Cor­re­la­tions that will make your head spin

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

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 (tylervi­­cover).

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.”

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