Correlation, Partial Correlation, and Causation

Synthese 67 (2):157 - 173 (1986)
Philosophers and scientists have maintained that causation, correlation, and "partial correlation" are essentially related. These views give rise to various rules of causal inference. This essay considers the "claims of several philosophers and social scientists for causal systems with dichotomous variables. In section 2 important commonalities and differences are explicated among four major conceptions of correlation. In section 3 it is argued that whether correlation can serve as a measure of A's causal influence on B depends upon the conception of causation being used and upon certain background assumptions. In section 4 five major kinds of "partial correlation" are explicated, and some of the important relations are established among two conceptions of "partial correlation", the conception of "screening off", the conception of "partitioning", and the measures of causal influence which have been suggested by advocates of path analysis or structural equation methods. In section 5 it is argued that whether any of these five conceptions of "partial correlation" can serve as a measure of causal influence depends upon the conception of causation being used and upon certain background assumptions. The important conclusion is that each of the approaches (considered here) to causal inference for causal systems with dichotomous variables stands in need of important qualifications and revisions if they are to be justified.
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