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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  1. identicon
    known coward, 25 Mar 2010 @ 8:26am

    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.”

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