Spurious Correlation in Disaster

Posted by – January 19, 2012

Spurious correlation is an apparent relationship between two observations when no relationship actually exists. Examples of this logical flaw range from the comic to the tragic, and have fooled some of the greatest minds in history. A recent article in the Economist provides a case in point: economic losses from disasters are rising along and global climate is changing, but are these connected – is climate change leading to greater frequency and intensity of disastrous storms? The article points out that, while five of the ten costliest disasters have occurred in the past four years:

…natural disasters may be no more common and no more likely to kill people than before [but] there is no doubt that their economic cost is rising. This is because a growing share of the world’s population and economic activity is being concentrated in disaster-prone places: on tropical coasts and river deltas, near forests and along earthquake fault lines.

That is, while global climate appears to be changing and disaster costs appear to be rising, the former doesn’t appear to be causing the latter. Rather, disaster costs seem to be related to poor choices and poor disaster preparedness.