Correlation, causation and chocolate labradors

I have been subject to an unrelenting and highly targeted form of lobbying in recent years. To give you a sense of the intensity of the campaign, those responsible could teach Russian social media bots a thing or two about psychological manipulation. Normally, I would be immune to this sort of thing. Being a contrarian by nature, my usual reaction is to assume that any attempt to sway my opinion one way or the other is really just a smokescreen to mask the weakness of the case being promoted. Unfortunately, my natural defences are not enough on their own to protect me when the people running the campaign are my wife and daughter.


Their aim is to persuade me that what we really need in our lives is a non-contributing, utterly dependent, mess generating, allergy-inducing, four legged friend. Others call such things a dog, apparently. I have been implacably opposed to agreeing to this proposition for as long as C. and I have been married (which is a long time now). However, recently, and possibly as a sign of my own weakening mental capacity, I may have given a non-time-bound commitment to allowing a chocolate labrador into our lives in the future.

There are lots of reasons for my historic hostility to the idea of allowing a dog into our house. I do have a minor fur allergy (although admittedly this seems to be triggered more by cats than dogs); and it strikes me that dogs (unlike children) remain dependent on you for ever, never opening up the hope that eventually they’ll grow up and start drinking all the milk and ice cream in their own homes. To be honest, there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to open myself up to the distress that results from injury, illness or (worst of all) the death of a ‘surrogate child’.

My objections are not helped though, by news reports of research that seems to show that owning a dog is actually good for you. The most recent such report was covered by the BBC news website earlier this week. Summarising a study from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the article claims that : “Dog owners have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or other causes”. This is an astonishing claim – owning a dog apparently means that your chances of contracting heart disease are reduced and you will live longer.

The reality of course, is much more complex than the headline writers would have us believe. In the first case, it’s far from clear whether it’s dog ownership that makes people healthy, or if healthy people tend to own dogs. The correlation between dog ownership and improved cardiovascular health is greatest among owners of hunting breeds – the very people who are more likely to live active lives in the first place. It’s a good example of the maxim that correlation does not imply causation – that just because two data sets may have a statistical relationship, it does not mean that one causes the other.

In contrast, there is a causative relationship between the incessant pressure applied by wife and daughter and my diminishing resolve in holding out against a dog. And chocolate Labradors are really good looking dogs – but not just yet.

choc lab


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