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Heavy Metal Studies: Introduction to Correlation and its Misinterpretations


Last Updated on 10:38 PM by Giorgos Tsekas

Recently the web was in a buzz with the news that the number of metal bands in a country is actually a pretty good indicator of a its wealth. Looking at the map where the statements are based on you clearly see the dark colors in the prosperous regions of Northern Europe and Scandinavia. So of course people start theorizing why there are so many metal bands in these countries. Are the long, dark, cold and depressing winters to blame for their need to compose metal? Is it their Viking ancestry that draws them to aggressive music? I even read the notion that it might be linked to the rate of alcoholism in a country. I wonder if that person was suggesting that all metal music is written under influence of alcohol… The best theory comes from one of the authors of the original study. She attributes the high number of heavy metal bands in the North to efforts by those countries’ leaders to include music education in schools, causing children’s skills to meet the technical demands of metal music. Hey, how nice to hear that somebody recognizes metal’s complexity and doesn’t dismiss it as noise!


(Click on pictures for a better resolution)

While it is of course valuable to theorize on why two variables are connected, what we see happening here is a common mistake in the interpretation of scientific research: people immediately attribute cause and effect to two things that show a connection. As the author of the original study noted in scientific terms: “correlation does not equal causation and points simply to associations between variables”. I plan to discuss more scientific research on heavy metal in future articles so I thought this would be a good moment to illustrate why we cannot attribute cause and effect to two things when they are simply connected. Here are some thoughts for you.

Statistics show that there is a connection/correlation between the amount of ice cream consumed and the number of drownings. Does eating ice cream cause people to drown?! Of course not. It should be quite logically that a third variable, the sun, can explain this connection. When the sun shines more people eat ice cream and more people go for a swim in the sea (increasing chances of drowning).

Other extreme examples are the fact that there is 100% certainty that people who drink water will one day die! Or the fact that studies have found that prisoners all drank milk when they were younger! Does water kill you? No. Does milk make you a criminal? No.

A last funny illustration of how dangerous it is to see cause and effect in correlations comes from the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science. As a joke, they provided ‘compelling evidence’ that we should all send bunnies to the Middle East to resolve all war conflicts since all areas in the world with bunnies are conflict free!

correlation - science

I am pretty sure the authors of the original research only wanted to report a correlation or connection between the number of heavy metal bands and wealth of countries. But as usual the internet and media took the liberty to assume a little bit too much. Usually scientists illustrate this process as follows:

Science News Cycle

So think twice before you read about so-called cause and effects between two related variables in the media! In my next post I will illustrate one way how we can attribute causation to variables in a scientific way: by way of experiments.

Interesting note: looking at the world map we see that after Northern Europe and Scandinavia, Greece is one of the darkest colored countries in the world. This means that Greece has a lot of metal bands per 100,000 inhabitants compared to the rest of the world. So this is an observation. Now you could go and theorize on why Greece follows the ranking after the Northern countries, but beware of assuming too much causation too fast!

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