10 Times Correlation Was Not Causation

Katie Carey
Katie Carey

It’s a scientist’s mantra: Correlation does not imply causation. But sometimes wrong feels so right.


If you want to boost blood flow to your brain and (potentially) slow cognitive decay, consume flavanols. The plant compounds, found in green tea and cocoa, are great for getting blood into your noggin. That made New York doctor Franz Messerli wonder: Would a nation of bonbon–eaters be more intellectually accomplished than a country that didn’t consume as much cocoa? In a tongue-in-cheek 2012 paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, he found that countries that ate a lot of chocolate also won the most Nobel Prizes. Messerli published the study with a wink, but some media outlets took the news seriously, failing to see that a confounding variable was at play—wealth. A richer country (like Switzerland, which has 26 Nobel winners) will have more quality scientific research—and well-stocked shelves of chocolate, too.


Nearsightedness has been increasing worldwide for decades. In some Asian countries, up to 90 percent of adults can’t see distant objects clearly, and in 1999, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia thought they’d found the cause: night-lights. The evidence suggested that kids who slept with a light developed myopia later in life. But two groups of researchers argued that the study failed to see the evidence in front of its nose—myopic parents have myopic kids. And myopic parents, who can’t see well in the dark, are more likely to install night-lights in their children’s rooms.


Are black cats bad luck for your sinuses? In a January 2000 paper for the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers found that people with dark-colored cats suffered more allergic reactions than owners of light-colored cats (or no kitty at all). But the correlation appears to have just been a coincidence. Cat allergies are actually caused by a protein called Fel d 1, which is produced in salivary and sebaceous glands. A research team in New Zealand found that cat allergies simply aren’t related to cat color or hair length.


For centuries, natives of the New Hebrides islands considered a head full of lice a sign of good health. “Observation over the centuries had taught them that people in good health usually had lice and sick people very often did not. The observation itself was accurate and sound,” writes Darrell Huff in How to Lie with Statistics. But the correlation didn’t mean lice are the key to good health—it’s the other way around. Healthy people had lice because their body was just the right temperature, a perfect home for bugs. But when people ran a high fever, their flesh became hot, sending the lice scattering. Lice didn’t cause good health—they preyed on it.


We’ve all heard that kids who eat breakfast do better in school. It makes sense; it’s hard to focus on an empty stomach. But despite their best attempts, researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint why breakfast aids learning—if that’s even the case. A 1996 study of Jamaican students found that, in some schools, kids behaved better after they ate breakfast; in other schools, they acted worse. The gap probably had more to do with each school’s resources than with a student’s daily ration of Cocoa Puffs. Students at well-equipped schools behave better regardless of their diet.


Storks do not deliver babies. That bit of German folklore likely originated because the white stork’s migration rituals last nine months. (Plus, Hans Christian Andersen helped popularize the myth in his short story “The Storks.”) But that hasn’t stopped scientists from acknowledging a striking correlation: Between 1970 and 1985, the number of breeding pairs of white storks in Lower Saxony dropped. Over the same period, the birth rate there also fell. Meanwhile, stork numbers increased in Berlin’s suburbs, where doctors delivered more babies. As Robert Matthews writes in Teaching Statistics, “While storks may not deliver babies, unthinking interpretation of correlation ... can certainly deliver unreliable conclusions.”


Hours after the Seattle Seahawks lost the Super Bowl in 2015, fan Michael Sven Vedvik died. In his obituary, his family blamed the team’s “lousy play call for Mike’s untimely demise.” The joke echoed 2011 research in Clinical Cardiology linking Super Bowl losses to a 15 to 27 percent increase in cardiac deaths in the loser’s hometown. (The Grim Reaper has tried wearing cleats at least once: When the Steelers’ Jerome Bettis fumbled in a 2006 playoff game, a fan watching from a bar became so upset that he had a heart attack. Fortunately, he survived.) Problem is, the studies don’t take non-football variables into account. And the data in one study investigated deaths that occurred two weeks after the game. “I don’t think that everyone who dies within 14 days of the Super Bowl died because of the Super Bowl,” David Prince of Albert Einstein College of Medicine told Live Science.


In 1958, economist William Phillips published a paper claiming that when unemployment increased, inflation decreased (and vice versa). “That led nations to start thinking of these two variables as trade-offs,” says Rebecca Goldin, professor of math at George Mason University and director of the website Sense About Statistics. “Some would focus on unemployment while others focused on controlling inflation, but they all saw this as a causal trade-off.” Then came the 1970s, when many countries saw both high inflation and high unemployment. Turns out Phillips’s “rule” was just a short-term coincidence. While inflation can affect unemployment for short periods, it can’t fix joblessness over the long run.


In Scandinavia, people fight the cold of winter with cozy candlelit social gatherings. Called hygge in Denmark and koselig in Norway, the tradition suggests there’s a connection between physical temperature and the “social warmth” of friends. In 2011, Yale researchers suggested that people may instinctively reach for that connection in the shower. In a study, they found that lonely people were more likely to take long, warm showers and baths. Was it because higher temperatures make them feel less isolated? Well, the methodology left critics cold. The study used a small sample (only 51 undergrads); of those, 90 percent reported bathing or showering less than once a week. Not exactly a trusty sample. In 2014, a different team tried to replicate the results using a larger (and presumably better-smelling) group, and failed.


According to the 2008 study “Rugby (the Religion of Wales) and its Influence on the Catholic Church,” the Pope is more likely to die when the Welsh rugby team wins the sport’s Grand Slam. The paper—which appeared in the British Medical Journal’s humorous annual Christmas issue—found no connection between the pontiff’s mortality and teams from other countries. Just Wales. We expect a Dan Brown book about this any time now.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”