that Strathern has been mentioned referring to the quote this year — the one prompting my investigation — as opposed to 3 in the month ending September 2nd — and another several dozen in the week since due to bots retweeting a Techcrunch article that leads with the quote. This isn’t yet statistically significant, but it’s an interesting impact to notice.

The problem with writing this article, then, is that it brings further attention to the issue — and that highlights the difference between Goodhart’s law and the Hawthorne Effect, an earlier and simpler claim that paying attention affects measurement. The appearance of the article potentially warps how well my measure represents the effect of the original edit, but it’s not placing any pressure on the measure.

Yes, it’s true — people use the Internet!

Imagine I told you the following statistics;

  • From 2013 to 2014, the total percent of high school class reunions organized online jumped from 47 percent to 76 percent. In 2015, this figure rose to 90 percent. While falling to 43 percent in 2016, it rose again to 83 percent of cases as of September 2017.
  • More than four in 10 class reunion attendees in the United States in the past 15 years either maintained a social media account where they posted material about reunions or interacted with classmates; in recent years, an active online presence has been almost universal among reunion planners and attendees.
  • In 129 cases surveyed, we found zero high school class reunions were planned in person. Of the 129 cases, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing information online and, in a smaller number of cases, engaging in online conversations about class reunions.
  • Instead, planners were sometimes in touch via Twitter or other messaging platforms. High schools in many cases offered support online, and staff communicated with the planners. Many attendees were not graduates of the schools in question, but instead were later revealed to have close ties with those who were.

Would you be surprised?

I hope not.

You might wonder why anyone bothered asking the question, given that internet usage and social media is universal nowadays.

OK, now look at a slightly different analysis, by the New America Foundation ;

  • “From 2013 to 2014, the total percent of… extremists who radicalized online jumped from 47 percent to 76 percent. In 2015, this figure rose to 90 percent. While falling to 43 percent in 2016, it rose again to 83 percent of cases as of September 2017.”
  • “Today’s extremists in the United States radicalize online, and the internet knows no visa requirements. More than four in 10 jihadists in the United States since 9/11 either maintained a social media account where they posted jihadist material or interacted with extremists via encrypted communications; in recent years, an active online presence has been almost universal among American jihadists.”
  • “A key characteristic that ties together American militants drawn to the Syrian conflict is that they are active in online jihadist circles. Of the 129 individuals, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing jihadist propaganda online and, in a smaller number of cases, engaging in online conversations with militants abroad.”
  • “ ISIS and its affiliates have also reached out via online communication to encourage and enable attacks. There are attacks by individuals and small groups of individuals who do not have any known link to ISIS, its affiliates or its online networks, yet who are inspired by ISIS and its cause to commit acts of violence.”

Does it matter that Jihadis use the internet? Yes. But we can stop pretending to be surprised that they have taken to using a nearly universal tool. Instead, we can treat the internet the way we do any other domain; it can be used for good and bad things, and it’s unlikely that you can do much about the latter without affecting the former.