Tag Archives: classics

“Oslo is the cradle of rigorous causal inference”

Those are the words of James Heckman, from a lecture (slides, paper) at the University of Oslo last week. In particular, it is Trygve Haavelmo’s 1943 paper The statistical implications of a system of simultaneous equations (pdf) that gets the honor of being “the first rigorous treatment of causality”. A summary:

Heckman 2013 Haavelmos contributions to causality

According to Heckman, Haavelmo built on Marshall’s general idea of ceteris paribus to define fixing (“an abstract operation that assigns independent variation to the variable being fixed (p. 8)”), that is to be distinguished from classical statistical conditioning (“a statistical operation that accounts for the dependence structure in the data (p. 8)”). This fixing occur hypothetically, thus causality becomes defined in terms of thought experiments, along the earlier thoughts of Ragnar Frisch. In Heckman’s words: “Causal effects are not empirical statements or descriptions of actual worlds, but descriptions of hypothetical worlds obtained by varying – hypothetically – the inputs determining outcomes. (pp. 2-3)”. 

Much of the lecture and paper is a polemic against Pearl’s do-calculus. Those interested in that debate can read Heckman and Pinto’s paper and Pearl’s comments on it, watch a conference discussion they had last year, or read stuff that more able people than me have blogged about before. Not debatable, though, is that Heckman knows to please his hosts.

Advertisements

Friendship, humanness and sainthood

Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.

That is George Orwell writing on Gandhi, who took love of others to such an extreme that he denounced close relationships, and thereby in Orwell’s view ceased to be human. I was lead to Orwell’s essay by the first pages of philosopher Stephen Asma’s recent book Against Fairness, in which he among other things takes up the virtues of favoritism. I do not know if the framing the issue as a conflict between preference and fairness is a good one, but how we do in fact care differentially about others, and have few problems doing so, is an interesting topic.

There is probably a gigantic literature on universalist vs particularist ethics or something like that, but what is brought to my mind is Friedrich Hayek:

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once. (p. 18, 1988, The Fatal Conceit)

Even if Orwell and Hayek may have had different opinions about the actual rules of both “orders”, they have in common that they suggest that there is something essential in the micro-cosmos, a point denied by those elevating sainthood to the ideal.