Spurious Correlations

Summary

There are many tricks one can do with statistics to make an argument, and true to the old saying many statistical reports are lies of one sort or another (more so in the political arena than in the scientific arena, but statistic are often tricky to understand so the problem is universal). However there is another sort of “lie” that we all need to be aware of, and that is the lie of the spurious correlation. Tyler Vigen has created a humorous but insightful website dedicated to this phenomenon.

We often say “correlation is not causation”, but sometimes two things can be correlated and have exactly nothing to do with one another. This can give rise to superstition, or, as Tyler points out in his video at the bottom, it can be an opportunity to act as scientists and consider whether or not there is a reasonable chance that a causal mechanisms exists for the correlation.

Radio Lab did a show related to these ideas called “Stochasticity”, addressing the phenomenon of amazing coincidences and whether they really are as amazing as they seem and what the chances really are. After all, it is the seemingly amazing events which ...

There are many tricks one can do with statistics to make an argument, and true to the old saying many statistical reports are lies of one sort or another (more so in the political arena than in the scientific arena, but statistic are often tricky to understand so the problem is universal). However there is another sort of “lie” that we all need to be aware of, and that is the lie of the spurious correlation. Tyler Vigen has created a humorous but insightful website dedicated to this phenomenon.

We often say “correlation is not causation”, but sometimes two things can be correlated and have exactly nothing to do with one another. This can give rise to superstition, or, as Tyler points out in his video at the bottom, it can be an opportunity to act as scientists and consider whether or not there is a reasonable chance that a causal mechanisms exists for the correlation.

Radio Lab did a show related to these ideas called “Stochasticity”, addressing the phenomenon of amazing coincidences and whether they really are as amazing as they seem and what the chances really are. After all, it is the seemingly amazing events which catch our eye, but given how many things happen in the world how tales of such events are shared in the modern world, amazing coincidences are bound to happen and we are bound to hear of and even experience some. Confirmation bias is also a big problem as we choose details that make the event seem more amazing while ignoring those which would take away from the story.

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