I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, but I classify his books more as fiction than science. My problem with Gladwell as a science writer is that he always seems to be very selective on the research he presents to his readers. Thus he presents half the issue and makes it up to be “proven” by science. I’ve meant to write some thoughts on Blink!, which I read a while ago, but never finished writing them. Now Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris have beaten me to it with “The Trouble With Intuition”.[1] Here are some good parts:

The most troublesome aspect of intuition may be the misleading role it plays in how we perceive patterns and identify causal relationships. When two events occur in close temporal proximity, and the first one plausibly could have caused the second one, we tend to infer that this is what must have happened.

I have found that even after constantly repeating “correlation does not imply causation”, I still botch it all the time unless I’m actively reminding myself to NOT jump to conclusions before analyzing. The sweet temptation to go with intuition is just too, uh, sweet…​ and…​ tempting? Hmm.. okay, let’s move along.

Take the case of the perceived link between childhood vaccinations and autism. Nowadays children receive several vaccines before age 2, and autism is often diagnosed in 2- and 3-year-olds. When a child is diagnosed with autism, parents naturally and understandably seek possible causes. Vaccination involves the introduction of unusual foreign substances (dead viruses, attenuated live viruses, and preservative chemicals) into the body, so it’s easy to imagine that those things could profoundly affect a child’s behavior. But more than a dozen large-scale epidemiological studies, involving hundreds of thousands of subjects, have shown that children who were vaccinated are no more likely to be diagnosed with autism than are children who were not vaccinated. In other words, there is no association between vaccination and autism. And in the absence of an association, there cannot be a causal link.

I’ve always been baffled at that “vaccination causes autism” debate. In the scientific community there seems to be no debate. And even if “correlation does not imply causation”, correlation is a necessary condition for causation. And later on, we find this gem:

In a way, intuition and statistics are like oil and water: They can easily coexist in our minds without ever interacting.

This is a fantastic analogy, and I have many times been seduced by intuition only to find myself on wild goose chases. The whole piece is worth reading.

1. Which proves once again my maxim that if you wait long enough to do something, either somebody else does it or it becomes irrelevant.