Dr Herbert West writes "The phrase 'correlation does not imply causation' goes back to 1880 (according to Google Books). However, use of the phrase took off in the 1990s and 2000s, and is becoming a quick way to short-circuit certain kinds of arguments. In the late 19th century, British statistician Karl Pearson introduced a powerful idea in math: that a relationship between two variables could be characterized according to its strength and expressed in numbers. An exciting concept, but it raised a new issue: how to interpret the data in a way that is helpful, rather than misleading. When we mistake correlation for causation, we find a cause that isn't there, which is a problem. However, as science grows more powerful and government more technocratic, the stakes of correlation — of counterfeit relationships and bogus findings — grow larger."
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