Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 13, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LYING ABOUT STATISTICS....Maria Farrell has a question:

Why are all required statistics courses essentially the same? They start off with bland assurances from the instructor that no knowledge of maths is required and that the concepts involved are pretty easy to grasp all you need to do is turn up in class and do lots of practice questions. Oh, and have a positive attitude. Yeah, right.

As it happens, the only statistics courses I ever took were at Caltech, and needless to say no one there gave any bland assurances about needing no special knowledge of math. So I've never personally run into that particular problem.

But Maria does bring up a puzzling issue: why do stats classes aimed at non-mathematicians so often pretend that statistics is just a lark, requiring nothing more than a bit of high school algebra and some common sense? As much as I wish that more people understood a bit of statistics, that just isn't true.

In fact, not only does even basic statistics require a fair amount of abstract mathematical ability, but it also requires a considerable amount of rather tricky intuition. Which test is the appropriate one to use? Why? Is the problem like sampling with replacement or without? Are those two variables you're looking at dependent or independent? In theory those are all simple questions, but in practice they're anything but.

In fact, I've had conversations with professional statisticians about problems that are relatively straightforward, and even they had trouble figuring out the right approach to solving it. The arithmetic itself usually turns out to be fairly simple, but figuring out how to tackle the problem in the first place often turns on some surprisingly subtle reasoning.

None of this is a big surprise. After all, statistics is a branch of mathematics, and abstract mathematical thought is something that most people find difficult. But Maria's right: why do so many statistics professors pretend otherwise? Wouldn't they do everyone a favor by just admitting up front that it's a tricky subject and telling their students they'd best be prepared to work hard at it?

Kevin Drum 6:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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