The Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo and ‘cum hoc ergo propter hoc’

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The Miami Herald‘s Marc Caputo offers a rather dangerous theory in a post this morning, arguing that Rick Scott “is getting marginally better liked (or less disliked)…and he can thank the Republican Party of Florida, which has robo-called Republican and independent voters to tout his accomplishments.”

When Scott first started making the calls, some folks were annoyed. It looked as if the robo-calls were backfiring. No longer, it appears. The party paid for at least 6 robo calls to 7 million households at a cost of $240,000.

In late May, Quinnipiac found Scott’s overall job-approval rating stood at an anemic 29 percent and his disapproval was at 57 percent. Now that split is 35/52. Net improvement: 11 percentage points.

And therein lies the danger.  Caputo is making a correlative conclusion rather than proving a causal relation.

The first concept a political science student learns in their research methods class is that correlation does not imply causation. The opposite belief, correlation proves causation, is a logical fallacy by which two events that occur together are claimed to have a cause-and-effect relationship. The fallacy is also known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

The cum hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy can be expressed as follows (thanks Wikipedia):

  1. A occurs in correlation with B.
  2. Therefore, A causes B

Caputo is arguing that because Rick Scott’s poll numbers among Republicans and Independents are up and the Republican Party of Florida made robo-calls on Scott’s behalf to Republicans and Independents, the robo-calls are the cause of Scott’s improved poll numbers.

That argument may be correct, but it’s more likely true that Scott’s improved poll numbers are due to a variety of factors, such as the fact that the Florida Legislature is no longer in Session and the number of negative media stories related to their and Scott’s work has decreased significantly.

Not to bust Caputo’s chops too much more, but journalists often confuse correlation and causation.  In fact, it is one of the most glaring weaknesses of traditional political coverage.

There are so many silly examples of correlation without causation.  One of the most often cited examples is in which ice cream sales and shark attack frequency are strongly correlated.  This is not because sharks start attacking in response to ice cream, but because the two variables exhibit a common response to the warm season.

As for the argument that the robo-calls bolstered Scott’s poll numbers, just read the pollster’s conclusion: “It would seem Gov. Rick Scott and his aides have failed to get their message out.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.