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Posts Tagged ‘correlation

Rick and Morty is an animated series that is waiting for its third season.

It is not for the faint-hearted because it makes you laugh from openings you might not realise you have. It can be rude and crude, but -oh-so intelligent.

Video source

So it should come as little surprise that it is possible to use Rick and Morty to illustrate human cognition, confirmation bias, and how correlation is not the same as causation.

This just goes to show how just about anything can be used to teach anything else. The key is an educator who can think both creatively and critically.

Our daily rags sometimes do us a disservice by publishing articles like this.

A headline that reads “Eating too much fish while pregnant raises child obesity risk” is not only inaccurate, it is also irresponsible. The researchers highlighted that there was no direct link and said that making such a hypothesis was “speculative”. The study did not prove causation; it only suggested correlation.

The headline is what grabs eyeballs. It is clickbait based on fear or worry.

If not scientifically or research literate, the layperson typically does not distinguish between correlation with causation. Perhaps we need a SkillsFuture course on this because it is a valuable lesson in lifelong learning.

If not, then we might ponder the observation of one of the readers: The Japanese consume a lot of fish, and presumably that includes pregnant women, but they have a relatively low obesity rate. So what gives?

Rising above irresponsible reporting, I wonder if literacy in schools includes the sort of critical thinking that 1) distinguishes between correlation and causation, and 2) encourages questions with counter examples and data.

Is such literacy relegated to “cyberwellness” programmes or is it integrated in the context of actual content?

I spotted this on Twitter recently.

The layperson who sees this might conclude that you are more likely to produce Nobel laureates if you eat more chocolate.

A better informed person would have learnt that 1) you cannot assume the data to be accurate, 2) if the data was accurate, correlation is not the same as causation, and 3) description is not prescription.


Does anyone raise an eyebrow when they read headlines like “Happier youth ‘spend less time online'”? [article archive online] [article archive PDF]

I am not surprised not because I agree with the statement but because I have come to expect the Straits Times to publish such misleading information as truth.

I have said it before and I will say it again: Correlation is not causation.

There are so many things that can cause unhappiness. Taking a poll and reacting to poorly drawn conclusions can cause unhappiness.

You can sample a segment of a population and collect data on, say, the brand of toilet paper they prefer, and the incidence of crimes like peeping toms.

The data might reveal a strong correlation between those who like Itchy Bum brand and the likelihood of being watched by a peeping tom. But you cannot conclude that one causes the other. You can only say there is some relationship  between the two variables.

I have a second problem with the way the data was presented.

The article states that respondents who rated themselves “happy” spent 5.4 hours online each day. Those who rated themselves “unhappy” spent 5.8 hours online. Ignoring how happiness or unhappiness was determined, is 0.4 hours (24 minutes) statistically significant? Is is pragmatically significant? Just because there is a numerical difference does not make it significant.

Worse still, a layperson who reacts extremely to this might take the results as prescriptive. They might take the article as advice on what to do instead of analyzing it more critically.

Might a parent or teacher then insist on 5.4 hour cap of online activity? This is not as ridiculous as it sounds when you consider how people react to articles about whether to drink wine or eat a particular type of fish for health reasons. These folks switch diets, brands, and behaviours at the drop of a hat.

And at the drop of a physical newspaper at their doorstep. This newspaper is the same one that would prefer to bash a competitive medium (online bad, paper good) instead of reinvent itself to fully take advantage of positive change.

The same newspaper that had an opportunity in this case to educate but chose to misinform instead. Present the same information in an online forum or Facebook and watch what happens. The misinformation gets discussed and eventually might get corrected.


In this TED talk, Richard Wilkinson presents some quick data and analysis on the possible relationships between economic inequality and other concepts like health, lifespan and trust.

Singapore prides itself at being first or among the top few at many things. Among developed countries, we happen to top the charts in disparity between the very rich and the very poor.

Screen capture from TED video. Click to see larger version.

While it is important to note that Wilkinson’s statistics are correlational and not causal, there is no pride in being the country with the greatest economic disparity.

[There was more to this entry but I thought my rant started to wander off track. The visual, if verifiable, is enough to provoke thought.]

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