Topic XIII. Orders of Understanding and the Parsable World
Context for this filter:
- B. CONCEPT ACQUISITION
- Orders of Understanding: When there are multiple causes of a given outcome, it is often the case that some causes are much more impactful than others. In these cases, we draw a rough qualitative distinction between the cause(s) with the greatest impact for a given effect (first order cause/explanation), the causes with somewhat less impact (second order), and the much less influential causes (third and higher order).
- Exemplary Quotes
- “Ok, at first glance this dramatic increase in breast cancer in Korea seems like an intractably complicated problem, but maybe there is one aspect like diet or environmental change that is the primary driver. If we can identify it first, then we can look for the next most important cause.”
- “It turned out that the prices of these stocks was to first order being determined by the buy/sell orders of just a few major pension funds. After that, the second order effect was the automatic buying and selling from the index funds. In fact, the small investors that we thought were important barely affected the prices of these stocks at all—a third or fourth order effect at best.”
- “It used to be that the annual population of predator bears was the first order determinant of the annual salmon population, but nowadays the bears are a second order effect, and the fishing industry is the primary determinant.”
- Cautionary Quotes: Mistakes, Misconceptions, & Misunderstandings
- The commonest problem here is simply failing to consider orders of explanation, focusing on a small factor without remembering to consider its effect size.
- C. CONCEPT APPLICATION
- Distinguish first order, second order, & lower orders of explanation.
- Identify multiple causes for a given effect or outcome and evaluate the relative importance of each with respect to different contexts and goals.
- Given a concrete example, identify good and bad examples of evaluating and using the relative importance of causal factors.
- Given a concrete example, recognize and critique poor decisions that result from considering only the ranking - and not the relative magnitude - of causal factors.
- (For instance, differentiate a case with one huge first order factor and many tiny ones from one involving several factors of comparable and large magnitude.)
- Practice Problems