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?
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?