Causal Analysis: an Exercise
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
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edited 4/20/14

One problem with informal analyses of cause is that what we might in one situation designate as "the" cause of an outcome of interest may have more to do with our interest than with a demonstrable regularity between two variables.

We might, for example, explain our car's difficulty starting as being caused by our negligence in leaving the lights on while the engine wasn't running. But just as useful -- and less embarrasing -- might be the explanation, "the car won't start easily because the battery's weak."

However, even this explanation assumes that certain other "background" conditions obtain, e.g. the battery connections are not corroded, the fuses are good, etc. Note that these "background" conditions are just as directly related to the ease with which our car starts as the strength of the battery. It is the focus of our attention that decides what is a "primary cause" and what is a "background condition."

Exercise: For the causal hypothesis given below, identify other "background conditions" that are assumed "normal." Identify variables. Which are most linearly related to the "effect" under discussion?
 

Hypothesis
"Background" Conditions
(supporting the hypothesis)
Variables
1. The hall light won't go on because the bulb is blown. Wiring OK. Electric flow into house OK. Switch OK. Service area grid functioning. Bulb socket functioning. Condition of bulb. Position of switch. "Background" conditions (assumed to have appropriate values).
2. Your are burned because you sunbathed at noon.
 

 
 
3. Your joints ache from too much exercise.
 

 
4. He failed because he didn't study.    
5. He's overweight because he eats too much.    

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