Telling Lies #1: Correlation

parisexplosion

 

I am starting a series of posts about how to tell lies, especially in politics and the media.  The Guardian is a newspaper I generally respect but in the headlines above they are lying.

Lies are usually pretty subtle.  People who tell overt lies are caught out, and have to retract the lie.  But a good liar will put information in front of you and let you add 1 + 1 to make 3.

The news article is about a Paris bakery explosion.  This was an accident.  Bakeries are dangerous places.  Flour dust suspended in the air is highly combustible.  If you are ever on the docks when wheat is being offloaded from ships you will see warning flags telling you of the explosion risk.

Add gas to the mix, and a naked flame and the Bakery is even more dangerous.  So, in Paris there was an accident in a Bakery and the explosion killed three people.  Sad story, but not the stuff of headlines, not the stuff likely to win a Pulitzer prize.

But what if you could add a bit of spice to the story?  Is there another angle.  As it turns out there is a Gilet Jaunes protest in Paris every Weekend this year.  So this explosion happened on the same day as yellow vested protesters were gathering in Paris.

So what we have here is a correlation.  A correlation is when two events occur together.  Kids get fat in a period of ten years.  You find that ten years ago a fast food outlet opened beside the school.  So obesity in children correlates to the presence of a fast food outlet.  But did the fast food cause the obesity.

Good science tries to avoid jumping to conclusions.  You will hear scientists say “correlation is not causation.”  Just because two things happened at the same time does not mean that one causes the other.  You may research the fast food outlet and find that none of the obese kids are actually eating there.  Scientists need to eliminate all the other possibilities, changes to transport, changes to school meals policy, changes to family incomes in the past 10 years, etc etc.

But a Journalist, especially a bad journalist, has no such scruples.  In the article above, in the second headline, the explosion is correlated with the Gilet Jaunes protest, and it is held out as a juicy possibility for another story.  Could protesters have blown up the Bakery?  Is there a conspiracy?

Populist politicians make widespread use of the correlation lie, and the greatest perpetrators in modern society are anti-vaxxers who maintain causative relationships exist when administration of any vacceine correlates with an outbreak of any condition in the recipient.

Correlation is NOT causation.  It takes work, but do the science.  Verify, verify, verify.

 

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