The Screening-Off Effect

Sometimes to our great benefit, and sometimes to our detriment, humans like to put things into categories – at least Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) people do. We break things into component parts and categorize each part as belonging to a category of thing. We do this with things like planets, animals, and players within sports. We like established categories and dislike when our categorization changes. This ability has greatly helped us in science and strategic planning, allowing our species to do incredible things and learn crucial lessons about the world. What is remarkable about this ability is how natural and easy it is for us, but how hard it is to explain or program into a machine.
One component of this remarkable ability is referred to as the screening-off effect by Judea Pearl in The Book of Why. Pearl writes, “how do we decide which information to disregard, when every new piece of information changes the boundary between the relevant and the irrelevant? For humans, this understanding comes naturally. Even three-year-old toddlers understand the screening-off effect, though they don’t have a name for it. … But machines do not have this instinct, which is one reason that we equip them with causal diagrams.”
From a young age we know what information is the most important and what information we can ignore. We intuitively have a good sense for when we should seek out more information and when we have enough to make a decision (although sometimes we don’t follow this intuitive sense). We know there is always more information out there, but don’t have time to seek out every piece of information possible. Luckily, the screening-off effect helps us know when to stop and makes decision-making possible for us.
Beyond knowing when to stop, the screening-off effect helps us know when to ignore irrelevant information. The price of tea in China isn’t a relevant factor for us when deciding what time to wake up the next morning. We recognize that there are no meaningful causal pathways between the price of tea and the best time for us to wake up. This causal insight, however, doesn’t exist for machines that are only programmed with the specific statistics we build into them. We specifically have to code a causal pathway that doesn’t include the price of tea in China for a machine to know that it can ignore that information. The screening-off effect, Pearl explains, is part of what allows humans to think causally. In cutting edge science there are many factors we wouldn’t think to screen out that may impact the results of scientific experiments, but for the most part, we know what can be ignored and can look at the world around us through a causal lens because we know what is and is not important.

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