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When Cause and Effect Chase Each Other’s Tails (Unpublished)

February 26th, 2012 by dk

It’s not every day that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams agree.

Last Thursday, Dilbert was shown walking with a female coworker. She: “Someday I want to get married because studies show that married people are happier.” He: “A smarter interpretation is that no one wants to marry an unhappy person.”

On the same day, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Krugman responded to Charles Murray’s controversial new book “Coming Apart,” which shows how the erosion of white lower class morals have made them less employable. (Krugman’s column, along with a feature about Murray’s book, appeared in The Register-Guard on Sunday.)

Krugman argued, along with Dilbert, that cause and effect should be reversed. White lower class morals have eroded because that male population has lost meaningful and secure employment, not the other way around. Happy people make more attractive mates.

Which is the cause? Which is the effect? Each is both.

Welcome to the world as we don’t yet know it — a world that starts to resemble a hall of mirrors, where nothing is really as it seems. We love the linear world of cause and effect, but the world we inhabit is not so straightforward. It is in fact, curvaceous. Physicists long have speculated that if you shot a bullet straight ahead and it could travel forever with no friction or obstruction, the bullet eventually would pierce the back of your head.

For longer than any of us have been alive, we’ve pursued precision because our tools have enabled us. But we’ve forgotten that the most precise answer may not be the most accurate. Measurement is no substitute for observation. A new view of the world around and within is dawning on us — less precise, more accurate; less factual, more true.

Our own sports columnist George Schroeder referred to it after the Ducks blew out the Huskies last Thursday. He detailed how the home team combined confidence and competence, each feeding the other to provide “the momentum to fuel an unexpected rout.”

Did the rout start with competence or confidence? Yes. Or was it the momentum from the two together? Yes again.

Economists call this dynamic a “virtuous circle,” and our nation’s economy is showing the first hints of its return. Consumers feel more confident about their economic prospects, so they spend more money. Industries respond to the increase in demand by hiring more people, making more people more confident, who spend more money, creating more demand.

When the circle heads downward, it’s called “a vicious circle.” Miserly self-protection makes everyone poorer, including the miser. Violence begets violence.

Self-awareness and imagination conspire to foil the simple cause-and-effect linearity.

Douglas Hofstadter, also a Pulitzer Prize winner (and a Duck — he received his PhD in Physics from the University of Oregon in 1975), coined a term for when things turn in on themselves like this. He called them “strange loops.” He found them everywhere — in math, in music, in visual art.

When you really pay attention, the world reveals itself as loopy, and strange. What if the entire universe offers no conclusive (and comforting) certainty, no determinism — only probability and sometimes prohibitive odds?

Unhappy people sometimes do marry. Poor people sometimes do rise above their cultural circumstances — just not often enough to skew the statistics. Or they are matched by people who had the advantages and didn’t make good with them.

Are statistics then useless? That depends on their use. Statistics can describe, but cannot determine. People remain free to defy the statistics, as they defy other odds. Something allows individuals to transcend the expectations that patterns and probability exert on them.

You know it yourself. When the odds are against you, you try harder.

Speaking of trying harder, this column has contained more philosophy than you expect from the opinion page, so I’ll end with a more familiar source for philosophical reflections — our football coaches.

UO football coach Mike Bellotti once was asked whether he thought his team had any chance of beating a particularly dominant USC team. He paused, smiled, and replied, “We’ll find out tomorrow. That’s why we play the game.”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at He owns a copy of Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach” but has never gotten past the first 50 pages.

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