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A Lesson About Correlation

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One of the Dilbert cartoons that came up on my day-to-day desk calendar recently offers a valuable lesson. Correlation does not imply causation.

Usually, the pointy-haired boss plays the stooge in his exchanges with Dilbert, but in this case its the boss who brings the point home.

Dilbert tells him, "Studies show that companies with a high level of trust in employees also perform the best."

Dilbert is presumably hoping that the boss will infer from this correlation of performance and trust that there is a causative link, and that the boss ought to trust Dilbert more, thereby allowing their common employer to reap the rewards.

Instead, the boss acutely responds, "If you ever start performing well, I'll trust you, too."

Ah, yes, one of the problems with that sort of causal argument (but only one of them) is that the causal arrow is easily reversed. Good one, boss.

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