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Seth RobertsRSS Feed of this column.

I am a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of Read More »


On the Shangri-la diet forums, many dieters have reported better sleep. (”Woke up feeling like I could fight tigers. Have not felt this way since 2003. . . . I would stay on this method just for the sleep benefits,” wrote bekel.) To learn how widespread this was, I did a poll. Forty-two people answered. Two-thirds of them reported better sleep (half “much better” sleep, half “slightly better” sleep). Only one-tenth of them reported worse sleep (all “slightly worse”, none “much worse”). Almost all of them were doing SLD with oil, implying that the improvement was due to a few tablespoons of oil per day.

In the 1960s, Eric von Hippel, now a professor of management at MIT, was a first-year graduate student in psychology at Berkeley. He had been having a hard time getting in touch with his advisor. One day, in Tolman Hall, he saw his advisor go into his office. This is my chance, he thought. He went into his advisor’s office. No one was there! He realized his advisor must be hiding behind his desk. It would have been too embarrassing to confront him, so he left the office (which might now be my office).

I shed an invisible tear whenever I hear “correlation does not imply causation” which the otherwise excellent swivel (a website about correlations) emphasizes. Of course, there’s truth to it. It saddens me because:

1. It’s dismissive. It is often used to dismiss data from which something can be learned. The life-saving notion that smoking causes lung cancer was almost entirely built on correlations. For too long, these correlations were dismissed.

2. It’s misleading. In real life, nothing unfailingly implies causation. In my experience, every data set has more than one interpretation. To “imply” causation requires diverse approaches and correlations are often among them

An experiment in which people eat soup from a bottomless bowl? Classic! Or mythological: American Sisyphus. It really happened. It was done by Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and nutritional science in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, and author of the superb new book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (which the CBC has called “the Freakonomics of food”). The goal of the bottomless-soup-bowl experiment was to learn about what causes people to stop eating. One group got a normal bowl of tomato soup; the other group got a bowl endlessly and invisibly refilled.