The Spread of Evidence-Poor Medicine via Flawed Social-Network Analysis

Russell Lyons 1
  • 1 Indiana University

The chronic widespread misuse of statistics is usually inadvertent, not intentional. We find cautionary examples in a series of recent papers by Christakis and Fowler that advance statistical arguments for the transmission via social networks of various personal characteristics, including obesity, smoking cessation, happiness, and loneliness. Those papers also assert that such influence extends to three degrees of separation in social networks. We shall show that these conclusions do not follow from Christakis and Fowler's statistical analyses. In fact, their studies even provide some evidence against the existence of such transmission. The errors that we expose arose, in part, because the assumptions behind the statistical procedures used were insufficiently examined, not only by the authors, but also by the reviewers. Our examples are instructive because the practitioners are highly reputed, their results have received enormous popular attention, and the journals that published their studies are among the most respected in the world. An educational bonus emerges from the difficulty we report in getting our critique published. We discuss the relevance of this episode to understanding statistical literacy and the role of scientific review, as well as to reforming statistics education.

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Statistics, Politics, and Policy studies the ways that statistical analysis drives public policy decisions, and publishes significant research on the application of statistical ideas to problems that relate to policy implementation.

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