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Ben Paskoff
Dr. Cody Steele
STAT 200
Spurious Correlations or “Post Hoc” Logic

Throughout history, humans have used statistics in a myriad of ways to interpret information
collected from the world we live in. Using means, medians, modes, population sampling, graphing,
and other techniques, statistics have been used by both small companies and large nations to
understand such things as human behavior, environmental changes, population trends, and even the
likelihood of an asteroid destroying all life on earth. However, statistics is not always as
straightforward as graphing a large set of numbers and reporting the shape of the graph. In fact,
many notable blunders throughout the history of government, media, and businesses have stemmed
from misinterpreting the statistical data. According to Darrell Huff, author of the book, How to Lie
with Statistics, our need to find reason behind the numbers has caused a plethora of what he calls
“post hoc” logic. Post hoc logic is the reasoning by which you draw the conclusion that if B follows
A, A has caused B. However, while this logic may occasionally be accurate, oftentimes when two
variables increase at the same time, it is the result of a third explanatory variable and does not report
a direct correlation between A and B.
To demonstrate the post hoc logic in action, Darrell Huff quotes a survey that attempted to
draw a correlation between smoking and lower grades in school. The study (presumably done prior
to 1954 when the book was published) demonstrated that students with lower grades tended to
engage in more tobacco use than their more exceptional peers. Immediately, propagandists took this
study and drew the correlation that smoking decreases brain function. However, despite the
correlation, there is no evidence to support this claim. As the book points out, students may be more
likely to smoke as a result of receiving low grades, or more probable, the type of person who takes
his studies less seriously is also more likely to engage in smoking tobacco. Both of these
possibilities may have caused the observed correlation and are far more likely than the claim that
tobacco inhibits brain function.
Even today such studies still exist. Below is the data from a survey done in 2009 by the
National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) on tobacco’s effect on students’ grades.

and students who do not engage in tobacco use behaviors receive higher grades than their classmates who do engage in tobacco use behaviors. by type earned (mostly A’s. It is for this reason that the interpreter of these graphs. tobacco use leads to low grades. These associations do not prove causation. unlike the survey done in the 1950’s. C’s. Youth Risk Behavior Survey. medicine. and other applications draw upon spurious correlations in an attempt to make their point.” While this survey may be conscientious about the limitations of its data. many of the graphs and statistical information we are inundated with in our news media. This means that students with higher grades are less likely to engage in tobacco use behaviors than their classmates with lower grades. 2009 However.P AofS grades KO FF | 2 Figure 1: Percentage of high school students who engaged in tobacco use. Further research is needed to determine whether low grades lead to tobacco use. job searches. or some other factors lead to both of these problems. B’s. be it the common man reading the New York . this one comes with a disclaimer: “Data presented below from the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) show a negative association between tobacco use and academic achievement after controlling for sex. race/ethnicity. and grade level. or D’s/F’s)—United States. economy.

MA. autism rate as a direct relationship to various other potentially harmful variables. A major candidate for the increased autism rate is genetically modified organisms or GMOs.S. such as Figure 2 below. Looking at data collected from the Framingham Study. MD. As a biochemistry and molecular biology major interested in the field of genetics. Yet.S. autism in the U. have been created to depict this shocking correlation. Figure 2 (Talty. 2013) Upon looking at this graph. or a top analyst for a large corporation.PA S KO F F | 3 Times. no proof exists that this is indeed the cause. incidences of dementia from 1996 (the year GMOs were first introduced) . Nevertheless. 2014). one correlation that has been especially troubling to me has been the link between genetically modified foods and autism. you can’t help but be outraged at the prospect of GMOs infiltrating your local produce and destroying lives through increased autism rates. a longterm health study of individuals from Framingham. this hasn’t deterred many organizations from propagating a rising U. Thus.2007 were shown to have drastically decreased when compared to dementia rates from 1978 as shown in the graph below (Perrone. there are many correlations we can draw from rising GMO production. many graphs. In fact.S. began increasing around the same time that genetically modified organisms were introduced to the U. must examine each graph and statistical claim to determine if there are other variables influencing the study. According to supporters of this hypothesis. president and CEO of Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. determining the actual cause of autism is far more difficult than determining the cause of cancer because you cannot biopsy or X-ray autism (Doheny. despite this correlation. . According to Gary Goldstein. 2008).

it appears to offer compelling evidence for the notion that GMOs reduce the risk of dementia. to determine if there is an actual connection between the data or if it’s merely a coincidence. and then it’s up to us. 2014) When plotted together with the GMO chart like the graph from HealthyFamily. Spurious Correlations. . this is just another example of using perfectly valid statistics to bias the facts by drawing correlations that cannot be proven to be related to one another.PA S KO F F | 4 Figure 3 (Perrone. rational thinkers. 2014) Does this graph prove that GMOs reduce the risk for dementia over time? While pro-GMO activists might attempt to use this correlation to help their “Statistical data can show correlations. How do we determine when statistics are telling the truth? According to Tyler Vigen. Figure 4 (Perrone. a Harvard Law student and creator of the website.” While it is vital that we not ignore statistical data.

. Just because a correlation exists. a correlation will never exclude the possibility that some unmeasured variable has a more direct impact on the response variable. no matter how compelling the data appears.PA S KO F F | 5 we must always keep in mind its limitations and not be deceived by “post hoc” logic.

Web. 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior 6. Web. http://www. And Statistics.pdf 2. MinnPost. Joseph. Damned Lies. Huff. Web. Reason for Increase a Mystery. and Irving 3.webmd. Talty. Doheny.” 2009. 1954. "Autism: Cases on the 5. http://www.” The Center for Accountability in Science. Web. Susan. 2014. Darrell. How To Lie With ." WebMD. 2008. “Do GMO Foods Cause Autism? Read About The GMO Crops Autism Connection” The Liberty Beacon. Perrone. 2013. 28 Mar. Web. Perry. “Root Canals Cause Cancer! (And Other Spurious Correlations)”. Print.PA S KO F F | 6 Works Cited 1.cdc. http://www. http://www. “GMO’S And Autism: Lies.thelibertybeacon. Caryn. https://www. 2014. “Tobacco Use And Academic Achievement. Kathleen. New York: Norton.