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.

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

You Can Now Go Inside Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 Control Room

bionerd23, YouTube
bionerd23, YouTube

The eerie interior of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 control room, the site of the devastating nuclear explosion in 1986, is now officially open to tourists—as long as they’re willing to don full hazmat suits before entering and undergo two radiology tests upon exiting.

Gizmodo reports that the structure, which emits 40,000 times more radiation than any natural environment, is encased in what's called the New Safe Confinement, a 32,000-ton structure that seals the space off from its surroundings. All things considered, it seems like a jolly jaunt to these ruins might be ill-advised—but radiology tests are par for the course when it comes to visiting the exclusion zone, and even tour guides have said that they don’t usually reach dangerous levels of radiation on an annual basis.

Though souvenir opportunists have made off with most of the plastic switches on the machinery, the control room still contains original diagrams and wiring; and, according to Ruptly, it’s also been covered with an adhesive substance that prevents dust from forming.

The newly public attraction is part of a concerted effort by the Ukrainian government to rebrand what has historically been considered an internationally shameful chapter of the country's past.

“We must give this territory of Chernobyl a new life,” Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky said in July. “Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature revives after a global man-made disaster, where there is a real 'ghost town.' We have to show this place to the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists."

It’s also an attempt to capitalize upon the tourism boom born from HBO’s wildly successful miniseries Chernobyl, which prompted a 35 percent spike in travel to the exclusion zone earlier this year. Zelensky’s administration, in addition to declaring the zone an official tourist destination, has worked to renovate paths, establish safe entry points and guidelines for visitors, and abolish the photo ban.

Prefer to enjoy Chernobyl’s chilling atmosphere without all the radioactivity? Check out these creepy photos from the comfort of your own couch.

[h/t Gizmodo]