by Judith Curry
George Lakoff has just thrown a big can of worms into the global warming debate:
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.
Lakoff’s Salon article is entitled Hurricane Sandy: Global Warming, Pure and Simple, subtitled We can dance around the issue all we want, but climate change was the storm’s systemic cause. Excerpts:
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. 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.
Global warming systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy. Global warming heated the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water. When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy.
The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident. But systemic causation is nonetheless causal.
One can go further than that. Systemic causation is all over. Quantum Physics itself is systemic. That was its most baffling aspect. Whereas Classical Mechanics used direct causation, Quantum Mechanics did not. Quantum Physics is all about inferring the singular, from the whole.
Nor did the modern statistical mechanics advocated by the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann. [Planck] postulated that energy was only sent by packets (“quanta”) provided with a process explaining the observed blackbody radiation, and the non occurrence of the “ultra violet catastrophe“.
Notice that Planck introduced the “Quanta of Light” (Lichtquanta”) as an unknown mechanism. The greatest strides in science are not made by connecting causality what is known to what is known. Great strides come from postulating a meta-phenomenon, something outside of the realm of what is known.The fundamental axiom of the Quantum is that it is processed by the entire system it can access (and partly penetrate, as it’s made of waves).
The fundamental practical axiom of the Quantum is that it is processed by the entire system it can access (and partly penetrate, as it’s made of waves).
Interestingly the greatest minds (including Einstein) had a very hard time to understand this. Even the Copenhagen School (Bohr, Heisenberg, etc.) did not really understand it fully.
If the Quantum itself is systemic, it’s not surprising that nature is systemic.
How is the Quantum systemic? Through the interference of waves. That is the fundamental axiom of Quantum Physics, the De Broglie axiom: any matter is guided by a wave whose frequency is determined by the momentum-energy of said matter (it’s then not too clear what’s matter, and what’s a wave, or a bump in the night, a charming difficulty of particle physics).
Waves can interfere constructively, or destructively, or somewhere in between. So think of systematic causation as such a thing. It makes sense, even in detail.
For example smoking causes cancer after the smoke interferes with inhaling, or not and various waves of diet and genetics and epigenetics, and immunological competency, and what not. So many causal waves give haphazard looking interference patterns. The same thing happens in a hurricane.
Ultimately there are no causes, but for waves interfering: that image applies extremely well to hurricanes. In particular Atlantic hurricanes originate as the spawning of easterly waves.
WebMink has this to say:
There are two views of the place of “cause and effect” in the world. One believes in direct causality, the other in systemic causality. Both are correct much of the time, so the difference between them rests beneath the surface of most realities. Both are tools in guiding behaviour and predicting consequences and have value as a “lens” to bring decision-making into focus; neither is inherently deprecated.
In most circumstances, direct causality seems the obvious interpretative lens for the past and predictive lens for the future. We are most comfortable when we can draw clear circles around causes and thick lines between them and their consequences. We admire the “chess players” of society who can draw long chains of clear circles and thick lines; for most of us the ability to mentally calculate chains of cause and effect is limited to only a few steps.
But certain systems involve a longer chain of lesser causes and effects that makes a focus on the individual steps unhelpful. Things like evolution, national economics, global warming and terrorist motivations all need a systemic view if they are to be properly understood. A focus on what the individual can prove directly themselves in these cases may well lead to bad choices. These systems are especially difficult for people with “just do it” attitudes, who find it hard to take “on faith” that they should act in a contrarian way because of a larger system which can’t be seen and computed in its entirety.
When our outlook is dominated by direct causality, we seek control over causes. When our outlook is dominated by systemic causality, we seek influence over the network of causes and effects. In many simpler cases, both outlooks lead to the same decision. But as we have moved to a meshed society, the importance of systemic causality has risen. Every cause has an immediate effect, but to believe that effect is the only consequence is increasingly a risk.
If the distance to the effect we seek is short, and that effect is the only outcome that matters, control is obviously desirable. But if the distance to the desired effect is large and filled with many connections, it’s better to collaborate and co-operate with other participants and prioritise influence over control.
Lubos Motl picks up on this:
But I want to continue with my second topic, namely the right of “systemic causes” to lead to bans. Are bans justified by “systemic causes” i.e. causes that only affect undesirable effects probabilistically desirable and compatible with some legal principles of civilized countries based on the rule of law? I would say that the answer is mostly No and if it’s Yes, it shouldn’t be “complete bans” and the legislation behind some “incentives” shouldn’t be dogmatic but it should be based on a careful cost-and-benefit analysis.
In 2006, I discussed an important legal technicality, the standing doctrine:
It says that the plaintiff in front of the federal courts must show that her injury is “concrete and particularized” as well as “actual or imminent”. The founding fathers wrote these wise sentences exactly in order to make things like suppression of the freedom of speech or suppression of life and the work of companies with the help of hypothetical accusations impossible.
Using Mr Lakoff’s new terms, a person who thinks he has been affected by a “systemic cause” has no standing in the federal courts! Indeed, it’s very important that only “direct causes” may be used as arguments against a “culprit”. Mr Lakoff’s suggestion that we should suddenly start to fight against “systemic causes”, i.e. against all kinds of acts and events that have been hypothesized to increase the chance of some undesirable “systemic consequences”, is therefore extremely dangerous for the life in the U.S. and elsewhere. Such a program would have a huge potential to restrict the very basic freedoms of the citizens and corporations – well, indeed, this may be the very goal of Mr Lakoff and his comrades.
I’ve tried to find some scholarly works on the idea of systemic causation, here is a link to an article by L. Michael Hall, subtitled The non-Aristotelian System Thinking About ‘Causation’ in Complex Systems. Ah, now that is something we can sink our teeth into.
This leads us into holistic non-elementism, extensional devices, non-allness, non-identity, self-reflexiveness, probability, and to-me-ness. Too much to dig into here, but I will quote him on to-me-ness, since it seems particularly relevant here:
Each of us symbolizes in our own nervous system, from our own experience, and hence speaks our own language. We each have our own personal version of “reality.” Starting with this realization we can thereby avoid assuming and projecting our maps onto others.
Back to Sandy
NPR has an interesting article Insurance Companies Rethink Business After Sandy. Excerpts:
Peter Hoppe heads the Geo Risks Research center for Munich Re, a global company that insures other insurers. His company put out a report just before Sandy warning that North America will face a rising number of natural catastrophes due in part to greenhouse gas emissions.
“We believe that climate change is a big problem and will drive losses in the future,” Hoppe says.
He says there is no evidence climate change caused Hurricane Sandy. But, he says, it doesn’t matter whether insurers believe in man-made climate change. His report says the number of weather-related events nearly quintupled in North America over the past three decades. And that means premiums will increase in the long run if exposure continues to increase.
She says after Hurricane Katrina — the most expensive of all documented storms — some predicted a warming cycle would produce more powerful storms. That forecast did not bear out.
“It just shows you that we just are not that smart, you know, when it comes to what’s really going on,” Clark says.
Bill Keogh, president of Eqecat, one of the major risk-modeling firms in the U.S., says that despite what it may seem, we are now in a statistically low period of hurricane activity. After Katrina, few powerful hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S.
That is not to say Sandy won’t change the way insurance companies assess their weather risks.
“Risk models change all the time, and they change when we have new information,” Keogh says.
That’s especially true when that information is unusual. And Sandy was unusual because it hit the Northeast, as few hurricanes do, and because it veered inland, instead of toward the ocean. That information from Sandy, Keogh says, will shape views about the probability of future risks. But probability is not the same as a crystal-ball prediction.
The only thing we can do, insurers say, is build our buildings safer, and better prepare for what will eventually come.
JC note: for more than a year, I have been collecting material on causation, I have been planning my next ‘series’ on this topic, analogous to the uncertainty series. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to spend on this, but Lakoff’s article is an interesting and timely intro to the topic.