Six Ways to Misuse Statistics

Puff the Mutant Dragon

Back in the 1940s before the polio vaccine was invented, the disease caused a lot of anxiety among parents of small children. How could you reduce your child’s risk of contracting this nasty illness? Some misguided public health experts apparently recommended avoiding ice cream, thanks to a study that showed a correlation between ice cream consumption and polio outbreaks. This study fortunately was BS. Yes, there was a correlation between ice cream consumption and polio outbreaks, but that was because both were common in the summer months. The authors of the study had mistaken correlation (ice cream consumption and polio are more common at the same time) with causation (ice cream increases your risk of disease).

Medical researchers often trawl through data sets to try and figure out what environmental factors cause chronic disease. Unfortunately, these kinds of studies sometimes make the same kinds of mistakes as the ice…

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