What is the difference between causation and correlation?

  • What is correlation?
  • What is causation?
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Correlation means there is a relationship or pattern between the values of two variables. A scatterplot displays data about two variables as a set of points in the xy-plane and is a useful tool for determining if there is a correlation between the variables.

Causation means that one event causes another event to occur. Causation can only be determined from an appropriately designed experiment. In such experiments, similar groups receive different treatments, and the outcomes of each group are studied. We can only conclude that a treatment causes an effect if the groups have noticeably different outcomes.

While causation and correlation can exist at the same time, correlation doesn’t mean causation.

Two features X and Y can be correlated if X causes Y or if Y causes X, or if both are caused independently by some other factor Z, and the correlation will no longer hold true if one of the cause-effect relationships is broken. It’s also possible that X are Y simply appear to be correlated because the sample is too small. While this may seem obvious, computers can’t differentiate between correlation and causation, and decisions based on automated system can often have major consequences on society, so it’s important to study why automated systems lead to a given result. Determining cause-effect relationships requires human insight.

For example, Liam collected data on the sales of ice cream cones and air conditioners in his hometown. He found that when ice cream sales were low, air conditioner sales tended to be low and that when ice cream sales were high, air conditioner sales tended to be high.

  • Liam can conclude that sales of ice cream cones and air conditioners are positively correlated.
  • Liam can’t conclude that selling more ice cream cones causes more air conditioners to be sold. It is likely that the increases in the sales of both ice cream cones and air conditioners are caused by a third factor, an increase in temperature!



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