Tag: causation

Did They Learn Correlation and Causation in College?

It looks like Peter Thiel won’t be unopposed advising kids to stay out of college

Thanks to a new report from Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale, and a David Leonhardt column based on Carnevale’s study, over the last few days the college-for-all crowd has been striking back. But they seem to have missed something in their own college training: correlation does not equal causation.

Carnevale, Leonhardt, and others’ argument is basically that there are big, positive returns on a college degree. It’s something, frankly, that’s not generally in dispute. I say “generally,” because while on average college grads make a lot more than people without a degree, there’s a lot more to the story than averages. Indeed, there are at least three major problems with making averages the basis for a universal-college offensive, problems that Andrew Gillen recently laid out in a terrific blog post. I won’t reinvent the wheel by going into them all (read Andrew’s post) but I’ll summarize them: (1) There are huge throngs of people who attempt college and never finish, a giant population ignored when you just look at completers; (2) at least part of the college wage premium is simply a function of a degree signaling something about the intelligence, work habits, etc. that graduates already possessed; and (3) there are some majors and degrees that confer no great wage premium and are in about as much demand as Betamax or gangrene.

What is most concerning about the Carnevale report, however, is how the report and its fans make the very basic mistake of conflating correlation with causation in implying that the roughly one-third of bachelor’s holders in jobs not requiring degrees are much better workers thanks to their BAs. They base that conclusion on degree-holders in non-degree jobs earning appreciably more than workers with only high-school diplomas. Heck, a graphic to go with Leanohardt’s column trumpets that dishwashers with college degrees make a lot more than dishwashers without them, a data point seized on by the Fordham Institute’s Peter Meyer to attack anyone who dares say college isn’t the best option for everyone.

Once the dishwasher example comes up, is there any way to escape the causation/correlation problem? Any way to not at least seriously contemplate that it isn’t what someone learned in college that makes him or her a better dishwasher, but that someone able to graduate college will tend to be more punctual and reliable? Heck, even if you believed that the proverbial underwater basket weaving major existed, it would be very hard to conclude that the skills one would need to make the finest submerged wickerwork would be useful for getting dinner plates spotless, even though that often occurs underwater.

And many of the public service jobs cited in the graphic, such as firefighters? At least from what we know about teachers, government employee pay scales often give salary bumps for degrees, but degrees don’t necessarily have any bearing on job effectiveness.

People like Carnevale and Leonhardt are right to guard against efforts, especially by public-school employees, to actively push kids away from college, in particular if that’s driven by students’ class or race. But shoving everyone into ivy walls? Based on what we know, that’s equally unjustifiable.

The Court Tackles a Hard Case: Implications for ObamaCare?

The Supreme Court hears oral argument today in an important pre-emption case, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, which asks whether the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986 pre-empts state law “design defect” suits brought against vaccine manufacturers. I’ve discussed this complex case more fully in an op-ed at the Daily Caller, but in a nutshell, Congress passed the Act to address the risks inherent in vaccinations through a federal no-fault ”Vaccine Court” rather than through the vagaries of state tort law. It did so because the inability to make vaccines entirely safe, plus uncertainty surrounding causation, coupled with the penchant of state juries to discount those issues in favor of sympathetic plaintiffs, had rendered most manufacturers unwilling to produce needed vaccines at reasonable costs.  

In drafting the statute, however, Congress left things unclear, to put it charitably. Thus, the Court will have to make sense of this language:

No vaccine manufacturer shall be liable in a civil action for damages arising from a vaccine-related injury or death associated with the administration of a vaccine… if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.

Although the Act allows victims to sue over manufacturing defects, conduct that would subject a manufacturer to punitive damages, and a manufacturer’s failure to exercise due care, nowhere does it define “unavoidable”—and there’s the nub of the matter. In the case before the Court, a three-judge Third Circuit panel decided unanimously for Wyeth, as did the district court. But in another case five months earlier, a nine-member Georgia Supreme Court, facing similar facts, decided unanimously for the plaintiff.

And behind it all is the question whether Congress should have pre-empted state law in the first place. It probably should have here, but that’s a close call. And the implications for ObamaCare are not absent in this case, which could be a portent of the complex and uncertain litigation that lies ahead if the scheme is not repealed. As I say at the outset of my post, hard cases make bad law, but bad law too makes hard cases, and this is one. Does anyone think that ObamaCare is anything but bad law? We’ll know once we figure out “what’s in it,” as the lady said.

Big Global Warming Case Hinges on Weird Procedural Technicality

Nearly two weeks ago, I blogged about some strange procedural developments in the big global warming case coming out of the Gulf Coast, Comer v. Murphy Oil USA.  On the eve of final briefing deadlines before the en banc Fifth Circuit, an eighth judge of that court recused from the case (we don’t know the reason, but the previous seven recusals were presumably due to stock ownership) and so the court was faced with an unprecedented situation: losing an en banc quorum after previously having had enough of one to vacate the panel decision and grant en banc rehearing in the first place.  We were all set to file our brief when the Clerk of the Fifth Circuit issued an order notifying the parties of the lost quorum and canceling the scheduled hearing — and nothing more.  Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to go ahead with filing late last week.

Again, here’s the situation: Mississippi homeowners sued 34 energy companies and utilities operating in the Gulf Coast for damage sustained to their property during Hurricane Katrina. The homeowners alleged that the defendants had emitted greenhouse gases, which increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which contributed to global warming, which accelerated the melting of glaciers, which raised the global sea level, which increased the frequency and severity of hurricanes, which caused the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina. The district court concluded that it lacked the authority to resolve the public debate over global warming and dismissed the case. A Fifth Circuit panel reversed this dismissal, holding that the homeowners have standing to raise some of their claims and that those claims are appropriate for resolution by the federal courts. The Fifth Circuit then granted rehearing en banc.

Cato filed an amicus brief on the energy companies’ behalf, arguing that homeowners lack standing to bring their suit and that the case raises a nonjusticiable political question. Our brief asserts that the homeowners’ claim does not provide a clear causal connection between the harm suffered and any particular conduct by the energy companies, and that the money damages the homeowners requested would not remedy the environmental harm alleged. More importantly, we maintain that political questions such as those surrounding climate change must be resolved by Congress, not the federal courts. Put simply, the Constitution prohibits federal courts from resolving highly technical social and economic policy debates. Permitting plaintiffs to achieve “regulation by litigation” would not only contradict settled Supreme Court precedent, but would betray the separation of powers principles embodied in the Constitution.

The Clerk has since directed the parties to brief the procedural issues surrounding the apparent lost quorum, which letter-briefs came in this week (as a mere amicus, we did not file on this).  I’ll spare you the technical details, but there are three possible ways in which the Fifth Circuit could now rule: 1) the court actually does have a quorum and thus oral argument is resecheduled; 2) the panel decision is reinstated (with an ensuing cert petition appealing that decision to the Supreme Court); and 3) the district court is affirmed without opinion (the same result as when an appellate court vote is tied).  Stay tuned — this is a truly weird denouement to a hugely important case.

Of Butterflies, Tsunamis, and Draconian Recusal Standards

Last October, I blogged about Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, a lawsuit in Mississippi alleging that the defendant oil, coal, utility, and chemical companies emit carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, which exacerbated Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson called the case “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”  In a brief that Cato was due to file this week, I framed the operative question as, “When a butterfly flaps its wings, can it be sued for the damage any subsequent tsunami causes?”

The plaintiffs asserted a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendants’ actions.  The federal district court dismissed the case but a dream panel (for the plaintiffs) of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with claims regarding public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. 

In my blog post, I predicted that the Fifth Circuit would take up the case en banc (meaning before all the judges on the court, in this case 17) and reverse the panel.  And this was all set to happen – even though eight judges recused themselves, presumably because they owned shares of defendant companies – with en banc argument slated for May 24.  I was planning to head down to New Orleans for it, in part because the judge I clerked for, E. Grady Jolly, was going to preside over the hearing (the only two more senior active judges being recused).

But a funny thing happened on the way to legal sanity.  On Friday, not half an hour after I had finished editing Cato’s brief, the court clerk issued a notice informing the parties that one more judge had recused and, therefore, the en banc court lacked a quorum.  As of this writing, I still don’t know who this judge is and what circumstances had changed since the granting of the en banc rehearing to cause the recusal.  And indeed, by all accounts the Fifth Circuit is still figuring out what to do in this unusual (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) situation where a court loses a quorum it initially had – having already vacated the panel decision.

In short, the court could decide that the vacatur stands and either remand to a (now-confused) district court or rehear the case in a new random panel assignment.  More likely, however, the court will now reinstate the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad panel decision – and we’ll tweak our brief to make into one that supports the defendants’ inevitable cert petition.

All in all, an illustration of the absurdity both of litigating climate change politics in the courts and of forcing judges (including Supreme Court justices) to withdraw from cases for owning a few hundred dollars’ worth of stock.  If that’s all it takes to corrupt federal judges, we have bigger problems than trial lawyers run amok!