For How Long Have Scientists Been Complaining About Correlation and Causation?

In Observation and Ecology, Anibal and I talk quite a bit about the over-applied critique that “correlation does not indicate causation,” and I’ve written about it here as well.  We believe that the Alvarez’ reconstruction of the K-T extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs is a pretty fine example of linking multiple correlations to get fairly close to the ultimate causal agent, and if correlations are good enough to kill off the dinosaurs, shouldn’t we give them some respect?

This excellent article in by Daniel Engber does something we didn’t do in the book, which is to really dig up the history about from where this common knee-jerk reaction came from.  Dan makes an interesting point in the article and in recent correspondence with me, which is that, yes, this has become “the internet blowhard’s favorite phrase,” but it also may be more important than ever to critically examine carefully correlated data sets, as there is just so much data out there.


About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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