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Sano: I'm reading and hearing this phrase an awful lot lately: "correlation and causation".

I think your perception is accurate.

The catchphrase "Correlation is not correlation" has been echoing around in the social sciences for at least 70 years, and possibly over a hundred. I remember it from grad school, back in 1969, and it was old even then.

As with many catchy ideas in science and literature, it seems to have made a break into popular culture. I think the usual avenue of a breakout like this is the intelligentsia. Person A uses the expression in a cocktail party to impress Person B, while Person C listens. Person C happens to be a writer, and she uses it to great effect in her next column. Then the television pundits pick it up, and next thing you know everyone is using it.

We saw this cycle occur very recently with the expression "epistemic closure". It has been in use in philosophy since about 1963, where it refers to an unremarkable principle in the theory of knowledge. Then some hapless philosopher must have used it in a Washington cocktail party, where it must have been overheard by blogger Julian Sanchez. He endowed with a new meaning:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.

Frum, Cocktail Parties, and the Threat of Doubt

Things really took off when Patricia Cohen started using it in her New York Times column:

‘Epistemic Closure’? Those Are Fighting Words!

I began noticing the phrase when David Brooks began tossing it at his fellow conservatives like a hand grenade with the pin pulled:

The Conservative Mind

Now, it seems, the same sort of thing is happening with correlation and causation. There is even a Wikipedia article on the subject:

If you really want to impress people at cocktail parties, then you should also know about Simpson's Paradox and the Ecological Fallacy. Those are all parts of the correlation vs causation potrzebie. ["Potrzebie" is a technical term understood only by intelligentsia old enough to grok the equally obscure term "furshlugginer".]

One of these days someone will write a popular political essay that employs both potrzebie and furshlugginer, and we will enter the madhouse once again.

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