Saturday, April 04, 2009

Correlation, causation & God

The statement that "Correlation does not imply causation" is hardly uncontroversial or, indeed, particularly deep. Nonetheless it is a matter of concern that people who should know better commit the fallacy that one implies the other. In this context you may have come across recent media attention to a report, released by the Iona Institute, which claims that religion makes you happier. It is written by Patricia Casey , Professor of Psychiatry at UCD.
I cannot find the report but the press release below makes clear that the claim is that religion is beneficial i.e. there is a causal link to people's well-being. However it is hard to imagine a research design that would allow one to interrogate this question to a standard that would be considered satisfactory in any scientific (including medical) journal. Finding a correlation is not surprising: maybe happy people see their happiness as evidence of God or the disillusioned turn away from religion or there is some other common unobserved factor. Any empirical economist hardly needs to see the arguments rehearsed. In the absence of randomization or some quasi-experimental design there is no reason, a priori, to think of the correlation as being any more than just that.

http://www.ionainstitute.ie/

4 comments:

Kevin Denny said...

D'oh.I meant "controversial"

Martin Ryan said...

This reminds me of Pascal's Wager - that one should lead a God-pleasing life since if God does exist, then the reward is infinite; whereas, if he doesn't exist, well, what did you really lose?

But I'm not sure if this outlook would make me happy...

Kevin Denny said...

The problem with that is that assuming God knows that that is your reason for belief in Her,She might be distinctly unimpressed.

Liam Delaney said...

The point is a good one in terms of the causal effect of beliefs and group memberships on well-being. There are well-document associations between many different types of voluntary activtity, religion and well-being. most of these survive fairly rigorous controls for demographic covariates and even fixed effect regressions as far as I can tell. In terms of a pure experiment for religion, it is practically impossible as you say. There are things, for example, like randomised control trials for the effects of meditation. the scientific possibilities there are very large but no matter how far you go it is not a pure experiment of the effect of the lifelong adoption of a faith which is built up from early childhood.

I haven't looked closely at the full amount of work here but Laurence Iannoconne is certainly worth looking at with regard to some aspects of these questions. The webpage below details a lot of his work

http://www.EconomicsOfReligion.com/