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Causality as child’s play

from Asad Zaman

1      THE DILEMMA OF CAUSALITY

Tips for teaching your child to play nicely with others | Boys TownStudy of causality confronts us with a huge dilemma. Intense controversy has raged for centuries over this topic among the philosophers. At the same time, studies of child development show that infants learn about causal concepts almost from birth, and toddlers have a sophisticated approach to causality. How can causality be easily understood by babies, but remain confusing and complicated to the best philosophers for centuries? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that philosophical approaches serve as a basis for empirical data analysis in statistics and econometrics. Even though correct estimation of causal effects is essential for policy, widely used econometric textbooks are deeply defective in their approaches to causality.

Angrist and Pischke (2017) examine leading popular econometrics textbooks and conclude that these are based on an outmoded paradigm which ignores causality. They call for a pedagogical paradigm shift. Chen and Pearl (2013) also examine six leading econometrics textbooks and come to the same conclusion: these textbooks fail to explain central causal concepts with any degree of clarity. Even though Angrist and Pischke agree with Chen and Pearl on the diagnosis, the two sets of authors offer radically different remedies. Since the 1990’s Pearl and his group have been arguing for an approach based on Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs) as central to understanding causality. Angrist and Pischke (2008, 2013) have written two econometrics textbooks which exposit causality using a “Potential Outcomes” approach, and make no mention of DAGs. Thus, while everyone agrees that causality is very poorly handled in econometrics, there is no agreement about the solution to this problem. This has serious implications since philosophical controversies about causality ramify to the policy context involving real data and applications.  read more

  1. Gerald Holtham
    November 27, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    Interesting piece but it deals with how causality is recognised. It treats causality as a basic notion not itself susceptible to analysis. It’s there, we just have to find it. A necessitarian view of causality that makes as much sense of the concept as any is owed to J L Mackie, not cited by Asad..

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