Cause or Nonsense?

People like to believe that everything that happens is caused by something. That simple statement implies a level of certainty, that even if what happens is bad, it has happened for a purpose, and that purpose is, in the end, good.

Realistically, that’s what we call a hypothesis. It’s not a statement of fact. It’s very likely that a lot of things we experience happen by random chance. Think of rainbows — sometimes you see them, sometimes not, depending on the angle of sunlight and the amount of rain. We know what causes them, and when those causes come together, you see them. When they don’t, you don’t.

We live is a stochastic world, in which nothing is certain except change. Stochastic means that there is a probability that something will happen, but it is not certain. Take the Kentucky Derby this past weekend. Even if spooked by crowd noise, making a wide swing on the last turn has little probability of happening without intent. In fact, it almost never does. The track stewards knew that, and that made disqualification highly probable. Barnum was right, “you can fool some of the people some of the time . . . .” However, disqualification wasn’t certain until it was. Hence the suspense.

In an article today, “The Ladders” cited a survey comparing the lifestyles of early risers and nightowls.(1) Among other findings, the survey reported that early risers have higher salaries than do nightowls .

To restate that graphically:

Early rising ————————-> Higher income

Well, Ben Franklin did say that “early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” but does that witticism really make all that much sense.

Think of it another way:

For instance, if I work on Wall Street and live in this area, I’m probably going to be on a 6AM train into Manhattan in order to have time to review the morning reports before the market opens. And I make a lot more money than someone opening a retail store at 10 — say $500,000 per year versus $30,000 per year. However, there are truck drivers getting up at that same hour of the morning who make a lot less. Farmers get up even earlier and they are definitely not rich. The Wall Streeters make so much as to skew the averages.

So being a morning person doesn’t make you rich. Being a morning person who works in finance does. The morning element is a requirement for working in finance, not for being rich.

So saying that being a morning person makes one wealthy is a silly statement. Working in Wall Street can make you wealthy. That Wall Street requires workers to show up early is a requirement of the job, not a cause of wealth. Sorry, Ben!

The lesson here is about causality. The fact two things occur in tandem (being and early riser and having a higher income) doesn’t mean they are directly related. They may in fact be totally unrelated, or both caused by something entirely different.

And that is why politicians and nutrition researchers make so many inane statements. They tend to assume causality whenever two items appear to occur together, even if there is no logical way for the two things to impact each other. You, Dear Reader, need to be brighter than that.



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