The galling truth about trends

A couple of discussions on one of my favourite science podcasts, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, reminded me of the importance of correlation when looking at quirky behavioural trends.
Take the example of a scientific statement that “global warming will cause a higher incidence of gallstones.”
This assumes that A causes D to happen. That statement was based upon the higher incidence of gallstones amongst people living in the Mediterranean where there’s a hot climate and a different diet, meaning a higher risk of dehydration, which in turn heightens the risk of people developing gallstones.
Assuming that global warming will mean more people will live in a climate similar to the Mediterranean means that gallstones are a real risk because A is likely to cause B or C (different diet / dehydration) to happen which leads to D.
I raise this because I greatly enjoy the simplistic cause-and-effect stories we see in the press about changing consumer behaviour due to the credit crunch.
The Hemline Index is one of my favourites, where correlations are drawn between length of skirts and economic cycles. They may not even be connected. It’s a bit like saying that because two totally unconnected events (e.g. lemming suicides and iPod sales) show similar characteristics on a graph, then one event affects the other.
The Hemline Index can only be connected to the economic cycle if research demonstrates that the events between are related (in this case, mood or cost of materials or other so far unidentified factors).
There’s an interesting article in Saturday’s Times newspaper which connects the rise in car boot sales to the credit crunch “as people clear out their unwanted possessions to make ends meet.” It’s a plausible argument, but too little time is given to other factors such as dissatisfaction with eBay, the motivation and reasons for buying at a car boot sale, as well as the finiteness of the supply (i.e. if you’ve cleaned out your garage and sold your junk, then what else are you going to sell?).
It’s all about having the facts.

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Self-important bit

baby
I’m Victor Houghton, a, er... something or other in one of the UK’s largest advertising agencies. My job title has a comma in it, which is embarrassing. I’m the chief finder-things-outer with a splash of trends who is lucky to work with all the major functions of the agency, even though I am most closely associated with strategic planning. Everything in this blog has most probably been stolen from other, infinitely more talented people, although the opinions are most definitely my own and not those of the agency.

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