“I never understood that.”
“Oh, I took that once in high school.”
“Someone’s gotta do it!”
These are some responses I hear when I tell people that I am in the field of statistics. After being in this field for just a few years, I’ve realized that the general public is not nearly as educated as they should be about statistics. People that lack a fundamental understanding of statistics are more likely to mistrust or misunderstand the implications of statistics they hear. “You can make a statistic to say anything,” is a phrase I’ve heard far too often. There are some people who try to use statistics in tricky or naïve ways to make claims that can not be supported, but a proper understanding of statistics helps separate facts from fiction.
Why does statistics seem scary?
The math of statistics can be foreign and scary to those unfamiliar with it, but it doesn’t have to be. As a statistics tutor, I see the frustration and confusion that students experience during a statistics course firsthand. Most of my students have taken a very basic high school class, but many have never been exposed to statistics education at all.
Statistics is sprinkled throughout primary school math lessons, but it does not receive cumulative attention. This makes statistics confusing and intimidating for many students. Then, in secondary education, statistics is scattered throughout math textbooks, perhaps appearing once as its own course. Most other subjects - math, reading, writing, foreign language, history, and science - are given dedicated space in education, which makes these subjects less confusing because they are familiar. Finally, statistics is not required for all majors in college, and some majors only require an introductory course. Undergraduates taking statistics for the first time are usually ill-prepared, and consequently struggle.
Since statistics education is not recurrent, every exposure is either completely new or a struggle to recall past information. This makes statistics incredibly divisive: people either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, the latter is the opinion most people adopt, and this can deter people from pursuing statistics in higher education or as a career.
Does it really matter if people don’t understand statistics?
When people do not understand something, they are usually skeptical of it -- it is difficult to trust information when you don’t understand the source. Statistics is the source of most information these days, so not understanding statistics can make people skeptical about what they read or hear on the news. For example, it is reported that average annual temperatures are predicted to rise, but this could be confusing without statistical knowledge since there are still cold days in the winter. On top of this, statistics has a reputation for being misused, incorrect, and biased. Polling is a prime example: a poll can be biased if the sample of people who take the poll are selected with biased intentions. Similarly, polls can be unbiased if they use a selection of people that reflect the target audience being described. It may seem like a double-edged sword, but statistics is simply a tool that can fall into the right or wrong hands.
People are not able to discern untrustworthy from credible uses of statistics without a strong educational foundation. Since statistics drives our understanding of the world and many decisions that people make, it’s problematic to not understand it.
So then, what is statistics?
Statistics is the art of making sense of information. One of the biggest issues answered with statistics is drawing conclusions about a whole group of individuals when you only have information on some of them. For example, if you wanted to know the average hours everyone at a university sleeps without asking every single person, you could just ask a representative sample of students and then use statistical properties to infer the average number of hours everyone sleeps.
Another issue answered with statistics is predicting future outcomes based on past outcomes. Mathematical and statistics tools, such as modeling, can address this. Currently, scientists and statisticians are trying to predict COVID-19 mortality rates in the coming months based on previous months. As difficult as it is to predict this future outcome with statistical tools, this task would be impossible to predict without them. Not only do statisticians need to be able to interpret data, they also need to be able to display their findings in a way that is digestible to others. This is necessary because statisticians often “play in other people’s backyards.” You might hear this phrase when talking about statisticians, and it means that statistics can be applied to everything. Every field of science, industry, and government needs statistics. Even people on an individual level need statistics! Therefore, statisticians often collaborate with other scientists or policy makers. Sometimes, companies hire them as consultants.
Statisticians need to be able to communicate their findings to their collaborators and the general public. As such, statistics is a booming, collaborative, interdisciplinary field that is extremely useful and will always be in demand as we enter a technological era.
How did you become interested in statistics?
I took one statistics class in high school...and it was so boring. That class did not get me interested in statistics at all. Instead, my involvement in research projects in high school sparked my interest. Whether I was measuring instrument intonation, flux from a computer screen, or phosphate levels along the Toms River, the data was all useless without a way to interpret it. I had to learn how to appropriately display the information graphically and run statistical tests to answer questions about bigger pictures. Do ALL instruments become more sharp over time? Do ALL screen protectors reduce flux for computer screens? Do phosphate levels change along ALL locations of the Toms River? I could answer these questions about each individual sample, but I needed to learn statistics to answer these questions more broadly for each given population. Statistics was uninteresting to me in the classroom, but when I needed to learn it to interpret data and answer questions for my research projects, I became enthralled; in fact, I decided to declare statistics as my major in college.
If you have had limited education in statistics as I did, you may not think you are interested in the subject. But being exposed to it firsthand just might change your mind! It changed my mind, and I am so grateful for that. Whether or not I continue with a career in statistics, I will always appreciate the skills I have gained to understand the information that makes up our world.
Our statistics and probability tutors are doctoral candidates and PhDs. Our team also includes a small number of tutors, including MD and MBA candidates, who use statistics in the context of specialized fields. We help students master the fundamentals of statistics and probability: basic probability models, combinatorics (combinations and permutations), random variables, discrete and continuous probability distributions, statistical estimation and testing, confidence intervals, and linear regression. Whether you are encountering statistics for the first time, or you are looking for graduate level assistance in a specialized field, such as biostatistics or stochastic processes, we can help you.