‘I Just Know’: Why Correlation isn’t Causation

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Three Stories…

Once upon a time, in a far away land called New Hampshire, I worked on Obama’s first presidential campaign. I’ve discussed a little bit of why my politics changed on the libertarian podcasts I’ve appeared on, but that’s really not the point of this blog entry. The point?

I was almost thrown out of the bar the night that we won the fuck out of that election. Because the bartender “just knew” what he saw. 

‘I just know’

We left the campaign office to sit and wait at the bar and watch the electoral votes stack up. About two hours had passed when they announced that Obama had won. All the crying, the hugging, the ridiculous level of exhaustion…

As a whole, we were a little out of it. The last two weeks leading up to the election, the group of us that had been working on the election was working around the clock. We canvassed neighborhoods, made endless phone calls, and even drove people to their polling stations. When the polls closed and there was nothing left to do but wait, we needed a to let off some steam.

But I’d only had two drinks over the course of two hours.

The Table or the Drinking

And then at my wobbly table, somebody’s drink fell off the edge of the table. I hadn’t touched the glass, but I did pick it up off the floor.

The bartender walked over to me to tell me I was cut off and ask me if I needed to be escorted out of the bar. Surprised, I asked what the problem was. He said that he saw what happened, and that I was clearly intoxicated. 

Because a glass fell in proximity to me, I must have been drunk. 

I explained to him that I had only had two drinks (and given that I hadn’t lost the weight yet, that wasn’t enough to get me intoxicated). He wasn’t buying it. He told me he’d been a bartender for decades, and he “just knew” what he saw. It was his bartender’s instinct after all, he had to protect his baby, the bar, right?

I get it. He thought he saw something. I had been drinking and there was probably alcohol on my breath. I was with a loud group of people celebrating. He had reasons to think what he did.

But he was wrong. 

…Three Spurious Correlations

Have you ever just gotten the wrong impression of a situation? We all have. 

Ever seen millions of people all get the wrong impression of a situation at once? That’s the anti-vax movement. Those are the people who think GMOs are causing new allergies. Those are your anti-science movement. 

There are a lot of places in life where we conflate correlation to mean causation. Why do we make that mistake? Life, unlike in the science lab, doesn’t present the option of reducing complex situations to a group of single variable controls.

When life is your laboratory, you have to pick apart the variables one at a time until you find one that works. 

The Drill or the Painkiller

My brother had oral surgery. He was prescribed codeine for the pain. After surgery, he had migraines for weeks on end. My family had a history of allergy to codeine. I’m not sure who in my brother’s medical history made this diagnosis, but from then on out, there it was in my brother’s chart:

Allergy to codeine. Result: migraines.

…Wait.

…Wait just a fucking minute. 

I was eleven when this happened. I just kept being fed the line that codeine was the cause of the migraines.

Why was the blame put on a drug that reduces pain? Why didn’t anybody point the blame at the giant fucking drill that was making holes in his jaw?

It’s still maintained that codeine makes my brother nauseous. But I believe it’s off the hook for the migraines.

The Trip to Missouri or Miserable DNA?

On March 7th 2010, I got the worst headache of my life and it never went away. 

My doctors didn’t spot right away the connection between the headache and the rest of my seemingly disparate symptoms. Hypermobility, tendency to rip ligaments and dislocate joints, flat feet, scoliosis… For now, we worked on the symptom that was screaming for attention. We tried throwing different medications at it. At the same time, I tried altering my diet because… well something might do it, right?

Vegan. Organic. Paleo. Squirrel.*

Because in all those health blogs, I had done something to throw my system out of order, so I had to put it back into its natural state.

What did I do? 

Was it my previously unhealthy diet? Was it the insanely long hours I was working (between 50 and 60 plus 2.5 hours of commuting each day)? Was it the damn trip I’d taken two weeks before to Missouri?

Missouriposter

I was desperate and looking for anything I could change that would make the pain not be there. That meant looking for anything that I possibly did that caused it. 

You know what eventually worked? Medicine. 

I realized I did nothing to cause it. I was a time bomb. Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a rare disease that can come with several different presentations. It’s marked by hyper-mobility in a majority of cases. In my case, it came with a headache. I could look for behaviors and what I’d done around when it presented all day long, but at the end of the day? Nothing I did would have caused the inevitable, and nothing would have fixed it either.

——————————————-

Why these three stories? Because we try to make associations that go away when presented with better evidence.

What happens when millions of people observe the same anecdotal correlations? Is it still just a correlation? Did the table still just wobble? Is Ehlers Danlos Syndrome still always an underlying condition or was it the trip to Missouri?

Is autism still on the rise or is it the vaccines?

Three Mistakes

We’re seeing more cancer now. That’s a thing that’s happening, right? People are sicker now and just living with disease. You hear that all the time from the natural health movement. “We’re living sicker than ever!”

We’re living. We’re not dying from being kicked in the face by a horse anymore.

Reality is that something is going to kill you eventually. Science and medicine extends life and the quality of it. Once upon a time, medicine’s ability to help you was very different. In your own medical history, what would have happened differently a hundred years ago?

Once upon a time, you could be maimed or killed by a disease like the small pox, polio, or measles before we had vaccines.

… Or you could die in childbirth because you had a home birth when we didn’t have the option of the technology available in hospitals.

… Or you would die in battle… of an infection. The most common causes of death in battle until the mid-twentieth century? Infection and diarrhea, not battle wounds. 

Now, you’re lucky enough to live long enough to get an autoimmune disease or cancer and deal with “doctors who don’t know everything” and “evil big pharma.”

But the point? You lived long enough to get cancer. And you say that something “gave you cancer.”As I’ve covered in previous blog entries, there are some environmental links to cancer, but mainly? Cultures that have people living longer lives have higher rates of cancer. 

It’s not the GMOs, the vaccines, and it’s probably not even the pesticides. You’re just not dying of a horse kicking you in the face anymore.

startwithscience2

————————————–

Allergies are on the rise. That’s not debatable. Food Activists Mommy bloggers like Robyn O’Brien will tell you it’s what we’ve done to the food supply. It’s the genetic modification, it’s the pesticides, it’s… find a way to blame Monsanto and the government somehow, obviously. 

I maintain it’s a bizarrely similar answer to why more people are being diagnosed with cancer; it’s a disease of whack-a-mole. 

If you are lucky enough to be born in the first world where we have access to antibiotics and, subsequently, you are prescribed those antibiotics at a young age? New research is showing that the changes to gut bacteria caused by the use of antibiotics may be the cause of allergies. Allergies could be induced and then wiped out by removing and restoring the correct bacteria in the guts of laboratory animals. The research is new, but instead of continuing to blame the food supply, wouldn’t you think that Robyn O’Brien would be thrilled to find out why allergies are on the rise?

 Of course not. She’s found the guilty party. Why would she keep looking when she ‘just knows?

————————————–

Autism appears to be rising. And a lot of times, children will appear to regress after they’ve gotten certain shots. Well they had the shot and now they’re showing the signs, it’s the shots, right?

Now, if you’re not versed in the scientific process, it’s easy to say that because a child got a shot and had a series of symptoms weeks later, one caused the other. But they did dozens of other things in that week. They played in a sandbox, they drank milk, they took a bath (hopefully). Unlike in this story of the child and the truck acting as a sadly hyper-extended metaphor, what else happened when autism cases appeared to go up?

– We changed the definition of autism. Once upon a time, autism just included ‘classical’ autism, i.e. non-verbal and deeply withdrawn. Today? It’s known as ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder.’ We changed the definition, so children who once upon a time would have just been “the weird kid” are now “autistic” and are getting more of the help they need from education specialists. There is not an epidemic of ASD, there has been an increase in awareness and diagnoses. 

– Every time we disprove it being a different link in the vaccines, the anti-vaxxers change it to a different part of the vaccines. It’s the wrong form of mercury? It’s the aluminum. You can eat more aluminum in an antacid tablet? It’s the formaldehyde. There’s formaldehyde in a pear? Well you inject it so it’s bad.  

They just know it’s the culprit. So instead of looking for the genetic causes of autism, they keep demonizing an innocent bystander. 

—————————————

There’s a danger in just knowing that something is guilty without due process. When you “just know” that an unrelated correlation is a causation and you’re wrong? You risk demonizing something that could be helpful. And worse, you stop looking for the real cause. 

Whether it’s autism, a headache, or just a broken bar glass, if you’re getting cut off with bad information, odds are you’re being fed a line of bullshit.

 

-Science Babe

*=no actual squirrel harmed in the making of this blog entry. Who knows. I did take that trip to Missouri.

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70 Comments

  1. A few years ago, I was riding a buss. In the back there was some kids listening to some modern music (not anything I was fond of, but hey they was enjoying it). At the front of the buss a ‘little old lady’ went on a rant about how ‘things was better when she was young’. I got a little miffed at her rant. I asked her “What part of the ‘good old days’ did she really like?” The infant mortality rates? The rampant illiteracy? Overwhelming bigotry? Or how about the lack of public transportation you would not be riding due to your increased longevity? She got off at her stop as I made the last comment. EVERYBODY, including the driver, gave me an ovation for that (:

    Babe,

    Keep up the good work!

    • Everything you say is right.

      The bartender, though, doesn’t have the liberty to gather enough evidence. His punishment for a type 2 error is far greater than his punishment for a type 1 error. Hence, he will err on that side every time.

      • Yep, and I brought that up to make a point. I don’t have a problem with what he did. Loud group of people, I’m a loud person, he saw something break. He made a prudent decision.

        • Really enjoyed your post, you have a lot of great points. I am glad though to hear you say “He made a prudent decision.” Bartenders get a lot of crap for cutting people off, but the truth is they don’t do it often enough. I’d rather cut someone off and deal with people mad at me, than have to live with my self for over-serving someone and having someone loss their life because of me being spineless.

      • So, trying to follow and check whether I get it… So if he was making a type 1 error in this instance. His judgement as a bartender would become doubtful as it is important for him to be able to know when somebody is actually drunk… I had it figured out in my head, now writing it down, it’s becoming confusing… 🙁

      • Thats a very harsh comment I think.

        There are plenty of people in this world who try to belittle others for no good reason whether that is because of their race, nationality or age and it takes a brave person to say something against that kind of bigotry in public.

        The lady in the story was entirely incorrect to be taking a sideswipe and the youngsters based on their age and her being old does not make it acceptable. Living a long time does not permit you to treat others with disrespect.

        Kudos Cozmo on having the courage to stand up and say when something wasn’t right.

        • An isolated old woman,.. courage and bravery? We don’t even know what she was really pissed at. Was there someone able bodied sitting in a handicapped/eldery seat?

          It’s one thing to equate causation and correlation, but in this case, we don’t even have any data.

          • According to the story the kids were ‘in the back’ – you do not get disabled/elderly seats in the back of the bus

            What was she p***ed at? According to the story her statements were that her generation were ‘better’ than younger generations

            And the final piece of data everybody clapped, clear social acceptance.

            For all any of us know the story may be apocryphal and we are debating nothing at all but we have all seen situations like these and too rarely people speak up.

            My point however was that the person stated that ‘berating’ (a harsh word in of itself given the story) and old woman was pathetic. Age doesnt matter, if she was behaving in an abhorrent way, to suggest standing up to such behavior is pathetic is wrong.

            To parody your point

            It’s one thing to equate causation and correlation, but in this case to ignore all the data and suggest others dont have it is wrong.

          • The actual quote was ” ‘things was better when she was young’.”

            which you relay as:
            “According to the story her statements were that her generation were ‘better’ than younger generations”

            which is an embellishment. We don’t even know if her ire was specifically directed at the youths in back of the bus or more general.

            I ride the DC metro system often and eating, drinking, and listening to anything other than through headphones is forbidden. Metro police will and do issue tickets for those behaviors. On my metro system, if the music was audible, the old woman would be within her rights to complain. We have no details about her “rant”.

            This website is supposed to be about Science. Terms like “pathetic” are ad hominem characterizations, not scientific ones.

          • Hmm.. Stan P I think you are a nice person based on your messages but I am afraid you have again failed to asses the evidence correctly.

            It was in fact another user who used the term pathetic and it was I who was saying this was unfair.

            Your statement ” This website is supposed to be about Science. Terms like “pathetic” are ad hominem characterizations, not scientific ones ” in the context of the conversation implies you think I used this term.

            I do however wholeheartedly agree that this is a science blog and would like to therefore (metaphorically) shake hands and bid adieu.

        • If, instead of of an elderly women, the person who criticized the “younger generation” had been a 6″5′ 250 lb scowling man, wearing either a Malcom X or Long Live the Confederacy T-shirt, would you still have voiced your righteous indignation?

          Would the other passengers have applauded your”courage” while he was on the bus?

          Your assumption that her comments implied her approval of institutional racism (bigotry remains), higher rates of infant mortality, or the lack of public transportation is merely a feeble Straw Man argument.

          Instead of an attention seeking rhetorical assault on an elderly women you might have asked her for specifics.

          Perhaps she was referring to the collapse of the nuclear family, the ever increasing rate of poverty stricken single family households, the shredding of the social contract, the unacceptable level of failure of the public school system( particularly serving inner city youth), a music industry that sells a message of misogyny, objectifying women as hoe’s and sluts.

          But we don’t know what she meant, because you were more interested in drawing attention to yourself then looking for the truth.

    • Reminds me of a guy who said “Al Qaida is on the run.” Later he decided that it was CORE Al Qaida that was on the run.

  2. Some day the lies will come crashing down. You are a traitor to truth, and will pay the cosmic price. Until then, research Raymond Rife and his suppressed technology. Truth is we are economic slaves to a mafia that will lie with a smile, create false flags to start wars all over greed. The same folks own almost every aspect of the medical, banking, schools, etc. Dont believe me? check out this former Canadian Acting Prime Minister/Defense Minister spill the beans. Prepare to crap your pants. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv8XB3qE8JM

  3. Hi Yvette, our mutual friend Austin Petersen suggested I reach out. I’m working w/Laura Ingraham on a conservative Huffington Post-style site to be launched in May. Id like to talk to you about being a contributor w/ potentially a lead item for the launch. Let me know if you’d be interested in discussing. Best, Jennifer

  4. I laugh because years ago when doing some genealogy research, I found a great uncle who had the cause of death on his death written as “brain disease”. He was just 14 years old. I asked my great-grandmother about it, as she was still alive and this had been her older brother and she said “That’s a funny way of putting it. He was kicked in the head by a horse!”

    My grandfather was an epidemiologist had he famously likes to remind us that autopsies are not routinely performed. Not now. Not in the past. Truth is, we don’t always know what people died of in the past, or even today. Take the huge number of death certificates from 100 years ago or more where they died of “old age” at 62. Or the number of people in their 90s who have the cause of death listed as cancer, because they had cancer at the time of their death. I can conclusively say that people are not getting communicable illnesses at the same rate. I can conclusively say that people are living longer. All these are good things. Three cheers for better living through chemistry!

  5. Next article: Righteous Indignation. 🙂

    It is a shame that so much crap comes up in a web search and that there is such a shortage of seemingly good data.

    Also, It is a shame when one watches the president come on TV before a riot… and one watches his body language… and the disappointment in his face for what he embarrassingly knows is going to happen despite his suggestions to the contrary. Then it does… and he is misread and misquoted by tens of millions. How can so many people just get it so wrong? When do we start teaching our kids to fillet their preconceived dispositions and put them aside before assessing… and examine the facts… Or at the very least concede that an alternate explanation may exist pending further investigation.

  6. I’ve always wondered how closely related the decline in infant mortality and the rise in things like autism and type 1 diabetes are. It seems logical to me that one of the reasons more kids are being diagnosed with things like those is simply because more kids are surviving. One of these days I’m going to have enough free time to dig around and see if anybody has tried to crunch those numbers (or crunch them myself.)

    • We also see more autism now because forty years ago children with autism were assumed to be mentally retarded, and placed in institutions.

    • I used to work with kids with on the spectrum. There seems to be a much higher level of comorbidity in kids with autism. I had a number of clients who had severe health issues and had it been even fifty years ago they most likely would have died from those other issues before even getting a chance to be diagnosed with autism. I think that is a part of the reason why the number of kids being diagnosed is increasing.

  7. Really love this article. Critical thinking and data gathering are going the way of the Dodo. The same people who latch onto veganism, antivaccing, faked moon landing, etc. are too lazy to change thier own ways of life so they blame grandiose, clandestine power structures that are seemingly insurmountable. It’s the same personality type that spawned the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism. Too much X-Files for my generation. Here’s a link to Occam’s Razor which drives your point home even further. Thanks for a great article.
    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/occam.html

    • Hey now, Sean. You just did the same thing being criticised. Do you know for sure critical thinking and data gather is becoming less prevalent? Do you have data to back that up or is that just how it seems? Perhaps the internet is just providing a soap box for people to proliferate their own brand of ignorance? I remember back in the 80s and 90s plenty of people who thought this way; they just didn’t have an easy method with which to propagate their ignorance to a broad audience. I would be shocked to find our societal composition has changed that drastically in 20-30 years.

    • Hey Sean, veganism is a stance of kindness toward animals. I am vegan because I didn’t have a credible answer to the question of why we call some animals pets and others food. Not sure why you think there is any correlation between kindness and critical thinking skills.

    • Hey Sean, how did veganism get lumped in with anti-vaccination and far-fetched conspiracy theories? Surely most who opt for a vegan diet do so for ethical reasons than any misplaced scientific or unscientific reasons.

  8. I had a real life medical doctor once say to me, after seeing my tattoo, “you know I read an article that said people with tattoos are more likely to have HepC.” I said, “so?” He said, “so you shouldn’t get any more tattoos or you could contract HepC.” I said, “maybe it is just that population from the study who had tattoos also engaged in behavior that put them at risk for HepC; you know correlation, NOT causation.” He said, “huh, I don’t think the paper said anything about that.”
    That is right, a real life medical doctor…

  9. (It is worth pointing out that I’m not making an anti-vax point. There is no one more pro-vax than I am. The evidence in support of vaccinations is, in my opinion, unassailable. As an aside, my son has had over 140 MMR vaccines as part of a thankfully successful experiment in treating recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. My point is that ASD diagnoses are up, and WE DON’T KNOW WHY. Evidence says it is NOT because of early vaccinations. Evidence does NOT say it is entirely ephemeral. To claim otherwise is leave science behind, and entire the murky world of opinion.)

    • I believe we see more ASD now because we see better now. In the 1960s, when I was in school, I had never even heard of it. Off hand I know of at least 1 kid in our small town of 350 population who would very likely be diagnosed with it today.

      • I read somewhere recently that new thinking ascribes increase in aautism to uptake of anti depressant medication, but in your children’s children. Ie, if i took anti-depressants and got pregnant, the sex cells of my child/foetus are affected and then /their/ children have resultant autism.

        I’m sure there’s a combination of factors but I thought that was really interesting. Forgive me, I don’t have source at hand but could go hunting if anyone is interested…

  10. I love you!! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. “Correlation is not causation” has been my go-to phrase for (too many) decades. Unfortunately, the state of our educational system is so poor that the majority of people I’ve said it to just give me a blank, uncomprehending stare. I’m never sure if it is because they don’t recognize the words (scary, but slightly forgivable) or just can’t parse the phrase (just scary).

    There is a similar problem that is fostered by shows like Mythbusters”, and that is that you can prove experimentally that something can’t happen. I’ve seen these bozos do far too many ill-conceived experiments that “prove” that something can’t happen when there is, in fact, documented evidence that it can. I’m sure that they could “prove” that you can’t balance a pin on it’s point despite science having a name for this actual situation: metastability.

  11. Reason may not prevail every time, but it is so comforting when I ‘just know the cause’!

    Thank You for the clarity

  12. I worked as a graduate assistant for the Statistics Chair. For the fun of it, the professor sent me to library to look up the prices for organic carrots at the local farmers market, and enrollment in computer science classes at the university. The correlation had an r-square of 0.89.

    Once you wasted 6 hours with dusty books to find a useless correlation, you’ll never assume causation again without a randomized controlled trial.

  13. I’ve been aware of this from a survey I had read many years ago, studying pickle consumption by 10,000 airline passengers. Following their health over a generation resulted in a very high mortality rate as a group. Well, you better believe I quickly gave up pickles. Too late I fear, there is a pickle in every Chicago Dog!

  14. Our brains are constructed to make conclusions from incomplete information in certain ways, including the tendency to conclude a causal relationship between two things that are correlated. The truth is that many correlations can be hints about causations. But we have to keep looking and searching for the truth, and we have to be ready to change our minds of further evidence point in a different direction. That’s the hard part. Our minds tend to look for evidence that matches our beliefs and ignore what doesn’t fit – it’s called the “confirmation bias.” Jeremy Dean has an interesting blog about this:

    http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/06/the-confirmation-bias-why-its-hard-to-change-your-mind.php

  15. “There is not an epidemic of ASD, there has been an increase in awareness and diagnoses.” I want to marry this sentence. Or just tattoo it on my forehead. The same goes for many of the other diseases that are “on the rise”. Oh and crime, just because media talks about it 24/7 doesn’t make it worse, it just makes it talked about more. Thank you so much for spreading your common sense.

    • The current diagnostic tool for ASD was put out for use in the early 1990’s – just as the ASD rate began it’s steep incline. It’s the tool and the definition of “autism” it created, not any sudden change in kids born after 1990.

      The same is true for our “obesity epidemic” – especially regarding obesity in children. Yeah, as a group we could lose some weight, but the around the same time as the ASD tool came out, the US Department of Health changed it’s definitions of “obese” and “morbidly obese” and suddenly we all got fatter.

  16. To “DontMatter” : Paul Hellyer says that the E.t.’s among us may be willing to share their advanced tech with us. While standing outside near a major airport, he insisted that a contrail was from an alien craft, not a commercial jet. You take advice from him?

  17. We hear “correlation does not equal causation” all the time, but did you know that a high enough correlation is considered evidence of causation in a court of law? Did you know that studies that found a high correlation of cigarette smoking with lung cancer is how we determined that smoking “causes” lung cancer? No one did randomized placebo-controlled trials to determine whether the incidence of cancer was higher in the smoking subjects than the non-smoking subjects. Did you further know that “correlation” is all we have to “prove” that vaccines reduced rates of “vaccine-preventable” diseases? Again, no one has done randomized placebo-controlled trials to determine whether the incidence of measles was higher in the vaccinated subjects than the unvaccinated subjects.
    One of the reasons why it’s hard to tease out the effects of vaccination is because vaccination is nearly universal. The completely unvaccinated population is small, and many of those who are completely unvaccinated are unvaccinated because close relatives were harmed by an adverse vaccine reaction. Most of the studies you see that “prove” “there’s nothing wrong with vaccines” compare a vaccinated population to a slightly less vaccinated population.
    Now as far as conspiracty theories, I have never thought a huge conspiracy was required to believe that vaccines are in actuality harming at least a significant proportion of the population. Only a few things need to be in place: 1) You need some people to be greedy. 2) You need some people to be true believers. True believers do not relinquish their beliefs based on the evidence in front of their faces. They find something that supports their bias, no matter how absurd. 3) You need people who feel a strong desire to “cover their butts.” Can you tell me any of those three things are not fairly easy to find?

    • Chairman Mao provided a smoking study by banning it until his demise. Marlboro forced their way into China. Now a study tracked the effect of smoking when started in teens, twenties, and thirties. The study found lungs mature in late twenties (27?). So starting in your thirties doesn’t cause the damage and harm usually associated with smoking.

      The study could not be done in the states because the tobacco companies promote teen smoking. Smokers in their thirties in the states very rarely have not started as a teen.

      With the explosion of vaping among teens according to today’s LATimes perhaps we can conduct similar studies by tracking lung and heart disease in populations of vapers, vapers to Smokers, and smokers who have started in their teens. Oh what fun.

    • Vaccination universal? Maybe in developed countries. I would advise you to look at the literature regarding vaccines – the safety, the efficacy, and how 3rd world countries are so happy and grateful when they finally have access to life-saving vaccines.

  18. I love science and am amazed at the many huge medical break throughs occurring on a regular basis. Its a multiplying factor of more information available, the Genome sequence data, super fast computers to crunch data and more.
    I love you article and see it as a counter to all the Anti-vaccer’s and anti GMO people. These people who as you say “just know” are dangerous and are causing the deaths of innocent children so I welcome your Blog as a counter weight to them.

  19. As a first-time viewer of your blog, I greatly appreciate your insight. You’ve made a good first impression upon this reader. Well-written and informative.

    Thank you.

  20. This may be apocryphal, but even so it clearly illustrates the point.

    In WWI the French Army reintroduced helmets for soldiers, an accoutrement largely abandoned in the era of musketry. The quartermaster corps didn’t particularly like it, because it was another bit of equipment to buy and manage. When hospitals reported a huge increase in head wounds, the quartermaster general jumped on this and proclaimed that helmets were dangerous and should not be used. It was left to an army surgeon to point out that prior to the introduction of the combat helmet most head wounds went to the mortuary, not the hospital.

  21. I am a registered nurse and work in a school with a large population of students with autism. All severe. Most of my students are fully immunized, thank goodness, but I have a few hard-core anti-vaxxer parents. The other band-wagon families have gotten is the ridiculous gluten free regimen. It is extremely difficult to follow in the school setting. Many of the children are very unhappy with it and are swiping food off of other students trays. Additionally, there is some arsenic in rice which is used to make many of the gluten free products. I would think since they are overly concerned about the vaccine components, they would be concerned about their child consuming arsenic. Additionally, the teachers nor myself have seen any behavior improvement using a gluten free diet. Unfortunately there is no cure for this disorder, but like all chronic disorders there is treatment available. Using Applied Behavior Analysis and TEEACH methodologies at HOME and at school provide the best results. If the child’s behavior is too out of control with explosive frequent tantrums even with very high structure at home and school, then prescription behavior medication must be started. Homeopathic supplements are a waste of time. I have not seen anything work, and I will not recommend anything to parents, I refer them to their physicians. When using prescription medications, it is never the intent to overly sedate a child, rather to get the tantrums, compulsions, anxiety, etc. under control, so they can more fully participate in school and home life. Many children have a much fuller life and don’t spend their days so locked in their world.

  22. Oh, this is obviously BS. Correlation IS causation.

    Allow me to explain.

    There is a great deal of homosexuality in the United States.

    In recent years, much of the Midwest has been hit by devastating floods.

    According to the prestigious Westboro Baptist Church, God disapproves of homosexuals. (They phrase it somewhat differently.)

    Ergo, homosexuality causes flooding.

    QED.

    /sarcasm

  23. There’s a an old “statistician joke”

    give me point,
    I’ll draw you a line.
    give me 2 points,
    I’ll draw you an elephant.
    give me 3 points,
    I’ll tell you what song the elephant is singing.

    My point being,

    Single observations are neither correlated or causal. The bartender was implicitly using prior probabilities. You did say in the petco booze video that you have a low tolerance.

  24. Howdy fellow EDSer. Thanks to the amount of times I would say “correlation does not imply causation” in medical support groups I now have it tattooed on me (not on my ass as I promised though). This view medicine is 1+1=2 and why can’t the ‘idiot’ doctors understand. Why don’t they understand we are not identical single cell creatures in a static environment? I say medicine is the art of science due to how much doctors have to make up based on the evidence they have to make the most educated decision that doesn’t kill you. Love the blog! Though I noticed your Amazon ads below are promoting The Food Babe’s book!

  25. Hey there Science Babe,

    Good article. A concise and illustrative commentary on the problems with “certainty”. Once you “know” something, you’re done trying to understand more. And of course, the flip side is it’s impossible to know what you don’t know.

    I’ve been challenging the anti-vaxers and the Monsatanizers (and more generally the anti-sciencers) when my friends make these arguments on FB. One argument I have made repetitively is that pretty much anything can have a negative effect in isolated cases. So, while we have not documented (to the best of my knowledge) a case where having GM food induced an allergic, or even negative, response could happen. But we also know that getting in your car, flying on an airplane, and having a tooth extracted, all bear risks of mortality.

    Of course “GM” is far too broad a term since the gene insertion varies depending on whether the company wants to produce herbicide, fungicide, or insect resistance). And don’t get me started on what organic agriculture allows. Anyway, end rant.

    Good luck Dona Quixote!

    Paul

  26. My uncle was called idiot savant by kind people, in the 50’s, and retarded by not so nice people. Now he is autistic. Couldn’t a lot of it just be in the label?

    I seem to have managed to end up with quite a few facebook friends who must spend all day “researching” the evils of vaccines. When one particularly obsessed woman posted that rabies wasn’t real and the vaccines were just to make money, I realized these folks may be getting very dangerous. When I asked her where she got her information, she said,”I have a very brilliant friend who told me about it.” And that is how it begins – a “smart” friend of someone on facebook said so. When the woman started posting holocaust denial videos, I unfriended her. If I were to use her logic, I could come to the conclusion that anti-vaccination people are also antisemitic, or that she might have rabies.
    My favorite statement, that you hear over and over, is that no one died of heart disease or cancer 100 years ago. And less people did die of cancer 100 years ago, they were too busy dying of measles, tuberculosis, typhoid and the flu. Not to mention, they weren’t quite so good at diagnosing.

    I’m not crazy about Monsanto, mainly because they have been bullies from what I have read. As for GMO’s, I’m just confused. I don’t understand enough science to know who is right or wrong. I do feel that food shouldn’t be so complicated that we need a scientist to explain the safety or not.

    Please talk about cannibals if you haven’t already. I have nothing against it, it is the only thing that is helping my father during his cancer treatments and letting him sleep through the night. I believe it should be legalized for various reasons, but the claims that it cures cancer and other diseases is disturbing to me. The latest I was presented with was that it kills cancer cells in a petri dish. Even I know that has no bearing on how it works in the human body.

  27. Hey there,

    Just wanted to let you know that your aluminum reference in relation to vaccines is flawed – that there is more aluminum in antacids than vaccines.. GI absorption rates for Aluminum are quite low, around 1% I believe. Here is one of many articles that backs low Aluminum absorption rates in healthy individuals – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/2647415/. And even if absorption was higher, normal kidney function should filter it out of the blood stream before toxicity can occur to a certain extent. Different vaccines have different levels of aluminum in them depending on the manufacturer and the levels are all much highe (240-750 mcg on avg.)than safe levels for infants. Actually I have only been able to find safe values for pre-mature babies and that was around 30 mcg- I can’t remember it’s late and I’m tired, sorry! So I can only infer as to the levels being a small amount above that level. Anyway there are no studies that have been performed that measure Aluminum absorption rates into an infants bloodstream from vaccines and doing so might be borderline unethical. I’m not saying that aluminum causes autism or anything but it could be the cause of actual rare side effects from vaccines such as encephalitis if the aluminum was absorbed from the tissues into the bloodstream at a quicker than normal rate for some odd reason. And if so perhaps the drug companies could find a better adjuvant to use rather than being fine with the status quo because 1. MOST people aren’t hurt by the vaccine and 2. If they are legitimately hurt its harder than hell for them to sue us.

  28. Love this site! My brother showed me this website that does spurious correlations. My favorite is that the divorce rate in Maine correlates with the per capita consumption of margarine. I guess that means people eating ‘chemical free’ makes for happier marriages.

    http://www.tylervigen.com/

  29. It’s only an aside in this post, but in your link to your off-blog post on your weight loss (congrats!) you write that “The data also said that only 13% of people who lose a large amount of weight manage to keep it off long term.” Your citation is a NYT piece that refutes the old “95% of diets/dieters fail” defeatist chestnut, but doesn’t, as far as I can see, contain such a “13% success” figure. There’s pretty good evidence that the real figure is north of 20% for the general population of people who undertake weight loss; the rates in clinical trials may be lower, albeit still north of 13%, because participants tend to be in quite obese people and thus intrinsically harder to treat — although to be fair, and emphasize your own success, it sounds like you may have been more like the latter than the former.

    http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/obe.2005.1.268
    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/1/222S.full#sec-3
    http://www.weightymatters.ca/2012/01/are-you-doomed-to-regain-thoughts-on.html

  30. The problem with science is that it doesn’t have all the answers. And we want all the answers and we want them now. They don’t even have to be right or true or whatever. We just want answers.

  31. I was reading alone…got to story 3 and began thinking….that sounds like Ehlers Danlos…which my wife (and her mother) have.

    Congratulations on getting the correct assessment. Many doctors don’t recognize the symptoms and attribute them to other issues.

  32. How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking – by Jordan Ellenberg is a well-written, accessible book that discusses statistics and the scientific method. I think Scibabe would approve of it.

  33. “Codeine and tablets containing codeine such as co-codamol are best avoided altogether. They are more likely than other painkillers to cause medication-induced headache.” Medication-induced (Medication-overuse) Headache http://patient.info/health/medication-induced-medication-overuse-headache

    Since it was entered into your brother’s chart I assume it was put there by his doctor. Codeine can cause headaches. Since your brother experienced painful headaches for WEEKS, according to you, after being prescribed codeine AND since persistent headaches is indeed one of the side effects that codeine can have, THEREFORE it is not unreasonable to conclude codeine is the cause of your brother’s migraines.

    It is NOT reasonable to conclude it was the surgery since that was over with and the codeine, which no doubt he took as prescribed, does in fact relieve any physical pain associated with the surgery. Even while at the same time causing headaches in some people.

    “My family had a history of allergy to codeine.” This is even MORE evidence that your brother’s doctor is right to include an allergy to codeine in his chart.

    So this example is dubious at best. There are good reasons to believe your brother is allergic to codeine. His doctors seem to believe he is. There are no real good reasons to believe his surgery caused his headaches. He is the patient, you are not. It is his pain he experienced, not yours. You are not a disinterested observer because you are a family member. The doctors and nurses are in a better position to judge than you are.

    Correlation is all science has. When event A consistently precedes event B we say that A “caused” B but this is not something we can know with certainty. All we have is the constant conjunction of B with A. Science infers it’s principles from exactly this constant association of A with B. We ALWAYS see B in conjunction with A and we never see them independent of each other so we conclude that A “causes” B. But that is an inference made through induction. It is NOT deduction.

    Science is a belief. It is a belief that is true because we can give rational justifications for our beliefs but it is a belief nonetheless. The current disease in atheism today is that of scientism. Which falsely claims to have solved Humes’ problem of induction and claims to be able to lay hold of absolute truth. Which only exists in maths and logic. Let us hope you do not fall prey to such silliness.

    • It’s not a reasonable conclusion because he took the tablet once and then had headaches for a month. AFTER HIS HEAD WAS CUT INTO.

      I did write my masters thesis on prescription opiate toxicology. And I was there watching my brother use codeine all of twice. That’s not a medication overuse headache.

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