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BlogCorrelation vs. Causation in the Digital World

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Model over Observations Graph

Correlation vs. Causation in the Digital World

I’m not sure if it was a psychology, sociology or journalism ethics class when I was introduced to the correlation vs. causation conundrum we all face. During this pandemic, correlation is often mixed with causation. It seems research has taken a back seat.

Model over Observations GraphSo C vs. C has been on my mind. It seems like for some time, the digital trade press was freaking out about how much time is going to mobile. Many called it the “death of desktop search.” Except throw in a pandemic and up goes the desktop search numbers. Causation or correlation? Don’t know. Need research.

And now, the story is that people have “turned away from browsing the web on their phones because they are using apps more.” Wait, what? A media distribution company I have respected for many years says, “Mobile web is already dying as people are spending more time in apps like Facebook and Twitter.” Wait, wait, what?

In this age of too much data, we have forgotten one thing: Correlation and causation are not the same thing. The book and radio blog Freakonomics is full of false or spurious cause-and-effect relationships. For the record, causation means A causes B; correlation is that A and B were observed at the same time and there may be some causation, but we don’t know that.

The fact that I spend more time on Twitter than I do searching in my browser is not related. In fact, the more efficient and accurate search becomes, the less time I’ll need to spend searching for what I want. I know a lot of people who spend a lot of time in game apps. Are those related to less time in search? Absolutely not.

I read in a blog by Chris Taylor for Wired magazine that, “If big data came in a box, it would be stamped, ‘Warning: Correlation does not imply causation.’ “ This is especially important when you are making decisions based on the data. Make sure you are not making leaps of faith based on comparing two data sets or two outcomes. Trust, but verify.

Written by:

Mark wrote his first direct-mail fundraising letter in 1981 for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement. The effort raised a few million dollars in undiscovered wills and legacy gifts. From that day forward Mark discovered a love of the big idea that moves the needle. After 12 years at KWWL, Mark became a business owner as a co-founder of ME&V — rebranded as AMPERAGE in 2015. After 25 years of leading creative teams in video production, graphic design, PR, writing and web development, Mark transitioned out of ownership in 2021. Today he serves in an employee role as special projects consultant. He is creatively ambidextrous — son of an artist and engineer — and famous for distilling complex ideas down to a few words and a few visuals. Mark is a writer. When he found that many nonprofits struggled with complex branding puzzles, he wrote the book, “NonProfit-NonMarketing .” He also wrote a novel called “Reenactment.” Mark is an active blogger OneMinuteMarketer® with nearly 1,000 readers each week on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. One of his most popular YouTube videos is on “How to Look Good on Zoom.” One of Mark’s fondest business memories was being named to INC 500 two times and attending the INC 500 conference with other winners. Mark is considered by some a Civil War expert (and that explains his novel). Mark also served as an adjunct professor in the business and in the communications departments at Wartburg College. Mark is a graduate of the University of Iowa and is currently vice president of the University of Iowa Journalism and Mass Communications Advisory Board. Mark is married to state Sen. Liz Mathis, and the two love to travel, even when it means being trapped by a volcano in the Czech Republic for three weeks.