Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The point being that statistics can be used to prove anything, whether they’re made up on the spot or generated by real data.

You don’t have to take my word for it either, as a website called Spurious Correlations perfectly demonstrates how statistics can be bent and shaped to suit a particular bias. It turns out stats are actually rather useless.

The Website

Spurious Correlations is the brainchild of Tyler Vigen, a criminology student at Harvard Law School. Vigen is fascinated by empirical research, so he created a simple website dedicated to comparing variables, and how closely they correlate with each other.

There is a new one of these Spurious Correlations posted to the site every day, with over 24,000 posted to date. As well as those generated automatically, visitors can discover their own by selecting two different datasets to compare with one another.

Try it, you’ll be amazed by how addicting it all is.

The Examples

What follows are five examples of Spurious Correlations chosen somewhat at random, although Nicolas Cage was always destined to make an appearance. Because he’s Nicolas Cage.

Remember, none of these examples proves anything other than the fact that statistics can be used to draw conclusions that don’t exist. But it’s a lot of fun imagining the reasons why these stats match up.

The money spent on pets in the U.S. correlates with the number of lawyers in California. Are pampered pets Cats are awesome. We all agree on that. I must admit, though, that even for a cat lover like me, the idea of letting my cats play with my precious iPad seemed a bit crazy.... Read More suing their rich owners? Or is this just sheer coincidence?

The number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool correlates with the number of films in which Nicolas Cage has appeared. Cage has some mad acting skills, but surely they don’t lead to drownings.

The total revenue generated by arcades in the U.S. correlates with the number of computer science Every great educational institution has one common quality – innovation. MIT Media Labs is one center of excellence which promotes multifaceted thinking, and its “prime directive” is to focus on developments which are at the... Read More doctorates awarded in the U.S. There could conceivably be a link, but it’s more likely that these two things just grew in popularity together.

The number of German passenger cars sold in the U.S. correlates with the number of suicides by the crashing of motor vehicles in the U.S. Does driving a German car lead to feeling depressed and suicidal Even though I am the Managing Editor of MakeUseOf, I have a huge disability in my life which is clinical depression. It started back in 2002, as a depression related to stress in my job,... Read More ? We suspect not.

The divorce rate in Maine correlates with the per capita consumption of margarine in the U.S. Perhaps the person in charge of the grocery shopping should have bought butter instead.

The Lesson

Spurious Correlations is, on the face of it, a nice little website capable of distracting you for a few minutes. But it’s more than that. It’s also a reminder that statistics should not be accepted on face value. Instead, they should be examined more closely to make sure they actually stack up.

We have probably all seen headlines on newspapers declaring a link between one random trend and another. Tabloid journalists and editors love these things, as they’re a cheap gimmick guaranteed to sell newspapers. But they’re often either innocently misleading, or totally, and intentionally, bogus. Bulls**t, in other words.

And now, thanks to Spurious Correlations, we know why this is the case.

Conclusions

Spend some time on Spurious Correlations and see which two completely unconnected data sets you can match up. And then come back here and tell us what you found. Don’t feel guilty about spreading misinformation; tabloid newspapers do it every day of the week.

Image Credits: Simon Cunningham via Flickr, Ken Teegardin via Flickr, Ben Brown via Flickr

1. T Engineer
June 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Has anyone heard of a nice book titled "How to Lie with Statistics", by Darrell Huff? This article is pretty much a summary. After reading it, I never any statistic at face value ...

2. Kelsey T
June 1, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Wow! He's been doing this for 24,000 days? Amazing! 8)

3. bben
June 1, 2014 at 12:04 pm

The very first thing said by my graduate level statistics prof was you can NOT prove anything with statistics. Whenever someone says that statistics prove anything - they are lying. You can only show a POSSIBLE correlation. And by changing the way you look at the raw numbers, you can show pretty much whatever you want to. He then spent the rest of the semester showing us how to lie with statistics. And how to tell when someone was using statistics to lie to us.
The news media is the very worst at this - anytime I see a news person use a statistic, I KNOW they are lying. If they were not lying, they would not need to rely on statistics to make their point.
The other thing the prof taught was that 83.7% of all statistics are made up to prove something or other. (Yes, I made that statistic up to prove a point)

4. Dann A
June 1, 2014 at 7:40 am

Having spent several years in academia, I'd love to say that things like this don't guide scientific thought . . . but I can't.

Also, the number of people killed by misusing a non-powered hand tool correlates with honey produced by bee colonies in the US.