Autism and Vaccines, Earthquakes and Malaysian Mountain Spirits

When correlation equals causation, who needs science?

Image of the hikers that circulated on social media.

Image of the hikers that circulated on social media.

It isn’t often that I laugh out loud while reading the staid New York Times, but I did last Thursday as I perused a story about four Western mountain climbers who, after scaling Malaysia’s highest peak, disrobed and took nude photos at the top. The cavorting tourists — a Canadian brother and sister, a woman from Britain and a Dutchman — were subsequently detained by authorities. The charge against them is public obscenity, but their real crime when they stripped atop Mount Kinabalu in May, according to the locals, was offending the holy mountain, angering it and thereby causing an earthquake in June that killed 18 people.

How supremely silly.

That’s not the way the deputy chief minister of the Malaysian state where the mountain is located sees it. “There is almost certainly a connection,” Joseph Pairin Kitingan told Malay Mail Online. “We have to take this as a reminder that local beliefs and customs are not to be disrespected.” Mount Kinabalu is serious business. The locals believe it harbors the spirits of their dead, and every December, a priestess called a “Bobolian” makes a sacrifice of seven white chickens, seven chicken eggs, tobacco, betel nuts and leaves and limestone to appease the mountain so climbers can continue to visit.

Which is, of course, ridiculous.

Until you offend the mountain, as the Western climbers did, and all hell breaks loose.

Correlation and causation: It’s the human bugaboo. My Lithuanian grandfather lived with us when I was growing up. If you spilled salt in his presence, you had to promptly toss a bit of salt over your shoulder. I’m not especially superstitious, but to this day, when I spill salt, I either repeat the ritual or feel mighty uneasy. Who’s to say what awful consequences the practice has protected me from?

But our oh-so-natural instinct to assume that because this follows that, this had to cause that can have much more serious consequences. Look at all the thousands of otherwise rational people who, in the face of solid scientific evidence to the contrary, believe that vaccines cause autism. How many people do you know who aren’t eating gluten, even though science says that for almost all of us, gluten is absolutely harmless? Not to mention those shoes that were supposed to make your butt look like Kim Kardashian’s. A guy named Tyler Vigen has made a career out of tracking data and producing amusing examples of such correlations as “number of people who died by falling into a pool” and “films that Nicolas Cage appeared in,” or “divorce rate in Maine” with “per capita consumption of margarine.” What was it Mark Twain supposedly said? “Lies, damned lies and statistics” …

The more I think about it, though, the less I’m laughing. After all, no one has ever performed a scientific study that says there aren’t any spirits of ancestors holed up in Mount Kinabalu. That puts those who revere the peak a big step ahead of anti-vaxxers and the gluten-free crowd. Not to mention that there are thousands of years of tradition backing up the Malaysians, instead of 15 minutes of Dr. Oz quack-a-roonery. Oh, by the way — over the weekend, the American Medical Association announced it’s taking steps to deal with doctors like him who make dubious medical claims in the media. It’s about time. What’s the point of living in the Age of Science if you don’t pay it any mind?

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