, Volume 78, Issue 3, pp 699-712
Date: 11 Nov 2012

“Spurious Correlations and Causal Inferences”

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Abstract

The failure to recognize a correlation as spurious can lead people to adopt strategies to bring about a specific outcome that manipulate something other than a cause of the outcome. However, in a 2008 paper appearing in the journal Analysis, Bert Leuridan, Erik Weber and Maarten Van Dyck suggest that knowledge of spurious correlations can, at least sometimes, justify adopting a strategy aiming at bringing about some change. This claim is surprising and, if true, throws into question the claim of Nancy Cartwright and others that knowledge of laws of association is insufficient for distinguishing effective and ineffective strategies. This paper examines the nature of spurious correlations and their value in crafting strategies for change. The conclusion of the paper is that while knowledge of a spurious correlation may have practical value, the value depends on either having knowledge of the causal structure underlying the correlation or it depends on the use of ‘causal criteria’.