14 <strong>Topic XIII. Orders of Understanding and the…
Topic XIII. Orders of Understanding and the Parsable World
- Because each event and/or phenomenon has many causal factors, it is often important to distinguish which factors affect it the most and which factors play a smaller role.
- A useful “jargon” of the scientists is to speak of orders of understanding or orders of explanation. “A zeroth order explanation/cause” or “a first order explanation/cause,” is a major cause/factor, as opposed to “a second order” or “third order explanation/cause," which would be real causes with smaller effect sizes. This is useful because explanations for how things/actors in the world behave can often be parsed into a primary explanation, a secondary less important cause, a third order, still less significant cause, etc.
- Addressing the Question: How do we find out how the world works?
- Orders of Explanation
- 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.
- A. ATTITUDES
- B. CONCEPT ACQUISITION
- Multiple Causation: Any given effect may be brought about by a complex combination of many causes (which may interact with each other), with varying degrees of influence on the outcome.
- 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).
- Effect Size: The size of the effect under examination. (e.g. how much being overweight affects health is the effect size of obesity on health).
- 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.)
- Suggested Readings & Reading Questions
- Clicker Questions
- Students practice (individually and in small groups) identifying first-, second-, and third-order causes/explanations in a variety of scenarios.
- The final such question for this class concerns parsing some of the biggest drivers of government spending, specifically what are the relative “orders” of the contributions to total government spending from the costs of education, incarceration, and social security.
- Discussion Questions
- In small groups, students practice identifying first-, second-, and third-order causes/explanations in a variety of scenarios.
- What do you think are the first order, second order, and third order causes of decreasing rates of marriage among Americans? How might you go about testing your hypotheses about this?
- Practice Problems
- Class Exercises
- Asimov writes: "[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." What does he mean by this? How does it relate to the concept of “orders of approximation?” [Hint: we are asking about the general idea; the flat vs spherical earth is just an example.]