Pacanowsky, 1978, Please Pass the Salt

Pacanaowsky’s (1978) article “Please Pass the Salt” published in The Washington Post is a witty and even somewhat sarcastic piece that, for reasons of personal affinity to this style of writing, I quite enjoyed (causal inference between style of writing and degree of enjoyment?! – you betcha!). The article is a satirical look at the evolution of Pacanowsky-invented research by Pacanowsky-invented researchers on factors influencing the passage of salt (aka causality and the passage of salt). He begins his discussion with a presentation of salt passage in literary classics, implying that a general assumption that a request for salt causes the salt to be passed, goes far back in human history. The article then moves on to discuss the evolution of empirical research into salt passage and the variety of research questions that have been applied to developing human knowledge about the nature and causality of salt passage. His review includes over a dozen different (fake) research endeavors illustrating both the variety of questions that can be applied to what appears to be an exceedingly straightforward relationship, as well as the creativity of experimental design. Among my favourites were “Festinger” who found that if you paid people more money to pass the salt, they were more likely to want to participate in your research and “Zimbardo” (my hands-down favourite) who found that if stated the word “assault” instead of the word “salt” that you would be more likely to be the subject of requests for clarification.

Despite, or perhaps because of (causality again!) Pacanowsky’s humour, his article effectively communicates a few underlying messages about empirical research and causal inference. He manages to provide some excellent illustrations of concepts that include intervening variables (other people at the table to pass the salt), environmental factors (e.g. container that salt is in), sample bias (social science students relating their passage of salt to cognitive dissonance!) and the dangers of confusing correlation with causality (relating salt passage to ownership of audio-visual equipment). In fact each of the research studies he describes offers an illustration of some important concept/lesson for conducting quality empirical research.

Perhaps most salient in Pacanowsky’s satire is that he brings to life, Hume’s idea that we can only ever arrive at a causal inference because there is no logical or empirical way of fully proving causality (as cited by Rothwell, 2014). Pacanowsky’s article allows us to see how our understanding of causal relationships will never be fully realized. He helps the reader to think about the infinite multitudes of ways in which a question can be asked and research design established – each differing from others and each contributing something new or previously unconsidered. This relates to the problem of infinite regress which implies that we can never fully know because we can infinitely seek the cause of the cause of the cause of the cause, etc. and look at the same question in infinite numbers of ways – never arriving at a definitive conclusion.

We may never fully know what influences the passage of salt, why it is passed, what conditions speed up or slow down its passage, or how to best state one’s request that salt be passed. Before reading this article, I don’t suppose I ever would have considered the factors at play when I seek to have the salt passed to me. Perhaps this is the brilliance of this article, not that it makes you laugh or that it relates to Hume, but that it gets you thinking critically about causality in relation to the most mundane yet assumption-laden causal relationships.

References

Pacanowsky, M. (1978, April 9). ‘Please Pass the Salt’: Examing the Motivational Variables, Idiosyncratic Dynamics and Historic Precedents Associated with the Utterance. The Washington Post, p. C1.

Rothwell, D. (2014, May 22). Course lecture. Social Work 724. Lecture conducted from McGill University, Montreal, QC.

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