Getting causation backward

When two things are related, one might be tempted to see a causal path. For instance, that mental health problems lead to unemployment. It is possible that it is reversed, such as unemployment, causing mental health issues.

When you think about the association, ask if the reverse is possible, or even if it could go both ways, creating a feedback loop.



Problem Solving


Small, daily fluctuations are often just statistical noise. For instance, in the stock market or polls.

To avoid drawing faulty conclusions about the causes, request the "margin of error" relating to the numbers. If the difference is smaller than the margin of error, there is probably no real difference.

Generalizations about how two groups differ in some way often draw on stereotypes while ignoring the similarities.

Asking for the "effect size" can prevent this error. It is a measure of how much the average of one group differs from the average of another.

A focus on a "normal distribution," - also known as a "bell curve," is where most people are near the average score, and only a small group is far above or below average. However, when you're dealing with extremes, small group differences can matter a lot.

Although a small change in performance makes no difference to the whole, the fluctuations change the character of the extremes.

Just because two things change at the same time, or in similar ways, does not mean they are related.

Question the observed association. Are there many occurrences, or is this merely chance? Can you predict future associations?

We sometimes forget to consider "third factors," or outside causes, that could be the link between two things, because both are actually effects of the third factor.

Avoid this error by always considering more factors when you see a correlation.

A graph maker may choose a small range of a larger graph to highlight a little difference or association and make it look more significant.

Take care to note the graph's labels along the axes. Question unlabelled graphs.

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This is when we mistakenly think that eventually, our luck has to change for the better.

Somehow, we find it impossible to accept bad results and give up—we often insist on keeping at it until we get positive results, regardless of what the odds of that happening actually are.



  • A diet that universally leads to healthy weight loss.
  • Why two people with the same size and body composition have different metabolic rates.
  • Why some ethnic groups — African Americans, South Asians — have a higher risk of developing metabolic disorders like diabetes.
  • How the brain knows what the body weighs
  • The mechanism that controls our metabolic rate.

A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to contradict.

The only purpose is for it to be easy to expose. It’s not an argument you happen to find inconvenient or challenging. It’s one that is logically flawed.

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