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Correlation is Not Causation


  • Jim Davis, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science 

“Correlation is not causation.” Generations of students have learned this mantra,
unquestioningly accepting its wisdom. However, ultimately we all want to answer the
causation question. Does smoking cause cancer? Does raising the minimum wage cause
unemployment to go up? Does early childhood trauma cause mental health issues in
adults? Does changing an intellectual property law cause more (or less) innovation?
Will hiring a diversity officer at a university cause the university to have a better record
on inclusivity? We can collect data to attempt to address these and many other
questions, but can we really have a methodology to answer the causality question?

Judea Pearl, a Turing Prize winner (the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science”), claims to
have a radically new approach that addresses exactly this question. In “The Book of
Why”, he outlines his approach. His interest started in a quest to create Artificial
Intelligence in a computer. Over decades of research in this area, he realized that
human’s abilities to reason using counterfactuals is perhaps what makes us so
successful in taming nature and organizing ourselves to do astonishing things like
putting a person on the moon. As he thought about how to build that ability into a
computer system, he was forced to “dumb down” so that he could incorporate causal
reasoning into an algorithm that a computer could implement. By going back to basics,
he claims to have found a general method that can be applied to engineering,
economics, epidemiology, and a vast array of other disciplines who want to determine

Since this topic has the potential for such wide applicability, we seek to recruit faculty
from all 5 schools, and even within all broad subcategories within those schools. 

FLC Participants:

  • Hank Chambers, Professor of Law
  • Kelling Donald, Professor of Chemistry
  • Geoff Goddu, Professor of Philosophy
  • Tim Hamilton, Associate Professor of Economics 
  • Matt Lowder, Assistant Professor of Psychology
  • Brannon McDaniel, Associate Professor of Philosophy 
  • Saif Mehkari, Associate Professor of Economics 
  • Kristen Osenga, Professor of Law 
  • Dan Palazzolo, Professor of Political Science
  • Bob Spires, Associate Professor of Graduate Education
  • Chris von Rueden, Associate Professor of Leadership Studies