Correlation does NOT prove causation. Correlation could be defined by any correlation, (a positive relationship, negative relationship, inverted relationship) between any two variables. For example, when A increases, so does B. Causation, however, states that A caused B. That the increase in A actually was responsible for the increase in B. This can be a BIG problem in psychology. We make that leap between correlation and causation, this logically fallacy get us into all kinds of trouble.
Some examples of this include:
- Example 1
- Sleeping with one’s shoes on is strongly correlated with waking up with a headache.
- Therefore, sleeping with one’s shoes on causes headache.
The above example commits the correlation-implies-causation fallacy, as it prematurely concludes that sleeping with one’s shoes on causes headache. A more plausible explanation is that both are caused by a third factor, in this case going to bed drunk, which thereby gives rise to a correlation. So the conclusion is false.
- Example 2
- Young children who sleep with the light on are much more likely to develop myopia in later life.
- Therefore, sleeping with the light on causes myopia.
This is a scientific example that resulted from a study at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Published in the May 13, 1999 issue of Nature, the study received much coverage at the time in the popular press. However, a later study at Ohio State University did not find that infants sleeping with the light on caused the development of myopia. It did find a strong link between parental myopia and the development of child myopia, also noting that myopic parents were more likely to leave a light on in their children’s bedroom. In this case, the cause of both conditions is parental myopia, and the above-stated conclusion is false.
- Example 3
- As ice cream sales increase, the rate of drowning deaths increases sharply.
- Therefore, ice cream consumption causes drowning.
The aforementioned example fails to recognize the importance of time and temperature in relationship to ice cream sales. Ice cream is sold during the hot summer months at a much greater rate than during colder times, and it is during these hot summer months that people are more likely to engage in activities involving water, such as swimming. The increased drowning deaths are simply caused by more exposure to water-based activities, not ice cream. The stated conclusion is false.
- Example 4
- A hypothetical study shows a relationship between test anxiety scores and shyness scores, with a statistical r value (strength of correlation) of +.59.
- Therefore, it may be simply concluded that shyness, in some part, causally influences test anxiety.
However, as encountered in many psychological studies, another variable, a “self-consciousness score,” is discovered which has a sharper correlation (+.73) with shyness. This suggests a possible “third variable” problem, however, when three such closely related measures are found, it further suggests that each may have bidirectional tendencies (see “bidirectional variable,” above), being a cluster of correlated values each influencing one another to some extent. Therefore, the simple conclusion above may be false.
- Example 5
- Since the 1950s, both the atmospheric CO2 level and obesity levels have increased sharply.
- Hence, atmospheric CO2 causes obesity.
As car sales increase, carbon dioxide levels increase as well as obesity as people do less walking and biking.
- Example 6
- HDL (“good”) cholesterol is negatively correlated with incidence of heart attack.
- Therefore, taking medication to raise HDL will decrease the chance of having a heart attack.
Further research has called this conclusion into question. Instead, it may be that other underlying factors, like genes, diet and exercise, affect both HDL levels and the likelihood of having a heart attack; it is possible that medicines may affect the directly measurable factor, HDL levels, without affecting the chance of heart attack.
- With a decrease in the number of pirates, there has been an increase in global warming over the same period.
- Therefore, global warming is caused by a lack of pirates.
In conclusion, ice cream does not cause drowning, but summer and the increase of swimmers might. We need to critically evaluate when we are making this drastic jump from correlation to causation. In experimental studies, we do our very best to eliminate other intervening factors.
(I turned this in on time but I wasn’t yet part of the blog group)