Suicide Rates Rising With US Spending On Science And Technology: Are The Two Related?

on May 17, 2014 2:53 PM EDT

A rise in U.S. spending on technology along with suicides is a
A rise in U.S. spending on technology along with suicides is a "spurious connection," according to some academics.

One need not be a Hindu or physicist to understand that everything in the universe is connected to everything else. Yet new "research" showing a parallel rise between suicides and U.S. spending on science, technology, and space suggests a wide variation between the strength and relative importance of those connections. The statistical correlation of 0.992082 between suicides and technology spending invokes the classic divide between correlation and causation.

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The concept was born in the 1890s when British statistician Karl Pearson discovered that correlation could be expressed numerically, which soon led to the notion that "correlation is not causation." Now an Internet cliche, the concept is illustrated by correlatives between ice cream sales and the murder rate, as well as a supposed link between Nicolas Cage's acting career and the number of people drowning in swimming pools.

Although many repeat the mantra mindlessly, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell among others has made a career of exposing unseen and unlikely connections in the world, finding that sometimes correlation is something near to causation. Among contrarians, Daniel Engber attacked the cliche in a Slate article a couple of years ago, arguing that statistical correlations may serve to jumpstart inquiry, helping to frame questions for further investigation.

"The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept," Engber says. "No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint."

Does spending time on Facebook help to induce depression, or does depression drive one to spend countless hours on social media? Probably not. "Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them," Engber writes.

Still, many philosophers argue that even likely causal relationships cannot be proven in any sense. Falsificationists say we cannot prove the importance of any relationship, beyond the baseline connection between all things in the universe, of course. That thought explains why statistical analysis cannot "prove a relationship" but can only disprove it -- a process called "rejecting the null hypothesis," according to 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.

Although impossible to prove, such "spurious connections" help to serve as a starting point in academic inquiry, according to journalist David Aziz, writing in The Week. "'Spurious correlations' are the reason why having a consistent, logical theory is important. If you think one thing is being caused by another and have data to show the two are connected, to make a credible case you need to be able to explain why they are connected, and give a theory that makes testable predictions about the relationship between the two things."

To date, no such theory exists to explain the strong statistical tie between suicides and U.S. technology spending. 

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