You are Drowning in Correlation Quicksand, just ask the Khan Academy

CORRELATION MAY GLITTER BUT IT'S NOT GOLD

"The story with most businesses is they react when they shouldn't, and don't react when they should." Alan Pippenger

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With great embarrassment, I discovered early on in my managing career, that I am not really logical. Like just about everyone else, I am by nature plausibly logical, meaning that if it is plausible and could happen, to us it is. The truly logical DNA was weeded out centuries ago.

The Fall of Our Logical Ancestors


Two of our ancestors were walking when they hear the grass rustling. The first, being a normal person, seeing a correlation between movement in the grass and tiger attacks, our true progenitor ran like crazy. (He had been warned by his family since very young.)

But his truly logical tribal pal stopped and asked, "is the only explanation for grass rustling that there is a tiger? Could it be the wind? Could it be another animal that is not dangerous? How silly to run without more data..."

You don't have to run faster than a tiger​ when it attacks, only faster than the person next to you.  Seems enough times it was a tiger for the logical among us were weeded out.

So born with an overly large faith in my own logical abilities, I did some whoppers. You see it all the time. "Those people," the ones who believe the darn'dest things, change their way of life, just 'cause someone told them something that sounded reasonable and could happen. "It is bad to wear glasses because your eye muscles will get lazy and your vision will get worse."

It's plausible. As people age their eye muscles do stiffen, making it harder to read. It could happen. In fact, when I first heard it I was scared. Started doing daily eye calisthenics, much to the horror of those around me. 

On Yahoo answers someone even "shared" they kept having to change glasses as their eyesight kept getting weaker, until they switched to contact lenses and it stabilized. Wow!

Now I know half of you are like me, makes sense, could happen... it is. So what is the fuss? The problem is we assume the rapid decline, which is real, is associated with the glasses. That putting on glasses and decline correlate. And, that yahoo poster went us one better and assumed it was the change to contact lenses that made things better.

Was it? In a moment of rare wisdom, I asked my doctor, and without laughing at me explained that vision declines in the far-sighted somewhere around 40, and it does so fairly rapidly. "Seems like every visit to me, the eye doctor, you need new glasses?" he said. "It's not me selling glasses, though I am grateful, it's just natural, and after a time it stabilizes naturally.  Probably about the time our yahoo friend switched in frustration to contacts. So the correlation was between age, time, and vision, not glasses, oops!

Confusing coincidence with correlation, and correlation with causality is all too common. But, they are not the same thing!

Once our emotions become attached to an idea, there is no shaking us from our resolve: If it sounds true and it could happen, it is logical, so it is, right? Once we have chosen an explanation, and become attached, urban myths are chosen over real science, and the last people we will ask are those who really know, the doctors, and scientists and specialists, who will try and set us straight.

CASE IN POINT: DIETING

  • ​"Beets make you fat."
  • "No, Potatoes make you fat."
  • "Eating more carbs and less fat makes you thin."
  • "Eating NO carbs and only meat makes you thin,"(and, by the way, can kill your kidneys).
  • while the truth is, eating more calories than what you burn turns to fat no matter what the source...  and getting off the sofa and away from your personal internet communication device... I know, not plausible or probable!

No Diet Book will sell with just one page in it, saying, Eat Less, Move More, avoid empty calories and eat a variety of nutrition packed foods. Even if that is the simple truth.

What HURTS is when it is in the world of work and you mix up coincidence, correlation and causality: what is not true in business comes at a BIG price. Pseudo-statistics and pseudo-science may make you FEEL in control, but they can put you in a world of hurt in a hurry. Shooting from the hip may FEEL strong, but it too often misses the target and can kill innocent bystanders.

Confusing coincidence, correlation and causality, as the saying goes: who believes it pays the dollar.

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Here is the Khan Academy vid on it:

BEYOND KHAN

Beyond Khan...  check this site out

Tyler Vigen has a site called Spurious Correlations that are easy to laugh at, as long as you aren't emotionally attached to idea. If you aren't convinced then, did you know that smoking banana skins... well that was another era!

Any Stories like This in Your Working Life?

I guarantee you are confusing coincidence, correlation and causality, 'cause until we change the way we look at things, we all do it: and we all pay the price. To help you nail the difference between correlation, coincidence and cause, and to help me not fall back into the trap, share here. Think of instances at work where you might have mistaken correlation for causality and share in the comments below. If concerned about privacy, I have provided a sign up box below, where you can use any username you wish or just skip to the comments below.

Or you could pay my day rate for my advice... I won't complain (over a grand a day)

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.