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# PA S KO F F | 1

Dr. Cody Steele
STAT 200
6/16/2015
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.