Correlations that will make your head spin
There is a freakish correlation between deaths from anticoagulants and the number of U.S. graduates to earn sociology doctorates each year. The tight correlation between deaths by falling from a cliff and online revenue on Thanksgiving can only be described as bizarre.
And the same can be said for the thousands of other inexplicable correlations (number of movies Nicolas Cage released in a year and swimming pool drowning deaths) identified by Tyler Vigen, a Harvard law student whose love of scientific inquiry, statistics and computer programming led him to launch the website Spurious Correlations, which lets you choose from various data to chart your own correlations (tylervigen.com/discover).
Vigen’s computer code spews laughable correlations from a sea of data generated from federal sources, including healthcare stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as data from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies.
The obviously oddball correlations are the point, he said in his video introduction to the website. “Statistical data can show correlations and then it’s up to us, as rational thinkers, to establish whether there is actually a connection between the variables—or if it’s merely coincidence,” he said.
The ability to think rationally is where humans outshine the number-crunching power of computers, he said. “Research is about discovery. But only humans can actually make discoveries, though computers are a great tool.”
Humans have a capacity for scientific inquiry that computers lack when confronted with, say, the striking correlation between margarine consumption and Maine divorce rates. “And that’s the part that’s so cool,” he said. “We were scientists, if only for a moment.”