Mean what we say

In The Atlantic‘s interview piece “Preservation Green Lab’s Liz Dunn on the Economics of Urban Grain” Liz Dunn remarks that “some of the most economically and socially successful neighborhoods are the ones with a stock of older, three- to six-story buildings.”  This was part of an argument advocating for”granular” retrofitting of neighborhoods in order to induce the amenities that attract new economy workers.

I acknowledge this is an interview and the format is more casual than an essay, but the rhetorical form of pointing out that two events are correlated and then implying causality is hurting advocacy for progressive issues.  We are not taken seriously if a reader can immediately come up with a counter-example.  I can imagine a lot of three and six-story neighborhoods in Chicago I wouldn’t be in after sunset, and a lot of attractive, active one and two-story neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  Of course, the causality may very well be reversed.  Did high-wage labor come to South Lake Union because of the active street scene or did high-wage labor make South Lake Union’s street scene active?  If we treat correlation as causation, both are valid.

In last week’s reading, a WSJ author claimed that “There are no examples of a nation that grew wealthy on expensive energy.”  Japan grew wealthy on expensive energy. West Germany grew wealthy on expensive energy.  Qatar grew wealthy on cheap energy; Libya grew poor.  Energy prices are a poor correlative to wealth (there’s a term for this even, the resource curse, but this too is just correlation) and a reader will dismiss the author’s entire argument based on this error.

Just because “granular” streetscapes worked in the past doesn’t mean they’ll work now.  And just because they work now doesn’t mean it’s because of their granularity.  We need — and our critics deserve — more than correlation.  We need a proposed mechanism that can be falsifiable.  So much rotten social policy of the 20th Century has been based on mistaking correlation for causation and it’s damaged the integrity of the field ever since.  Let’s take our time and get it right.

xkcd #552


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