The most exciting thing I learned from Statistics

girl with dark hair posing for camera

‘People with a bigger shoe size are more intelligent’ my teacher said. She was serious about her message. The saying felt shocking. At the moment I believed her. I started thinking about what that would mean for a person like me, with not that big of a shoe size?!

How on earth does this connection exist? 

Actually, it is true. People with bigger shoes are indeed more intelligent.

Do you know any four years old, with shoes half of the size of an adult, explaining grammar? Is an eight years old able to present the ins and outs of gravity?

Off course the answers are no. And of course there’s a connection between shoe size and intelligence, but not as straight as you might presume.

I heard the shoe size-intelligence connection during statistics classes. Eight years have passed ever since, but I still remember the importance of the example.

 

Connections are not what you think they are.

 

To reveal the mystery: intelligence will grow as people get older, so does the size of their feed, including people’s shoes. So when people wear bigger shoes, they indeed become more intelligent, taking the factor of age into the story.

 

Stay connected

 

The most important thing I learned with this example is that a connection does not at all need to be a causal connection.

 

Fact is that a lot of people –including me- think that when there’s a connection, it will be automatically a cause and effect connection.

 

Presuming that one thing causes the other thing. A straight line going from A to B, with no other things involved explaining the relation. It is an easy way of making sense of the world.

Reality is different, as the shoe size example shows. Indeed, when A is related to B there’s a connection between the two. The connection could be causal, but it could also be related; A and B have a connection that’s caused by another factor. Giving this a name, when things are related without cause and effect, there is a correlation. And to make this story juicier, a latent variable explains the correlation of the two factors. The latent variable is the cause that A and B are related. So far the theoretical stuff. 

 

The thrill

 

Now why is the context of connections so exciting? I tell you why, starting with this. One of the biggest mind traps of today’s world is presuming the existence of a causal connection, when there is actually a correlation: a connection without cause and effect.

 

Especially when we do not understand a situation, we make it understandable for ourselves. We make connections to understand what is happening around us.

 

Something that was at first abracadabra becomes understandable when you make connections. And people prefer to have their surroundings being understandable.

While in the meantime the connection we made up could be horribly wrong.

 

Living longer and the Kardashians

 

So far so good. Let put things in practice to explain my excitement.

A starting one.

People who exercise live longer. The statement presumes that a long life is caused by frequently exercising. Investigation shows however, that people who exercise frequently have a healthier lifestyle when it comes to food, sleep and movement. That makes them live longer.

Beside these facts, people who exercise frequently are the people who are able to exercise. People serving chronically diseases, in pain or with disabilities don’t sport frequently. They are also the ones who will not live that long.

Between exercising and living longer is a correlation, but the context shows that the connection is not a straightforward causal one. Having a healthy body and lifestyle that includes exercising does cause a longer life.

 

A more glamorous one. The Kardashians cause girls to contour their face and buy endless colours of lip kits.

Fact is; girls of all generations do experiment with make-up to look fabulous. Women have always searched for sources and tools to achieve a fabulous beautiful look.

 

Earlier generations didn’t have instagram and snapchat as merchandise channels. Magazines and television were the reference for glamour at that time. When I was a teenager, MTV was the main channel. So when Christina Aguilera had glitters on her cheekbones in her video clip, I had to have that too. The purple nail polish of the Spice Girls was on my birthday wish list. Glitters on the face and purple nail polish were the keys to look fabulous back then.

The desire of girls and women to look fabulous causes the contouring of their faces and buying all the lip kits, exactly the things the Kardashians promote.

The Kardashians, instagram or snapchat are not directly causing the contouring and lip kit mania, but are related in a correlation. The desire of women to look fabulous and beautiful is the cause of the correlation.

 

Terror

 

From the Kardashians to politics, a serious one. [/vc_column_text]

The Islam causes terrorism. Many terrorist attacks of the past years in Europe and the Middle East are claimed by Islamic terrorism. Among others the shootings in the Bataclan in Paris and resorts in Tunisia, the bombings in Brussels and Tehran. Popular opinion sees a causal relationship; presuming terrorism is caused by Muslims including Arabic or Persian people, or even anyone else coming close to this.

 

Fact is, terrorism is not at all caused by religion, in this case, the Islam. There is a correlation, no cause and effect.

 

Terrorism has a political goal and is a political concept, read more here. Many political factors cause a correlation between the use of religion and terrorism.

To name a few: the geopolitical forces concentrated in Middle Eastern countries including the effects of international intervention, local politics and forces including sectarism, current and previous power battles and society factors in Western countries among others.

 

While the factors are divers and might seem complex, the conclusion is simple; politics are the cause in the correlation between Islam and terrorism.

 

Except for the Kardashians, all examples above are well researched. How do we know when there’s a real causal relation and when there’s a correlation?

The answer is easy: because of research and science. The work of many journalists, researchers and scientists who investigate big issues and little details is the core in overcoming misunderstandings. With all the work they do, they are able to present facts in context and explain the connections between the facts.

 

The most exciting thing I learned from Statistics is the fact that connections don’t have to be causal. They could be related and caused by other factors. That is the difference between causality and correlation.

 

Making a causal connection when there’s none, is something we do to make the world understandable.  

Misinterpretation about connections can create a hell of misunderstandings. Reliable knowledge, research and people who are able to put knowledge into context are important to overcome and prevent misunderstandings.

Bottom-line is, you have to know where you’re talking about before presuming connections based on assumptions, instead of knowledge. Reliable knowledge and research -as boring as it may sound- does have a huge impact on how we understand the world. 

1 Respons

  1. Earlier generations didn’t have instagram and snapchat as merchandise channels. Magazines and television were the reference for glamour at that time. When I was a teenager, MTV was the main channel. So when Christina Aguilera had glitters on her cheekbones in her video clip, I had to have that too. The purple nail polish of the Spice Girls was on my birthday wish list. Glitters on the face and purple nail polish were the keys to look fabulous back then.

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