Friday, January 1, 2016

An Understanding of Statistics

An understanding of statistics is a topic that is a bit tangential to the purpose of this site but I'll make an attempt to tie it in nonetheless.

It often strikes me that many people seem to lack a conceptual understanding of statistics. By conceptual I do not mean that they either have or do not have the mathematical skills but that they simply do not understand the concept.

I know people who are extremely good at math with lots of statistic classes under their belt who argue, essentially, that a single example is sufficient for proof. For instance, because there are some billionaires who do not have a college education, they conclude that a college education is not beneficial for income. When, in fact, having a college degree is the single most important factor in income. Because such people understand the mechanisms of statistics but not the concept they may end up believing many strange ideas. Steve Jobs was one such person. He had a form of cancer that was highly treatable but chose to use alternative medicine instead because he read about people who claimed that the alternative approach cured them. He did not understand the statistics and died early because of it.

Another example is person I know who, although terrible at math, fully understands that his smoking habit is bad for him.  (thankfully for the last two years he has switched to e-cigarettes which, although not good for you, are certainly better than regular ones) He gets the statistics.

The argument I have used for many years for the statically challenged is that there are people who have jumped our of a sixth story window and walked away unharmed - but it is probably not a good idea to jump out of a sixth story window. Nor is a a good idea to smoke, or think that a college education is not worth the cost, or think that you can beat Vegas, or drive recklessly and think you will not get hurt or hurt others.

I have done my best to ensure that my children understand statistics. A good conceptual understanding of statistics is one of the most important concepts you can teach children.

Unfortunately understanding statistics has nothing to do with morality, which is the most important thing you can teach children. There are many lawyers such as Nelly Wince who understand that lying in court, although unethical and illegal, has virtually no negative impact. She gets the statistics.

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