Education and Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

Essay 89: Physics AI Predicts That Earth Goes Around the Sun

from Nature Briefing:

Hello Nature readers,

Today we learn that a computer Copernicus has rediscovered that Earth orbits the Sun, ponder the size of the proton and see a scientific glassblower at work.

Physicists have designed artificial intelligence that thinks like the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus by realizing the Sun must be at the center of the Solar System. (NASA/JPL/SPL)

AI ‘Discovers’ That Earth Orbits the Sun [PDF]

A neural network that teaches itself the laws of physics could help to solve some of physics’ deepest questions. But first it has to start with the basics, just like the rest of us. The algorithm has worked out that it should place the Sun at the centre of the Solar System, based on how movements of the Sun and Mars appear from Earth.

The machine-learning system differs from others because it’s not a black that spits out a result based on reasoning that’s almost impossible to unpick. Instead, researchers designed a kind of ‘lobotomizedneural network that is split into two halves and joined by just a handful of connections. That forces the learning half to simplify its findings before handing them over to the half that makes and tests new predictions.

Next FDA Chief Will Face Ongoing Challenges

U.S. President Donald Trump has nominated radiation oncologist Stephen Hahn to lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If the Senate confirms Hahn, who is the chief medical executive of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, he’ll be leading the agency at the centre of a national debate over e-cigarettes, prompted by a mysterious vaping-related illness [archived PDF] that has made more than 2,000 people sick. A former FDA chief says Hahn’s biggest challenge will be navigating a regulatory agency under the Trump administration, which has pledged to roll back regulations.

Do We Know How Big a Proton Is?

A long-awaited experimental result has found the proton to be about 5% smaller than the previously accepted value. The finding seems to spell the end of the ‘proton radius puzzle’: the measurements disagreed if you probed the proton with ordinary hydrogen, or with exotic hydrogen built out of muons instead of electrons. But solving the mystery will be bittersweet: some scientists had hoped the difference might have indicated exciting new physics behind how electrons and muons behave.

Contingency Plans for Research After Brexit

The United Kingdom should boost funding for basic research and create an equivalent of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) if it doesn’t remain part of the European Union’s flagship Horizon Europe research-funding program [archived PDF]. That’s the conclusion of an independent review of how UK science could adapt and collaborate internationally after Brexit — now scheduled for January 31, 2020.

Nature’s 150th anniversary

A Century and a Half of Research and Discovery

This week is a special one for all of us at Nature: it’s 150 years since our first issue, published in November 1869. We’ve been working for well over a year on the delights of our anniversary issue, which you can explore in full online.

10 Extraordinary Nature Papers

A series of in-depth articles from specialists in the relevant fields assesses the importance and lasting impact of 10 key papers from Nature’s archive. Among them, the structure of DNA, the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, our first meeting with Australopithecus and this year’s Nobel-winning work detecting an exoplanet around a Sun-like star.

A Network of Science

The multidisciplinary scope of Nature is revealed by an analysis of more than 88,000 papers Nature has published since 1900, and their co-citations in other articles. Take a journey through a 3D network of Nature’s archive in an interactive graphic. Or, let us fly you through it in this spectacular 5-minute video.

Then dig deeper into what scientists learnt from analyzing tens of millions of scientific articles for this project.

150 Years of Nature, in Graphics

An analysis of the Nature archive reveals the rise of multi-author papers, the boom in biochemistry and cell biology, and the ebb and flow of physical chemistry since the journal’s first issue in 1869. The evolution in science is mirrored in the top keywords used in titles and abstracts: they were ‘aurora’, ‘Sun’, ‘meteor’, ‘water’ and ‘Earth’ in the 1870s, and ‘cell’, ‘quantum’, ‘DNA’, ‘protein’ and ‘receptor’ in the 2010s.

Evidence in Pursuit of Truth

A century and a half has seen momentous changes in science, and Nature has changed along with it in many ways, says an Editorial in the anniversary edition. But in other respects, Nature now is just the same as it was at the start: it will continue in its mission to stand up for research, serve the global research community and communicate the results of science around the world.

Features & Opinion

Nature covers: from paste-up to Photoshop

Nature creative director Kelly Krause takes you on a tour of the archive to enjoy some of the journal’s most iconic covers, each of which speaks to how science itself has evolved. Plus, she touches on those that didn’t quite hit the mark, such as an occasion of “Photoshop malfeasance” that led to Dolly the sheep sporting the wrong leg.

Podcast: Nature bigwigs spill the tea

In this anniversary edition of BackchatNature editor-in-chief Magdalena Skipper, chief magazine editor Helen Pearson and editorial vice president Ritu Dhand take a look back at how the journal has evolved over 150 years, and discuss the part that Nature can play in today’s society. The panel also pick a few of their favorite research papers that Nature has published, and think about where science might be headed in the next 150 years.

Where I Work

Scientific glassblower Terri Adams uses fire and heavy machinery to hand-craft delicate scientific glass apparatus. “My workbench hosts an array of tools for working with glass, many of which were custom-made for specific jobs,” says Adams. “Each tool reminds me of what I first used it for and makes me consider how I might use it again.” (Leonora Saunders for Nature)

Quote of the Day

“At the very least … we should probably consider no longer naming *new* species after awful humans.”

Scientists should stop naming animals after terrible people — and consider renaming the ones that already are, argues marine conservation biologist and science writer David Shiffman. (Scientific American)

Yesterday was Marie Skłodowska Curie’s birthday, and for the occasion, digital colorist Marina Amaral breathed new life into a photo of Curie in her laboratory

(If you have recommended people before and you want them to count, please ask them to email me with your details and I will make it happen!) Your feedback, as always, is very welcome at

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

Essay 45: Then and Now Thinking: Facile Comparisons Lead to “Concept-Fraud”

The economist Arthur Laffer recently received an award from President Trump. Laffer wants to deceptively “cartoonize” reality by arguing that as taxes “go to 100%” (i.e., confiscation), output will go to zero and conversely as taxes “go to zero” output will go to “infinity.”

This is an example of playing with “bad infinities.”

This Laffer argument has been naively compared to David Hume’s economics:

“Back in the eighteenth century, the wise Scot David Hume anticipated David Hume in these 1756 words of sooth:

“‘Exorbitant taxes, like extreme necessity, destroy industry by producing despair; and even before they reach this pitch, they raise raise the wages of the laborer and manufacturer, and heighten the price of all commodities. An attentive disinterested legislature will observe the point where the emolument ceases and the prejudice begins.’”

(David Hume, Writings on Economics, ed. Eugene Rotwein, Edinburgh, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1955, page 87)

(quoted in Greed is Not Enough: Reaganomics, Robert Lekachman, Pantheon Books, 1982, page 49)

Reaganomics and Laffer-nomics have nothing to do with David Hume and facile “then-and-now” comparisons, all of which are false since the “anarcho-capitalism” of Reagan/Thatcher views has noting to do with Hume

Thatcher said: “properly speaking, there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals.”

But Hume believes the exact opposite as a socially conscious brand of conservative:

Hume cherished the structures that sustain our social life. He was in this respect deeply conservative, in the good sense of the conservationist of the shapes and forms which these institutions have taken.

“And of course he was deeply mistrustful of any scatterbrained project of doing better, by promoting anarchism or society without government or law, or dismantling the institutions of contract or private property. 

“He would have had absolutely no patience whatsoever with the contemporary takeover of social ideals by monetary and market values.

“When free-marketeers say that there is no such thing as society, they are denying the very arches needed to sustain contracts, law, government, and markets in the first place, and then knavery loses its stigma, and we may well expect the worst, as their practice becomes ‘answerable’  to their ‘speculation.’”

(quoted in How to Read Hume, Simon Blackburn, Granta, 2008, page 70)

Deceivers make duplicitous linkages between hallowed names and ideas of the past and the dangerously “tricky” present.

Thus, Hume-to-Laffer linkages and trajectories makes no sense whatsoever. This is an example of “then-and-now thinking” used for “concept-fraud.”