On this blog, I have often felt the need to point out that correlation does not equal causation. For example, if X increases at the same time Y increases, it is not necessarily true that X causes Y or Y causes X. The correlation could be a coincidence, or it could be that both X and Y are related to a third variable Z that drives their movement.
Anyway, I see this mistake all the time. What I did NOT expect to see was that someone would have to explain that non-correlation does not equal causation. But that seems to be the wacky world that environmental science has descended into, via the Commons Blog:
EPA's new report "America's Children and the Environment" notes that
air pollution declined, but asthma prevalence continues to rise. One
possible conclusion from this is that air pollution is not actually a
cause of asthma. In fact, that's the most plausible conclusion. Every
pollutant we measure has been dropping for decades pretty much
everywhere, while asthma prevalence has been rising pretty much
everywhere. This is true throughout the entire western world, not just
the U.S. In fact, asthma incidence is highest in countries with the
lowest levels of air pollution. Asthma is rare in developing countries
with much more polluted air. Asthma incidence is simply unrelated to
air pollution. Asthma attacks are probably unrelated as well. But even
if air pollution can cause asthma attacks, it is a minor cause,
responsible for less than 1% of all asthma attacks.
Despite these two trends going in the opposite direction, environmental activists still insist that large increases in asthma rates are driven by pollution:
A report by E&E News
(subscription required) makes it clear that what's in EPA health
reports doesn't actually matter. The story opens with "While the number
of children living in areas violating ozone and particulate matter (PM)
standards has declined in recent years, adolescent asthma that results
from exposure to such pollutants continues to rise, according to new
U.S. EPA statistics." The journalistic goal is to raise health alarms,
whether warranted or not. Thus, the news story itself says air
pollution, the presumptive cause of asthma, went down and yet asthma
prevalence went up. However, the reporter claims air pollution is
responsible for rising asthma just the same.
Wow. These guys could be the poster-children for refusing to adjust their beliefs in the face of actual facts. They even acknowledge that pollution and asthma are going in opposite directions and still they insist on their causation theory.
Postscript: I am willing to believe, maybe, that there is some unknown, unmeasured and unregulated pollutant out there that is increasing and is causing increases in asthma. However, that is not the argument these folks are making - they are using asthma increases to lobby for tougher standards on known pollutants.
Update: The best guess I have for the increase in asthma in this country, and the strong positive correlation between asthma and economic development, is that it has something to do with indoor pollution. The spike in asthma cases seems to parallel the rise in energy prices. Beginning in the 1970's, we began sealing up houses tighter and tighter to conserve energy. Increasing penetration of air conditioning simultaneously caused people to close the windows. I am convinced its something inside, not outside.