Correlation does not equal causation. That's one of the first lessons you learn in graduate school, or when you begin a research class. It means that just because things are statistically related or there's a relationship between two variables, or events, or ideas, doesn't automatically mean that one causes the other. This ignores time issues (for A to cause B, A has to come before B), or confounds or other factors (A is related to B, but the change is really due to C). It's an understandable but bad mistake, one born of laziness, of having your mind made up before you sit down to do your work and run the data.
It's a lesson journalists can always do well to remember. And it was on my mind last week, after Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe was released. Les Carpenter at Yahoo!, among others, mused whether or not Kluwe was released because he is an outspoken advocate for gay marriage. Carpenter noted that Ravens' linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo was also released after being outspoken in his defense of gay rights.
But because he is now the great threat to the social fabric of the NFL he was cut.
The issue was debated in morethan a few places last week - it got a segment on PTI. But this line of argument seemed too neat, too clean, for my taste. Carpenter tries to argue that Kluwe is a solid punter, but by most stats he was near the bottom of the league. But the argument seemed predictable. And devoid of any evidence to the contrary, it seems too simplistic to say that Kluwe would still have a job if he weren't a gay-marriage advocate.
And then Cyd Zeigler delivered this incredible blow to the argument on OutSports.com, who writes that stories like this actually do more to hurt the cause of gay athletes than help:
Members of the media have long been the biggest deterrent to gay athletes coming out. Attitudes in the NFL shifted years ago; And even where they haven't, players will accept a productive gay teammate whether they realize it or not. Yet the mainstream media continues to pound the drum of NFL intolerance. A common theme I heard from "experts" in the last two weeks mentioned how Jason Collins' coming out was lovely, but we all know how hard it REALLY will be for an out NFL player in the locker room. On this issue, the mainstream media has showed a dereliction of duty for a decade. This is simply the latest example ... The storyline also hurts the LGBT sports movement. By putting a fictitious target on athletes who support gay rights, we make it harder to find athletes who will speak their mind on behalf of equality.
It's such a great point. The writers of the "Kluwe was cut because he was an advocate" probably believe they are doing a good thing, pointing out what they think is a wrong in the name of tolerance, when in fact they are perpetuating an environment that works against tolerance.
And again, absent any direct evidence to the contrary, it's a dangerous claim to make. And read the original stories from last week. There is no evidence to argue Kluwe was cut because he supports gay marriage. There are no quotes suggesting this, no on or off-the-record claims. It's just speculation, based on a writer's ideas. It's lazy writing, born out of having their minds made up and a storyline already written before they even look at the data or do the work.
It's arguing causation, when there's just correlation.
And any grad student will tell you how wrong that is.