Episode 679 - Correlation doesn't equal causation

Mar 18, 2024

The phrase “Correlation doesn't equal causation” is something associated with science and statistics but it really applies to EVERYTHING and that's important to understand. But was does it mean? If a bunch of things happened at the same time, those things aren't necessarily related or causal. An example Tantz gives is that statistics show in the summer there are more drownings and that people eat more ice cream. That means that those two things are correlated. We know they aren't causal though: ice ream doesn't drown people and people drowning don't cause people to eat more ice cream… the third hidden variable is that it's summer: it's the rise in temperature that causes people to want more ice cream and to swim more, which increases the chances of drowning.

Topics and Show Notes

I was thinking of the correlation causation fallacy when I was musing on the topic of history. There's this idea that if you know a lot about history it will give you a lot of information on current events, but this is heavily flawed by our tendency to create artificial connections between events, we come up with stories that sound good and plausible and make us feel better for why things are connected. Think of all the pop-science and pop-history books that come out and easily explain world events and complicated things in history. They're all pretty much bullshit because they fall for the causation fallacy: this happened which caused this, that and this, rather than things all happening at the same time for other reasons. This is also related to the hindsight fallacy, where we look back at events and incorrectly think a conclusion should have been obvious because we can see how things ended.

Because of this, while knowledge of history is very useful, that use is more limited than we think so it helps to know current events too, especially from an outside perspective so that we're not as fooled by false connections and mistaken causal relationships.
But why do I say this affects everything? Any story you hear or come up with to explain something is a victim of this. My Quackcast topics on the evolution of elves or goblins in fantasy are a victim of this, when people talk about the motivating factors of a serial killer they do this, when we talk about WW2, the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or the reason you drink coffee in the morning we fall afoul of these fallacies. It's what drives conspiracy thinking, folk histories and urban myths.

It even affects things like self image: are we influenced by the images we see or are the images we see influenced by how we want to look or are there other factors?

A key example we mention in the Quackcast was a pop-science story about how the use of lead in fuel made people dumber and lead to more violence. A truly moronic conclusion, very easily debunkable and yet people as esteemed as pop-sceince communicator Veritasium were fooled by it. I realise I fall afoul of it every time I come up with a story for what influenced me to do comics, photography, or cosplay- I have at least 5 different stories that explain anything I do, all of them make sense and seem perfectly true to me at the time, but in reality they're a product of the hindsight bias, the causation fallacy and being selective with data and variables.

Can you think of a time you've fallen afoul of this? If you can't you're probably not thinking hard enough ;)

This week Gunwallace did not have time for a new theme but he suggested that we put up the theme to PleaseRewind again because it's a great comic that is currently being reposted! PleaseRewind - Quiet threat, creepy, seeping, strumming, thrumming, coming CLOSER, inside, peering around, waiting to begin. This is a quiet track filled with an undertone of urgency suggested by the constant quick rhythm and lonely guitar.

Topics and shownotes


Featured comic:
Sandra's Day - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/news/2024/mar/12/featured-comic-sandras-day/

Featured music:
PleaseRewind - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/Classic_Please_Rewind/ - by Paneltastic, rated T.

Special thanks to:
Gunwallace - http://www.virtuallycomics.com
Ozoneocean - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/user/ozoneocean
Tantz Aerine - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/user/Tantz_Aerine/
Banes - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/user/Banes/

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next Quackcast: Intelligence in fiction

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