Syphilis (Or Was It Facebook?) Blamed For People Not Understanding That Correlation Does Not Mean Causation

from the not-without-a-chi-square! dept

I really really really wasn’t going to write this post, but so many people kept submitting it, I figured it needed to be done. The Telegraph has some ridiculous story claiming, without any actual evidence, that Facebook is “linked to the rise in syphilis.” Quite a claim. The evidence? Oh, that’s not included. There’s just some public health guy claiming that there’s evidence — without presenting any. About the only thing in the article is that (a) more people in this particular area of the UK seem to be reporting that they got syphilis (b) people in that area are also (marginally) more likely than in other areas to use social networking (c) at least some of the people who got syphilis mentioned that they have met sexual partners via Facebook.

So, yes, you have a bit of weak correlation combined with self-selected anecdotal bias. And that proves what? Uh, absolutely nothing. So, please, for the sake of the sanity of statisticians everywhere, please learn to practice safe statistics, where before you claim something is linked to something else, you actually use “protection” in the form of some real data.

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Comments on “Syphilis (Or Was It Facebook?) Blamed For People Not Understanding That Correlation Does Not Mean Causation”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I gave a presentation in College once where I provided evidence that air was responsible for all the horrors of the world. I used every dirty trick in the book to hide, skew, and misrepresent legitimate sources (like an article from the american lung association) to support my claim. I was trying to show my classmates that just because someone shows you numbers, graphs, and diagrams doesn’t mean they’re telling you the absolute truth.

My teacher gave me 100% on it too. 🙂

VoicesInMyHead says:


I just had to freakin’ shake my head at this claim… which tweaked my neck, so I think it’s safe to say that TechDirt is causing chiropractic injuries among it’s readership!

Ok, I know it’s really all the stupid people doing stupid things that causes pain… but in true litigious form, we have to blame those with the deepest pockets regardless of fault… right?

known coward says:

since reading newspapers in poor light

will harm vision.

Facebook is admitting they are guilty. Quick get me my lawyer, and a computer that does not practice safe sex.

according to the linked article:

“There has been a fourfold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected.

“I don’t get the names of people affected, just figures, and I saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites.

“Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex.”

In Teesside there were 30 recorded cases of syphilis last year, but the true figures are expected to be much higher.

Research has shown that young people in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside were 25 per cent more likely to log onto social networking sites than those in the rest of Britain.

A Facebook spokesman said: “The assertion that Facebook is responsible for the transmission of syphilis is ridiculous. Facebook is no more responsible for STD transmission than newspapers responsible for bad vision. Today’s reports exaggerate the comments made by the professor, and ignore the difference between correlation and causation.

“As Facebook’s more than 400 million users know, our website is not a place to meet people for casual sex – it’s a place for friends, family and co-workers to connect and share.”

Danny (profile) says:

cum se cum sa

Actually, I think I can create an equally plausible hypothesis that syphilis causes Facebook:

If people are finding that the risky ways they meet sexual partners are leading them to acquire too much venereal disease, then they might look for alternative methods to better screen potential partners.

An online system that would all people to vet potential partners by reading about them, and validating them through their community of friends might be useful.

Therefore, people who suffer from venereal disease might tend to populate such online social networks. Their use of these networks might contribute to the critical mass necessary to make the networks sustainable.

So, stamp out venereal disease and Facebook might just go away!

Jake (user link) says:

Re: fish and chips must be wrapped in *something*

It’s not just science, but practically everything but the football results these days. The better ones are under intense pressure to get a story out ahead of the blogosphere and other new media, which means fact-checking often falls by the wayside in the rush to beat the print deadline. The rest of them seem to have just said “fuck it” and started making stories up as they go along.

DerekCurrie (profile) says:

Correlation: The most abused statistic

Anyone who has taken a serious class in statistics knows the worthlessness of correlation figures. They also know that correlation is THE most abused of statistics. If you ever see anyone attempting to state cause and effect based upon correlation data, you know right off the bat that they are deadly desperate to have something to prove. Not gonna happen. Correlation has no statistical significance.

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