Voting Democrat Causes Cancer

That’s the headline from an American Thinker article from January 15th by Randall Hoven. The article goes on to go give statistical evidence that “proves” the claim. The evidence shows a 0.594 correlation between voting Democrat and dying of cancer, which translates to about 35% of cancer deaths are caused by voting Democrat.

According to the article: The Hoven study concluded that “[v]oting Democrat is associated with cancer mortality.”  This is similar to the conclusion of the study “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults,” cited by Democrats in support of their version of health care reform. That latter study concluded that “[u]ninsurance is associated with mortality.”

Although the data and statistical calculations in the article are accurate and verifiable, the article was written tongue in cheek not only to prove a point about statistical correlations but also to act as a reductio ad absurdum to discredit the widely touted conclusion that being uninsured causes death.

In Hoven’s words:  Harry Reid said, “On average, an American dies from lack of health insurance every ten minutes.” If he can say that, then I can say, “On average, an American dies from voting Democrat every 3.5 minutes.” Both statements are equally valid.

The Hoven article is a great illustration of the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Sometimes it’s very difficult, even for scientists, to avoid making this mistake. We see immediately that the conclusion regarding voting and cancer can’t be correct, even though the math is irrefutable, because we can’t imagine a mechanism that would cause someone who changed his voter registration to change his cancer risk.

But, if the conclusion fits our prejudices or is technical enough we may not see that it is silly. The conclusion that being uninsured kills us is silly but fits a lot of people’s prejudices. There is a correlation between being uninsured and death but a causal relationship has not been established.

This fallacy, correlation vs causation, is the source of a lot of our disrespect for health science  because butter is out and then it’s in or salt is out and then it’s in etc. What’s happening, of course, is that doing statistical studies is orders of magnitude easier to do than finding a cause so a lot of them are done and sometimes they contradict each other thanks to a lack of understanding of root causes. A statistical study is not proof but rather an indicator of where to look for proof.

You can look at mortality data and find “significant” statistical evidence that eating habits are related to death rates. But those statistical studies may be uncovering a completely different cause. Maybe it’s ethnicity or climate or something altogether different. But the media is anxious for a sensational story, especially one that fits their agendas, so vetting the science is seldom done.

A statistical study was done in the early ’90s that showed a significant correlation between eating a diet high in saturated fats and a low risk of coronary heart disease. That’s right. The study showed that people with low risk of heart disease ate a lot of fat. The study was done on a very specific group, the French. And the conclusions became known as the French paradox because they contradicted just about every other statistical study of eating habits versus heart disease.

That contradiction was fortunate because it encouraged scientists to look deeper for the cause. Many more studies have been done, including a lot of research into the beneficial effects of red wine. Some of the studies are, of course, statistical and others have been done on a basic biochemical level. Today, 20 years after the discovery of the French paradox, research continues because the exact cause has not been found. Sorry wine enthusiasts, even the original red wine connection does not completely explain the effect.

But this is just another example of how doing science the right way is extremely difficult and requires extreme dedication and extreme care. It is especially important to be aware, when you hear of a study purporting to “prove” one thing or another, that there is a lot of sloppy work and many self-serving politicians, journalists and even “scientists” out there to misuse that work.

By the way, why does voting Democrat correlate with cancer deaths? There is obviously one or more intermediate causes that correlate both with voting patterns and cancer. I don’t know the answer but I suspect that since urban areas have a higher rates of voting Democrat and also higher populations of poor people, the correlation may be due to income levels, which we know also correlate with mortality rates (and lack of medical insurance?). Or maybe the common cause is ethnicity or air quality. Who can know until those factors are ruled out one at a time.

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