It’s funny for a non-eye specialist to read articles about myopia, which in my line of work rarely means myopia, literally, which is nearsightedness. Takes some getting used to.
Anyway, in my book I use as an example of misleading correlations the link between night lights and myopia in children. Checking it to make sure it is still a good example to keep for the second edition, I was glad to see that it holds up well.
Here’s the story. In a 1999 paper (paywalled | sci-hub), Quinn and colleagues reported a “strong association between myopia and night-time ambient light exposure during sleep in children before they reach two years of age.” That is, kids who slept with night lights were more likely to be nearsighted. This was potentially big news, because we actually don’t fully understand why people become nearsighted, except we know it has to do with reading a lot and spending a lot of time indoors as a kid. They had some idea that light penetrating the eyelids at night might do something, but no real mechanism, just an association over a few hundred kids.
The paper didn’t have some important variables controlled, notably parents’ nearsightedness. Since the condition is also genetic, this was acknowledged as a problem. Still, they wrote:
Although it does not establish a causal link, the statistical strength of the association of night-time light exposure and childhood myopia does suggest that the absence of a daily period of darkness during early childhood is a potential precipitating factor in the development of myopia.
As I stress ad nausem in this post, the “strength” of an association is not an argument for its causal power. And neither is the number of studies in which the association is found. Real spurious findings can produce very strong, easily-reproducible results. And when researchers have a story to fit the rationale can seem strong. Also, the prospect of publishing in a top journal like Nature has to figure in there somewhere. (This problem is endemic in studies of, for example, family structure and child outcomes, among many other subjects.)
In this case there is a very nice explanation, which was reported less than a year later by Zadnik and colleagues (paywalled | sci-hub), who found no association between night lights and myopia – but they did report a very strong relationship between night lights and parents’ myopia. The same pattern was reported in another response to the Quinn paper, in the same issue, by Gwiazda and colleagues. It appears that nearsighted parents like to leave night lights on. Alternately, some other factor causes parental nearsightedness, child nearsightedness, and night light preference, such as education level (e.g., more-educated people read more and use night lights more).
Several other studies have also failed failed to confirm the night-light theory, and now the thing seems to have blown over. It’s not a perfect example, because the bivariate correlation isn’t always found, but I like it as a family-related case. So I think I’ll keep it in.