Systemic Causation

This is the seventh post in the series “Linguistics and Cognitive Science in the Pursuit of Civil Discourse. Lakoff writes “Studying cognitive linguistics has its uses. Every language in the world has in its grammar a way to express direct causation. No language in the world has in its grammar a way to express systemic causation.”

There is a structure to systemic causation—four possible elements that can exist alone or in combination. Driving a complex, systemic problem, there can be one, two, three, or all four of these elements in play. Here is how they might apply to global warming.

A network of direct causes. (1) Global warming heats the Pacific Ocean. That means that the water molecules in the ocean get more active, move with more energy, evaporate more, and move in the air with more energy. (2) Winds in the high atmosphere over the ocean blow from southwest to northeast, blowing the larger amount of high-energy moisture over the pole. (3) In winter, the moisture turns to snow and comes down over the East Coast as a huge blizzard. Thus, global warming can systemically cause major blizzards.

Feedback loops. (1) The arctic ice pack reflects light and heat. (2) As the earth’s atmosphere heats up, the arctic ice pack melts and gets smaller. (3) The smaller amount of arctic ice reflects less light and heat, and more heat stays in the atmosphere. (4) The atmosphere gets warmer. (5) The feedback loop: Even more ice melts, even less ice is reflected, even more heat stays, even more ice melts, and on and on.

Multiple causes. Because of the interaction between the polar vortex and the jet stream, parts of the vortex move south into central North America causing abnormal freezing temperatures as far south as Oklahoma and Georgia.

Probabilistic causation. Many weather phenomena are probabilistic. What is caused is a probability distribution. Although you can’t predict whether a flipped coin will come down heads or tails, you can predict that over the course of a large number of flips, almost exactly 50% will come down heads and another 50% tails.

Systemic causation is common. 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, which are a systemic cause of abortions.

Because it is less obvious than direct causation, systemic causation is more important to understand. A systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require 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 tend 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. It also requires a name: systemic causation. And systemic causation can be developed to serve as a frame.

Consider how the scientists James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Reto Ruedy authors of “Perception of Climate Change” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences write, “…we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence warming was exceedingly small.”

Scientists have been trained to be guarded in their writing and to caveat any conclusions. You hear conservative politicians say they are not scientists but they do not believe in global warming because they have read studies on both sides. As has been explained in previous healthy memory blog posts, there is a highly paid industry of scientists and writers posing as scientists to make the arguments that industry wants to make. Politicians need to restrict their reading to the refereed scientific literature in reaching their conclusions. To avoid actually having to read the research, they can rely upon established reputable scientists in the field. For their part scientists should use the frame “systemic causation” and proceed from there.

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