Published in the "Letters" column, Science News, v. 128, p. 109, Aug. 17, 1985

Causal Chain Challenged

With regard to the July 20, 1985 Biomedicine article "Guns or Babies", as has happened in a variety of your articles which I've read in the past, a strong favoritism is given to one particular causal explanation of a correlation. While it is likely that this favoritism accurately reports the orientation of whoever was interviewed for the article, I suspect Science News might concern itself a bit more with alternatives in the name of objectivity.

When a correlation between two factors is detected, assuming the correlation is not accidental, there can exist one or more of three causal relationships: A causes B, B causes A, and/or A and B are both caused by C. In the recent article, attention was paid to the idea that increased military spending reduces social services funding so that health care or other correlates with low infant mortality suffer (A causes B), and the death rate rises. No alternatives to this causal chain were mentioned or proposed.

If we look for a reversal of this hypothetical causal chain (B causes A), we could speculate that in a society with high infant mortality (a lot of parents losing their children, perhaps due to underdevelopment of local medical or sanitation services or prevalent local disease), there may exist a relatively high amount of personal anger, frustration, fear, and disillusionment and a general societal belief that life is essentially more hostile than it may be believed to be elsewhere. These emotions and beliefs may result in society-wide attitudes which are manifest in increased attention to military armament.

Looking for an instance of explanation for the third type of causal chain for this correlation (A and B are both caused by C), we might wonder if militarism and infant mortality could both have their roots in an economy of scarcity, which may exist for ecological or historical reasons, and which results in both insufficient health care resources and an overly strong society-wide sense of the need for self-protection (coupled with genuine fear on the part of the rulership).

For each of these possibilities, the solutions sought in order to remedy the problem or improve the situation would be different. In order for any such attempts to be maximally effective, all causal chains which have not been ruled out deserve consideration.

Over the years of my subscription, I've been through such mental scenarios with a variety of your articles. Science News is a fine magazine which owes it to its relatively intelligent readership to either balance or explain any bias toward one of several possible causal chains for any detected correlation.


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