Correlation and Causality: Have A Drink, Get Rich

I am down to one brief internet connection daily, found, intermittently, at a coffee shop in town. I apologize for lack of or slowness in answering questions.

According to the estimable Gallup organization, rich people drink more than poor ones. And since most of us want to be rich—I do—then statistics says that we should learn to properly cock an elbow.

This is true: folks who make less than twenty grand are shockingly abstemious; less than half of them know that a toast isn’t just something that is buttered. By the time median pay levels are reached, thirty to fifty thou., two out of every three have learned the art of the sip.

But it isn’t until we reach the upper echelons—seventy-five big ones or better—that we encounter regularly gins and tonics, Campari, rocks, and the Glenlivet.

It cannot be a coincidence that the more education one receives, the more one is likely understand the proper mechanics of the cocktail shaker and the true meaning of straining a drink. This is because education and income are, as everybody knows, correlated.

Diplomas are not always causative of dollars, however. A degree does not guarantee dinero in every instance. Those of us who are unspeakably learned tend—there is no other word—to be able to support Congresspersons in the manner to which they have been accustomed, but not always.

Albert Einstein, no mental slouch, did not die obscenely wealthy. Neither did Galileo, Mozart, or Mark Twain. And I am under no burdens of noblesse oblige myself.

Yet Ambassador Sean Penn, Bruce Springsteen, those earnest ladies from The View, and miscellaneous quarterbacks and some other athletes, are all bursting with the stuff.

From these observations we know that education and intelligence do not cause wealth; that is, we know that ignorance does not cause penury. All it takes is one instance of a intelligent poor person, or a rich politician to know that intelligence and wealth are not causatively related for all people.

Though they might be in some, or for others at some times. For example, many firms stipulate that one must have this-and-such degree or a demonstrated level of ability for their employees salaries to attain certain levels. In these cases, intelligence—always loosely defined—is causatively associated with income.

As long as there are no exceptions: let just one in—we discover one person with the proper credentials yet who has not been given his due—and we move from causation to correlation.

But causation is still, in the realm of the everyday world, a matter of probability. For example, we push a button and see that television comes on. Pushing that button is what caused the TV to turn on, we say. But it could be—who knows?—that every time thus far we have pushed that button the TV has coincidentally turned on, perhaps because of mysterious vibrations as yet unclassified by physics. That is, it could be that the clicker (or remote, if you will), has nothing to do with the television’s status.

As David Hume said, it is only because we become accustomed to things happening, one after the other, that we develop the notion of one thing causing another. Be clear: when I say that causation is probabilistic, I do not mean that causation is not present: something caused the events we witness to occur.

Instead, it is our knowledge of causation that is probabilistic. Now, we can develop a theory, which is a device that says that if certain things are true, then these events definitely occur. However, theories only pushes uncertainty back one level, because our knowledge of the conditions is never perfectly sure.

For example, there is a long history in physics of us guessing the causes of events, only to discover something deeper is at work. Yet because we have done so well making accurate, or tolerably approximate predictions, with our physical (semi) causative theories, our belief in the causative principles of theories is strong.

This is not so for human relations. As a prominent sociologist once said of measurements of behavior, “Everything is correlated with everything else.” This being so, we should expect sociologists, politicians and the like, to temper their theoretical judgments, to acknowledge vast uncertainty.

Thus, the political theory that by pushing this button, all or most people will do this, cannot and should not carry much conviction.

At least, not in an person intelligent enough to distinguish between correlation and causation. To believe strongly in any sociological theory is thus no different than reasoning that the best time to buy a lottery ticket, is right after having a drink.


  1. I like the illustration of Fred Mosteller that although height and weight are strongly correlated, gaining weight does not make you taller.

  2. DAV

    More drinking might not make you richer but if do it enough you won’t care.

  3. JH

    But… if I spend money on drinks, don’t I actually become less rich?

  4. Doug M

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb would tell you that if you want to make a lot of money go to more cocktail parties. At the cocktail party, the rich and the powerful rub elbows and discuss their new ventures. Attending these parties gives you the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time.

  5. dearieme

    Good point, John. But if I chop your head off, you lose both height and weight. Which only goes to show.

  6. dearieme

    But not if I chop off just one of your feet; but it does work if I chop off both. Hm. Perhaps there’s a paper in this – The Nonlinearity of Ankles.

  7. Bernie

    My wife has identified a causal link between my going to a kitchen cabinet and her having to close the cabinet door aftwards. When I suggest she does not pay attention to the times she leaves the door open nor the countless times I close them, and that therefore she is falling foul of a classic statistical error – she says I am full of it…

    I mention this largely because I just got yelled at…for leaving a cabinet door open. Of course, in true Family Circus fashion, not me did it.

  8. commieBob

    You can always have a spurious correlation. I heard the following example a thousand years ago so please forgive me if I mess it up and correct it if necessary:

    A student noticed a correlation between how hard the asphalt is and baby deaths. As he traveled around the city, he noticed that, in areas where the pavement was soft, babies seemed to be dying in greater numbers. The obvious conclusion was that better pavement would be a great public health measure.

    Of course, the real correlation was with heat. High temperatures cause soft asphalt. High temperatures also cause baby deaths.

    There have been at least two studies that I am aware of that find that drinkers prosper better than non drinkers. The real correlation, as Doug M. hints at, is that gregarious people fare better than their anti-social cousins. Although there are solitary drinkers, most drinking is a social phenomenon. If you want to get ahead, go out and make some more friends. If drinking and carousing result, so much the better.

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