If It’s Simple It’s Probably Untrue
Why clickbait and easy-to-understand claims are almost always wrong
As an old geezer with very little interest in squandering precious moments on social media, I visit a certain well-known site very infrequently and only then to see if my real-life friends have posted something of interest. Recently I made one of my rare dives into those turgid waters and encountered a post that sums up a mistake that’s all too common in our world of quick easy answers and misleading glib ideas.
According to the Journal of Sports Medicine, a study has shown that people who are unable to stand on one leg for ten seconds are twice as likely to die in the following decade as people who can perform this feat. The person who posted this then went on to say (she’s a personal trainer) she now teaches her clients to stand on one leg so as to prolong their lives. Multiple people commented on the post, all saying how important it is for us all to learn to stand on one leg so as to avoid early death.
No, I am not making this up.
It seems incredible that people don’t see the problem with this kind of claim, but when we look around we see that it’s all too common a phenomenon. The human brain is evolved to seek simplicity because simplicity requires almost no effort to encompass, and we’re hardwired to try to make as little effort — both physical and mental — as possible in order to conserve calories that for 99.999% of our evolutionary history have been scarce and uncertain. And so we readily fall prey to a wide variety of nonsense in all realms of life.
There exists a marvelous website devoted entirely to spurious correlations, and the claim made in the Journal of Sports Medicine is a classic case of what happens when no one bothers to think carefully about the topic at hand. To illustrate what’s going on here, we can turn to what is my all-time personal favorite when it comes to spurious correlations: the margarine divorce connection.
More than twenty years’ worth of data clearly shows that divorce rates rise in near-lockstep with margarine consumption. The more margarine is consumed in a nation, the more divorces occur. No doubt this correlation led to plenty of well-meaning articles suggesting that one could save…