The cart before the horse: A new model of cause and effect

September 28, 2018 by Jacqueline Mitchell, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Natural little scientists, human babies love letting go of things and watching them fall. Baby's first experiment teaches them about more than the force of gravity. It establishes the concept of causality—the relationship between cause and effect that all human knowledge depends on. Let it go, it falls. The cause must precede its effect in time, as scientist from Galileo in the 16th Century to Clive Granger in 1969 defined causality.

But in many cases, this one-way relationship between cause and effect fails to accurately describe reality. In a recent paper in Nature Communications, scientists led by Albert C. Yang, MD, Ph.D., of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, introduce a new approach to that moves away from this temporally linear model of cause and effect.

"The reality in the real-world is that cause and effect are often reciprocal, as in the feedback loops seen in physiologic/endocrine pathways, neuronal regulation, ecosystems, and even the economy," said Albert C. Yang, MD, Ph.D., a scientist in the Division of Interdisciplinary Medicine and Biotechnology. "Our new causal method allows for mutual or two-way causation, in which the effect of a cause can feed back to the cause itself simultaneously."

Yang and colleagues' new approach defines causality independently from time. Their covariation principle of cause and effect defines cause as that which when present, the effect follows, and that which when removed, the is removed. The team demonstrates the new approach by applying it to predator and prey systems. Moreover, Yang and colleagues showed that their model can work well in systems where other causality methods cannot work.

"I would expect the method to represent a breakthrough of causal assessment of observational data," said Yang. "It can be applied to a wide range of causal questions in the scientific field."

Explore further: Scientists unleash power of genetic data to identify disease risk

More information: Albert C. Yang et al, Causal decomposition in the mutual causation system, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-05845-7

Related Stories

Mapping the edge of reality

April 28, 2017

Australian and German researchers have collaborated to develop a genetic algorithm to confirm the rejection of classical notions of causality.

Prediction or cause? Information theory may hold the key

September 30, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- "A perplexing philosophical issue in science is the question of anticipation, or prediction, versus causality," Shawn Pethel tells PhysOrg.com. "Can you tell the difference between something predicting an ...

New evidence confirms human activities drive global warming

February 22, 2016

A new statistical technique, analysing data records since measuring started 150 years ago, independently confirms that man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions have led to global warming, according to a JRC-led ...

Recommended for you

Taking a close look at bacteria

October 23, 2018

Yong Wang, assistant professor of physics, and graduate student Asmaa Sadoon have been studying how molecules travel through bacterial cytoplasm in order to understand more about how these tiny organisms function. Using new ...

Researchers validate 80-year-old ferroelectric theory

October 23, 2018

Researchers have successfully demonstrated that hypothetical particles that were proposed by Franz Preisach in 1935 actually exist. In an article published in Nature Communications, scientists from the universities in Linköping ...

Understanding the building blocks for an electronic brain

October 22, 2018

Computer bits are binary, with a value of zero or one. By contrast, neurons in the brain can have many internal states, depending on the input that they receive. This allows the brain to process information in a more energy-efficient ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Sep 28, 2018
Homoeostasis is a feedback loop of this kind, as is life in general and living systems tend to function as feedback loops from the catalytic chemical reactions that are self regulating inside the living cell to political systems where individuals elect the government which enact laws that govern the individual's behaviour.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.