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Friday May 24, 2024
My Turn:
Causality and Correlation
Vol: 1 Num: 1    Winter 2006
Is high school graduation only related to what seniors do in their young lives or does the chain of causality go all the way back to BIG BANG?

As a long time student of Econometrics, I am very familiar with the notion that causality is much more elusive than correlation. In fact, pure theorists say that causality is nearly impossible to prove, which I generally accept. Exceptions do, however, exist.

A class of problems where one may find causality easier to “prove” is where interconnected events happen over time. My daughter’s recent graduation from high school was an example of this class of problems.

Graduation from high school is a big event for children and for parents. At this time of the year, we may not yet be in the grip of next year’s ‘graduation fever’. Like cohabiting ducks in a lake, however, we will become silent, or not so silent, witnesses to the frantic activities on home computers in basement underworlds where college essays will be crafted and re-crafted. Graduating seniors will consider this furious undercurrent of activity to be devoid of antecedents. I, however, postulate that it is only the latest in a long series of steps that brought them to this point in their lives.

I wonder how many times these seniors and their families have stopped to ask how they arrived at this juncture. Do they really know what acts of omission or commission led them to where they are today? Do they really believe that it is only correlated to what these seniors did in their young lives, or do they understand the chain of causality that goes back in time all the way to the BIG BANG?

Let me explain. At my daughter, Isha’s Classical Dance Arangetram and Graduation Party in Columbia, Maryland during the late summer of 2005, I was to give a speech after her performance. I noticed how friends and family heaped praise on her for her accomplishments culminating in her impending departure for Harvard College.

I was proud of Isha’s three-hour long flawless Bharatnatyam Dance performance, her academic and social accomplishments, and her admission to Harvard. Attempting to find conceptual underpinnings, I ran into causality and correlation. In a dialectical fit of pique, I changed my speech at the last minute and went into a philosophical discourse on causality. The essence of my argument: Rome was not built in a day nor do high-school graduates.

What comes before that? There are the usual suspects – the parents, me and my wife – and the births and marriages in the family signifying direct physical causality. Then there are the “silent” martyrs – the kinship group that sweats it out to create the support network. Throw into this mix, the Pan Am flight that my parents took in 1948 from Palam Airport, Delhi to San Francisco, California.

The story does not end there but meanders through the travails experienced by lives past. The grandparents, the great grandparents, and more generally, the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, Gandhi, Christ, Buddha, and … the BIG BANG!

How could the graduation day of my daughter possibly have arrived without any of these antecedents?

How can we forget the sacrifices of Mangal Pandey in the War of Independence of 1857? Can we even begin to ignore the great philosophical works of Shankara, Madhva and Ramanuja? What about the Golden Age of the Guptas and the Cholas or the suffering of the Buddha or the compilation of the Rig Veda, the Upanishads or the great civilization at Harappa and Kot Diji?

My pithy advice to our future graduating seniors: There is cause for pride but no cause for hubris. The “butterfly effect” is alive and well. Always remember this, as we, the parents, begin the process of sending you off, in the words of Southey:

Go little brooke from this my solitude;
I cast thee on the water, go thy ways;
And if, as I believe, thy tone be good;
The world will find thee after many days.
For, the chain of causality goes on forever… §

Nishkam Agarwal is an economist based in Columbia, Maryland.


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