Cause and Effect

Visualizing cause and effect

Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.         —  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The REALLY BIG QUESTION: What is Cause and Effect?

Tis evident that all reasoning concerning matters of fact are founded on the relation of cause and effect.
— John Maynard Keyes and Piero Sraffa

We have been taught about cause and effect since before we could walk or talk. Dropping a rubber ball causes it to bounce. Dropping something made of glass causes it to break. Smiling at someone causes them to smile back. Reaching out our arms causes Mommy or one of the grownups to pick us up.

Scientists have shown that if you roll a ball behind a sofa where we cannot see it, a baby expects to see it roll out the other side and, if you have blocked the ball, the babies looked puzzled and keep watching for the ball. The ideas of cause and effect are one of the most basic ways we have of making sense of the world. We all THINK that we understand it. One thing does something that causes another thing to move.

It is a common error to infer that things which are consecutive in order of time have necessarily the relationship of cause and effect.  —  Jacob Bigelow

Philosophers through the years, however, disagree on what cause and effect mean

Each time one philosopher explains the details of cause and effect, the others try to tear it apart. I will rephrase a little of what David Hume wrote (four of his eight ways to judge if a relationship is  one of cause and effect..

1. The cause and the effect must be present in the same time and place. This means that when my parent dies thousands of miles away, it is not actually the cause of my tears.

2. The cause must take place before the result.  I have no problem with this one.

3. The cause and the effect must remain together.  This would mean that the explosions during war that (cause) lead to a soldier developing PTSD either are not really the cause or the soldier immediately developed PTSD but didn’t realize it for many months.

4. The same cause always leads to the same effect and the same effect never arises but from the same cause.  This makes no sense at all. There are many causes of the single effect: death. There are a variety of causes that can total a car (hit by a truck, driving off a cliff, driver hits a tree.) There are many forces that can cause a book to fall off a table.

The first idea that actually came to mind is that having sex causes a woman to get pregnant. (That must have taken early human beings a long time to figure out, but women who had not been with a man never had babies. But, according to Hume, the same cause ALWAYS has the same effect. We must be wrong. Having sex doesn’t always result in pregnancy. Therefore sex is NOT the cause of pregnancy. We might rationalize this by suggesting that sex always results in pregnancy but sometimes the tiny baby inside must die.

Cause and Effect are understood differently in different fields of study

In the area of logic, they try to relate them in terms of logical statements. In most areas of science, we attempt to prove a cause through experiments. Does this virus cause that disease?  We can only say yes when we find adequate evidence.

In sciences like Geology or Astronomy, we still based our ideas of cause and effect on evidence that we have collected by rarely are able to use actual experiments. We might create a theory or prediction and when new events happen that agree with this theory or prediction, we might say this has shown the idea to be true.

In the social sciences, surprisingly, they are using experimental evidence more now than in the past. But they continue to say things like “The main causes of this war were  ….”  Scientifically, none of these things really CAUSED the war. There might have been reasons why individuals made the choice to fight in the war.

Instead of referring to cause and effect,
 I think we should generally refer to reasons and the situation.

 Visual Organizers to describe Cause and Effect (Reasons and Situations)

The most commonly described graphic for visualizing cause and effect in the Ishikawa diagram, usually referred to as the fish-bone or herring-bone diagram. There are many forms of this image. Here is a simple version.  The fish head includes the situation. It can be a problem or something positive. A Fishbone cause and effect chart on topic of poor grades

Poor grades is obviously a problem.  The fish bones are used to list the causes or reasons. I put the these at the end of the line instead of writing diagonally down the line.

The next level – the “reasons for the causes” – are on horizontal lines. Some people add branches off these lines to explain at the next level.

Use it if you find it helpful. I confess I’d never use it. I would prefer a more simple visual. I’d call it a cause and effect chain, or a situation and reasons chain.

Sometimes there is a single chain. In this case, as single chain would be:   Carlotta says I was sick last week — so I got behind in my reading — so I was reading later than usual last night — so I got to sleep really late — so I slept late this morning –So I ate breakfast too fast — So I got to class late — so I’m upset and I feel like crying.

Here is an example of a more complex chain (and no, you wouldn’t need to put words in boxes):A complex chain chart showing the same problem: why she feels like crying

Here there are sometimes several reasons that contribute to the next level of problem.

Most of the time you can trace back the reason why you are upset  or why something happened, without needing to write any of this down.

Usually, if it isn’t completely clear already, you can simply trace the reasons for the problem mentally. You probably have a good idea how it all began.

We are, however, using very simple cause and effect situations here because the point isn’t to actually discover how to find the causes (reasons) or solve a problem, it is simply to see how it can be visualized.

Another form of a cause and effect chart with simple branchingAnother possible visual that might even be easier to use is something like this branching chart.

Here we see that Ben’s situation is that he is making terrible grades. When asked the causes  (reasons) for the problem, Ben lists three: missing classes, not enough studying, and that he doesn’t understand the material. When asked the reasons for each of these, he comes up with further reasons. Here, since this is a problem, he ends by coming up with possible solutions.

If the situation had been that the team won a football game, you could still investigate the causes (reasons why) so the team would know what they had done that helped this time, and would continue to do this for future games.

Cause and effect are two sides of one fact. —   Ralph Waldo Emerson

How can you actually use a cause and effect (reasons & situation)strategy?

These strategies are most commonly used in business. They might have a new product that isn’t selling or and old product that is not selling as well as before. The first questions is whether the cause of the problem is the product itself, if there is new competition that is taking away customers, or if the problem is in the packaging or advertising. Companies pay people who spend many months studying the problem.

A few years ago in one of those discount stores that sell items that aren’t selling well in major stores, we found cans of tomato soup. Even better, this tomato soup was made with yellow tomatoes – which don’t have as much acid as the red tomatoes. We tried some and it was delicious. It was obvious, however, why they hadn’t been selling. Their labels were yellow and we all associate tomato soup with bright red labels. I also suspect that the idea of “Yellow tomato soup just didn’t sound appealing. I would have used the usual red labels with a bright gold star and a line saying “made with sweeter gold tomatoes.” The word “gold” sounds valuable while yellow sounds anemic.

On campus, you might be part of an organization whose membership has dropped. Someone might say, “For the past fifteen years, the Food for the Hungry club has always had 30-50 members. This year we are down to just 7 members and most of us are juniors and seniors. What is the problem? Is there something we are doing wrong? Are younger students just not interested in making a difference? What would we need to do differently to attract new members?” Problems like there aren’t as easy to explain as the simple ideas I started with.

A football team might ask similar questions. “This team has won most of their games for years. This year we’ve lost all but two games. What is causing this problem? Is the cause that we are getting new team members that aren’t as talented? Are we the same as before while our competitors are developing new strategies? Is the coach not as effective now that he’s getting older? We have a lot of players who are injured. Do we need better safety procedures?

Eudora Welty, a well-known author, said:

Writing a story or novel is one way of discovering a sequence in experience, of stumbling on cause and effect in the happening of a writer’s own life.

We may not need to write a book to focus on the cause and effect (reasons for the situation) in our own lives.

Tina  has had seven different boyfriends in the past three months. In every case, within a few weeks, the boys broke up with her without any explanation. Tina really want to know the cause of this problem. Is she attracting the wrong sort of boys? Is she saying or doing something that turns them off? Does she have bad breath? What is wrong ? Like Welty, Tina needs to find the cause and effect in what’s happening in her life.

Marcus got a C on his term paper in spite of working very hard on it. He needs to know the cause of (reasons for) this grade so he can do better in the future. He can study the paper and see what he could have done better. He can ask advice from friends. He can talk to the professor saying, “I’m not here to complain about my grade, but I can’t figure out how I could have done better. Will you help me understand so I can do a better job in the future?” Without knowing the reasons for his poor grade, Marcus is not likely to improve.

Using Cause and Effect (Reasons and Situation) to organize information

In science, you might examine the experiment methods that were used. You might examine the evidence to see if there is a clear cause and effect or if this result occurs more than half of the time. If the problem was an actual cause, why didn’t they get the same result all the time?  As you read, you might also ask yourself, “I wonder how they proved this? How would I have investigated this topic.” For example, how did researcher discover the amazing reproductive method in slipper shells. (One of my favorite sex stories to keep biology students awake.)

In history, political science, sociology, etc, there are many areas where a cause is not well known. Books tell us the causes (as interpreted by historians) for wars and other events. But You might argue for additional causes. Students might also study events that are less well known and try to determine the causes or reasons for these events.

In literature, as Welty said, a good author has thought through the chain of cause and effect. You might, as you read, try to find those patterns. In political science or history, look for the causes of ( or reasons for) election results. In Economics, look for the causes of (or reasons for) the changing price of gas or for the changes in the stock market. Are the causes today the same as the causes ten years ago?

In any textbook, you can look at the author’s conclusion as ask yourself, “How did the author reach this conclusion?

When you write a paper, and write your own conclusion, go back and make sure that you have explained the chain of facts and reasoning (the causes) that led you to this conclusion.

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