What do cheese and Nicolas Cage films have in common?
A site charts some astonishing -- yet hopefully irrelevant -- correlations, hence showing the limits of apparent logic.
I believe that rationality is overrated and logic is often painful. Yet we live in a world where we are being squeezed from all sides by rationalists who are convinced they possess all the facts -- and that we should alter our behavior to fit in with the machines they create.
Google believes we are the result of our searches, and even we have been persuaded that we can track our health by the numbers every day. After all, every number correlates with some sort of truth, doesn't it?
Then along comes Tyler Vigen. On his website "spurious correlations," the Harvard Law School student explains: "Empirical research is interesting, and I love to wonder about how variables work together."
Or, indeed, how they don't work together. Vigen discovered some interesting research correlations that surely -- or at least hopefully -- have no relationship to actuality.
For example, US spending on science, space, and technology seems to correlate rather closely with suicides by hanging, strangulation, and suffocation. Then there's the joy of per capita consumption of cheese in a macabre jiving with the number of people who died by being tangled in their bedsheets.
And what are we to make of the harmony between the divorce rate in Maine and the US consumption of margarine? I'm sure there are several social scientists who would immediately leap for a research grant to probe further into this.
Indeed, food consumption can have very strange graphic bedfellows. The per capita consumption of mozzarella in the US harmonizes quite beautifully with the number of doctorates in civil engineering.
The whole thing is a marvelous homage to the spurious.
Vigen insists: "The charts on this site aren't meant to imply causation nor are they meant to create a distrust for research or even correlative data. Rather, I hope this projects gets people interested in statistics and research."
How often, though, do some scientists blunder into causation because they just seem too exciting or too ripe for notoriety?
Moreover, it's quite bracing just how many of Vigen's correlations involve death statistics. There's surely one correlation unearthed by Vigen that demands immediate scientific investigation: the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool follows the same pattern as the number of films Nicolas Cage has appeared in.
I'm going to Las Vegas and I'm going to swim myself to death.