How often do you confuse association with causation?

Today is February 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you confuse association with causation?” Correlation does not imply causation is a phrase used in science and statistics to emphasize that a correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. A perceived association between two facts is just that, a perception until proven. Just because two things correlate does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.

In terms of cognitive functioning the easier thing to do is accept the association between correlation and causation because thinking hard is difficult and challenges people to look at how they view the world. “Our preconceptions and suspicions about the way things work tempt us to make the leap from correlation to causation without any hard evidence.” Here is an historical example, between 1860 and 1940 the number of Methodist ministers living in New England increased as did the amount of Cuban rum imported into Boston. Confusing correlation with causation would suggest that, Methodist ministers must have bought up lots of rum in that time period. There is absolutely no correlation between these two factors. What is really going on is that both quantities – Methodist ministers and Cuban rum – were driven upwards by other factors, such as population growth. Law school and medical school are two such modern examples where people make the leap from correlation to causation without any hard evidence.

Many students who wish to apply to law school think they must major in pre-law, political science, or criminal justice. People assume majoring in one of those undergraduate disciplines will help them get accepted into law school. The American Bar Association (ABA), however, does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education. Students are admitted to law school from almost every academic discipline: history, English, philosophy, political science, economics, business, art, music, science and mathematics, computer science, engineering, nursing, or education.

Regardless of major, the ABA encourages students to pursue an area of study that interests and challenges them while taking advantage of opportunities to develop research and writing skills. Taking a broad range of difficult courses from demanding instructors is excellent preparation for legal education. There is simply no correlation between one’s undergraduate major and getting accepted into law school. The same holds true for medical school.

According to the data released in April 2019 by the Association of American of Medical Colleges (AAMC), among the more than 50,000 candidates who submitted scores on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) as part of their medical school application, roughly 60 percent had an undergraduate major that could be classified as focusing on biological sciences. In total, the AAMC has data tracking 21,622 students who matriculated to medical school.

The breakdown of primary undergraduate majors in that group generally had a heavy emphasis on science and math, which tend to align with medical school prerequisite requirements. ​The most common majors were:

· Biological sciences—11,843

· Physical sciences—2,214.

· Social sciences—2,107.

· Humanities—797.

· Specialized health sciences—650.

· Math and statistics—168

It is worth noting that the second largest group of matriculants (3,843) tracked by the AAMC fell into the “other” category. Do any majors have an admissions advantage? The data seems to indicate that is not the case. For instance, 29,443 students with majors in the biological sciences applied to medical schools in 2018–2019. The matriculation rate for that group was roughly 40 percent, lower than several other primary majors. Among the listed majors, students who studied biological sciences also had an average total MCAT score that fell in the middle of the group of tracked primary undergraduate majors. According to the Dr. Francher of the University of California Davis’ admissions office, they do not “give more weight to one major or another as long as a student has completed the required prerequisites as they look for mastery in an area that a student is passionate about. That could be in the study of art or history or science, in participation in college athletics or music or dance, or in making an impact in their community.” That holistic approach to admissions may have benefits.

A December 2018 study published in the journal Medical Education, “Pre‐medical majors in the humanities and social sciences: impact on communication skills and specialty choice,” found that medical students with premedical backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences may be more effective at communicating with patients. Jose Morfin, MD, a health sciences professor of medicine and nephrology and faculty lead of admissions at UC Davis emphasized that students select a major that aligns with their interests, not with a major they think will help them get into medical school: “I would recommend students to find a major that they are interested in and build on their strengths,” said Dr. Morfin. “Although you don’t need to be a science major to be a competitive applicant to medical school, a solid foundation in the sciences is necessary to succeed in the MCAT and medical school curriculum.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted "Life is a perpetual instruction in cause and effect.” Do you think about the cause and effect of your actions personally or professionally? How often do you take the time required to understand cause and effect? How often do you commit the fallacy of confusing association with causation?