LSAT Logic in the NYTimes

Thursday's New York Times featured an article about The Tap Project's use of unconventional advertising in its fundraising efforts. The Tap Project promotes children's access to clean water in developing countries.

I'm all for this. I think it's great when advertisers use their skills to promote nonprofit causes. However, too much time with the LSAT caused one section of the article to jump out at me.

Read the article first and see if you can guess which quote I'm talking about (hint: it's an example of flawed logic).
Here it is:
“It doesn’t take much to make a big difference...It was amazing the differences between communities that had clean water systems and those that did not. In the communities that didn’t have water, most of the kids didn’t have shoes...The ones that did, the kids seem to be thriving in so many ways.”
As we know from the LSAT, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Now, I'm not denying the possibility that the clean water systems led to the kids' thriving and access to shoes. It actually sounds quite likely, as a lack of clean water undoubtedly leads to sickness and disease.

However, it's possible that when kids are thriving, parents have time to go out and get access to clean water (or at least reach out to nonprofit organizations and the government to get clean water). Think about it: if your kid is sick, or simply not thriving, you may not have the resources to get clean water as much as you'd like it. When your kid is well, you're more likely to have the time to create a stink over your lack of access to clean water, and you may end up rewarded for your efforts with clean water.

Alternatively, there may be a third variable that leads to kids' access to clean water, shoes, and conditions under which kids can thrive. Some examples include:

Peace. If one's country is not at war, one is more likely to get access to clean water, shoes, and conditions under which kids can thrive.

Democracy. Dictators might not care about their citizens enough (or have the incentives) to provide all three. Democracies may be more likely to do so.

Economic improvements. If a country has more money, the government and private sector will be better equipped to provide all three.

What does this mean for The Tap Project?

The project is, without a doubt, incredibly important. However, research should be conducted to determine whether or not some of the causation is reversed. Research should also be conducted to determine the extent to which improving a third variable will improve access to clean water, shoes, and conditions under which kids can thrive.

Friday's xkcd webcomic on correlation vs. causation also discusses this:

xkcd correlation logic comic

1 comment:

  1. The cartoon reminds me that...I'm so glad I took the painful AP Stats class in high school -- who would have ever guessed that the class could help me 5 years later, for LSAT prep? :-)