One of my mom’s favorite sayings about the perils of using only correlations to infer causation is “breakfast doesn’t cause lunch.” And I have to agree with her: this statement is a perfect illustration of the real danger in taking a correlation to mean causation.
I always find it astonishing how bad we are, generally, at if-then statements. Even scientists make blunders with logic fundamentals—usually in life outside the lab, when we’re not paying close attention to those common pitfalls.
Recently I decided to branch out and try my hand at writing an article for Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight site, which espouses “data-driven journalism”. As a scientist, I was pretty excited about the idea of journalism using numbers more to support their articles and of increasing numerical literacy, more generally. And I was even more excited that they didn’t seem skittish about science.
Last year President Obama announced a new biomedical initiative, aimed at understanding the human mind and cunningly acronymed to “BRAIN”. In the recently proposed FY2015 budget, $200 million is allocated for the project, double the $100 million in FY2014.
The business of gathering data, of performing experiments—this is the bread and butter of being a scientist. The task of doing controls, of analyzing data—these are the essential jobs that just must be done if we want to make models and to understand the universe. Our ability to dissect the truth relies entirely upon the quality of the data we generate.
Numbers are vital to science and scientists. No matter how obvious a hypothesis may seem, just thinking that something is true doesn’t make it so. But equally important is ensuring that we analyze data appropriately, carefully and rigorously. Scientific pitfalls can lurk in even the seemingly simplest of analyses, and a good scientist is always her harshest critic.
I am a scientist.
And I am extraordinarily proud to write those words. Being a scientist is a noble profession: we explore the untamed wilderness of the universe and chart its rises and falls, its rivers and oceans, deserts and mountains, and those far-off distant places that exist beyond even our imagination. But scientists are more than just cartographers—we bring order to this so-called chaos, always striving to illuminate the rationale underlying this wild, most beautiful topography.
Uncovering the whats and the hows and the whys, we are the universe’s storytellers.