Causation Versus Correlation

From John:
In 1875, on the idyllic Fijian Islands, a disease killed 40,000 people, roughly 30% of the population at that time. That disease was measles. A vaccine was developed in 1963 which reduced worldwide infections from 4.2 million in 1980 to approximately 55,000 in 2014. Until recent years, the disease was eradicated in the United States which was completely contributable to the vaccination of millions of children from the 1960’s to the present.

In 2008, in the United States, there were 131 cases of measles, of which 122 were unvaccinated and the other nine had received only the first inoculation of the required vaccination regimen. Why would we not use a very effective vaccination, known to prevent a deadly disease, and save thousands of lives? It is because a correlation was made between measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism.

It is vital that I define the difference between correlation and causation. A correlation is defined as “mutual relation of two or more things” or “the degree to which two or more attributes or measurements on the same group of elements show a tendency to vary together”. In other words, as one particular observance goes up another seems to increase as well. In the above example, as the more children were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, the occurrence of autism also rose. This does not imply a causal relationship.

Causation is defined as “the act of causing or producing”. As the correlation between vaccination and autism was observed, extensive studies were undertaken to determine if the cause of the increased incidence of autism was in fact attributable to the MMR vaccine. To date, every study undertaken has failed to show a link or causation.

You may ask why has the vehemence against vaccination gained such a strong foothold; the answer is in celebrities and pundits promoting the correlation between these two events, not taking into consideration the lack of causation. This deadly disease has now,once again gained a foothold in a place previously eradicated.

To quote the Talking Heads “you may ask yourself why” is John writing a blog about the MMR vaccine? The answer is, we all confuse correlation and causation on a daily basis. Without proper investigation and research, we might be doomed to abandon healthy routines because we fail to recognize the true causation of a failure. For example, I start a workout routine and after two months of regular workouts I see no noticeable change in weight; therefore, I might make a correlation that the workout isn’t effective. Is the workout really the cause? Could it be due to the fact that I have horrible nutrition or maybe I am not working out to my full potential or, perhaps the workout is effective and I am gaining lean muscle mass and losing fat? Given the fact that I don’t explore the cause of my lack of weight loss; I might change my workout routine or give up altogether. This is perhaps a contributing factor to the rampant obesity in the United States.

As another example, I could be a manager experiencing a precipitous drop in productivity and employee moral. You could make the correlation that the low employee moral is causing the drop in productivity. However, the cause of the loss in productivity could be because of a lack of team cohesiveness or perhaps a lack of leadership. Making decisions based on a correlation instead of causation could result in a significant loss of both time and profits.

When examining anything and trying to make informed decisions, it is vital that you separate causation from the correlation. We here at Rogue don’t have all the answers but we can help you when it comes to team building, leadership development, nutrition and fitness. Maybe you have given up on working out because you didn’t see any results and you just got frustrated; or you are out of answers to fix a dysfunctional workplace. We are experts at helping people just like you with these exact issues. Send us an email and let us see how we can help you.

One comment

  1. Jenson

    I love this discussion especially when it comes to health and nutrition. It is true and unfortunate that all too many health trends and movements are not founded in good quality clinical trials. There are two points I wanted to make on vaccines and health studies in general.
    While many of the loud voices in the anti-vaccine camp are pointing to vaccines as the cause of autism, other more respected groups such as the Institute of Functional Medicine and the NANP do not make these causative claims. Instead they are more concerned about our current vaccination schedule which has changed drastically in the last 20 years. Great well-balanced book on this is The Vaccine Book by Robert W. Sears.
    2. While third-party double blind epidemiological studies are ideal and the best we can rely on, we must realize that these require FUNDING.
    I really appreciate this post as I delve into my own research. It is also an important concept when considering the most recent Non-GMO campaign=-)

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