At 2 a.m. Pacific Time on August 15, clean energy overlord and Sunday cookie baker Elon Musk tweeted out “Correlation is not causality or … is it?” The tweet included a link to the webpage of the book Spurious Correlations by Tyler Vigen.
That single mention in the wee hours between Sunday and Monday gave Vigen the Musk bump.
“On an average day I probably see 2,000-4,000 unique user sessions,” Vigen tells Inverse. “On the 15th, Musks’s tweet bumped that up to 45,338 unique sessions. “So for every person who favorited the tweet, about 16 clicked the link.”
Spurious Correlations, and the website that inspired the book, is a collection of exactly what the title suggests: Statistics and numbers that aren’t related but strangely correlate when plotted on a graph. Spurious Correlations addresses things such as the number of people who drowned by falling in a pool compared to the number of films that Nicolas Cage appeared in, or the divorce rate in Maine compared to the per capita consumption of margarine.
The very first post on the website, however, is what likely drew Musk to Spurious Correlations, Vigen says. That comparison is “U.S. spending on science, space, and technology correlates with suicides by hanging, strangulation, and suffocation.” Sure enough, there is indeed a correlation, although with Musk’s eclectic range of interests it really could have been anything that brought him to Vigen’s website.
Vigen started comparing various unrelated things while he was studying (procrastinating) for final exams during his first year at Harvard Law. He saw an image comparing a graph of New York state’s gun deaths to a mountain range and figured there must be more ridiculous correlations out there in the world.
“I looked at a lot of different data sources and tried to find groups that were all somewhat interesting or funny,” Vigen says. “The site has weather data if you want to compare it, but it’s almost there exclusively to demonstrate that some data is pretty boring, even if it correlates exactly.”
He eventually collected his correlations into a book of “spurious charts” and “fascinating factoids.” As to who the book was targeted towards?
“Nerds. Definitely nerds.”
Vigen says he hasn’t had anyone try to convince him that one of his correlations are actually related. If anyone was going to try to do it, it might as well be Musk over Twitter though — the entrepreneur takes on both matters important and sometimes not so important.
In response to Musk’s “or … is it?” questioning, Vigen referred to a quote by cartoonist Randall Munroe:
“Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouth ‘look over there.’”