Like may readers, I was drawn to the recent (amusing) report in the UK's "The Sun" newspaper which attempted to draw a connection between the rise of Facebook usage and a seemingly related increase in the incidence of syphilis in the same group of people.
The article quotes Professor Peter Kelly, director of Public Health for the National Health Service in Tees, saying "There has been a four-fold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected, with more young women being affected."
He continues, "Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex. There is a rise in syphilis because people are having more sexual partners than 20 years ago and often do not use condoms."
Thus, because there is a parallel rise in social networking usage and the incidence of syphilis, the two must be related. My colleague Alex Zaharov-Reutt also took the opportunity to cast aspersions upon the connection between the two concepts; and correctly Alex also notes that Professor Kelly made no specific accusations against Facebook - that was the done by the journalist.
Drawing such conclusions is like saying: "cats have four legs, the creature before me has four legs, therefore it is a cat."
We see similar activity elsewhere. The great autism vs. vaccination debate for instance.
Wakefield (quite reasonably) noted that there appeared to be a number of incidents of childhood autism in children who had recently received the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine. His unreasonable next step was to insert a 'therefore' into the equation. When there were so many possible explanations, it was very unwise to pick just one of them.
For instance, many researchers note that independent of any vaccinations, the normal age at which a child receives the MMR vaccine is the typical age at which symptoms of Autism begin to appear. Others have noted that the general diagnosis rate of Autism has increased.
Still more point to strong evidence that the overall rate of Autism diagnosis suffered no significant changes either during the rise in MMR vaccinations or during the height of the anti-vaccination scare-campaign when the rate of MMR usage dropped alarmingly.
The weakness in all of this is a combination of poor critical thinking and the desire to draw a connection between to seemingly contemporaneous events in order to offer some explanation to parents of a newly diagnosed child.
Even if there is a connection between the two events, the determination of causality is exceedingly fraught. We see this time and time again and is generally referred to as "questionable cause."
The other form describes the situation where cause and effect are intertwined. Here we have the situation where, for instance, "a problem child might be the cause of the parents being short tempered or the short temper of the parents might be the cause of the child being problematic."
There is also the third option of course: that the two events are unrelated except by some tenuous common theme.
OK, pulling our heads back out of the clouds, what does this tell us about our pox-ravaged Facebook user?
Only that we have identified a clear example of the second form of questionable cause. Those people potentially at the highest risk of contracting a "social disease" are those most likely to be "looking for love" and the current crop of social media channels is probably the best method they've found. Ergo cause and effect are entirely intertwined.
My strongest suggestion in these cases is to identify the motives of the person making the causal claim - here there is far more to be learned!