There are many situations, in science and in life, in which we want to know what caused some particular event. The current coronavirus pandemic. The recent Australian bushfires. Hurricane Katrina. A specific political candidate winning (or losing) a specific election. Diederik Stapel becoming a serial scientific fraudster. Etc.
Some proposed explanations will appeal to “structural” causes. By “structural” causes, I mean background conditions that “set the stage” on which other contributing factors play out. For instance, global warming likely makes hurricanes more common and increases the intensity of the average hurricane, and so in that sense “set the stage” for the very severe Hurricane Katrina. As another example, here’s an article reviewing “structural” explanations for why Bernie Sanders did not win the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary (e.g., only 20-30% of Democratic primary voters self-identify as “very liberal”). And here’s my review of the structural factors thought to drive scientific misconduct.
But “structural” causes aren’t mutually exclusive with non-structural causes, meaning causes specific to the particular event in question. A meteorologist asked why Hurricane Katrina was so intense wouldn’t just say “because global warming makes hurricanes more common, and more intense on average” and leave it at that. After all, those same structural causes also apply to many other hurricanes that weren’t so intense as Hurricane Katrina. So the meteorologist would probably also talk about, e.g., water temperatures and atmospheric conditions at the particular place and time where Hurricane Katrina formed. As another example, someone asked to explain why political candidate X lost election Y might mention structural factors like the state of the economy in the run-up to the election, but might also suggest that candidate X would have won by campaigning differently (example). Someone asked to explain why Diederik Stapel became a fraudster wouldn’t just appeal to structural factors like pressure to publish, since after all those same structural factors apply to many people who don’t become fraudsters. Etc.
Because structural and non-structural causes aren’t mutually exclusive, we’re often interested in apportioning responsibility between them.* Which is difficult. Further, it’s not just difficult for the familiar reasons that most every causal attribution problem is difficult, such as that it’s often hard to tell correlation from causation without experimental data. Apportioning responsibility between structural and non-structural causes also is difficult for conceptual reasons. Frankly, I just don’t know what it means to “apportion causal responsibility” between structural and non-structural causes. It’s not merely that I don’t know of any practical way to calculate “Event X was due 80% to structural causes, 10% to non-structural causes, and 10% to the interaction of structural and non-structural causes.” It’s that I don’t even understand how the question “How do we apportion responsibility between structural and non-structural causes of event X?” could possibly have an answer at all. There are many contexts in which I understand very well how to quantitatively apportion responsibility–but this isn’t one of them.
Which is where you come in! Because I am of course far from the first person to wonder about this issue. So you tell me: what are the best discussions of partitioning the contributions of structural and non-structural causes of some particular event? I’m looking for both general philosophical discussions of this problem from philosophers and statisticians, and discussions in the context of particular examples (e.g., the contributions of global warming vs. non-structural causes to the intensity of specific hurricanes). Looking forward to learning from your comments.
p.s. Thank you in advance to anyone who reads this or comments in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak. Because, (i) coronavirus outbreak, and (ii) boy howdy, does the title of this post suck! I couldn’t think of a better title, sorry. Clearly, my ability to pick decent post titles is one casualty of the coronavirus outbreak. Now don’t all trip over each other to comment that, “No, your post titles have always sucked”. 🙂
*There’s probably a whole ‘nother post–or book!–to be written on why we want to apportion responsibility between structural and non-structural causes of events. The motives often go beyond disinterested scientific curiosity. Depending on the context, you might find structural explanations for event X much more, or less, congenial than non-structural ones. For instance, if you’re hostile to the idea of anthropogenic global warming, you’ll probably be hostile to any attempt to partially blame Hurricane Katrina on global warming. Conversely, back when it looked like I wasn’t going to get a faculty position, I wasn’t bitter or upset. In part because I focused on structural explanations for my apparent failure to land a faculty position, rather than on explanations that would imply some personal failing on my part. Personally, I much preferred to focus on the fact that the faculty job market’s tough for everyone, rather than on the possibility that I’d screwed up by not branching out more during my postdoc. More broadly, it’s my anecdotal impression that lots of unproductive arguments in lots of areas of life are about apportioning responsibility between structural and non-structural causes of particular events. If there were something general that could be said about how to do that apportioning–or about why it’s impossible to do that apportioning–it might help settle or defuse some** of those arguments.
**”some” meaning, like, one or two of those arguments. At most. People are people, they’re always going to find things to argue about. 🙂