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Posts Tagged ‘correlation

This refrain might seem old, but it should be seen as timeless instead — correlation is not causation.

Case in point, the article embedded in the tweet highlighted how you can correlate almost anything with enough data and participants. Just because eating potatoes is correlated with “negative” technology use does not mean that one causes the other.

The use and integration of everyday and educational technologies are not monolithic. They are complex phenomena that cannot be reduced to soundbites or clickbait.

As the author pointed out in his article, if one is to explore the possibilities and problems in this wide field, one has to first be a student of cognitive development, epistemology, sociology, moral philosophy, etc. And yet these are so easily circumnavigated by a combination of misplaced correlation and fear of change.


Video source

This video is as much about misconceptions surrounding screen time as it is about:

  • Reading beyond headlines
  • Understanding how newspapers are not journals
  • Distinguishing engagement and accuracy; statistical significance and effect size; correlation and causation

It also illustrated how large sample sizes can make tiny effects statistically significant even though they have no practical significance.

For example, the video cited a study in Nature Human Behaviour that had a sample size of 355,358 adolescents. The video (also this article in Vox) highlighted how the study found that “wearing eyeglasses and eating potatoes also had significant yet small negative effects on teens’ wellbeing”. And yet we do not vilify either.

Add to that the fact that researchers have to decide where cut-offs are that distinguish statistically significant effects from non-significant ones (e.g., P value 0.01 vs 0.05). The same researchers or the agencies they work for might also make cut-offs like recommended screen times of no more than one hour before age five, even if the evidence does not support strict limits for any age groups.

TLDR? Newspapers oversimplify complex phenomena by providing easy answers. Real learning is not in taking these answers at face value. It happens when you explore nuance and depth instead.

One of my pet peeves is how some people confuse correlation with causation. Sometimes I cannot blame them because they were taught to think that way.


Video source

The SciShow video above highlights one common example. As a former biology student (and teacher), I was taught (and taught others) wrongly that aching muscles are due to lactic acid buildup.

Not only is the buildup due to lactate — a base that accepts protons — aches are only correlated to the buildup. The lactate might build up, but it does not seem to cause the aches; the actual cause is not yet known for sure.

This video is not just useful for highlighting how scientific facts change, but also how scientific thinking takes place. It is the latter that creates content and changes it. It is the thinking that needs to be modelled and taught, not just the content.

Anyone who needs to process scientific, medical, or social science research that involve correlations needs to watch the video below.


Video source

As the video highlights, the number of drownings can be correlated to the release of Nicholas Cage movies, but this does not mean one causes the other.

Journalists who like reporting whether certain foods are good or bad for you need this video.

People who read what these uninformed journalists write need to watch this video.

Anyone who might have heard someone else declare, “Correlation is not causation!” needs to watch this video.

Watch this video!

Say it, repeat it: Correlation is not causation. This is a tenet in critical thinking and research literacy.

Case in point:

As long as news agencies and papers continue to publish drivel without explaining the tenet, they are peddling misinformation. There are many other factors that contribute to susceptibility or resistance to disease.

There is nothing wrong with promoting healthy eating by feeding your body with fruit. There is everything wrong with perpetuating uncritical thinking by feeding your mind with misinformation.

As long as news agencies and papers practice such lazy and unethical publishing, teachers and parents have a duty to use these examples to model critical thought.

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?


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