Here is a Guest Blog I was invited to write for the folks over at Neuroscience Ireland. I guess this is because I’ve recently been taxonomised as a “Neuroblogger.” It has heft, but such is the nature of being a guest: people expect you to talk. See it in its original habitat, along with all the other guests, at the Neuroscience Ireland Blog.
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I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably end up saying it again: the correlation fallacy (wherein observers attribute causal effect to a coincidence) is not as simple as it is often portrayed. For one thing, the mantra that “correlation does not imply causation” tends to draw attention from the fact that correlation is, after all, a necessary precondition for causation: causality causes, and is therefore correlated with, correlation. The problem is that while a correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean that one caused the other — in other words, while correlation does not ‘cause’ causation — it does elevate the logical probability that causality is in play.
Correlation fallacies of various kinds generate regular confusion among media commentators tasked with interpreting the conclusions of research. One can even recall the time the Daily Mail sent to press an entire article referring to a “casual” link between pornography and crime. For various methodological reasons, correlation-based inference is very common in neuroscience, making the associated problems with media reporting all the more acute: think Susan Greenfield, and other mass panics about internet use and the brain.
One aspect of this has always intrigued me. The inherent ambiguity of a correlation means that interpreting it becomes something like a projective test of personality, wherein the conclusions drawn reflect the scientist’s own dispositions and value-systems rather than the reality under empirical scrutiny. In short, the meaning you extract from a correlation can say as much about you as it does about the data.
Therefore, when neuroscientists study a topic like religion or religiosity, and when journalists report on it in the media, it is tempting to consider whether people’s personal values can be inferred from the way results are explained.