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Week in Geek: Fun with causation, and secrets of the superb fairy wren

The latest news on false correlations, octopus arm brains, and secret parenting tricks of the superb fair wren.
From Tyler Vigen's \"Spurious Correlations\"
From Tyler Vigen's \"Spurious Correlations\"

One of my all‐time favorite lessons to teach students about science is "Correlation does not equal causation," meaning that just because two things happen together or change over time in the same way, one isn't necessarily causing the other. It's an extremely nifty caveat to keep in mind; a great tool to have in your skeptic's toolbox. It should be one of the first things you bust out when confronted with plots in the newspaper, on the internet or on TV claiming to demonstrate a causal relationship between two things.

The new website Spurious Correlations takes the fallacy to the extreme, and in the process makes this principle a lot more fun to talk about. You can browse through correlations and even make your own, pitting your choice of variables against each other. 

Even cooler is how Tyler Vigen (the website's creator) intends for the absurdity of the correlations he presents to teach you how to think like a scientist: "[Y]ou saw data, you formed a hypothesis about that data in the form of a causal mechanism, and then you rejected the hypothesis based on your personal experience with the world." He goes on to say: "That's a big deal! That's something computers can't do. Research is about discovery, but only humans can actually make discoveries."

Here's more geek for you to discover:

  • How do octopuses avoid tying themselves in knots? With ARM BRAINS.
  • Fleets of mini-satellites may soon be monitoring everything on Earth's surface, from traffic to deforestation.
  • New species of catfish appears to have actually "catfished" scientists.
  • 50 pictures illustrating the beauty of mathematics.
  • As the weather warms up and beer gardens come into season, here are seven ways science has benefited from beer.
  • New data from ESA's Planck spacecraft provides astronomers with the best picture of the Milky Way's magnetic field to date.
  • Archeologists think they may have found the remains of Christopher Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, off the coast of Haiti.
  • Neuroscientists look to study consciousness through lucid dreaming.
  • Superb fairy wrens (yes, that's an actual species) teach their young a musical code for feeding time.

Have a great and geeky week! @Summer_Ash