Many people confuse correlation (things happening together or in sequence) for causation (that one thing actually causes the other to happen). Sometimes correlation is coincidental, or it may be attributable to a common cause.
Recently on facebook I shared a link to a website that has been making the rounds lately on social media. The website, pokes fun at the idea of people using Correlation in an attempt to prove a direct causative factor in events. As you can see from the website statistically the age of miss america correlates with murders by steam, gas vapours and hot objects. Most readers are likely to see that correlation has nothing to do with a causative factors in this instance, however what if the reader has little to no background understanding of a topic and both statistics are related?
Spurious correlations are all to popular among the health & fitness industry. They are often pushed forward to the general population in an attempt for someone to give credit or relevance to either an idea or to push an existing agenda. This is popular in all fields of the industry and is not simply limited to fringe groups.
Would anyone consider the following based simply on correlation?
Accepting a correlation as a direct causative factor can have devastating consequences. Lets look into the above example of causative factors of autism, one of the more recent and controversial that everyone should be aware of Is autism and vaccinations in children. For years people have concluded and protested based on a debunked and flawed study (that has since been retracted due falsified data) that the correlation of vaccination with the MMR vaccine in children equals a direct causative factor in the development of Autism spectrum disorders.
A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE IS A DANGEROUS THING
The truth is proponents of the Anti vaccine campaign made the illogical assumption that if two things are occurring they must be related or one is causing the other to happen. By now you should be informed enough to know that this is not the case and not how you prove causation. If not continue reading, a 2014 Metanalysis concluded the following.
“Findings of this meta-analysis suggest that vaccinations are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder. Furthermore, the components of the vaccines (thimerosal or mercury) or multiple vaccines (MMR) are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder.”
And If that wasn’t the final nail in the coffin for anti-vacc proponents, Researchers at the University of California have opened the doors with clear and direct evidence that Autism begins during pregnancy before vaccinations are ever even able to be given to children.
HOW DOES AUTISM AND VACCINATIONS RELATE TO OTHER ASPECTS OF THE HEALTH AND FITNESS INDUSTRY?
How often do you hear of programs be it nutritional or exercise based being the sole cause of results for individuals? While it can be easy for some of us to see through promises and claims not everyone has the ability to apply critical thinking (aka bullshit detection). Fueling this is a new wave of pseudoscience that has swept the industry adding even more confusion. You see it daily on social media; new pills, exercise programs, clean eating, paleo, fruitloopatarians and other fad diets all making claims that XYZ is the cause of all problems and needs to be avoided because X correlated with Y. The problem with pseudoscience is that it walks like science, sounds like science but it aint science. Sadly people like to be sold promises and they relish in the idea of complex physiological processes being simple as either black or white, everyone wants the smoking gun! It simply doesn’t exist.
References & Resources;
Aldrich, J (1995) Correlations Genuine and Spurious in Pearson and Yule; Statistical Science <http://www.economics.soton.ac.uk/staff/aldrich/spurious.pdf> BMJ 2011; 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c7452 (Published 6 January 2011)
Rich Stoner, Maggie L. Chow, Maureen P. Boyle, Susan M. Sunkin, Peter R. Mouton, Subhojit Roy, Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, Sophia A. Colamarino, Ed S. Lein, Eric Courchesne. Patches of Disorganization in the Neocortex of Children with Autism. New England Journal of Medicine, 2014; 370 (13): 1209 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1307491
University of California, San Diego Health Sciences. “Autism begins in pregnancy, according to study: Cortical layers disrupted during brain development in autism.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140326181909.htm>