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Life, the Universe, Everything

Correlation and Causation

From xkcd:

Correlation does not imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'

I’m taking a micro course called “Scientist as Citizen,” which is basically a workshop for scientists who want to know about interacting with the public, specifically through journalism. It’s taught by Cornelia Dean, Science Editor at the New York Times, so she has a lot of experience dealing with scientists and trying to communicate science to the public. Unfortunately, a lot of scientists have this attitude towards science journalists:

I dont think science/medicine journalism will ever catch up with ‘clergy/ministry/missionary’ for the title of ‘most useless profession’, but man, some days theyre certainly giving the Godbots a run for their money…

So whats my point? Hmm. I guess that more scientists should open blogs and take a moment to write about cutting edge research, and the profession of pop-science/newspaper/magazine ‘science’ writer should either shape up, cut the fat from their ranks, or disappear.

I can’t get quite as worked up as this because I haven’t personally experienced bad science journalism about my research. Nevertheless, it is clear that a lot of scientists are wary of science journalists for similar reasons. It’s tough to explain your research in a way that other people will understand, a process made more difficult because of the different ways that scientists think as compared to the general populace (and that includes science journalists who are by and large NOT scientists themselves). In this class, Ms. Dean brought up several examples of  these differences, but there is one that I thought was especially insightful.

A lot of people tend to assume correlation = causation; cum hoc ergo propter hoc. My favorite illustration of this fallacy is in an open letter written to the Kansas City School Board regarding their fight to get Intelligent Design taught in schools

You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.

Ms. Dean said something that I think bares repeating, “A correlation is not an answer, it’s an opportunity to ask a question.” Scientists generally know this when it applies to their research, but even scientists can be mislead by this fallacy in their day-to-day lives.

Ultimately, I think science journalism is important (though I agree with Abbie from ERV that more scientists should blog about their own research). Unfortunately, with news organizations everywhere slashing their science reporting budgets and taking reporters off of dedicated science beats, the trouble journalists have understanding what they are reporting on will only get worse. It will be up to us to the scientific community to communicate more effectively to make sure it’s done right.

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8 March, 2009 Posted by | Education, Science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment