Systemic Causality

Systemic causality (systemic causation),  as opposed to direct cause-effect, is not a naturally occurring learning concept, claims Prof. George Lakoff of University of California, Berkeley. The explanation is simple – the brain is unfit for this task because it is unable to observe it. The brain deals fairly well with simplistic cause-effect relations, e.g. summer > warm, winter > cold, rain > wet, smile > happy, tears > sad, etc.

Let us explore how a baby starts to learn about the world around. The brain turns into memory the models which the baby witnesses: I cry > mom comes and hugs me; I reach for the toys hanging above me > an adults comes and plays with me; I cry (cry #2) > I get food; I cry (cry #3) > I get my diapers changed. The baby’s brain has no knowledge where mom is when she is not in the room. The baby’s brain has no knowledge about mom buying (what buy means?) food from the supermarket (what is a supermarket?), where she goes with the car (what is a car?). In other words, the brain learns by putting together sequences of cause-effects which come from observable situations. The systemic causality which can not be observed – these are the things outside the direct sensory perception through eyesight/hearing/taste/olfaction/touch – can not be registered and perceived. When the child grows up, the adults start explaining some “invisible” links – where the food comes from, who planted the trees, why does the old lady carry a walking stick. This means that the brain can perceive complex, systemic causality, if it is consciously directed to it, if it is trained to do so. (There are other ways for the brain to make connections known as parallel processing, but this is beyond the need of the most basic explanation and example which we need here.)

In reality, most of the disinformation which is propagated through online media is not binary in nature (yes/no, white/black), but systemic. This means that a single fact, which we can observe and on which we can agree, is indeed a result of extremely complex cause-effect relations networks. A good example would be the much-discussed issue of climate change.

An extremely cold winter week in North America or Central Europe triggers a virtual online avalanche of sarcastic comments, which could be summarised as follows:

“Sure, global warming with temperatures of -22… Where are the vocal ecologists and pseudo-scientists now!”

Unfortunately, this rarely receives a matching answer, since such answer would require lengthy explanations into what is climate change, when and how does it occur, what are the factors which determine such change, how are they interlinked and what are the cause-effect relationships behing the complex – and long developing – phenomenon. In short, the simplistic assumption that global warming > everything and everywhere is warmer, is plainly wrong.

Thus, understanding of the systemic causality and its interaction mechanisms can be a powerful tool to combat disinformation. While the brain can not “discover” this itself (for reason of not being able to observe and learn from the observation), it can be taught to do so, insists Prof. Lakoff. This means that it is possible to design training, so that learners can distinguish between direct and systemic causality, and when they identify the case as systemic, to be able to investigate the systemic cause elements and their interaction.

A wonderful example which we at NTCenter often use to illustrate the systemic causality is being offered to us in a literary format by Stanislaw Lem, a science-fiction author, in his short story De Impossibilitate Vitae (1971).