Cause or Effect?

Cause or Effect?

© David Burton 2022

Cause and Effect

     "There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A guy walks into a bar, sits down, and orders a beer. As he waits for his beer, he claps his hands together again and again, loudly and insistently. Annoyed, the bartender asks, 'Hey, pal, what’s up with the hand clapping?' The guy says, 'It scares the elephants away.' 'But,' says the bartender, 'there aren’t any elephants around here.' The guy replies, 'See? It’s working!'
     "It’s easy enough to snicker at the beer drinker’s logic. But unfortunately, this confusion between cause and effect is no laughing matter. It’s a persistently occurring phenomenon. All too often, people readily assume that when Event B follows Event A, it must be because A caused B.
     "The confusion of cause and effect is often used for political purposes to manipulate public opinion by exploiting prejudice or fear. It has been used to attribute blame for a host of social ills to purported causes that have included feminism, video games, atheism, and the internet. But it is also often the product of careless or exploitative journalism. For example, when British schoolgirl Natalie Morton died unexpectedly from an undiagnosed malignant tumor shortly after she had received a vaccination to prevent cervical cancer, some media rushed to report that it was the vaccine that killed her, fueling public anxiety.
     "These false connections flourish best in the presence of closed minds and foregone conclusions. They persist only because countering them demands hard work – a willingness to discard assumptions and dig deep for the facts." (Ref. 1)

     So once more, we have a headline and a news item implying racial discrimination against Blacks without bothering to look deeper into the situation and determining the root cause effect leading up to the story.

     According to a study published on May 13, 2022 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine Black patients at Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston experienced higher rates of security emergency responses compared to white patients
     According to the study, 2.8% of Black patients had security called on them during their first admission, compared to 1.6% of white patients. These calls for security in a patient's room occur when staff perceive a patient is a threat to themselves or others.[2]

     Oh my! 2.8% Blacks Vs. just 1.6% whites! The horror of it all! How discriminatory! How unfair! But, wait a minute? How do I know whether or not 2.8% of Black patients needed to have the police called while only 1.6% of the white patients needed to have the police called? How do I know what the real causes and effects were or are? The simple truth is: I don’t know and I shouldn’t be jumping to any premature conclusions before I do know!

     We get lots of reports in the news media about perceived discrimination against some minorities. But do we look beneath the attention-getting headlines? When we hear a report that one minority is arrested more often than their overall percentage of the population would justify, do we ask: Is this because the police are prejudiced against this minority or is it because that minority commits a greater percentage of crimes than their numbers would suggest? Do we investigate the cause and effect behind some “startling” statistic?

     For example, suppose we came across a headline that stated: “Women are having more babies than men!” Would we say that this was the effect produced by women being discriminated against or would we say that the cause was the biological fact that women can have babies while men cannot? Clearly, we should not jump to conclusions when seeing or hearing news headlines. It behooves all of us to look beneath the headlines in our news media and uncover the facts that form the basis of the story in the headline.

     Too many people presume that police, whether consciously or subconsciously, are targeting young Black men, killing them at a grossly disproportionate rate – the headlines tell us that this is the case. But what if the headlines are wrong? What if race actually has little causal effect on police shootings? A Washington Post article in 2017 about police killings nationwide in the first half of the year made the same mistake that too many reporters have been making for years by comparing the racial composition of those killed with the overall racial composition of the United States.
     “Police have continued to shoot and kill a disproportionately large number of black males, who account for nearly a quarter of the deaths, yet are only 6 percent of the nation’s population,” the paper reported.
     The Post’s unspoken assumption was that police killings should match America’s overall demographic statistics. That might sound right at first, but it is well understood in academic circles that using population as a benchmark can be dangerous, because not all people are equally likely to come into confrontation with the police. For example, an officer is not as likely to shoot the cashier selling him a cup of coffee as he is to shoot a citizen with an outstanding warrant he has just pulled over.
     The media would have Americans believe that race is the single most important and predictive element of fatal encounters between police and civilians. Yet both the basic data and less superficial analyses show that is not the case. With a few notable exceptions, violent criminal attacks are the best predictor of whom police might shoot in America. As the relevant data showed: “In 74 percent of all fatal police shootings, the individuals had already fired shots, brandished a gun or attacked a person with a weapon or their bare hands.” Also, “Another 16 percent of the shootings came after incidents that did not involve firearms or active attacks but featured other potentially dangerous threats.” So, is police racial discrimination the cause of the shootings of Blacks by police or are “violent criminal attacks” the cause and the shootings the effect?
     Those figures are consistent with other data. In 2015, two-thirds of unarmed people of any race killed by police had been in the process of committing violent crime or property destruction. 15% were engaged in domestic violence. 10% were committing a robbery, 20% a burglary or vandalism, and 21% an assault on another civilian. More important, cops don’t usually initiate their contact with the person who is shot. A full 3/4 of fatal encounters start with someone contacting police and reporting the suspect.
     The Washington Post and other media all too often are guilty of conflating correlation and causation. A disproportionate share of America’s violent offenders are African-American males, but not because they are black. It is because America has failed its black communities. The best predictors of crime are broken families, living in a bad neighborhood, young mothers, and other risk factors known since the 1960s.
     America cannot solve its problems if our most trusted public watchdogs in the press keep muddying the waters with divisive, superficial analyses. To solve any problem, one must first take accurate measure of it. Good reporters will see to it that the information Americans act on is not just technically correct but is also grounded in meaningful and honest analysis.[3]

     Compounding the problem of determining what is the real cause of a news headline event is the increasing lack of objectivity in news reporting. “A growing number of prominent journalists have declared once-bedrock press principles like fairness and objectivity to be outdated and unnecessary since the Donald Trump era rocked American politics, and while some observers appreciate the honesty, others feel blending opinion and reporting makes for a ‘dangerous time’ in America.” (Ref. 4)

     As a number of media members became heroes to the left for their antagonistic approach to former president Donald Trump who derided them and other reporters for promulgating "fake news," more journalists left behind the image of the disinterested, impartial correspondent.
     In the aftermath of the 2020 Capitol riot and Trump's continued claims his 2020 election defeat was "rigged," NBC News anchor Lester Holt won plaudits from mainstream colleagues after declaring "fairness is overrated." In his acceptance speech for a journalism award, he added it's not necessary to "always give two sides equal weight and merit."
     Today, advocacy and partisanship get sold as straight news to everyday Americans – most of whom still see the media as honest brokers. And while many mainstream journalists bristle at conservative criticism of their reporting as bad-faith, there is pressure from the left to not even give voice to Republicans. Some reporters have even claimed that what appears to be a bias toward Democrats is merely a bias toward "facts."
     The problem is that the overwhelming majority of the media - upwards of 80 or 85 percent - lean left. They have blind spots, the same when any group of people who overwhelmingly see the world in the same way do. However, professional ethics in American journalism should keep opinion and advocacy in a lane separate from the straightforward presentation of facts.
     "We live in a dangerous time today, however, when professional journalists want to blend opinion and reporting into the same place." . . . "This presents several problems, not the least of which is that the public can no longer trust many traditional news outlets to present news fairly and fully. This had led to broad declines in media credibility," . . . "Further, this notion that all journalists must necessarily be activists reveals a smugness and condescension that people in the journalism industry are smarter and know better about all topics than the people they are supposedly serving." [4]

     Simply reading/seeing/hearing a headline about police behavior toward Blacks without delving deeper into cause and effect - let alone without checking the actual facts - and then concluding that racism is rampant in America does everyone a gross disservice! Is there racism in America? You bet there is. And what’s more, I challenge anyone out there to show me a modern country in the world where there is no racism. Are Blacks the object of overt discrimination in America? They certainly are. And so are Jews, Muslims, Asian-Americans and a number of other races, religions and ethnic groups. Do racist Whites present the biggest problem to Black-Americans. NO! The biggest problem facing Blacks in America today is other Blacks! And the sooner Black-Americans and their supporters admit this and tackle this problem, the sooner Black-Americans will reap the full benefits of living in the greatest country on earth.

     It’s time for Black-Americans – and all Americans - to get it right. Racism and discrimination will never totally disappear in America, or in any other civilized country. But, those who continue to practice racism and discrimination can be driven back under their rocks and the problem can be reduced to its minimum. This won’t happen as long as American society focusses on the wrong issues and makes all Americans feel guilty about non-existent or less important problems. This won’t happen as long as America tries to solve one of its major problems by heaping unearned benefits on only one group of Americans and blaming everyone else for that group's problems.

  1. Fallacious Argument Of The Month: The Confusion Of Cause And Effect, Diane J. Levin,,
    19 October 2009.
  2. Security called more often on Black patients, hospital's internal study finds, Kelly Gooch,
    Becker’s Hospital Review, 24 May 2022.
  3. Police Aren’t Targeting and Killing Black Men, Nick Selby, National Review, 17 July 2017.
  4. More journalists admit and embrace bias, dismissing 'fairness' in new era of media, David Rutz and Brian Flood, FOX NEWS, 23 July 2021.


  20 October 2022 {ARTICLE 550 UNDECIDED_71}    
Go back to the top of the page