Thursday, April 11, 2013

Funny Statistics

One of the things on the internet that often sends me into a minor rage (because, you know, there are just so few offensive things out there that I had to find something, anything to be annoyed at) is misuse of statistics. It is so easy for a manipulative writer to "deceive the masses" with numbers (myself often included), and then there are those who unintentionally misuse statistics in their articles and go about their merry days guilt free. That is among the reasons I wrote a post a while back about the benefits and limits of statistics. The point was really to encourage readers to think critically. Interestingly enough, that is my most popular post ever, so maybe I am onto something!

I seem to encounter statistically infuriating writing in the news or other websites on a near weekly basis, often written by "experts." Yikes! But this week, I found something statistically hilarious on "The 10 Most Bizarre Correlations." Ok, I know I have a dorky sense of humor. But come on people, these are funny!

This is one of my favorites, because it realistically portrays what I actually see in articles on a regular basis:

For those still scratching their heads about why this is absurd, notice that the two graphs are presented in total counts (total sales and total diagnoses), not as proportions of the total population represented by the graph. My best guess is that the population growth curve would match up very closely to these two metrics or that the population growth curve plus other factors would do so, but without that information specifically provided, we cannot know. It really doesn't mean that much statistically to say that there were four times as many disease diagnoses counted in 2008 compared to 1998 if there were also four times as many people alive in general (or if the methods for diagnoses became better, such that the disease was simply identified with greater ease). If that were the case, the rate of disease may have stayed constant. The same is true with the purchase or organic produce - it could be an increase based solely on having a larger population (or another possibility is that the number of organic produce purchases remained constant, with the price of the organic produce quadrupling, thus increasing total dollar sales). With this graph, we really have no way of knowing what this data really means, as it has no reference to how many people were in the population each year, nor do we have information on many other associated metrics. Without asking critical thinking questions, some might look at this and automatically conclude that there is a link between organic food and autism. Gotta love the misuse of science! I'll stick with my pesticide fruit, thank you very much!

This also reminds me of a funny xkcd comic:
As the comic author writes in the sub-text (when you hold your mouse cursor for a couple of seconds over the comic on their website), "There are also a lot of global versions of this map showing traffic to English-language websites which are indistinguishable from maps of the location of internet users who are native English speakers." Yes!

Another one of my favorites from the buzzfeed article is a 1960's study demonstrating that countries with slower growing economies have men with longer "male organs."

Or, as a slightly different, but more recent study showed:
I knew there was a silver lining to the recession! Ok, but seriously now - can you think of other factors that might create this effect, beyond the economic growth of a country? This is a test of your analytic prowess!

To see the rest of the odd examples of correlation, check out this awesome article:

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