Why Bother With Statistics?

So what is the big deal about statistics?  Why do we even need statistics?  Because statistics, and their interpretation, provides us with a way of knowing that is more likely to be accurate compared with other ways of knowing.   Let’s think about how we know things.

We can know something because someone told us, such as some authority like a doctor, parent, or teacher.  But what if the knowledge given us by an authority is based on erroneous information, or on some hidden agenda?  For example, you might see a television ad for a private school.  In this ad the principal of the school tells you that they provide “direct instruction” and that this has been proven to be the most effective model of learning for children.  The principal is an authority, so she must be correct.  But is she?  Or is her proclamation based on her own beliefs, or on her interest in promoting her own school?  Only research, with the correct interpretation of statistics, can tell us whether she is correct.

Another way we can know something is because it is “common knowledge”. For example, my grandmother believed that exposure to the cold air in winter would cause you to catch a head cold.  Had she known about research, and known how to interpret statistics, she would have also known that it was the influence of cold temperatures on the body’s immune system, coupled with the closeness of people trapped together indoors, that was really responsible for any resulting head cold.

We can even know something because of pure logic.  For example, we might surmise that smoking cigarettes isn’t necessarily bad for your health because Grandpa Warren smoked 2 packs a day all his life and lived to be 90 years old.  An understanding of statistics would help us to realize that there are always exceptions in any relationship between two things, and that Grandpa Warren is clearly one of these exceptions.

Statistics, and their interpretation, gives us a means of knowing that bypasses logic, common knowledge, authoritative opinion, and other ways of knowing.  Though statistics and research can never “prove” anything, they can tell us, within a certain probability, how likely something is to be true.  As a particular type of research is repeated, and the results indicate a high likelihood of truth over and over, the more evidence we have that something is true and the more we can trust that knowledge.

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