Beware of spurious correlations

Human beings are wired to look for ‘meaning’, which makes us eager to spot connections that sometimes simply aren’t there. That’s never been truer than in today’s era of ‘big data’.

Tyler Vigen is a criminology student at Harvard who set up his own website to highlight how easy it can be to draw ludicrous conclusions from data because of the way we’re taught to look for patterns.

Vigen has loaded up a number of different sets of random data on his site and then cross-related them to identify apparent (but clearly nonsensical) statistical similarities. For example, as you can see above, there seems to be a clear link between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US.

Similarly, you might say there was a link between the per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets:

chart (1)

Clearly, there isn’t really a link in either case. But it’s easy to imagine that people might accept there was – and unnerving to realise how readily we accept this kind of correlation when presented to justify a medical or scientific or commercial conclusion.

Vigen calls them ‘spurious correlations’. You can find many more examples (and even create your own) by visiting www.tylervigen.com. It’s quite amusing.

Alternatively, you could look a little harder at some of the ‘facts’ that get used in presentations around your own business and see how many of them actually stand up to robust statistical scrutiny.

Not so amusing, but potentially more revealing.

 

Don’t just do it. Mean it.

It’s been quite a week for Nike.

On Monday, they launched a bold new advertising campaign, fronted by Colin Kaepernick (the star San Francisco quarterback who caused a furore by kneeling, rather than standing, during the national anthem, to protest in support of the ‘black lives matter’ movement).

Clearly, this was always going to be controversial. Conservative Americans, led vocally by their President, have railed against the protest on the grounds that it disrespects the anthem and the country.

By Tuesday lunchtime, the backlash was in full swing, with indignant mid-westerners sharing videos of mutilated Nike products on social media, accompanied by the hashtag #JustBurnIt.

All of which must have had Nike’s brand folks rubbing their hands in glee. After all, what better way to make your product relevant to teenagers than by having chubby, middle-aged rednecks get angry about it? (Not to mention the billions of dollars of free global publicity – they probably only had to run the ad once).

But let’s hope that, before they started all this hoopla, they took a deep breath and re-read the second line of the advert: ‘even if it means sacrificing everything’.

Because it’s easy to believe in something. But it’s a lot less easy to keep believing in it when the consequences escalate.

I’m not talking about a few good ol’ boys cutting Nike swooshes out of their socks. I’m talking about shop windows being smashed. About people being attacked because they work for Nike. About retailers being too scared to sell Nike products – and shoppers being too scared to buy them. About sales falling off a cliff because they misjudged the reaction.

What happens then? Do Nike’s senior leaders apologise and backtrack, in a bid to stop haemorrhaging money? If they do, the brand’s credibility will be shredded for a generation.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I admire Kaepernick – and Nike for having the guts to celebrate him. And I’m confident the backlash will be much less extreme than I’ve suggested above. But, if it isn’t, I hope they hold their nerve and tough it out.

As the advertising guru Bill Bernbach once put it, ‘a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.’

We may all be about to find out how authentic Nike’s principles are.