On causal claims, contingencies, and inference: How causal terminology affects what we think about the strength of causal links

AbstractThe communicative goal behind a causal claim like "Smoking causes heart attacks" is to inform recipients about the existence of a causal link between the factors mentioned in the proposition. Different terminologies can be used to accomplish this goal. Sometimes people use formulations of the form "C causes E", like in the tobacco warning above, and sometimes they use other formulations, such as modal propositions like "C can cause / lead to E.", or statements like "C increases the risk of E.". We investigate the hypothesis that different causal structure claims, by means of different terminologies, not only communicate the existence of a causal link but also implicitly elicit intuitions about that link's strength. Experiment 1 revealed that claims like "C causes E" imply a stronger link than, for example, modal formulations like "C can cause E". Experiment 2 tested implications of this finding for research on causal structure learning.

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