Monday, October 17, 2011

Who Stopped the Rain?

The other day, I was reminded of something that happened to me many years ago, when I was a little younger and much more naive. At the time, I was living in Japan and had to walk pretty much everywhere I wanted to go. That put me outside for rather extended periods of time pretty frequently, which also meant that I was in the rain for longer stretches than I otherwise would have been back in the United States, where I drove anywhere I needed to go. It also happened that I was, at the time, rather enamored of the New Age-y pseudo-Celtic mythology, which revered nature, espoused spirit guides and purported to teach the follower the means to manipulate energy to influence the world around us. I had come to these beliefs in part out of a sense of disenchantment with my Christian upbringing and organized religion in general, as well as a youthful conceit that I could somehow control the uncontrollable.

These things came together one spring day, as I was heading, if I recall correctly, to university.

There was a light, but steady rain, which became a downpour. Despite my umbrella, I took shelter under an overhang to wait it out, and as I did so, I repeated a single thought: "Rain, lighten up." After a few minutes of this, the rain let up significantly, allowing me to continue on my way. I wasn't certain if I had any influence on the outcome, but thought I would give it a try the next time I was out in the rain.

Fast forward to the next rainfall that caught me outside. Sure enough, there was another downpour. Once more, I took shelter under an overhang and, remembering my previous experience, I repeated my mental mantra: "Rain, lighten up." Just as before, it only took a few minutes before the rain let up, and I continued on my way. This strengthened my belief that I was somehow influencing the weather. I mean, once could be a fluke, but twice in a row? And I was confirmed in my beliefs throughout the rest of the spring, summer and autumn, with repeated experiences, all with the same results.

I attributed these experiences to my somehow working "magic", controlling the energies of the world around me to effect an outcome I desired. I don't recall any instance where I tried these efforts and failed. Later, when a close friend converted me back to Christianity and I explained my experiences, it was attributed to Faith, and that that alone could work wonders, but when it was placed in God, even more could be accomplished.

More time passes and I take a more objective look at things. I ask how likely it was that I really and truly had a real effect on the weather? I took time to observe how rain typically behaves. Was there some pattern that just happened to coincide with my own actions? Although I was beginning to turn to a more scientific approach to viewing the world around me, what I discovered was a bit of a slap in the face. It turned out that, at least in the temperate climates I have found myself, heavy downpours typically only last a handful of minutes. Waiting just a little while was usually all that was needed. The likelihood that I really affected the weather went *poof*. I was just attributing two things that, by chance, occurred around the same time as having a cause-effect connection to one another. And, since those coincidences were significant to me, I remembered them but not any of the instances where it didn't work. In short, I was engaging in something that everyone does. I confused correlation with causation and reinforced that confusion through confirmation bias.

As pattern-seeking creatures, we humans have a very strong tendency to look for connections between things. It helps us make sense of the world around us and to cope with that which might be beyond our control. Similar to my experiences are those who think that they cause street lights to go out when they walk under them. The same thing happens in the world of medicine, especially with alternative medicine. When we suffer from some illness, we may try different things to alleviate our symptoms, and whatever we happen to be taking just before we start to improve, we view as causing our recovery, even though it may simply be the natural course of the illness. We also see this happen in the whole vaccine-autism manufactroversy. Coincidental timing leads some to think that vaccines cause autism, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster illustrates this idea through its analysis of the connection between pirates and global warming.

I'm not disparaging anyone for falling victim to this error in logic and thinking. I've done it before; I will very likely do it again. The trick is to understand how we slip into this way of thinking and try our best to be vigilant of our own thoughts and behaviors, not to mention understanding how our strongly held beliefs can influence the weight of evidence we use to support our own ideas and shoot down conflicting ones.

When we see what we think are sound correlations between two events, there are some questions to ask:
  • How plausible is it that event A caused event B, based on what we know of the universe?
  • Has there ever been an instance in the past where A caused B, with sound evidence to back this up?
  • How are my own beliefs influencing my perceptions and observations?
  • What details might I be missing or unaware of?
If we really want to be honest with ourselves, we need to test our beliefs and try to prove ourselves wrong, especially where a causal connection is tenuous at best and we find ourselves making a lot of ad hoc rationalizations to support a connection. That's the hard part, especially when a belief is so strongly held that we invest our own sense of self into it; if the belief is wrong, then I, myself, must be flawed. If the evidence showing we are wrong comes from someone else, we may take it as a personal affront, that they are attacking us as people, rather than just our ideas. We may rant and rave, use whatever is at our disposal to rationalize away their evidence or even attack them personally through ad hominems.

It is important to understand, though, that seeing correlations is part of how we are wired. We evolved to see these things in order to help us survive in the wild. It's human nature and nothing to be ashamed of, unless we persist in the face of all evidence otherwise. Learn to separate yourself as a person from the ideas that you hold.

Apparent correlations can be very useful to direct a more careful inquiry and investigation, but they are seldom sufficient to make any concrete claims. In the words of the ancient Greeks, "Know thyself," and ask, was it really me that stopped the rain?


  1. Another thing that we should keep in mind is that events that are rare to us are really not all that rare when you "zoom out" and look at the greater universe. My favorite example are eclipses and birth defects. In my lifetime, I've only seen two eclipses, a very rare occurrence for me. However, there are eclipses somewhere in the world all the time. The moon is always casting a shadow somewhere.

    Likewise, birth defects are rare. However, some people (some in my family, even) will swear that a birth defect found after an eclipse was caused because of the eclipse. Never mind that, again, the moon is always casting a shadow somewhere... Or that someone somewhere is having a child with some sort of a birth defect right now... right this instant.

    Like you said, we fall into these "traps" of the human condition because, well, that's just us. It takes a lot of training (schooling, etc.) to step back and see the big picture.

  2. @Ren

    Good point. Coincidences happen all the time, so that two things happen to coincide, even if extremely rare on an individual level, is not all that surprising.


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