Anyone who has any familiarity with statistics or medical studies knows the subject of this post: correlation does not equal causation. Yet, many of us are fooled by this fallacy when it pops up in places we don't expect it.
Last week, I wrote this post about how you can't simply look at the training programs of successful athletes, and assume its the program that's creating the athlete. You need to look at the total picture, including the inherent genetic gifts, and personal drive to succeed, of that athlete, to determine what's really at the root of his or her success.
Many people who read my posts about this topic, or who I speak with about it in person, are still doubtful. And I get it. For some reason that I'm not quite sure about, we WANT to believe that the training program causes the high level athletic results. Yet, in other contexts we can easily see that this is a logical fallacy.
I'm going to use a funny but slightly controversial example to illustrate this. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster used this chart, in their open letter to the Kansas school board, to show the same thing, via satire: correlation does not equal causation. Take a look.
Looking at this graph, you know instantly that it's a joke. A funny one, too, especially if you read the whole letter. But, the statistics are true. The number of pirates in the world has shrunk to near 0 - the "arrrrrrr" kind of pirate, not these bogus bootleg "pirates" currently doing bad things in Somalia. Not people 'pirating' computer software, either. We're talking Pirates of the Caribbean. And the correlation with global avg temperature is true. Or maybe it's not, hell I don't know. But either way, the rise (or reduction) in avg global temperature obviously has nothing to do with the demise of Red Beard and co.!
No one would even seriously consider proposing that causation, even though the correlation is perfectly apparent. Why? Because there's no logical connection between the two, and the correlation ignores all the myriad other factors that DO affect global temperature.
The same applies to a sub-par training program. If you don't understand the underpinnings of biomechanics and physiology, you can't understand what a good program entails. So you might think it's the program that produces the athlete, when in fact, it's the athlete that makes the program look good. Knowing those biomechanical and physiological principles allows you to analyze the program: does it optimize the athlete's potential in a way that can be expected to improve sports performance? Or is it just a bunch of fancy terms and overly complicated movements that make for a good 30 second news clip, but have little to do with improved performance?
I think this is an important principle throughout life, remembering that correlation does NOT equal causation. Copying what the fit person at the gym is doing, choosing a trainer because he/she looks like what you want to look like, or assuming that they way the people who are best at something, do it - all fall prey to this fallacy.
This doesn't mean we automatically run the other way and do the opposite. But it does mean that we use analysis to derive the best way to do something, and try to improve and refine our analysis over time, if possible, to find even better ways. If the analysis dovetails with what's already being done - great, no need to change anything.
But good research and good coaches never, ever, ever justify existing sub par practices with faulty research or information spinning. It's ok to say "Now we've found and even better way."
As Mark Twain said: "Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul."