Video: Don’t Drown in Spurious Correlations

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While confusing correlation with causation may be one of the oldest – if not the oldest – logical fallacies in the world, that doesn’t make humankind any less likely to conflate the two. And, as Tyler Vigen explains in the following video, “There’s a lot of bad things that can happen if we mistake correlation for causation.”

The video –which you can watch for free by clicking here — is part of SAGE Research Methods Video . It’s an extensive collection, with almost 500 titles and more than 125 hours of total video.

Vigen, a student at Harvard Law School, has written book on the clash of correlation and causation titled, Spurious Correlations. In it, he explains here, he explores “the connections between variables that look like they’re related statistically, but really, they’re not connected.” Such as the startling fact that drownings by falling into a swimming pool rise and fall in concert with the number of films Nicolas Cage appears in per year. That’s correlation. Causation, meanwhile, is when one variable does cause another to occur – perhaps people throwing themselves into a pool after seeing Cage’s awful remake of The Wicker Man.

“Thankfully,” Vigen says, “in the academic world, it doesn’t happen a lot in published papers because they go through peer review.” And yet, as social and behavioral scientists get more data and start dredging through it, more ‘spurious correlating’ is sure to occur. In the video, the first of three segments on SAGE Research Methods Video, he gives tips on how to intentionally create your own suspect correlations as a way to help researchers learn how to not do so unintentionally.

SAGE Video offerings are close captioned but also include a searchable transcript that’s clickable to that point in the video, so when Vigen mentions a chart, you can go directly there in the video by clicking on the text. They also include citation information and the ability to make your own clips from the longer video. You can share via e-mail or social media, save to a playlist, and speed up of slow down play.

Tyler Vigen

In this video, Tyler Vigen notes with a smile that thanks to his work on correlation and causation, if you now Google ‘Nicolas cage’ and ‘swimming pool,’ his face pops up. Click the image to see the video.

To view this particular video, for free, click here.

For more about SAGE Video Research Methods Video, click here.

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