Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Correlation, Causation, Pseudo-Medicine, God & Lucozade

Like all kids, I occasionally caught a cold or mild flu that laid me up for a while and secured me a few precious days off school. After lounging around in bed for a bit, I was invariably back to my usual self. However whilst lying in bed moaning and feeling sick, I always used to ask my mum for a glass of Lucozade.

In those days you only got Lucozade when you were sick, so it was a bit of a treat and I was especially fond of the stuff. Other than being high in glucose and presumably therefore being relatively good at replacing energy, there is no scientific evidence that I am aware of, to make me believe that Lucozade has any active ingredients that combat the symptoms of cold and flu. Furthermore, I don’t think the company that makes it, claims that it does. It’s just a nice energy drink.

However in my 7 year old mind the correlation between having Lucozade when I was sick and getting better soon after, strayed somewhat from correlation to causation. I would therefore demand that my mother brought me some Lucozade when I was ill in the belief that it contributed a positive effect in curing my ails.

The logical fallacy of confusing correlation for causation is, I suspect, an easy trap for children to fall into. I also suspect this is the fallacy at the root of many superstitions and irrational beliefs in pseudo medicines, paranormal phenomenon and even, in a more complex way, religions. I think my faith in Lucozade when I was a kid was harmless and benign enough. However it must have had a single point of origin that is now lost in the mysts of time. Some sympathetic adult must have given me some Lucozade at some point to initiate the first correlation.

But what if my parents had other beliefs? To demonstrate the randomness of an arbitrary parental belief passed onto their children I have created the following die:


When a child is sick, rolling the die to determine a suitable action is no less random than the arbitrary methods adopted by that particular child’s parents. As an adult I now know that Lucozade, whilst being a delicious energy drink, is not an effective medicine. However, that doesn’t stop me sending the wife off to Sainsbury’s for a bottle of the stuff whenever I’m suffering from the dreaded man-flu. There must be some deep seated irrational belief buried deep in my unconscious that still provides me a little comfort when I follow this ritual.

But what if the die had landed on another side when I was a child? Would I now have an unexplained allegiance to a random religion or an ineffective pseudo medicine that I was unable to shake off due to my own false anecdotal evidence?

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