The Cigarette Wars - Judea Pearl The Book of Why - Joe Abittan

The Cigarette Wars

Recently I have been writing about Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why, in which Pearl asks if our reliance on statistics and our adherence to the idea correlation is not causation has gone too far in science. For most people, especially students getting into science and those who have studied politics, reiterating the idea that correlation does not imply causation is important. There are plenty of ways to misinterpret data and there is no shortage of individuals and interest groups who would love to have an official scientist improperly assign causation to a correlation for their own political and economic gain. However, Pearl uses the cigarette wars to show us that failing to acknowledge that correlations can imply causation can also be dangerous.
“The cigarette wars were science’s first confrontation with organized denialism, and no one was prepared,” writes Pearl. For decades there was ample evidence from different fields and different approaches linking cigarette smoking to cancer. However, it isn’t the case that every single person who smokes a cigarette gets cancer. We all know people who smoked for 30 years, and seem to have great lungs. Sadly, we also all know people who developed lung cancer but never smoked. The causation between cigarettes is not a perfect 1:1 correlation with lung cancer, and tobacco companies jumped on this fact.
For years, it was abundantly clear that smoking greatly increased the risk of lung cancer, but no one was willing to say that smoking caused lung cancer, because powerful interest groups aligned against the idea and conditioned policy-makers and the public to believe that in the case of smoking and lung cancer, correlation was not causation. The evidence was obvious, but built on statistical information and the organized denial was stronger. Who was to say if people more susceptible to lung cancer were also more susceptible to start smoking in the first place? Arguments such as these hindered people’s willingness to adopt the clear causal picture that cigarettes caused cancer. People hid behind a possibility that the overwhelming evidence was wrong.
Today we are in a similar situation with climate change and other issues. It is clear that statistics cannot give us a 100% certain answer to a causal question, and it is true that correlation is not necessarily a sign of causation, but at a certain point we have to accept when the evidence is overwhelming. We have to accept when causal models that are not 100% proven have overwhelming support. We have to be able to make decisions without being derailed by organized denialism that seizes on the fact that correlation does not imply causation, just to create doubt and confusion. Pearl’s warning is that failing to be better with how we think about and understand causality can have real consequences (lung cancer in the cigarette wars, and devastating climate impacts today), and that we should take those consequences seriously when we look at the statistics and data that helps us understand our world.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.